The Jealous, Steadfast Loving God (Commandment 1a/2)
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“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).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Is this the Second Commandment or part of the First? Well, that depends. It has been a matter of dispute over the centuries. Martin Luther accepted the Roman Catholic numbering of his day and included this prohibition of carved idols with the First Commandment from the previous verse: “You shall have no other gods” in his catechism. The earliest Hebrew traditions also had that numbering. However, later Jewish traditions made this the Second Commandment and combined the Ninth and Tenth Commandments as one commandment against coveting to maintain the total of ten. During the first millennium, Christians also used this numbering. At the time of the Reformation, non-Lutheran Protestants adopted this numbering.
So today, a pro-life speaker will note that abortion is a sin against the Sixth Commandment. Lutherans and Roman Catholics will scratch their heads trying to figure out what adultery has to do with abortion. No longer will you scratch with them! You will recall from this sermon that some Protestants number the Commandments differently. Which is the right way to number? I’m really not sure. Both numbering systems make sense. But really, it doesn’t matter so much, because the Bible does not number each commandment. It just states there are ten “commandments” (actually ten “words”), and then it lists them in verses 2-17.
This commandment, whatever its number, is why you will not see banners, symbols, or even crosses in many Protestant churches. The walls will be bare—because there should be no graven images. Luther was against this movement in the Reformation. In fact, he risked his life to preach against it. When Prince Frederick hid him in the castle at Wartburg, Luther heard that the reformers left in Wittenberg were preaching against graven images. They advocated removing and destroying all statues of saints and all crucifixes in churches because they were objects of superstition and would cause people to trust in the image instead of God.
Luther’s reaction was immediate and fierce. Despite the ban that allowed anyone to kill him as an outlaw, he bolted from the Wartburg Castle and stormed to the pulpit in Wittenberg. He said the Reformation was not about changing church architecture. “There is only one idol in the human heart. Once that idol is broken, the statues will be seen for what they are—remembrances of inspiring saints from the past. If we destroy those statues, though, we’ll think that is the Reformation, and we’ll never get to the actual point of it—a change of heart.”
That raises the real issue with graven images. God obviously didn’t outlaw all images. In fact, he commanded the construction of some of them—including the much of the artwork in the tabernacle worship—the ark of the covenant guarded by two golden cherubim, the designs embroidered into the fabric of the tent itself, the lampstands made to look like almond blossoms, the priestly garments adorned with bells and pomegranates made of scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, just to name a few. No, it is not the images themselves that are sinful, but rather how we regard them.
Perhaps the most famous image commanded by God is the Nehushtan—the bronze serpent wrapped on a pole that looks very similar to the symbol used to denote the medical profession for many years. You may recall that the Israelites had disobeyed God, and He sent a plague of poisonous snakes to chastise them.
When the people cried out for help, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and erect it in the center of the camp. If the people looked at the serpent, they would be healed; if not, they would die from the vipers’ deadly bites. God used the serpent to remind people to look to God’s power for healing. Jesus made the point that this symbol foreshadowed Him and His own death on the cross. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Seven centuries after the Exodus, however, we read that King Hezekiah was reforming pagan practices in Israel. One of the images people were worshiping was the bronze serpent! He had it destroyed. What began as a faithful reminder of God’s power had become an idol to replace God.
This still happens today. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.” Nature is a reminder of God’s great power and goodness. But people today, especially in the New Age religions and the radical environmental movement, turn nature into a replacement for God. Nature is God’s handiwork; but sadly, people stand in awe before the handiwork instead of giving glory to the Maker. Nature becomes a graven image, an idol, a replacement for God, instead of a glorious reminder of God’s beauty and goodness. And so some worship sun, moon, and stars or track their movements hoping to chart their own destinies. Some, who even call themselves Lutheran, worship the goddess Gaia, Mother Earth and pray for her blessings.
Other good things can become graven images replacing God, too. A child is a great blessing from God, but that child should not be the center, the be-all and end-all, of our life. A child should remind us of God’s goodness, not become our god. This is also true for our devotion to our spouse, country, job, cause, or recreational activity. We are to devote ourselves to such good things, but never at the cost of our devotion to God.
