Christmas

Nativity Scenes and the Second Commandment

Originally published December 10, 2019

Have you ever heard someone say that nativity scenes, Christmas ornaments, Christmas pageants, and other Christmas items or activities which portray the baby Jesus (with a figurine, a doll, a live baby, pictures, etc.) break the second Commandment even though the portrayal of the baby Jesus isn’t being worshiped?

Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ believe that any representation of Jesus – be it in a manger scene, a painting, a movie, pictures of Jesus in children’s Bibles, flannelgraphs, Bible story pictures used for teaching children or on the mission field, etc. – violates the second Commandment…

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. 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 of those who love me and keep my commandments. Exodus 20:4-6

…whether or not that representation of Jesus is being worshiped. It is the mere act of making or displaying the representation which breaks the Commandment.

This is not something any church I’ve ever been a member of has taught, but because I’ve heard this point of doctrine from theologically sound friends I respect, I wanted to take a closer look at the pertinent Scriptures to make sure I wasn’t doing something wrong. I’ve had nativity scenes and children’s Bibles and used flannelgraphs and been in Christmas musicals that depict Jesus all my life and never gave it a second thought. But if having and doing those things conflicts with Scripture, I want to stop.

But, having examined the Scriptures in context, while I respect and admire my friends’ desire to honor the Lord by not using representations of Him, I simply don’t find that the Bible prohibits occasionally depicting Jesus in reverent, not-for-the-purpose-of-worship ways. Here’s why:

1.

Consider the macro-context of Exodus 20. What was going on in the history and culture of Israel at that time? God was setting Israel apart from other nations as His own special possession and establishing Israel as a nation. And what was the preeminent characteristic that was to set Israel apart from the pagan nations? Israel was to be a witness to all the nations of the one true God. They were not to worship idols (which, at that time, were generally carved figures of created things). Not instead of God. Not in addition to God. Not at all. The second Commandment is a command not to worship carved figures as idols.

2.

Examine the immediate context of Exodus 20:4-6. It follows verses 1-3, which establish the supremacy of God above all other gods, and specifically state that Israel is not to worship any other gods.

3.

Take a close look at the content of Exodus 20:4-6. The passage doesn’t say anything about making a representation of God Himself. Jesus had not yet been born when this was written, so this passage could not have been talking about making a representation of Jesus. It talks about making representations of created things in the sky (planets, the sun, etc.), on the earth, and in the water, and worshiping them. And certainly, calling any graven images “God” and worshiping them as God would also be prohibited (Remember the golden calf incidents?)

4.

It would seem to me that to be consistent in saying “no representations of Jesus” folks who hold to this belief would also have to say “no representations of anything” because what Exodus 20:4 plainly says is “you shall not make for yourself…any likeness of anything.” No photographs of anything, no drawings, paintings, or sculpture of anything, no Xeroxing anything, nothing. In fact, I think that would be closer to the actual wording of the passage than “no representations of Jesus,” which, again, this passage does not mention.

5.

The cross references I found for Exodus 20:4 are Leviticus 26:1, Deuteronomy 27:15, and Psalm 97:7. All of them refer to idol worship.

6.

There are at least two occasions in the Old Testament in which God instructs Moses to make a graven figure, and both of these instances are far more conducive to actual worship of the figures than a nativity scene or a Sunday School flannelgraph.

The first instance – just five chapters after the second Commandment – is found in God’s instructions for the Ark of the Covenant. God instructs Moses to have the people make two cherubim (angels) for the mercy seat (lid) of the Ark. They were not to worship the cherubim (or the Ark), but the Ark was the holiest object used in Israel’s worship ceremonies. It would have been easy for the people to cross the line and worship it or the cherubim, yet God commanded the making of these not-for-worship figures to point the people to Him. (And guess what was put into the Ark right underneath those graven figures? The two tablets of the 10 Commandments, including the second Commandment.)

The second instance was when God instructed Moses to make the bronze serpent. Anyone who had been fatally snake-bitten could look up at the serpent and his life would be spared. How much more likely would an Israelite have been to worship the bronze serpent, commissioned by God and instrumental in saving his life than we are to worship a picture of Jesus in a children’s Bible? Jesus Himself said that this graven figure pointed ahead to His death on the cross, using it as an illustration of His crucifixion. Much like a nativity scene is an illustration of His incarnation.

Now, if God Himself commissioned the casting of these figures of created things, not to be worshiped, but as tools to point people to Himself, would it stand to reason that He would prohibit reverent representations of Christ that point to or teach about Him? Comparing the second Commandment with these two instances of graven figures demonstrates to us that God expects His people to be able to distinguish between using objects as tools or illustrations that point to Him and worshiping those objects.


