Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ
A Violation of the 2nd Commandment
The 2nd Commandment and “The Passion of the Christ”
By Ron Gleason
We already possess the ‘image of God’ today in the church in preaching and in the sacraments.
On February 25, 2004, Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ will hit theaters. Already there has been a veritable firestorm of discussionpro and conabout the nature of the film. Rabbis have opined that the film is anti-Semitic. Some Roman Catholics have argued that such a film is long overdue and the world needs to get a glimpse at the physical suffering of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
A controversy also rages concerning whether the Pope has made any pronouncement about the film. The Pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, insists that he has not. Unfortunately even for the Christian Church, the greatest fear concerning this film is that it will arouse anti-Semitism.
Apart from the Jewish and Roman Catholic communities, Evangelicals have weighed in on The Passion as well. Greg Laurie of Harvest Crusades said regarding the movie, “I believe The Passion of the Christ may well be one of the most powerful evangelistic tools of the last 100 years, because you have never seen the story of Jesus portrayed this vividly before.” Coming from a man of Laurie’s stature, that is quite an endorsement. But he isn’t the only Evangelical “heavyweight” to comment on Gibson’s movie.
James Dobson calls it “a film that must be seen.”
Former atheistweren’t we all at one time?and author, Lee Strobel says, “The Passion will stun audiences and create an incredible appetite for people to know more about Jesus. I urge Christians to invite their spiritually seeking friends to see this movie with them ” (Unlike Lee Strobel, I don’t know any true “seekers” since Romans 3:10-11 is clear that, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God.” It’s texts like this that keep me from adopting Lee Strobel’s language.)
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, states that the film is “brilliant, biblical, a masterpiece.”
No one less than Billy Graham is on record for saying, “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw on the screen will be on my heart and mind.”
I contend, however, that there is a much greater fear than anti-Semitism that needs to be faced but which few are willing to entertain: The fear of dishonoring the Lord God Almighty and disobeying a direct commandment that he has given to us with regard to the making of images of the triune God. That subject will be the focus of this article.
For many, even one endorsement by any one of these “name brand” theologians would be sufficient for them to rush out and watch this movie. In fact, I’m willing to wager that many in the Evangelical community will rush out to their local theaters on February 25th to see it.
The Orange County Register recently carried an article declaring that Rick Warren had invited 4,500 pastors and teachers to Saddleback Community Church for an exclusive screening of Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie. The article cited some of the pastor’s/theologian’s comments about the profound impact the movie had on them. Most of the comments reflectedto a greater or lesser extentthe ones cited above.
What struck me about that article was that as it recounted the various reactions of many of the audience, absolutely nothing was said by anyone of the pastors or theologians in attendance that were interviewed about how the film relates to the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. It’s odd, isn’t it, that when a group of modern theologians gather to preview a film like this one, nothing is mentioned about the relevance of the 2nd commandment for us today? The same can and must be said about the comments of James Dobson, Billy Graham, Greg Laurie, Lee Strobel, and Rick Warren.
A recent statistic recorded in a poll reminded us that approximately eighty percent of modern Christians cannot tell you what the Ten Commandments actually are. So, in order that I don’t assume everyone knows what the commandment is, allow me to cite it here at the outset o this article. The English Standard Version renders it this way: “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” (Ex. 20:4-6; Deut. 5:8-10).
What I intend to do here is to recount the words and applications of the 2nd commandment to our lives. I’ll then tie the Old Testament commandment in with the New Testament Jesus, with a view to the upcoming film.
I realize that venturing such an exposition will surely raise the ire of those who believe they will be “helped” by viewing the movie. Our concern is neither “stark realism” as far as the movie is concern nor some sort of psychological boost, but, ultimately, it is the glory of the Lord and obedience to his Word.
In order to accomplish our goals, we will look at various texts in addition to the 2nd commandment.
