Christmas

Nativity Scenes and the Second Commandment

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)

Christmas, Mailbag

Throwback Thursday ~ The Mailbag: Do Nativity Scenes Break the Second Commandment?

Originally published December 12, 2016mailbag

 

Are 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.) breaking the second Commandment even though the portrayal of the baby Jesus isn’t being worshiped?

This isn’t a question I actually received from a reader, but an issue I’ve seen raised and discussed among Christian friends, so I thought it would be a good Christmas time question to address here on The Mailbag.

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.

Since I had not heard of this concept until fairly recently, and because it was coming from doctrinally 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 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? (If you’re participating in The 10, you probably already know the answer!) 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 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.

P.S. My friend Pastor Gabe, of When We Understand the Text, does a Q&A episode of his podcast every Friday. He was looking for Christmasy questions to answer, so I sent this question to him last week. Hear his answer here at the 13:36 mark.


If you have a question about: a well known Christian author/leader, a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.

Church, Faith

Throwback Thursday ~ Cleaning House

Originally published May 5, 2010

 

Hezekiah became king when he was twenty-five years old;…

He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done.

In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors of the house of the LORD and repaired them.

He brought in the priests and the Levites and gathered them into the square on the east.

Then he said to them, “Listen to me, O Levites. Consecrate yourselves now, and consecrate the house of the LORD, the God of your fathers, and carry the uncleanness out from the holy place.

“For our fathers have been unfaithful and have done evil in the sight of the LORD our God, and have forsaken Him and turned their faces away from the dwelling place of the LORD, and have turned their backs.

“They have also shut the doors of the porch and put out the lamps, and have not burned incense or offered burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel.

“Therefore the wrath of the LORD was against Judah and Jerusalem, and He has made them an object of terror, of horror, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes.

“For behold, our fathers have fallen by the sword, and our sons and our daughters and our wives are in captivity for this.

“Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the LORD God of Israel, that His burning anger may turn away from us.

“My sons, do not be negligent now, for the LORD has chosen you to stand before Him, to minister to Him, and to be His ministers and burn incense.”

Then the Levites arose…
They assembled their brothers, consecrated themselves, and went in to cleanse the house of the LORD, according to the commandment of the king by the words of the LORD.

So the priests went in to the inner part of the house of the LORD to cleanse it, and every unclean thing which they found in the temple of the LORD they brought out to the court of the house of the LORD. Then the Levites received it to carry out to the Kidron valley…

Then they went in to King Hezekiah and said, “We have cleansed the whole house of the LORD, the altar of burnt offering with all of its utensils, and the table of showbread with all of its utensils.

“Moreover, all the utensils which King Ahaz had discarded during his reign in his unfaithfulness, we have prepared and consecrated; and behold, they are before the altar of the LORD.”

Then King Hezekiah arose early and assembled the princes of the city and went up to the house of the LORD.

They brought seven bulls, seven rams, seven lambs and seven male goats for a sin offering for the kingdom, the sanctuary, and Judah. And he ordered the priests, the sons of Aaron, to offer them on the altar of the LORD…
The priests slaughtered them and purged the altar with their blood to atone for all Israel, for the king ordered the burnt offering and the sin offering for all Israel.

He then stationed the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with harps and with lyres,…

The Levites stood with the musical instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets.

Then Hezekiah gave the order to offer the burnt offering on the altar. When the burnt offering began, the song to the LORD also began with the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David, king of Israel.

While the whole assembly worshiped, the singers also sang and the trumpets sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished.

Now at the completion of the burnt offerings, the king and all who were present with him bowed down and worshiped.

Moreover, King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to sing praises to the LORD with the words of David and Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with joy, and bowed down and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah said, “Now that you have consecrated yourselves to the LORD, come near and bring sacrifices and thank offerings to the house of the LORD ” And the assembly brought sacrifices and thank offerings, and all those who were willing brought burnt offerings…

But the priests were too few, so that they were unable to skin all the burnt offerings;

There were also many burnt offerings with the fat of the peace offerings and with the libations for the burnt offerings. Thus the service of the house of the LORD was established again.

Then Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced over what God had prepared for the people…

Excerpted from 2 Chronicles 29

You know the history of Israel: bad king, good king, bad king, good king (actually, there were a lot more bad kings than good kings). The bad kings would come in and establish idol worship. They set up altars and made sacrifices to false gods, introduced cult prostitution, and even desecrated God’s house with idol worship and paraphernalia.

Ahaz was one of those bad kings. Second Kings 16 and 2 Chronicles 28 tell us he not only burned incense and made sacrifices to his gods, he “even made his sons pass through the fire” in worship of these idols. He took the gold and silver from God’s house and used it to try to bribe another king to come help him fight against an enemy. He desecrated God’s altar and tore down parts of the temple. He cut to pieces all of the temple utensils used for making sacrifices to the Lord. He had altars to his own gods placed in the temple, “in every corner of Jerusalem”, and “in every city in Judah”.

Ahaz was one bad dude. In fact, he was such a pustule of a human being that when he died they didn’t even bury him with all the other kings of Israel. That’s pretty bad.

And Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son, became king in his place.

Hezekiah was one of the most Godly kings in Israel’s history. He had seen with his own eyes the evil perpetrated by his father, which had infested God’s holy house and spread throughout the land, and God put it in his heart to turn things around and lead his people back to God.

See any similarities between God’s house then and God’s house now? Between God’s people then and God’s people now? Is it time for us to grieve over the holy things that have been destroyed or taken out of God’s house, and the filth that has been brought into His house?

We’ve got to sweep around our own front door.

Notice that Hezekiah didn’t just go out and get a bunch of guys together and say, “All right, boys, we need to clean house. Let’s get to work.” He went specifically to the priests and Levites – the church leadership, if you will – and said, “consecrate yourselves”.

Consecration was a process of ritual cleansing. As the priests and Levites went through each step of the outward, physical cleansing, they were also setting themselves apart from worldliness and seeking God’s hand of purification in their hearts.

Notice also that the priests and Levites had to consecrate themselves before they would be able to consecrate the temple. Just as Ahaz’s own personal evildoing had trickled down and infected the people, so the temple leadership would have to cleanse themselves personally before God in order for a pursuit of holiness to pervade God’s house and His people.

Those who study revival have noted that the majority of churches which experience revival do so under the leadership of a pastor who has experienced personal revival. If a pastor senses it’s time to clean house at his church, step one is to make sure he has consecrated himself and is walking blamelessly before God. Step two is to get his leadership together for times of cleansing and much prayer, that they may consecrate themselves before leading the people.

Once their personal cleansing was complete, the priests and Levites began to “carry the uncleanness out from the holy place”. The evil done in the temple in Ahaz’s day had harmed families, stirred God to anger, and made His people “an object of terror, of horror, and of hissing” in the eyes of the world around them. Likewise, the worldliness and sin – from gossip and jealousy all the way up to pedophile clergy – we have allowed into the church has brought tremendous harm to countless families and has made the body of Christ an object of ridicule and hatred in the eyes of many of the people we seek to reach for Him. Can we expect that His anger towards us would be any less than his anger towards the Israelites?

When the priests and Levites began to cleanse the temple, they did so completely and permanently. In the same spirit of Jesus’ own remarks that if your very hand or eye causes you to sin, you should remove it from your body, the priests and Levites removed everything – no matter how small, no matter how valuable it may have seemed, or how much its removal might have offended someone – that didn’t belong in God’s house.

Verse 16 tells us they carried all these unclean things out to the Kidron valley. The Kidron valley (or brook, as it was sometimes called when water was running through the valley due to heavy rains) was an area outside Jerusalem where, under Kings Asa, Josiah, and Hezekiah, all manner of unclean items used in idol worship were disposed of, usually by burning. That’s permanent. They weren’t taking any chances that someone might come across these items and bring them back into the temple.

Not only did the priests and Levites take all the unclean items out of God’s house, they purified and brought back all of the sacred items used for worshiping God that never should have been removed.

Is it time to carry the unclean things out of your church and down to the Kidron valley? Maybe it’s an unbiblical doctrinal tenet of your denomination. A program that brings glory only to the church members involved and not to God. A person in a position of church leadership who intentionally lives in sin and rebellion. An attitude of your own heart.

What about the holy items of worship that have been taken out of your church? Have sound, Biblical sermons been replaced by ear tickling pep talks and skits? Have Scriptural and doctrinal worship songs been replaced by the vain repetition of fluffy, feel-good jingles? Has prayer become simply a way to bookend your worship services or even disappeared altogether?

Our churches are in captivity to worldliness due to our disobedience. God has chosen our pastors to minister before Him; to lead His people to be consecrated to Him and worship Him. Dear pastor, please do not be negligent about cleansing His house. For the sake of us, the sheep God has entrusted to you, won’t you go into the innermost part of the house of God – your heart, your family, your staff – and through humility, prayer, study of the Word, and sound biblical action, remove every unclean thing, and bring back the sacred things with the help of your church leadership?

Only when God’s house is clean will we be able to offer Him the sacrifices He truly desires:

Thus the service of the house of the Lord will established again, and the people will rejoice over what God has prepared for them.

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

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Read Genesis 35-36

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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

Christmas, Mailbag

Throwback Thursday ~ The Mailbag: Do Nativity Scenes Break the Second Commandment?

Originally published December 12, 2016mailbag

 

Are 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.) breaking the second Commandment even though the portrayal of the baby Jesus isn’t being worshiped?

This isn’t a question I actually received from a reader, but an issue I’ve seen raised and discussed among Christian friends, so I thought it would be a good Christmas time question to address here on The Mailbag.

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.

Since I had not heard of this concept until fairly recently, and because it was coming from doctrinally 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 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? (If you’re participating in The 10, you probably already know the answer!) 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 reverent representations of Christ to point people to Him. It is also not a sin to desire 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.

P.S. My friend Pastor Gabe, of When We Understand the Text, does a Q&A episode of his podcast every Friday. He was looking for Christmasy questions to answer, so I sent this question to him last week. Hear his answer here at the 13:36 mark.


If you have a question about: a well known Christian author/leader, a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.