Topic: True Worship Scripture: Exodus 20:4-6
This morning we continue our series on the 10 Commandments. We want to be transformed by the Spirit of God through his holy word. We pray anyone who is still trying to be good enough or work hard enough to get into heaven will realize that this will never work and trust instead in the savior God provided in Jesus. We pray for those who are believers that our joy and gratitude will be increasingly magnified as we meditate upon how much was done for us on the cross.
If we trust in Jesus, not only are we forgiven, adopted, and accepted into the family of God but we are also given new life and our hearts are being transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out. This is the power of the gospel, that not only are we completely accepted by God apart from our works, but that through Jesus God also gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us in the fight against the sin that would steal our joy and disrupt our fellowship with God and each other.
Today, we come to the second commandment. It is closely related to the first, but it is getting at something slightly different. The first commandment prohibits worshipping false gods, the second prohibits worshipping the true God in false ways. We are commanded to worship a perfect God perfectly. The main thing I want us to see this morning is that our worship is perfected in Christ alone.
The commands show us what pleases God, and the Spirit of Christ enables us to submit joyfully and freely. Freely because when we do the things we love to do, we are free. When we love what we ought to do, we do it freely. Joyfully because when our greatest pleasure is God, we are delighted by what pleases him. To be transformed by the grace of God means we don’t obey commands out of fear or duty, but because they become the things we want to do and the things that bring us joy. As Christians, we follow the command not as a law of works, but as James says, a law of liberty.
Exodus 20:4–6 says,
4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The context of this command is worship. This is not a command against art in general, it is specifically for religious worship and images of God. God regulates how we are to worship. Human beings seem to think God would be pleased with any way we choose to approach him. The idea that all roads lead to God and all forms of worship are somehow valid is common but it is wrong. All through the Bible it is clear God must be approached on his terms.
That sounds narrow to our modern ears, but truth is by nature narrow. Nobody seems to be bothered that in math or chemistry there are right and wrong answers but when we come to the truth about God, we naturally resist it. That has nothing to do with the nature of truth, it has to do with pride. Acknowledging the right answers in math doesn’t require us to acknowledge our sin and submit our lives to God. This commandment shows that the true God is unlike the false gods of Egypt and Canaan.
The specific prohibition is against making visible representations of God. The making of images was a standard practice among ancient religions. In fact, it remains the norm for non-Abrahamic faiths even now. In my travels I have seen many shrines and statues that people take very seriously as objects of worship. This command made Israel’s worship very different from that of the rest of the world.
Even so, the temptation to make an image of God was extremely strong and it comes up constantly throughout the Bible. We see how powerful this temptation was because even while Moses was still on the mountain the Hebrews made an idol in the form of the golden calf. The Bible says they bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and said it was the god that had brought them out of Egypt.
They were not confused about which god delivered them. They did not forget that it was God who had done all these things. The calf was supposed to be an image representing Yahweh. Their sin was trying to worship the true God falsely.
This command prohibits representing him through anything that we can create or could come from our imagination. He reminds Israel that he is a jealous God and his cursing and blessing last for generations. Some people have trouble understanding how a holy God could be jealous. That is because we associate jealousy with fear, insecurity, and a lack of trust. But according to the Bible jealousy can be good or bad. God’s jealousy is perfect, and it is in perfect harmony with his love.
If God were not jealous, he could not be perfectly loving. God is the source of every good in the universe. To be separated from him is to be cut off from all pleasure, joy, and love and leads to pain and death. Since God loves us, he is zealous for what is best for us and hates what harms us. God’s jealousy is good for us because it means anyone or anything that tries to take us away from our greatest blessings must contend with power of an almighty God who loves us more than we can ever imagine.
Because of his love for us God regulates our worship. To see his face while there is sin in us would mean death, so God graciously reveals himself through his word and instructs us as to how we can come to him and be fulfilled. We are warned not to try and innovate in our worship or fill in gaps with our own imagination about what kind of worship should be given. Apart from his grace, there would be no way for us to be brought to him. But by his love, he has made a way through his son, but we must trust him and come the way he has made, there is no other way.
Sadly, there are many who claim to speak for God but who ignore his word and mislead people in these things. For example, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have added images and statues to their worship in direct violation of this command.
They claim that they do not worship the images, but that they help them to worship God. But that explanation doesn’t help. All but the most ignorant heathen recognizes the wood and stone figurines are not the gods themselves. They use the images to represent and embody the demonic spirits they worship. This was the same thing the Hebrews tried to do with the golden calf. This is exactly what the second commandment prohibits.