The Old Testament Biblical Texts
Jacques Ellul wrote a book that has as its translated title, The Humiliation of the Word. The book is filled with philosophical and sociological discussions, but Ellul succeeds in grasping the heart of the matter regarding the 2nd commandment, which is that the God of Scripture forbade any making of images that were supposed to represent him.
He rightly states,
Not enough thinking has been done about the breaking of the tables of the Law. The story is well known: on descending from Sinai, in the presence of the incredible pretension of the Israelites to make themselves a god (which they could control since they had made it) to replace the mysterious Liberator, out of anger and despair, Moses breaks and destroys the miraculous talisman he was bringing: the stone tables on which God himself had written. He acted in anger, we say. It was an act of judgment against a people who were not worthy to receive such an extraordinary gift.
This snippet, from Ellul’s provocative book, sets the table and pinpoints the true controversy about the Mel Gibson film and reopens the essential and crucial issue of the 2nd commandment from the Law of God. Between man and man, words are powerful things. Between God and man, words take on an even more significant meaning. “The Bible story of the dealings of God with His people, shows us that God has always used words, in communicating Himself, His mind, and His will, to men.”
Rarely have modern Christians paused and reflected upon the meaning and application of the 2nd commandment for life and, as the sub-title of Wallace’s book states, “ethical freedom.” For a large number of Evangelicals, the Ten Commandments have no relevance or application for the New Testament Christian. In addition, far too many have simply never given the matter any thought. It’s time to reflect and ask ourselves what God wants us to be and to doeven or especially when it comes to movies depicting God.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the content of the 2nd commandment.
The Meaning of the 2nd Commandment Itself
A progression exists between the first and second commandments.
In the first commandment, all other gods are rejected (“You shall have no other gods before me” [Ex. 20:2]). This commandment describes Yahweh as the only true, legitimate God.
The second commandment then describes for the Church the wrong, illegitimate, and incorrect ways that man might attempt to worship the only true, legitimate God. To put it another way, “The First Commandment refers to the true God, the Second to the true worship of God.”
There are a number of biblical texts that are descriptions of or commentaries on the 2nd commandment. They elucidate what the Law of God instructs us regarding how the Church is to worship the Lord God Almighty. We’ll examine a few of those key texts.
Deuteronomy 4:15-31 give us a more extended discourse on the 2nd commandment. Moses begins by referring to the giving of the Law by God to Moses and the Israelites with these words: “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male of female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, al the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord you God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (15-19).
The prominent reason given why God’s people were not to make images of people, animals, or the celestial lights is precisely that they saw “no form” on the day the Lord spoke to them. No matter how well-intentioned God’s people might be, they are not to make any image of the Lord.
The classic case in point, of course, is the making of the golden calf. The nations around Israel had images to worship and look at, why couldn’t the Israelites have them as well? The weak-willed Aaron succumbs to the pressure and fashions a calf. He knew better than to give it the name of a pagan deity, so in his “good” intentions so he named the calf the gods that brought Israel “out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4), and then declared the next day to be “a feast to the Lord” (32:6).
God had said no images, but Aaron fashions one in the form of a bull, which is precisely the idol of Baal worship. By the way, “Baal” can be translated “Lord.” It’s never the name that Yahweh gives to himself, but it is a vain and empty attempt on man’s part to call an idol by the name “Lord.”
It is essential to take note of the fact that Israel was not intending to dishonor God by what they did. What they aimed at, however, and what they actually achieved were two very different things. Man decides that it’s okay to make a golden calf, even though God has expressly forbidden it. Aiming at worshipping Godthrough the imaginations of manthe Israelites totally jettisoned true worship and disobeyed the Lord.
1 Kings 12:28
The narrative concerning the outset of the wandering in the desert continued to play a role in the life of the children of God. After the death of Solomon, his son, Rehoboam, who was a real “bonehead,” was the successor to the throne. He found some opposition, however, from the exiled Jeroboam. Rehoboam made a stupid decision regarding the well-being and care of God’s people (1 Kgs. 12:1-15), and the kingdom was divided. Jeroboam built Shechem and lived there (12:25).