In the end, this issue is an issue of Christian liberty. It is not a sin nor a violation of the second Commandment to use occasional reverent representations of Christ to point people to Him. It is also not a sin to desire to honor the Lord by refraining from using representations of Christ and finding other ways to point people to Him. Whichever side of the issue we come down on, let us make sure we are respectful and loving to those on the other side, not making a law for them where no law exists, nor accusing one side of sin or the other of legalism.

Additional Resources:

When We Understand the Text Podcast (at the 13:36 mark)

Women of Genesis Bible Study

The Women of Genesis: Lesson 27- Deborah and Rachel

Previous Lessons: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 89, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26

📖📖📖📖📖

Read Genesis 35-36

📖📖📖📖📖


Questions to Consider

1. Study a map of Jacob’s travels, locating Haran, Shechem, and Bethel (35:1). What happened in Jacob’s life at each of these three places (review previous lessons if necessary)?

2. Where (city and nation) was Jacob living when God told him to move to Bethel? In what major way had living in the Shechemite area of Canaan influenced Jacob’s family? (35:2-4) In the book of Exodus, when we see Israel journeying through and into the Promised Land, what is the main offense against God that the Canaanites are guilty of? How did their idolatry impact God’s people?

3. Briefly review previous lessons (links above) in which we examined various reasons Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t want their children to intermarry with Canaanites. Even though the Ten Commandments (prohibiting idolatry) and the Levitical law (prohibiting intermarriage with pagans) had not yet been given, how might Canaanite idolatry have played a role in this? And if idol worshiping pagans weren’t good enough for Jacob’s children to marry, why did his own family possess foreign gods? (35:2-4)

4. Regarding the sin of idolatry, what were the three steps (35:2-3) of repentance Jacob led his family in? How can these steps be a model of repentance for us today?

5. Compare Genesis 28:10-22 with 35:1-15. Why did God tell Jacob to go back to Bethel (35:1)? What are the similarities and differences between the two passages with regard to God’s and Jacob’s words and actions? What promises did God make to Jacob in each passage? Describe the worship that took place in both passages.

6. Who was Deborah (35:8), and about how long had she been with the family? In what ways was Deborah’s death honored and memorialized (using your footnotes, what does Allon-bacuth mean)? Considering that we rarely ever hear the names of servants, much less the memorializing of their deaths, what might we surmise about Deborah, her character, and her relationship with Isaac and Rebekah’s family and Jacob’s family? How can you have an impact for Christ on others by serving them?

7. Refer again to the map in question 1. Where did Jacob travel in 35:16-27?

8. Examine 35:16-26 and review our previous lessons about Rachel. If you were writing Rachel’s obituary, how would you describe her? If Jacob were giving the eulogy at her funeral, what might he say about her? Why do we hear about Deborah’s, Rachel’s, and Isaac’s deaths, but we don’t hear about Leah’s or Rebekah’s deaths?

9. Compare Genesis 30:22-24 with 35:16-26. How was Rachel’s prayer answered? Using your footnotes, what do Ben-oni and Benjamin mean, respectively? Why do you think Jacob changed the baby’s name?

10. Who wrote the book of Genesis? Who was the original audience of the book of Genesis? Why might God have considered the information in chapter 36 important for this audience to know? How is this chapter a fulfillment of prophecy?


Homework

Jacob’s family was influenced toward idol worship by the Canaanites they lived among (35:2-4). Think about the various environments you live in: your community or neighborhood, your church, family, friends, workplace, clubs or organizations, social media, etc. Do any of these environments influence you toward idolatry – putting something in God’s place in your affections, loyalties, priorities, and time? Idolatry is a sin that should be repented of and forsaken. Read my article The Christian Introvert: Putting Off Social Anxiety, Putting On Serving Others to learn about the process of putting off sin, renewing your mind, and putting on godly behavior. Thinking about your own idolatry, write down how you can “put away those foreign gods” (put off), “purify yourself and change your garments” (renew your mind) and “arise and go up to Bethel…and make an altar to God” (put on).


Suggested Memory Verse

Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.
Genesis 35:3

The Ten (10 Commandments Bible Study)

The Ten: Lesson 4

the-ten

Previous Lessons: 1, 2, 3

Exodus 20:4-6

“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. 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 of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 32:1-10

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”

1 John 5:20-21

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

1 Corinthians 5:9-13

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.


Questions to Consider:

1. One of the themes of Exodus we’ve discovered in this study is that God is setting His people apart from the surrounding pagan nations and establishing Israel as a nation. How does the second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6) relate to that theme? Think about what and how pagan nations worshiped. How does the second Commandment set God’s people uniquely apart from pagans and set the worship of God apart from the worship of false gods? How does worshiping God without any sort of visual aid or representation point us to God’s vastness, uniqueness, “other-ness,” and power in comparison with idols?

