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Does the Bible Prohibit Making Images or Just Worshiping Them?

Ark of the Covenant (Public domain image)

In pagan religions, images are often used as objects or worship. The Bible is full of references to this sort of thing.

The pagan god Molech was worshiped by making a hollow statue of him, building a fire in it and burning children alive to him. Less extreme were the idols of Artemis (also known as Diana) which craftsmen in Ephesus made and sold to pilgrims which led to a riot when Paul preached in the town.

Isaiah ridiculed those who worshiped false gods made of wood which could not save them, calling their worshipers stupid: “Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.” [Is 45:20, ESV]

However, is it possible to have an image that is not also an idol, an image that is not worshiped? Or are all images forbidden by Scripture? Some Christians say “Yes” but are they correct in their belief?

Ex 20:4 says “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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” so it would seem that they are correct but this is only because they have ripped this one verse from its context. Moses goes on in verse 5 and 6, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.” When you look at he entire passage, God is only forbidding the worship of images, not merely their creation.

But aren’t I just ignoring what it says in verse 4 to arrive at that conclusion? We can answer that question by looking elsewhere in Scripture to see how this commandment was applied.

In Ex 25:10-22 we have God’s instructions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The relevant passage starts at verse 18: And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. [Ex 25:18-22, ESV]

The cover of the Ark was to have the images of two cherubim, an order of angels. Not only that, God calls this cover the Mercy Seat and says that this is where He will meet with the Israelites. The images don’t seem to cause a problem for Him.

Moses with the Bronze Serpent (Public domain image)

Are there any other relevant passages? Yes. Take a look at Num 21:4-9. In this passage the Israelites are grumbling about their wandering in the desert as they often did. (To be fair, if I was wandering in the desert I would probably not be happy about it either.) As a punishment, God sent fiery serpents among them. Those who were bitten by the serpents died. However, God also told Moses to make an image of the fiery serpent and put it on a pole. If anyone who had been bitten by one of the serpents looked at the image of the serpent, they would live. God used an image. Jesus also compared the raised serpents in Num 21 to His own crucifixion.

This argument is nothing new. Tertullian (160-240 AD) said the exact same thing in his book Against Marcion Book 2 Chapter 22: The brazen serpent and the golden cherubim were not violations of the Second Commandment. Their meaning. Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: “Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.” The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents? I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given.

Second Century Image of Jesus Found in a Catacomb (Public domain image)

Christian artwork depicting Jesus and events in the gospels can be found as early as the 2nd century AD. Why did it take that long? Well, when you are on the run for your life as the early Christians were, creating artwork of any kind is not a high priority. These early artworks are found on the walls of catacombs. Catacombs were not built by Christians until the 2nd century.

But why have images? What purpose do they serve? Well, assuming you are not an art collector, the images were keep around us serve to remind us of what is important to us. I doubt that the most ardent objector to images does not have images around of their family. My father-in-law had a photo of my wife and her siblings on his dresser to remind him of why he got up early every morning and went to work. We don’t worship these images, obviously, but that is exactly my point. The existence of an image does not mean it is an object of worship.

If you don’t feel right about having an image around, by all means, don’t. However, don’t impose your human tradition on others as if it were the word of God. It is not.

Text © 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

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Written by Gary J Sibio

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    • The way I look at it is that we all have different backgrounds. If you come from a background where you might be tempted to worship an idol or even to let it take your focus off of God, then avoid them. I come from a background where idolizing them would never occur to me. Rather than a distraction, they help me focus. I could get along without them but I also need all the help I can get. 🙂

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