Christianity 201

June 21, 2015

Remembering God Without Making Idols

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5aYou shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…

It’s interesting that as God was giving these commandments to Moses, the people at the bottom of the mountain were building a calf out of gold. They were immediately in violation of the text above…

For almost all Evangelicals and most Mainline Protestant, the Second Commandment is explicit in its prohibition against idols. The King James used the phrase “graven images” by which some interpret “engraved” or three-dimensional objects; though in the early days of printing, photographic plates were engraved.

We have no problem with Bible story books which picture Jesus — some recent ones using a rather cartoonish style of illustration — but the Jesus doll we recently saw in a Christian bookstore (for $50 US) would clearly cross the line for many people (and for a number of reasons.)

On the other hand, our friends in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have no problem with statuary, their houses of worship are filled with them, as are many of their homes. (The Catholic Church’s catechism even ‘rearranges’ the Ten Commandments to exclude the second one altogether, balancing things out with a split of the command regarding coveting into numbers 9 and 10; though Catholic Bibles themselves do not so tamper with the text.)

This doesn’t mean that are not other physical means whereby we’re encouraged to remember.

  1. The Jews were told to “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” (Deut 11:18) Then, two verses later, “Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (:20) In the most literal form, this gave way to phylacteries, the small boxes containing small scrolls worn on the forehead of Jews while praying. In a less literal form, most of us have plaques with Bible verses on the walls or end tables of our homes.
  2. There are certain locations that help us remember when God met us there or somewhere nearby. In the story of Jesus and “the woman at the well,” there is mention that this is Jacob’s well, and all the significance that entails. A girl whose testimony we heard talked about driving through northern Ontario and recognizing the terrain as nearby a camp where she felt close to God as a much younger person, and she pulled her car over to the side of the road and prayed. Is there a special physical location where you have memories of meeting with God?
  3. There are times where God instructed his people to construct a memorial. Joshua 4:9 reads, “Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.” While many Christian facilities have plaques that honor the donors who gave money toward the building of that place, others, either with a plaque or through the naming of the facility, honor a particular part of a Bible story. The Christian conference grounds I attended as a child was named Elim Lodge, after a reference in Exodus 15.
  4. We learn the ways of God chiefly through narrative. You don’t sit your young children down and teach them the doctrines of systematic theology, but rather, you tell them stories from both the First and Second Testament. We can represent those physically by having artist renderings of Jesus walking on the water in our homes. Some of you have children who had Noah’s Ark bedsheets. While I like the first idea better than the second, these all reinforce the stories.
  5. Speaking of Noah, sometimes God just likes to give us reminders. We all know the scientific reasons why rainbows appear after a rainstorm, but God imputes significance to this by telling Noah to accept it as a pledge that he will never flood the earth again. (But maybe the rainbow was supernatural; it rained for 40 days, but then there’s a year between the rain stopping and Noah being given the rainbow as a sign.)

These are all examples of tangible objects which serve as reminders of God, Jesus, Bible stories, and places where God revealed himself.

So we don’t need statuary, and the Bible’s commandments are not to be trifled with. It’s true that contextually idols were the trademark of other surrounding nations, but I believe that the commands are 100% applicable to the idea of making statues of those who have been conferred sainthood, and certainly could be applicable to statues of Jesus himself.

I will concede however, that there are sculptors who have carved three-dimensional works that are simply an extension of the two-dimensional images mentioned in point #4 above. An example would be the Good Shepherd statue at the former Crystal Cathedral, which reminds us of the picture Jesus paints of himself in John’s Gospel. However, the danger comes when we worship those pieces, or suggest that the sculptures themselves have some supernatural abilities or powers.

I also realize this is a very limited interpretation of Exodus 20:4 which seems to ban any image of any created thing. But here, the context is concerning the things which come between us and God; the first four commandments are about not allowing anything to stand in the way of our relationship with God. This is in line with Romans 1:25, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…”

Summing this up, you can’t read the Second Commandment without knowing the First Commandment. Nothing is to come between us and God.

 

 

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