In the early twentieth century, a phrase was born that has become a cultural assumption: a picture is worth a thousand words. And for some jobs, an image is the right tool. To help others “see” your child you could write a thousand words that wouldn’t do nearly as good a job as a single photograph. Clearly, images communicate.
But are images the right tools for the worship of God? The second commandment regulates how we must worship the one true God identified in the first commandment.
God Will Not Be Pictured
We understand the impulse to portray God. We want to see and feel what we value. Instead of reading about a sunset, we want to sit on a beach and watch the sun go down. We frame and display pictures of people we love. And this is good! God isn’t against art—“Creatures may be portrayed.” In fact, “the church surely may and must use art” lest we deny “a precious gift from God.” God has even commanded artistic production (1 Kings 6:29). Good art honors the Creator by imitating his creativity.
But we can’t give form to the God who has no form. “There is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God—eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite.” People cannot give shape to that without degrading God’s majesty. False gods must be pictured; they are nothing unless creatures give them shape. The uncreated Lord is different. God will not be reduced to an image crafted by the imagination of people he himself made.
Remember the historical context of the second commandment. God gave the command after Israel had lived among image-worshippers for four centuries. Egyptian images brought the gods near. After the exodus—as Moses was receiving God’s law—Aaron answered Israel’s demand to portray their deliverer. When the people saw the golden calf, they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4). The people thought they were improving divine worship. But their image-focused worship was “a great sin” (21).
What about Images of Jesus?
May we portray Jesus to communicate the gospel and evoke spiritual impressions through various media like movies, crucifixes, and Sunday school curricula? Here are four considerations.
- Theologically, remember that Christ is one divine person with two distinct natures, human and divine. Images cannot communicate Christ’s deity and thereby necessarily emphasize his humanity in a way that Scripture is careful not to.
- Ethically, believe that the ends do not justify the means (Rom. 6:1–2). Spiritual reactions to portrayals of Jesus cannot confirm God’s blessing. God has given us his prescribed means of grace: the word and sacraments.
- Historically, know that revivals have come through the preached word (Rom. 10:17). In the Middle Ages images abounded. But many people did not know God until his word was preached in power.
- Practically, understand that most images are poor instructors (Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18, 19). Images are inspirational but not propositional. “Art can do no more than awaken emotions in us.”[iii] A picture worth a thousand words cannot say which words. Christ is God’s image. If we have him through his word and Spirit, we don’t need copies.
God Governs Worship
The second commandment prohibits the use of images as worship tools. But it also regulates all of worship. “Prohibitions pre-suppose as their foundation positive commands. We are forbidden to do something because we are inclined to do it and because we ought to do the opposite. Every ‘thou shalt not’ implies a deeper ‘thou shall.’”[iv] So what does this command demand of our worship?
- Worship must be regulated by the word. We may not worship “in any other way” than God’s word commands. “Nothing is more wicked than to contrive various modes of worship without the authority of the Word of God.”[v] We should learn from the Old Testament to revere God and serve him with precision, and from the New Testament the beauty of thankful, simple, spiritual, sacrificial, covenantal conversation. Scripture is our ultimate worship guide.
- Worship must be rich in word. Scripture both informs and forms true worship. The preached word should be central to gathered worship;[vi] the unlearned need to be taught “by the lively preaching of [God’s] word.” “Our worship services must breathe a spirit of Bible. The Word must saturate our services as we sing it, pray it, preach it, and receive it via the sacraments.”[vii] This must be so because Christ is portrayed—literally “painted” (Gal. 3:1)—not through images but through the word. We draw near to God in Christ through his word.
- Worship must respect the visible word. Though God forbids the use of man-made images in worship, he has not left us without gospel images. In the Lord’s Supper we taste and see his goodness through bread and wine. In baptism we witness God’s promise of the new birth. The sacraments are God’s authorized “visible, holy signs and seals” which he uses to “make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel” (Q&A 66). If we fail to appreciate these images, we will endlessly search for “better” ones.
- Worshippers must respond to the word. Worship in “spirit and truth” (John 4:24) has both objective and subjective components. “The worship of God is said to consist in the spirit, because it is nothing else than that inward faith of the heart which produces prayer, … purity of conscience and self-denial, that we may be dedicated to obedience to God as holy sacrifices.” The Spirit enables true worshipers to grasp the nearness of God in Christ and respond with faith, hope, and obedient love.
We live in an increasingly visual culture. This fact has advantages and disadvantages. But we must walk with God by faith, not sight. We look to Jesus by faith (Heb. 12:2) until that day when our faith shall be sight and we will finally see and feel what is most important to us.