He was a shrewd politician and understood the powerful influence of “religion” in the lives of God’s people. There was no separation between Church and State in those days. So he said, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah” (12:26-27). What to do?
Jeroboam calls his cabinet together and they hammer out a plan, which includes making two golden calves. The purpose is theological expediency. Just put the idols closer, and then God’s people can sleep in a little longer on the Sabbath before they have to head off to worship. Moreover, give them something they can see and touch! The genius of idolatry.
Here’s what the Word says, “So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt'” (12:28). In order truly to “easify” worship, he made two calves and placed one in Dan and the other in Bethel. Subtlety of subtlety, Bethel means, in Hebrew, “house of God.” The spiritual psychological ploy worked. The wording of this 12th chapter of 1 Kings is eerily similar to what the children of Israel did at Mount Horeb.
What appeared to be a “good thing,” really wasn’tonce againand this episode is precisely why the negative refrain concerning Jeroboam is found in Scripture.
1 Kings 16:31
Later in Israel’s history, we are able to observe the progressively deleterious effects of what Jeroboam did. Idolatry tends to move into ever-increasing, progressive sin. The Northern Kingdom of Jeroboam passes on to Ahab who inherits the calf worship at Dan and Bethel. Ahab marries Jezebel, who was a real spiritual giant, and together they instituted Baal worship in the Northern Kingdom. We are also told that in addition to Baal worship, Ahab also built an Asherah pole (16:31-33). Idolatry’s pernicious nature is that more and more deviation seems feasible, plausible, and politically prudent.
In this instance, it is crystal clear how not only the 2nd commandment but also the 1st was ignored and blatantly disobeyed. I’ve used these two texts from 1 Kings in conjunction with Exodus 32 to point out how “good intentions” end up when the Word of God is ignored and disobeyed. Aaron performed what to many was an innocent, insignificant action in fashioning a tangible, visible image that was supposed to represent Yahweh. We are once again reminded that actions do, in fact, have consequences; often consequences that we never dreamed possible.
This is all the more reason why the Church of Jesus Christ must be very circumspect and cautious when it comes to what we find to be a “good experience” or something that “builds us up.” If it is opposed to the Word of God, that can never be good, no matter what (perceived) experiential or emotion high/benefit we think we derive from it.
Judges 17 &18
The book of Judges also contains some very instructive teaching on the 2nd commandment. In Judges 17 we’re told of a man named Micah (not the minor prophet). His name means, “Who is like Yahweh?” He made a shrine, an ephod, some images (household gods), and ordained one of his sons to become his priest (Judg. 17:5). It’s not for nothing that verse 6 reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
The insidious nature of idolatry and the disobedience of God’s commandment regarding idolatry can be seen in the fact that Micah’s idolatry would be able to trace its support to a relative of Moses! The people of Dan capture all of Micah’s possession and then attack and conquer the city of Laish, which they rebuild and rename after their ancestor (Judg. 18:27-29).
Regarding the spiritually infectious character sin, the verses 30-31 of Judges 18 read as follows: “And the people of Dan set up the carved image for themselves, and Jonathan the son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up Micah’s carved image that he made, as long as the house of God was at Shiloh.”
My point here is that disobedience is often not merely an individual matter, but reaches its tentacles out to others and in the case of idols causes others to be deceived by its seeming plausibility, feasibility. People will do weird things in the face of idolatry, and swear up and down to you that what they’re doing is actually helping them.
They will travel to worship the idol (1 Kings. 12:30); when there is no faithfulness, love, or knowledge of God in the land (Hos. 4:1, 6), the notion of God’s people perishing also involves joining themselves to idols (Hos. 4:17). They’ll even go so far as to kiss the graven image (Hos. 13:2).
