The Worship of an Invisible God

The Worship of an Invisible God

(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q: 49-52)
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by Bob Burridge ©2011

Have you ever tried to put together one of those thousand piece jig-saw puzzles without first seeing the picture of what it is supposed to look like when finished? Some of them are so detailed that even when you have seen the picture on the cover it is not easy to find the piece you want.

Sometimes you honestly believe the piece you are looking for cannot possibly be there. Then when you finally find it, and it fits in, you have one of those “Ahhhh” moments. You see that you missed it because you were expecting it to look different than it really was.

Many times I have tried to talk people through setting things up on their computers over the phone. They do not know what they were looking for, and what to do with things when they find them. Some did not know what the ALT key was for, and had no idea what CTRL meant.

While trying to talk them through the steps, they were trying to do things that made no sense to them. As long as they did exactly what they were told, and asked before they did something they were unsure of, we usually got the job done with few problems.

God’s world is vastly more complex and further beyond our full understanding than jig-saw puzzles or home computers. God has lovingly told us what we need to know as we rely upon his grace, and to try learn to do what is right. However, we do not have the whole picture yet in this life. We have to be very careful not to let our own theories and values keep us from seeing what God is telling us in his word.

Our assignment is to fulfill what we were created to be and redeemed to be. Our primary responsibility is to show the glory of our Creator in our lives. To be effective, the Holy Spirit works on Redeemed hearts by means of God’s word.

We need to listen carefully to what God says, and to follow his instructions exactly. We do not have the full picture yet, and we do not completely understand it all in this life. We need to care about the principles God tells us to live by.

The second of the Ten Commandments cautions us about how we worship God.

The 49th question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism points to the Second of the Ten Commandments. The answer quotes from Exodus 20:4-6.

“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 generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

The word translated “graven image” or “carved image” is the Hebrew word pesel (פסל). It was used to describe any image we make of something. It primarily applies to things carved or chizzled, but it was not limited to that in the way it was used.

The expression “any likeness” expands upon what God is forbidding so there will be no mistake about what he means to include. The word “likeness” is the Hebrew word temunah (תמונה). It is the common word used even today in modern Israel for “picture”. Most imagine that this is another of those “easy commandments”. Since we do not have stone, gold, or wooden idols as part of our culture today, they assume this commandment is outdated and mostly irrelevant to them.

However, there is an important and eternal moral principle summarized here: We need to honor God in ways that are pleasing to him. Questions 50-52 of the Shorter Catechism clarify this main point.

Question 50. What is required in the second commandment?
Answer. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.
Question 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
Answer. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.
Question 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
Answer. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

Jesus said that God is Spirit, therefore he must be worshiped in spirit and in truth. The original word for spirit both in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek is the same word used for breath or wind. It is something you cannot physically see, but it is clearly evidenced and felt.

God is only honored when we worship him as the invisible, but all present Creator. How this should be done is beyond what we can figure out on our own, so we need to worship him only in ways he prescribes for us. That is why it is unwise to speculate or to add inventive ideas to worship.

The Bible tells us what elements belong in our worship as a Christian church.

  • There should be prayer offered on behalf of the congregation
  • the reading and teaching of God’s word in the Scriptures
  • the celebrating of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper
  • the reciting of confessions of our Christian faith together as a congregation
  • worshipful music sung to God’s glory
  • the collecting of God’s tithes and our offerings
  • the pronouncing of benedictions by the minister
  • occasionally vows such as those taken for membership and ordination

All these have to be governed by God’s directions in his word, not by our own imaginations.

    There are clear examples in the Bible where some ignored God’s rules for worship.

  • Nadab & Abihu used fire in worship in ways God did not command. They were struck dead by God for what they did.
  • Uzzah touched the Ark of God in a way not prescribed. He died on the spot. King Uzziah was stricken with leprosy for intruding into the priest’s job of lighting the incense.
  • King Saul lost God’s blessing upon his kingship for impatiently offering God’s sacrifice when he should have waited for the Priest to arrive to do it.
  • 3,000 were struck dead for worshiping Jehovah by making a Golden Calf at Sinai.

In the Middle Ages the Golden Calf mentality was brought into the church. They brought in rituals and ceremonies from the era of the ancient temple. They added incense, incantations, fancy priestly garments, altars and idols into worship. There were statues, paintings and embroidered pictures of Jesus. Later, pictures of Mary and of the Saints were brought in for veneration as well.

Of course they said they were not bowing to these images to worship them. They were just visual aids in worship. However, that’s what Israel said when they made the golden calf at Sinai.

