Is there a difference between idolatry and a picture of Jesus?
Our band was once looking at making a CD cover. A picture of Jesus crying out over Jerusalem caught our attention. The artist gave us the OK to use the picture, but a friend did not. He told us that using a picture of Jesus would constitute making a graven image, violating the command of God against idolatry. Wow! We were shocked at his rebuke. If this was true, we really needed to rethink the way that we thought about the usage of pictures in the life of the Christian and in worship services.
On page 45 of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, he quotes John Calvin: “His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever [God] is before our eyes in a visible form…. Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption his majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is.”
This stance against using such images is known as iconoclasm. It seems to be a response around the time of the reformation to the overusage of pictures, physical relics, and statues by the Roman Catholic Church. The error of the RCC was obvious – praying to statues and having particularly holy locations. As a result, the reformers ran the other way from such practices, all but outlawing the usage of images in church practice. Though not inherently Calvinistic, many Calvinists today continue this idea of associating images of Jesus and pictures of anything about God as idolatrous.
The Bible certainly discourages idolatry, but what is the extent of this? Some claim that idolatry stretches all the way to having pictures of Jesus. They may also say that a physical representation of God would be deemed as a graven image. To get to the bottom of this we must ask, “What exactly is a graven image?”
Our best resource to shed light on the Bible is the Bible itself. Therefore, rather than making large assumptions about what a “graven image” entails, we should take a broad look at what the Bible teaches in regards to idolatry and true worship. The word used for “graven image” is a single Hebrew word which implies something cut out and formed for the purpose idolatry. The term “graven” is used 22 times in the Bible (always in relation to this graven image), with the first usage in Deuteronomy 4:16. It is this verse that most strongly teaches against the idea of having God-like images. From this verse people have concluded that having any pictures that represent Jesus or an aspect of God is a blatant disregard for this command. It says, “Watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth” (NASB). God goes on to warn them not to worship any brilliant thing that they might see in the sky.
It is clear enough to see that God is saying this to guard the hearts of His people from worshiping anything that is of a mere physical make-up. The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary says, “The things are here specified of which God prohibited any image or representation to be made for the purposes of worship.”* This command is a warning against animism, the branch of polytheism that believes that deities inhabit physical objects.**
Anything physical is created by God; thus God, who is uncreated, is not physical, and cannot be worshiped as physical. In addition, God is not so particular about our method or location of worship, but is interested in our spirit’s focus in worship.*** John 4:23–24 (NASB) says, “An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
While the making of a graven image is strictly outlawed by God, the setting up of illustrative reminders is something that is even encouraged by God. There were many rituals set up to either illustrate piety and humility before God or to illustrate the forthcoming Messiah, the Son of God. There is chapter after chapter of describing the physical appearances of the temple, in particular. Ezekiel focuses on a new temple. Why? It is to illustrate something about the majesty of God. Practically everything in relation to the temple and tabernacle relates to the office and roles that Jesus Christ fulfilled. Since these structures were physical representations of something illustrative about God, does that make Israel guilty of setting up a graven image? No? People would even worship there; doesn’t that make it idolatrous? Of course not. And the difference is something that iconoclasts need to realize.
According to many, any physical representation of anything about God – whether it be true or not – qualifies as a graven image and is thus idolatrous. How far would this extend for the iconoclast? In addition to physical things, some teach against the usage of visualization – the imagining of a representation of God or of Jesus. This would seem to imply that one must not picture what is happening (at minimum) in a gospel story. One must not imagine Jesus healing a person, teaching, or hanging from a cross. The words must only be there for mental contemplation, not cementing it in the mind through pictures.
Now noticed this, if a physical representation of something valid about God constitutes as idolatry, then the Bible itself constitutes as a graven image. Of course, we know that this is not the case. What is the vital difference? The vital difference is whether you are using a physical object as your object of worship or whether you are using it as a vessel toward greater depth of spiritual and true worship. Insofar as we use physical representations, including pictures, as a means to deepen our spiritual awareness of the truth of God’s nature, we are not setting up graven images. In fact, we honor God as we dedicate the physical things in our lives to serve as reminders of the greater truth of who He is.
In summary, many people think that it is idolatrous to involve pictures as a means to direct our hearts toward God. I do not see that this is an accurate interpretation of the command to not set up a graven image. Nor do I think that such an assumption takes into account the total biblical idea. When we are told not to set up a graven image, we are being commanded to not use any physical thing to be the object of our worship. God alone, who is spirit and incorporeal, is to be our pure and unadulterated object of worship. We can be careful to use pictures and other physical representations in order to direct our hearts beyond them to focus on God in and even greater, deeper, and more truthful way.
**This was apparently a very prevalent belief in the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. Gill’s Exposition lists such human-like deities as Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, Apollo, Juno, Diana, Venus. Some think Osirus and Isis, Egyptian deities. (Source: BibleHub)
***It seems that any time our eyes are off of God, we begin to look for earthly and physical things to give our devoted affection to. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. We are either walking in the spirit or walking in the flesh.