A Look at Confessional Statements
For many in the modern Church what I’m about to do will seem superfluous. Some pastors have taught from their pulpits that doctrine is straight from the pit of hell and Christians are to avoid it like the plague. I contend, however, that one of the reasons the modern Christian is so blatantly and patently ignorant of the fundamentals of the Christian faith is due, first, because of his lack of reading and studying of the Bible, and, second, because he doesn’t have a clue when it comes to having an overview and summary of Christian doctrine.
I contend that doctrine is goodvery goodand must be learned and applied practically (cf., 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1; Phil. 4:9). What modern Christians needdesperately!is more biblical doctrine and not less. The modern Christian is already, by and large, dismally ignorant of the essentials of the faith and for pastors to tell their congregations not to give themselves to the learning and studying of doctrinal truth found in Scripture is, to my way of thinking, unconscionable.
In order to keep this section short, I’m going to choose just two confessional statements, which act as nothing more than an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches. I in no way intend to elevate them to the status of being on an equal par with Scripture, but they can be very reliable guides. Having issued that caveat, we’ll examine the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Larger Catechism in order.
The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 35, Q/A 96-98) reads as follows:
Q. What does God require in the Second Commandment? A. We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word (Deut. 4:15-19; Isa. 40:18-25; Acts 17:29; Rom. 1:23; Lev. 10:1-7; Deut. 12:30; 1 Sam. 15:22-23; Matt. 15:9; John 4:23-24).
Q. May we then not make any image at all? A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them (Ex. 34:13-14, 17; Num. 33:52; 2 Kgs. 18:4-5; Isa. 40:25).
Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity?” A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants his people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of his Word (Jer. 10:8; Hab. 2:18-20; Rom. 10:14-15, 17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19).
The Westminster Larger Catechism has this to say in Q/A 108-110:
Q. What are the duties required in the Second Commandment? A. The duties required in the Second Commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God has instituted in his Word; particularly prayer and thanksgiving in the name of Christ; the reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word; the administration and receiving of the sacraments; church government and discipline; the ministry and maintenance thereof; religious fasting; swearing by the name of God, and vowing unto him; as also the disapproving, detesting, opposing, all false worship; and, according to each one’s place and calling, removing it, and all monuments of idolatry (Deut. 32:46;-47; Matt. 28:20; Acts 2:42; 1 Tim. 6:13-14; Phil. 4:6; Eph. 5:20; Deut. 17:18-19; 2 Tim. 4:2).
Q. What are the sins forbidden in the Second Commandment? A. The sins forbidden in the Second Commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and in any way approving, any religious worship not instituted by God himself; tolerating a false religion; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God has appointed (Num. 15:39; Deut. 13:6-8; Hos. 5:11; Micah 6:16; 1 Kgs. 11:33; Deut. 12:30-32; Dan. 3:18; Gal. 4:8).
Q. What are the reasons annexed to the Second Commandment? A. The reasons annexed to the Second Commandment, the more to enforce it, contained in these words, For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments; are. Besides God’s sovereignty over us, and propriety in us, his fervent zeal for his own worship, and his revengeful indignation against all false worship, as being a spiritual whoredom; accounting the breakers of this commandment such as hate him, and threatening to punish them unto diverse generations; and esteeming the observers of it such as love him and keep his commandments, and promising mercy to them unto many generations (Ps. 45:11; Rev. 15:3-4; Ex. 34:13-14; 1 Cor. 10:20-22; Jer. 7:18-20; Ezek. 16:26-27; Deut. 32:16-20; 5:29; Hos. 2:2-4).
These two confessional statements give us a “handle” on what the Ten Commandments teach, not merely with regard to the letter of the Law, but also what its spiritual interpretation entails. It is noteworthy that when the modern Church convenes to discuss a major film about the life of Jesus, no one mentions the relevance or applicability of the Ten Commandments, especially of the 2nd commandment.
Even a cursory glance at the confessional statements above, however, lends credence to the fact that irrespective of what side of the fence you come down on, there must be a thorough discussion of this commandment before the rush out to the box office and purchase our tickets and then tell everyone how much the film meant to them or what a moving experience it was to view the passion of Christat least according to Mel Gibson.
