Alistair Begg, Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Law Guides Our Lives (sermon on the same subject is here: Graven Mistakes – Resource Center – Truth For Life)
“Calvin said, “Because God does not speak to us every day from the heavens, there are only the scriptures in which He has willed that His truth should be published.” This commandment offers no loopholes. God is opposed to any representation of Himself. His people are not to make an idol “in the form of anything.” “Don’t look for me in shrines or paintings or statues,” the Lord might say, “I’m not there. Look for me in my Word.”
Calvin has a section in the Institutes where he argues that as long as doctrine was pure and strong the church rejected images. If we look around the contemporary scene, it will quickly become apparent that where there is an absence of gospel preaching there is a greater likelihood of finding superstitious rituals. I recall standing in a church building in Chicago and watching people kneeling before material representations of deity. I don’t for a moment question their motivation, but it made me wonder whether they did not imagine that some power of divinity was present there. Again Calvin observes, “when you prostrate yourself in veneration, representing to yourself in an image either a god or a creature, you are already ensared in some superstition. This is foolish in the extreme.”
Isaiah asks, “To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?” (Isaiah 40:18). Since all things were created by God and are subject to Him, it makes no sense at all to think of fashioning anything that could ever represent the Creator of the universe. When we set aside this commandment by tolerating images in worship, our understanding of God is inevitably distorted. The individuals whom I observed kneeling in Chicago were bowed before a crucifix. Jesus on the cross speaks to us of His suffering, which it is clearly right for us to ponder. But a Jesus on a cross is limited to the pathos of all that scene represents. It conveys nothing of His power, victory, and glory. He is now having completed the work of redemption seated at the right hand of the Father on high. So a static image of Christ on the cross is a distortion of the total picture.
Imagination is a wonderful gift, but when we use it to conjure up our own image of God it leads us astray. It is quite common to hear people say, “I like to think of God as…” and then add whatever picture they have in mind. The problem is that our view of God is to be defined by His revelation of Himself in the Bible, and when we conceive of Him apart from that, it will be misleading at best. Anything we imagine will be inevitably less then God, and when that which is less than God is used to portray God, we are led quickly to blasphemy and idolatry.
Exodus 32 contains the record of the fashioning of the golden calf. “We don’t know what’s happened to Moses” they tell Aaron. He’s somewhere out there talking with God but we want to know that God is present with us so make us gods who may go before us.” Instead of admonishing them for their impatience, unbelief, and disobedience, Aaron took their gold and fashioned it into a calf.
Upon completion he hears the people exclaiming, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (v. 4).
Upon hearing that, we might have expected him to melt the whole project down, realizing that he’d made a dreadful mistake. Instead, he compounds the problem by building an altar in front of the calf and announcing plans for a festival to the Lord. He was naive at best. Did he think that this solid gold calf would remind the people that Yahweh was powerful? The golden calf did nothing to display God’s glory and everything to distort it. The result was revelry and chaos. When we get the worship wrong, chaos ensues. Paul described the process in Romans 1:24. To exchange the truth of God for a lie: to exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles is to become susceptible to the sinful desires of the human heart issuing in…every kind of wickedness.
(Ibid., p. 66-68)
If we are to escape the corruption that accompanies all attempts at worshipping God by means of likenesses, pictures, and imaginings, then we must focus on the Lord Jesus Himself, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
(Ibid., p. 69)
Since the second commandment forbids the use of images as we worship God, and the New Testament reveals that God has provided the only true and worthy image of Himself in the Lord Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15); then our worship as we gather is to be framed by biblical principles.
(Ibid., pp. 72-73)