This explanation holds about as much weight as a married man who goes on dates with other women because he says it helps him to better think about his wife. These churches try to distinguish between what they call adoration, which is worship due only to God, and veneration, which is giving honor to Mary and saints. There is no such subtlety found in this commandment.
If you bow down, pray to, kiss, and revere things made of wood and stone, you dishonor God regardless of what you call it. It is idolatry to depict the Father as an old man sitting in the clouds, to carve images of Jesus still lifeless upon the cross, and certainly to elevate dead sinners to prominence in our devotions.
That these practices are a violation of the second commandment is so plain that the Catholic Church has actually removed the second commandment from their catechism and their lists of the 10 commandments. Since everyone knows there are supposed to be 10, they divide the tenth into two to maintain a list of 10.
I am not trying to single out the Catholic or Orthodox. I am trying to show how powerful the temptation to violate this command is. At this point, you may be sitting here happy with yourself that you have never prayed to a saint or bowed to a statue. We may be quick to assume that at least on this one, we are in the clear. If so, we would be wrong. Remember, each command entails not only keeping the letter of the law but keeping it in spirit.
To keep this command in spirit requires we worship God according to how he has revealed himself in his word. It prohibits us from worshipping God in any way other than as he really is. Not just in terms of gross idolatry, but in any way that comes from our own imaginations. The second commandment prevents us from false worship of any kind.
Perhaps the full scope of this command is easier to understand when we hear it the way Jesus says it in John 4:24,
24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Images are forbidden because they are lies that present God as less than he is. We are called to worship God in the light of the truth and in the power of the spirit rather than the flesh. That means we trust what God has revealed of himself in his word. Any forms of worship invented by men or that hinder true worship violates this command. God tells what we should do to worship him in his word while giving us freedom and grace in how we do these things.
For example, the Bible shows us what things should be included in our gatherings for worship. These are the major elements the Bible affirms are part of acceptable worship when we come together:
The reading of Scripture (Acts 15:21, Rev. 1:3, 1 Tim 4:13)
Prayer (Matthew 21:13, Acts, 12:5, Romans 15:30)
Preaching the Word of God (2 Timothy 4:2)
The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, James 5:13)
Baptism (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:28-39)
The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Acts 2:42)
The Collection of Offerings (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 9:3-12)
Fellowship Meals (Acts 2:46, Jude 1:12)
That is why our services look the way they do, that is what God has told us to do. We have a lot of flexibility in how we do these things so long as they are orderly and for the edification of the church. They will look different in different congregations but the content should be consistent.
Nowhere are we given authority to add elements to the worship that God has not said he is pleased with. That is why we do not do skits, drama, interpretive dance, or several other things in our services that you might find elsewhere. We are careful to focus on those things God has said in his word will support us worshipping in spirit and truth. The goal of worship is not to please the worshippers, but the one who is worshipped.
By focusing our worship on God’s self-revelation, we inevitably end up with Jesus at the center. Remember our main point, that our worship is perfected in Christ alone. There are two ways this command shows us that our worship is perfected in Jesus alone. The first way is that Jesus satisfies this commandment on behalf of believers.
The second commandment prohibits us from creating images of God but God has already created an image designed to reflect his glory. Genesis 1:26–27 says of creation,
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
The image of God is not something in man or woman such as our mind or morals. Human beings ARE the image. That is why human life is sacred. Genesis 9:6 says,
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
That is why every person has inherent dignity and are deserving of respect. James 3:8–9 says we should not curse people because they are made in the image of God.
8 … no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
We were created as image bearers designed to display the wisdom, love, joy, and glory of God to all creation but rather than find satisfaction in that astounding blessing, we chose to believe a lie about God and sinned. From Adam and Eve down to every one of us we have sinned by rejecting God’s word and pursuing our own selfish desires instead.
Though we were created to reflect the glory of God, we have distorted his image with sin. This is what Paul means in Romans 3:23 where he says,
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
That is the way sin works. When we sin, we always end up with something less than God intends for us. When we reduce the creator to things we can create we get far less than he has for us. It is that way with every sin. Every time we sin, we are exchanging a promise of God for something less.
The devil is a liar. His strategy is to convince us we will be happier if we disobey. The struggle for obedience isn’t about discipline, it is about joy. It is always that way. He promises more joy but seeks to steal the joy we have. Satan told Adam and Eve if they ate the fruit they would be like God. They were already made in God’s image but pursuing joy outside of God, they became less like him.
They traded the tree of life for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They traded the sweet comfort of God’s presence with them for a bitter taste of forbidden fruit. They traded the riches of the wisdom to be gained in fellowship with God for the knowledge of their nakedness. They didn't end up with more. They ended up with far, far less and so do we when we sin.