In more recent times, some openly reject the Second Commandment. Those in the extreme say that it was only intended for Israel and does not apply anymore. That goes directly against the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew 5:17-18 he said that he did not come to end the law, but to bring it to fulfillment. He said in verse 18, “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

As sure as heaven and earth still stand today, all of God’s moral principles continue as always. While Jesus fulfilled the law as our representative, and met the penalties of the law in our place, the moral principles which are the stamp of the Creator upon his creation continue as long as there is a heaven and an earth.

Others have defined the commandment so that not all images of God are forbidden. The desire to rightly understand what is forbidden and what is not, challenges us to examine the Scriptures carefully and without assumptions about what we expect to find there.

The Reformer John Calvin once wrote, “the first business of an interpreter is to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”

God provided us with all the physical things we need
for learning about him, and for worship:

Creation itself declares his glory day and night. He made humans to be the image-bearers of his moral nature. He furnished the ancient Tabernacle and Temple with things to prefigure the coming work of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus ordained the elements of the Lord’s Supper to represent him in worship.

None of these are man’s designs. God gave them to us, and we are to use them exactly as he instructed. We dare not add to them, or modify them thinking we have the full picture of all they represent.

The Larger Catechism summarizes the Bible’s teaching in question 109. There it forbids, “… the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature: Whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it; …”

God did not tell us to make statues or pictures to help us in worship. Not only does that undermine God’s spirit nature, it also distorts the truth about who God is. Besides, it is always foolishly speculative to try to draw, carve, or in any way depict something we have never seen.

Pictures of Jesus have been a source of controversy among sincere believers in him as Savior and God. These pictures of his human nature necessarily add ideas to God’s word, since God did not preserve what he looks like. Statues, mosaics and drawings were common when the Bible was written, but God chose not to give us an image of the human form of Jesus.

If you asked the average person if they knew what Jesus looked like, they would likely say, “yes”. Either they would describe him looking like the actor’s portrayal in one of the recent movies, or as the gentle-faced, light skinned man with long flowing blond hair shown in many older paintings.

These images only depict what someone thinks Jesus looked like. But how can we guess at what a perfectly sinless human’s facial expressions would be when he suffered? or was challenged by unbelief? when he expressed his perfect love and compassion to redeemed sinners? Did he usually have a serious look? a far off pensive stare? a constant smile? or was there always a deep look of pity in his eyes? Was he energetic when he spoke, or was he generally soft spoken?

Actors and film directors who dare to think they’re able to portray him have to add their guesses about what this perfect man was like. To do that, they need to go far beyond the information given to us in Scripture.

The danger is that these images linger in our minds, and shape our impression of perfection. We should resist the temptation to depict him in ways he has not prescribed. That would be a violation of this moral principle laid out for us in the Second Commandment. It would be cause for celebration in the kingdom of evil.

The Bible is our only source of information about Jesus. Beyond that we would be adding dangerous speculations that imply things we cannot yet know.

Of course we know that Jesus had a real human body, but we do not know what it looked like. When those who honor the Second Commandment make up Sunday School material, they keep drawings like that abstracted. They avoid showing his facial features or expressions. They draw a simple form of a man doing the things the Bible says he did. When we make T-shirts and posters with the face of what we think Jesus looked like, we do as the middle ages church did – we bring the Golden Calf mentality into the church.

The sin of the Golden Calf at Mount Sinai
illustrates the danger of making images of God.

This first great national sin of Israel took place right after God’s law was given on Mount Sinai. It was not a civil crime like treason, a wave of thefts, or massive murders. It was a sin against the proper worship of God. 3,000 were executed by God showing the seriousness of this moral principle.

How we worship is not seen as a very serious moral issue by most people. Obviously God took it very seriously.

It is amazing that so many churches today take great pride in being innovative in worship. They advertise that they introduce new things and explore new ground.

The story of what happened at the foot of Mount Sinai shows how dangerous this is. Moses was called back up into the Mountain to receive more information from God. Before he went, Exodus 24:3 tells us about Israel’s promised obedience to God. “So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has said we will do.’ ”

After Moses went back up into the mountain for 40 days, the people grew impatient and came to Aaron with a strange request. In Exodus 32:1 they said, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; …”

They probably did not actually mean that Aaron should make up an actual new god or set of gods. They wanted him to make a representation of God, one they could see and touch. That is the way life was back in pagan Egypt.

So the people brought the gold from their jewelry to use in making this idol. Exodus 32:4 tells us what Aaron did with these offerings, “And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

It was probably a wooden calf covered with the gold he had melted down. They did not see it as Apis, one of the Egyptian deities. They didn’t imagine they had created a new god altogether. Here and in verse 5 Aaron clearly identified it as Jehovah, the God of Moses.

So why did they make it in the form of a calf? God himself had chosen the calf, the young bulls, to represent him in the sacrifices. The sacrifices represented the future Messiah who would die in their place. They were not intending to replace Jehovah, only to represent him in a familiar form.

