The human heart is naturally prone to idolatry, and this is especially the case with the religious heart. Never forget that the religious heart is not the same thing as the gracious heart.
What is the second commandment? “You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).
The import of the first commandment is that we must worship the true God. The second ensures that we worship the true God truly. The first command addresses who we worship; the second how we worship.
And we bring up this subject, knowing there is temptation everywhere. Our susceptibility to this sin can be seen in the breadth of the prohibition. In the context of worship, we are not to make images of heavenly things, earthly things, or watery things. We are not to make such images, bow down to such images, or serve such images. We also see warnings against this sin throughout all Scripture, Genesis to Revelation.
We serve and worship a jealous and visiting God. God treats this sin as spiritual adultery, and God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But notice the great contrast between His judgment and mercy. For those who are unfaithful, judgment falls upon three and four generations. But for those who love God and keep His commandments, mercy is shown to a thousand generations. Never forget that God operates generationally with His covenant people (Dt. 7:9-11). It is ironic that among many Reformed people today, those with (what they call) the strictest convictions about the second commandment often have the least amount of faith in the promise contained in the second commandment. This indicates that something is seriously wrong.
God clearly prohibits the use of images in worship. And because men want to use images in worship very much anyhow, they are tempted to come up with numerous evasions.
Here is the first one: “We are not worshiping false gods; we are worshiping the true God.“
So were the Israelites around the golden calf (Ex.32:4-5). God expressly warns the people not to make an image of Him (Dt. 4:15). The Bible prohibits idolatrous worship of false gods, and idolatrous worship of the true God.
Second: “We are not worshiping the image itself, but rather using the image to aid us in worshiping God.“
This has always been the practice of idolaters, including pagan image-worshipers. But even with the distinction, God prohibits the practice. But where has God taught us we needed such an aid beyond the power of the Word? “Let all be put to shame who worship carved images . . .?“ (Ps. 97:7).
Third: “These images are not for worship, but rather for teaching.“
But what do they teach? “What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, the molded image, a teacher of lies, that the maker of its mold should trust in it, to make mute idols?“ (Hab. 2:18). This was the argument of Gregory the Great — that the images were books for the poor. But it would have been better to teach the poor to read. But lest this be seen as a sectarian assault on Rome, I have to say that we evangelicals with our Jesus movies have long ago passed Rome up in this sin.
Fourth: “Splendid worship honors God.“
God is never honored through disobedience. Worship can be rich, liturgical, deep, and splendid, without bringing in images to worship. At the same time, we must recognize that deadness and formalism in true worship is a stumbling block for those attracted to idolatrous worship. As the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, “The people began to have golden images when they had wooden priests.“
Fifth: “But Jesus became a man. Why may we not have an image of Him? To deny images is to deny the Incarnation.“
Jesus said that one who had seen Him had seen the Father (John 14:9). The same cannot be said of His images. We cannot even picture Christ accurately on the physical level; how much less are we able to represent Him as the God/man. The Incarnation means that had cameras been invented in the first century, it would not have been unlawful to take a photo of Christ. The mercy of God delayed the invention of the camera by 1900 years.