But Does All This Apply to the New Testament Church?
It’s a legitimate question to ask whether the 2nd commandment still applies to us today. This question is all the more pressing in light of the fact that there are those today who preach and teach that the Old Testament is “out of gear” as far as the New Testament Church is concerned. They argueincorrectly, I believethat the Old Testament was a time of Law and the New Testament is a time of grace. Rather than viewing the Old Testament as a time of promise and the New Testament the time of fulfillment, these people opt for a rather thorough discontinuity between the testaments rather than a continuity. God prohibited the Old Testament people from making images, but aren’t we more enlightened today as New Testament Christians? After all, so the argument runs, Jesus took on a true humanity and people saw him and touched him. They knew what he looked like.
Moreover, even though God spoke through the “humiliation of the Word” in the Old Testament, we also know that there were times when he appeared in the burning bush (Ex. 3:2-4), in the “Messenger of the Covenant” (Mal. 3:1), and in the “Angel of the Lord” (Gen. 16:7, 9, 10-11; 18:1-21; 22:11; Judg. 2:1; 13:3, 13, 15-18). What are we to make of those events? Do we, like the Israelites, have to contend with no images of God whatsoever or does the New Testament Church have some spiritual “wiggle room?”
It is patently true that our Lord “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14). Having said that, however, does not mean that he puts his sovereignty on the shelf so that I can have a “good experience.”
What about the Old Testament Theophanies and the Advent of Christ?
The “theophanies” (appearances of God in human or angelic form in the Old Testament) as well as the dreams/visions were part of God’s sovereignty as he dealt with his people in the unfolding of the history of redemption. This translates into the fact that “God reserves for Himself alone the right to express and produce the images of Himself before which mean must worship, through which men must conceive Him, to which men must respond in obedience to His own initiative in seeking fellowship with them.” It is crucial and essential that we take due note of the fact that it is God who decides when and how he will appear in a particular theophany. We also need to note that such theophanies were not commonplace, but occurred at very special times.
You see, our problem is that even as Christians we tend to make God in our own image. I encounter that often in modern Christianity when people say something like this to me: “My God is only a God of love.” The short answer to such a statement is, “Then your God is an idol, for he is not the God of Scripture.”
God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. In giving us his Wordapart from any imageshe has graciously given us something real and genuine to replace the unreality of all our own religious images, fabrications, and creations. The Wordapart from any imagesis God’s real presence in the midst of his people. That wasand remains until todaythe greatest dilemma of God’s covenant people. We want something visible, something tangible but the Lord tells us that his Word is sufficient.
Part of our discussion concerns the movie, The Passion, so we need to ask about images of Christ. It is lawful to depict Jesus in cinematography? After all, that’s what Mel Gibson and the endorsers of the film are doing, much the same way the producers of The Jesus Film did. Is it legitimate to portray Jesus’ Advent in a movie?
Doesn’t the New Testament tell us that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15)? Hebrews 1:3 reminds us that Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature. When we combine this with the well-known verses in John’s gospel that states that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and Jesus’ own words declaring that he who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), don’t we have some kind of license to portray Jesus since he was a man?
The age-old problem of a painting of Christ is that we really don’t know what he looked like. Even if we did, how would the artist capture the godhead of Jesus in a painting? What would a portrait of grace, covenant, and forgiveness look like? When the time had fully come (Gal. 4:4), God sent forth his Son. In that time, there were no camerasdigital or otherwiseand no portrait of Jesus has survivedI believe for very good reasons. I truly believe if such a painting were in our possession we’d become worse idolaters than we already areif that’s possible.
Do you remember the narrative of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21? The people complained against Moses and the Lord sent fiery serpents among his people that bit them and many died. God commanded him to make a fiery serpentbronzeand set it on a pole. Everyone who was bitten and saw the bronze serpent would live (Num. 21:4-9). This text shows us a couple of things.