2. What does it mean that God is a jealous God in the context of the second Commandment (idol worship)? (Exodus 20:5a) Think about God’s nature and character as well as His patience, kindness, and benevolence toward His people both in the Old Testament and today. Doesn’t God have a right to be jealous for His people? What are the consequences of breaking or keeping the second Commandment? (Exodus 20:5b-6)

3. Some Christians believe that the second Commandment prohibits making any representation of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit regardless of whether or not that representation is worshiped. They believe, for example, that nativity scenes and plays in which the baby Jesus is depicted, pictures of Jesus in children’s Bibles, pictures of Jesus used for teaching the Bible to non-readers or lost people on the mission field, are a violation of the second Commandment even though these representations of Jesus are not being worshiped. Do you think the context of Exodus 20:4-6 supports this belief? Why or why not? Can you think of any other Scriptures that support or refute this belief?

4. Examine the Exodus 32 passage. How did the people break the second Commandment? Why did the people want Aaron to make an idol for them? (1) When we find ourselves in idolatry – worshiping, loving, or being devoted to something or someone above God – what is the motive of our hearts? Where did the people get the gold jewelry (2-4) that Aaron used to make the calf? What was God’s initial response to this incident? (10) Can you see how it stirs God to anger when we take things that He has created and blessed us with and worship those things rather than the One who gave them to us?

5. In the Exodus 32 passage, what act of God did the people attribute to the golden calf? (4,8) How does it break the second Commandment to call something “God” that is not the God revealed in Scripture? To attribute an action or characteristic of God to something that is not God? How does the 1 John passage and the idea of the “true God” and “him who is true” contrast with the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf as God?

6. Today, in Western culture, we don’t usually carve idols out of wood or stone and bow down to them. But what about creating idols with our hearts and minds instead of our hands? Have you ever “created God in your own image” – a God who fits your opinions, preferences, feelings, or unbiblical beliefs – and worshiped or trusted that god instead of the true God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit of Scripture? How is that similar to the Israelites’ fashioning a golden calf and essentially calling it God? What does the 1 Corinthians passage say about Christians who practice this or any other form of idolatry and how the church is to deal with them?


Homework:

Listen closely this week to the sermon at church, your Sunday School or Bible study class lesson, any Christian books, magazines, blogs, or social media posts you read, and any Christian music you listen to. Is the God depicted in these venues consistent with the way God reveals Himself in Scripture? Do you find any of these sermons, articles, songs, etc., to be breaking the second Commandment by presenting a false view of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit?

Wednesday's Word

Wednesday’s Word ~ Judges 10

judges 10 15

 

Judges 10

After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah, son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he lived at Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim. And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried at Shamir.

After him arose Jair the Gileadite, who judged Israel twenty-two years. And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities, called Havvoth-jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon.

The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the Lord and did not serve him. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year. For eighteen years they oppressed all the people of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed.

10 And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” 11 And the Lord said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines?12 The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. 13 Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” 15 And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.

17 Then the Ammonites were called to arms, and they encamped in Gilead. And the people of Israel came together, and they encamped at Mizpah. 18 And the people, the leaders of Gilead, said one to another, “Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.


 

Questions to Consider:

1. Why did God place judges in authority over Israel?

2. Why was God angry with Israel? (v. 6-7) Which Commandment was Israel guilty of violating? How does Judges 10:7 illustrate that God is a jealous God?

3. Why is it so important to God that his people worship Him alone? What can we as Christians learn from God’s anger towards Israel in this chapter? How does this passage relate to 2 Corinthians 6:14-18?

4. In verse 10 and verse 15, Israel cries out to the Lord, confessing, “We have sinned.” Is there a difference between the two confessions? Were these confessions genuine sorrow over sin? How can you tell? What action on Israel’s part follows the second confession? (v. 16)

5. What does the word “impatient” mean in verse 16? Examine this verse in the HCSB, NASB, NIV, and KJV translations. How can cross checking other reliable translations aid in your study of God’s word?

Wednesday's Word

Wednesday’s Word ~ Numbers 25

num 25 3

 

Numbers 25

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.”

And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

14 The name of the slain man of Israel, who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri the son of Salu, chief of a father’s house belonging to the Simeonites. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, who was the tribal head of a father’s house in Midian.

16 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, 18 for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.”


The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.


 

Questions to Consider:

1. What verse 1 mean when it says, “the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab”?

2. Why was God angry with Israel (v.3)?

3. How does 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 relate to Numbers 25:1-5?

4. Why does God not want His people to fraternize with unbelievers?

5. Is this chapter a descriptive or a prescriptive passage? How can we know that this passsage is not telling us it is all right for Christians to kill idol worshipers today?