So Aaron built an altar in honor of the completed calf and in verse 5 he said, “tomorrow is a feast to Jehovah.” It was not called a feast to a new god, or a god they remembered from back in Egypt. It was a feast to Jehovah. The next day they brought their offerings to sacrifice to their new image.

While Moses was up in the Mountain receiving instructions about proper worship, Israel was down below with their creative innovations violating its most basic principle.

When Moses came down to them carrying the tablets of the law, he saw the disgraceful festival. That day 3,000 were executed for their part in this horrible rebellion.

That is how serious proper worship is to God. Satan must have been very pleased that God’s people tried to reduce God from his pure spirit nature, into a physical form.

That same fallen corruption still lurks in human hearts today. The things he tells us to do in worship are corrupted and replaced.

In our era after the Cross of Jesus, animals are no longer sacrificed to represent the coming Messiah. So people make images of the Messiah himself to satisfy that longing for a physical object to worship. Ancient Israel could say, “The Messiah was represented in real physical calves, so why not make an image of one to help us think of him?” Today some say, “The Messiah had a real physical human body, so why not make an image of that to help us think of him?”

It is not just a minor matter of differences of opinion. It appears to be a violation of the Second Commandment which some dismiss as an old worn out rule.

The usual arguments claim that they do not worship through the pictures they make of Jesus. But that is troubling in another way. Do they believe they are looking at a picture of Jesus Christ, their God and Savior, but it does not stir any worshipful response in them? none at all? There’s no sense of awe? no desire to praise him as they look upon what they think is him? When Jesus is brought to mind it should stir us to worship. There’s the danger.

Another excuse is that children need to see images to learn about God and Jesus. That is obviously not God’s opinion, and he is the one who made the children. In Deuteronomy 6:6-9 God tells us to teach our children by presenting God’s word to them. They had art back then: statues, carvings, and drawings, but God’s method was to speak of him – in the home, everywhere we go, all day long.

This commandment specifically mentions the danger to the children.

Exodus 20:5-6, “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”

We damage our children by bringing them up with images of an imagined Jesus,or by implying to them by our attitudes and practices that how we worship God is something we can modify on our own. It is a danger that distorts the child’s view of God, and of his rules for worship.

When it says that God is Jealous, it does not mean it in the envious sense. It means that God is protective of his honor and glory. He is concerned to the utmost that his purpose in creation would be fulfilled. He made all things to portray his nature and truth so that it brings him glory. Distortions of his nature and truth go against the whole purpose of creation.

Some are troubled by the mention here of the punishing of children for the sins of their fathers. However, that is because the consequences of sin are usually misunderstood.

Children raised in wickedness are generally trained in the evil ways of those who raise them. Most of them will follow in those ways for a long time, maybe the rest of their lives. It may take many generations for children to shake off wrong traditions handed down in families. That is the other side of Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.”

This brings us to the blessing side of keeping this commandment. God shows great mercy to the obedient. This includes the merciful blessings attached to proper obedient worship. They who obey, along with their children, will be enriched by the good attitudes and habits they see and become accustomed to in the home. Paul reminded Timothy how blessed he was growing up in a Godly home (2 Timothy 1:5).

This all seems very odd in our modern world.

Today images of the Second Person of the Trinity are common and promoted. Even those who love the Bible alone as their source of truth about God, go beyond what God directly prescribes for worship. They speculate about things God has not made known. They provide unauthorized visible aids to worship and inspiration.

To know God as spirit requires a renewed soul informed by God’s word. Aside from that work of grace, the human heart is blind and seeks other things. Without the change that comes by resting in the Christ of Scripture, worship will be distorted.

Long ago St. Augustine was challenged by a pagan man who proudly showed him his idol. The man said, “here is my god, where is yours?” Augustine answered this way, “I cannot show you my God. Not because there is no God to show, but because you have no eyes to see him.”

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Rather than pictures, God gave us the thousand words — actually a lot more words than that. In the Bible we have a whole library about him, and his wonderful works.

God has communicated into our physical world all we need to know about him. That is what ought to guide us as we think of him, and approach him in prayer and worship.

The principle summarized in this Commandment is eternal.

There could never be a time when it is acceptable to make unauthorized visible images of God. He is always Spirit, and Jesus himself directed us to worship him in spirit and in truth. It was not a rule only for Old Israel in the time of Moses.

His word is our only faithful guide about how we should think of God and worship him. It is the picture that shows us how the pieces of the puzzle should fit together.
When we follow God’s prescriptions carefully, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, and loving all of it — it is recognized as the valuable treasure it truly is. Our God will be honored only in the way he said he should be. If that is our guide for faith and practice, we along with our children will be blessed for many generations to come.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)