First, images, per se, were not forbidden in Israel, only images of God. We know, for example, that all kinds of images were used in the Tent of Meeting and in the Temple. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that the images were ornate and skillfully donethe work of artisans and craftsmen.
Second, when God commanded something to be done, it could be done with full assurance. Whatever image was employed aesthetically or ceremonially was certainly never to be worshipped and no image of Yahweh was ever allowed. The worship of God is not to be totally bereft of any image whatsoever, only images of the Lord God Almighty.
That bronze serpent from Numbers 21 was kept by the Israelites as a reminder of God’s gracious dealings with his people. In fact, it was still around during the time of Hezekiah, who was one of the few good kings. In 2 Kings 18:4 we are told this: “He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).”
Something good devolved into an idol and as “sacred” as that bronze serpent was and given the role it had played in God’s redemption history with his people, Hezekiahrightlyhad no compunction about destroying it.
Secretly, we probably wish a crewa Christian one, of coursehad been in Palestine during the time of Jesus and had taken pictures and made a good film of his life. “But God has made ample provision for the image which He has given of Himself in Jesus Christ to be preserved and represented to men of every age.”
What Ronald Wallace is saying in the previous quotation makes my point that what was said in the Old Testament regarding making images of Yahweh, also applies to the New Testament and Christ. The statement above (“God reserves for Himself alone the right to express and produce the images of Himself before which mean must worship, through which men must conceive Him, to which men must respond in obedience to His own initiative in seeking fellowship with them.”) and the one just made (“But God has made ample provision for the image which He has given of Himself in Jesus Christ to be preserved and represented to men of every age.”) are of a piece.
God tells us what is acceptable worship of him and in his love for his people he has made ample provision for the image he has given us in Christ. This obviously begs the question: Which image has he given to us? The answer is: An analogous image to what we find in the Old Testament. There, Yahweh gave his Word, Circumcision, and Passover. In the New Testament, he gives his Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. The continuity between the Old and New Testaments retains the prohibition to making images and representations of the Lord. Neverthelessand here is the difficult concept for modern Christians to graspGod gives his reality to us in his sovereignty.
In Presbyterian and Reformed circles we speak of the real presence of Christ in the Word and sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Even though Christ is not physically present in the Word and sacraments, he is really present. His real presence is a spiritual reality. Our dilemma, then, becomes one of what we perceive that we want or feel that is good or right for us and what God, in his sovereignty, chooses to give us. Would we be wiser than God? Are we so foolish that we acknowledge God’s infinite wisdom in all things and yet still seek after what he has denied his people throughout redemptive history? Don’t we realize that if God gives us such a command not to make any images of him that he does that for a very good, divine reason?
Here is where we need to read just our spiritual thinking. We are, as modern Christians, so accustomed to the visual that we rarely, if ever, stop to think about how or if our almost insatiable desire for visual stimulation violates God’s 2nd commandment. Moreover, we fail at the point of being thoroughly satisfied with the images God has given us that qualify as bona fide worship.
We do, already, possess “the image of God in the Church today, not in pictures or carvings or photographic reproductions, but in the Bible account of historical witnesses, in the preaching that repeats and sets forth their witness, and in the Sacraments.” I’m willing to wager that this sounds totally foreign to the modern Christian, raised on a steady diet of “drama” and the “visual package” that often passes for worship in the modern Church.
In worship, we are not trying either to please or entertain man. We worship to bring glory to God and for sinners to have a meeting with the living, loving, and true Lord of all of life. What ultimatelyultimatelymatters in our corporate worship is not the numbers of people we can attract through our use of whatever form of imagery, drama, or slick packaging, but simply the presence of God in the midst of the worship service as God and his covenant people meet and they worship him. That was what mattered in the Old Testament; that was what mattered in the New Testament; that was what mattered in the Early Church; and that remains what matters in the modern Church.