Every sin involves an exchange. Lies about wealth and comfort would have us exchange the eternal riches of heaven for things that fade away. Lies about sex and pornography would have us trade fellowship with God for momentary pleasure that leaves us empty. Lies about reputation call us to exchange God’s pleasure in us for the fickle praise of men. Lies about identity want us to trade our fulfillment in Christ with the exhaustion of self-satisfaction. Lies about intellectual accomplishment would have us trade the wisdom of Christ for the foolishness of men.
We have all made these trades and thus have rejected fellowship with God for sin. We have traded the promise of heaven for the foolishness of the world.
But in an amazing act of love and mercy, God sent Jesus to do what we failed to do. He lived every moment in the truth. He was the perfect image bearer of the glory of God and never fell short.
Colossians 1:15 says Jesus… 15 … is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Hebrews 1:3 says, “3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…”
He fulfilled the second commandment and every other commandment perfectly. But he didn’t just do it for himself. He kept them for everyone who will ever put their faith in him. Everyone who will humble themselves and trust in Jesus alone is united to him by faith. His perfection becomes our perfection.
Not only does he give us his righteousness, but he takes our sin. We had exchanged fellowship with God to pursue our sin out of selfishness. Jesus exchanged fellowship with God to pay for our sin out of love. Jesus, who had no sin, died to fulfill the penalty of the law against the sin of everyone who believes and has reversed the foolish exchange we previously made. In an amazing act of love and mercy, God has sent his son so that all who have been separated from him can be brought back, not through our perfection, but through the perfection of Jesus.
Even this is far more than we could ask or deserve but our worship is perfected in Christ in a second way as well. Not only are we justified by grace through faith in Christ, but we are also sanctified by grace through faith in Christ. Not only are we forgiven and accepted by God because of what Jesus has done, but we are also being transformed through the spirit because of what Jesus has done. Listen to what Titus 3:3–7 says,
3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
God not only forgives us, but also gives us new life through the Holy Spirit. Before being born again through the Spirit, we were in darkness, but after being adopted by God through faith in Jesus, we are renewed.
Have you ever wondered why if our good works contribute nothing to our justification God is so concerned that we grow in holiness? Since Jesus has made us holy, why are we still called to pursue it? The answer is that our salvation is not only about forgiveness, but also about the unwinding of the curse that sin brought. Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:16–18,
16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Do you see the connection to the 2nd commandment? God is Spirit, he cannot be depicted with wood and stone. But that is not all. We all, meaning believers in Jesus, clearly see who God is and are now being transformed into the image of Christ, who is the perfect image of God. God’s grace is so rich. Not only are we forgiven, but we are being transformed back into what we were always intended to be!
Did you notice what it says in verse 17. It is those who behold the glory of the lord who are being transformed. Idolators worship images of God that are unworthy of him so they cannot bear the image properly. It would be like asking someone to see a picture of their wife and they show you a spider. It would be a distortion.
God is a spirit, and he must be seen in those who are being renewed spiritually. He is seen in holiness, justice, goodness, and love and that is what we see when we look at Jesus. Jesus says to Philip in John 14:9, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
That is what we were made to be and in Christ it is what God is doing in us. Romans 8:28–30 says it this way,
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
Everything necessary to restore us to the glory we were created for has been purchased on the cross of Jesus. Those who believe have been chosen, forgiven, and are being transformed for that reason. We are the image, and we are to bear Christ to one another and to the world. It is therefore our joy to trust him. 1 Peter 1:8–9 says,
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
We live now in the confidence that there is a day coming soon when we will see his face. At that time the apostle John says, “we shall be like him, because we will see him as he is.”
The second commandment calls us to worship in spirit and truth. As we look into the mirror of this law, we recognize that we have often failed to glorify God in worship as he deserves. Even if we have never carved an idol, we have entertained thoughts about him that were unworthy of him. This is a reminder that the only righteousness we have comes from the savior God has provided.
This command drives us to Christ who has satisfied its requirement and has paid the price of our falling short. When we are reminded of the worship God deserves, it should move us to praise God for sending Jesus. The second commandment also reminds us of who we are as redeemed people.
As the great preacher and hymnist John Newton, who wrote the lyrics to the song Amazing Grace, lay dying his last words were “although my memory's fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” The second commandment reminds us of those two great truths. Our need was great, our savior was greater.
It is a great blessing that God forbids us from making representations of him. It guards us from settling for our own thoughts about him and drives us to his word. How much more glorious and amazing is the God revealed there than anything we could have imagined. I would like to finish with Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:16–23. Let’s make it our prayer for each another.
16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.