We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. Our focus is to be on the one true God—the Father who so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. The God who sends His Holy Spirit to brings us to faith and keeps us in the one true faith unto life everlasting through His means of grace.
But it says something about the depravity of our sinful hearts that we must also be wary of even our observance of Christian traditions and symbols. Altar crosses, crucifixes, and statues can be useful aids for worship, however they may become idolatrous if one actually directs prayers to them, or superstitiously ascribes helping or healing powers to them, or looks to them for protection, or in any other manner places trust or reliance upon them.
In such cases the words of the psalmist, spoken with respect to graven images, would apply: “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears but cannot hear, noses but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:3-8).
But we do not employ these symbols in such a superstitious manner. Crosses and crucifixes are used as reminders of the all-sufficient atonement completed by Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross. Placing them on the altar or elsewhere in our churches, displaying them on a wall in our homes, wearing them as a pendant or on a coat lapel, or making the sign of the cross discreetly and reverently, is at once a reminder to us, and a witness to others, that the cross of Jesus is the only ladder by which we sinners can ascend to heaven and everlasting bliss (Colossians 1:19, 20). Kneeling or bowing is not an act of homage to the altar or to the cross or crucifix or a statue of Jesus, but only to the unseen Lord God Himself.
God is not so concerned about the images themselves, but the fact that they are used to worship other gods. The one true God will not share His honor with anyone or anything. That’s why He says: “You shall have no other gods. You shall not make 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.”
So seriously does our Lord take this commandment, He adds both a threat and a promise: “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 20:5-6, ESV).
Martin Luther made the point in the Large Catechism that these words related to all the commandments, yet were joined to this First Commandment because it is so important that people get their thinking straight first. For where the head is right, the whole life must be right, and vice versa.
We are to learn from these words how angry God is with those who trust in anything but Him. And we also learn how good and gracious God is to those who trust and believe in Him alone with their whole heart. God’s anger does not stop until the fourth generation of those who hate Him. The Lord God says this so that you will not live in such security and commit yourself to chance, as though it makes absolutely no difference to God how you live. He is a God who will not overlook that people turn from Him. He is to be feared and not to be despised.
To paraphrase an old Bill Cosby joke: “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.” God takes sin very seriously. He does not overlook one. All must be paid for, and those who despise Him and His mercy and grace, will feel His just wrath for eternity, for they are despising the very means of salvation offered to all for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ.
But as terrible as these threats are, so much more comforting is the consolation in the promise. For those who cling to God alone should be sure that He will show them mercy for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. He will show them pure goodness and blessing, not only for themselves, but also for their children and their children’s children, even to the thousandth generation. This ought certainly to move and impel us to risk our hearts in all confidence with God, if we wish all temporal and eternal good. For the Lord of the universe makes such outstanding offers and presents such heartfelt encouragements and such rich promises.
Therefore, seriously take this passage to heart. Do not regard it simply as the musings of man. It comes from the Lord God Himself. For you it is a question of eternal blessing, happiness, and salvation—or of eternal wrath, misery, and woe. It’s really a “no-brainer.” What more would you have or desire than God so kindly promising to be yours with every blessing and to protect and help you in all need?
God says, “You shall have no others gods. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Why? Because an idol cannot do for you what God can, does, and will. No idol created you with a vision for your life. No idol took the punishment of your sins upon Himself. No idol can do these things. Only God Himself is the Creator and that perfect sacrifice for sin.
No idol has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven to prepare a place for you for all eternity. No idol has promised to return and take you to be with Him. No idol could fill you with His Spirit to inspire and direct your life—to fill it with “the fruit of the Spirit… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
No man-made substitute can be our God like the One who saved us from our sins. Idols are things made by the hands of men, or perhaps, creatures like you and me—God’s creations, not God. They are not what we “fear, love, and trust above all things.” We trust in the Lord our God and His holy Word.
The merciful and gracious Lord who promises: “Do not be afraid. I am with you; for I am the Lord your God, who shows steadfast love to those who love Me and keep My commandments. I have redeemed you with the death of My Son on the cross. By My Holy Spirit I have called and gathered you to be My own in Holy Baptism. I feed you the heavenly bread of My body and blood to sustain you on your journey to My Promised Land. Through My means of grace I give you what you need most: forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.