Another instructive text for our purposes is found in the New Testament book of Acts. As the Apostle Paul wandered through Athens, the number of images and idols struck him. The Athenians were trying to hedge their bets I suppose. Acts 17:29 reads as follows: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”
In essence, Paul was telling the Athenians and continues to speak to us about the validity and applicability of the 2nd commandment. So why was Paul so exercised about the images and idols he saw? In addition, how does that apply to us, since we know that images and idols are “bad” things? In order to answer those questions, we need to ask the important question about the very nature of an image.
Obviously, images of gold, silver, wood, or whatever other element are not gods. In people’s minds, however, according to the history of idolatry, the specific deity is, indeed, present in the image. Even pagans are somewhat aware of a “heaven” where their gods abide (Acts 14:11). The image is, then, man’s attempt to bring the transcendent God closer to man. So here’s the caveat: the making of an image didn’t have so much to do with making a portrait, but with having power over the deity’s sovereignty.
In the final analysis, the image regulated the communion between the gods and mankind. In that sense, for the pagans having such images and possessing that kind of power over against the gods wasto the pagan mindindispensable for the worship and comprehension of the deity.
So why did Yahweh prohibit images of his being? The foregoing points us to many of the obvious reasons, but Jochem Douma adds a few that are worthy of our consideration. In a day and age when many modern Christians are bereft of the knowledge of the revealed nature of God we need to reflect upon Douma’s well-reasoned arguments.
First, whoever attempts to make an image or likeness of God denies his freedom. This is man’s effort to eradicate the Creator/creature distinction. It is also an attempt to make the Incomprehensible God comprehensible to manon man’s terms. Man makes God in man’s image and suddenly God takes on man’s attributes, likes, dislikes, and propensities. The Creator ends up acting, thinking, and speaking very much like the one who fashioned the imagewhether the image is actually in physical form or in man’s imagination.
I have had a number of conversations with modern Christians who essentially deny God’s sovereignty. When I ask them to tell me what they think God is like, nine times out of ten, their description is pretty much of themselves. They have fabricated God in their image. Rather than allowing Scripture to form and inform what they believe concerning the nature of God, they have imagined a god like themselves, which, ultimately, since he is not the God of Scripture, is no god; he’s an idolfor the spiritual destruction of the idol maker.
The Scriptures are clear that it is Godin his divine freedomthat has sovereignly chosen his people (Deut. 7:7-10; Amos 9:7). The very serious nature of disobeying God at this point is vividly driven home to us in texts such as Deuteronomy 9:12-14 and Exodus 32:8-10, where the Lord threatens to disown his people precisely because of their disobedience of this commandment.
It certainly would do the modern, 21st century Church no harm to reflect very, very seriously upon this admonition. What is at risk when we choose to be wiser than God or to be wise in our own eyes? I understand the doctrine of the perseverance of God with his saints, but we are told in both of the above texts that it was only the intercessory prayer of Moses that spared the people from destruction. In the New Testament, the Lord and Savior of the Church not only gathers, defends, and protects his Church, but he also lives to intercede for her (Heb. 7:25).
The second reason Douma offers next to God’s freedom is his exalted nature. Another way of saying this is God’s sovereignty or transcendence. When the Lord thundered from Sinai, the Israelites saw no form but heard the terrifying voice (Deut. 4:11). In that same 4th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy Moses gives a summary of what happens to people who abandon following God’s plan and strike out on their own to fashion/imagine gods after man’s image, which is simply disobedience. In the verses 27-28 we read, “And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the Lord will drive you. And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” Can you say “worthless?”
In Psalm 115:4-8 gives us an excellent summary of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy: “Their (the nations) idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” Our idolsphysical or imaginedcan easily cause us to become “worthless.”
How do you go about making your calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10)? According to the Word of God, diligence is required along with a vast array of spiritual characteristics given to us in the verses 3-9 that teach the Christian how to avoid “being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).
Lastly, Douma cites the truth that whoever makes an image of God denies his covenant. We may not make an image of Christ because of his freedom; we cannot make an image of God because of his exalted nature; we need not make an image of him because of his covenant.
What does Douma mean, especially with a view to the covenant of grace? God’s covenant with his people was not a mere tit-for-tat arrangement, but breathed the essence of intimate fellowship. God’s freedom and exalted nature do not present us with a Lord who lives behind the “blue curtain” that we call the sky or who is so transcendent that we may never have any fellowship/relationship with him. In his freedom and exalted nature, he comes to us in the faithful and trustworthy arrangement of the covenant. “Yahweh has bound himself in covenant with a trustworthy relationship.” Therefore, it is “not merely his exalted nature, but also his intimate relationship with Israel that makes the shaping of an image unnecessary.”
Those who have spent precious little time studying the central, indispensable place of God’s covenant in Scripture have little or no comprehension of it as the reception of a gracious gift. Douma, in describing the intimacy of the covenant relationship between God and his people makes the following biblical psychological point: “Instead of receiving the covenant as a gift (his emphasis), people attempt, by means of images, to make oneself master of life.” We misunderstand Douma if we fail to apply this intriguing statement to the film, The Passion. Christians would never say that watching such a movie would be a desire to become master of their own life, but if we violate what God has explicitly prohibited and seek our benefit through experience or what we believe builds us up, then we are seeking to be masters of our own life. Have we not, can we not understand the extent of the passion of our Savior via the “humiliation of the Word?” If not, what is so insufficient in the Word of God that we must desire visual images?
John Calvin & the “Institutes”
John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with these words: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
In Book II, Calvin explains the fall of man into sin, the Ten Commandments, and the similarity and differences between the Old and New Testaments. One of his statements that discloses his principles of biblical interpretation is, “whatever has been declared in Scripture is fitting to take as perpetual, even as necessary.” Moreover, God’s law “shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God ”
When Calvin describes how the Law of God works in the lives of believers he says, “The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.” Calvin proceeds to posit a twofold advantage for Christians in God’s Law. First, “Here is the best instrument for them to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it.” Second, “because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression.”
Again, Calvin’s words might very well sound odd to the ears of the modern Christian who has been told that the Law of God no longer applies to Christians. Calvin objects, “But if no one can deny that a perfect pattern of righteousness stands forth in the law, either we need no rule to live rightly and justly, or it is forbidden to depart from the law. There are not many rules, but one everlasting and unchangeable rule to live by. For this reason we are not to refer solely to one age David’s statement that the life of a righteous man is a continual meditation upon the law [Ps. 1:2], for it is just as applicable to every age, even to the end of the world.”
Is there no difference in the working of the Law for New Testament Christians? Calvin says that there is and here is the difference: “ the law has power to exhort believers. This is not a power to bind their consciences with a curse, but one to shake off their sluggishness, by repeatedly urging them, and to pinch them awake to their imperfection.” This is where a number of modern Christians “derail.” They fail to understand that precisely because of being “in Christ,” the Christian is no longer under a curse. Christ became a curse for us, in our place (Gal. 3:13). Christ’s atonement for us on the cross does not mean, however, that the Law of God has no place in our lives.
When it comes to an exposition of the Ten Commandments, Calvin asserts, “that the public worship that God once prescribed is still in force.” Speaking of the indispensable character of the Law of God Calvin makes two very insightful comments.
First, he reminds us, “that we have no right to follow the mind’s caprice wherever it impels us, but, dependent upon his will, ought to stand firm in that alone which is pleasing to him ”
Second, Calvin points us back to the Creator/creature distinction when he says, “For if only when we prefer his will to our own do we render to him the reverence that is his due, it follows that the only lawful worship of him is the observance of righteousness, holiness, and purity.” Calvin obviously has in mind what we would call today “the public worship of God,” but it would be completely fallacious to assume that he is not including our individual daily worship of him as well. Moreover, “the Lord, in giving the rule of perfect righteousness, has referred all its parts to his will, thereby showing that nothing is more acceptable to him than obedience.”
In light of the upcoming Mel Gibson filmI don’t think Calvin saw many Mel Gibson movieshere is a pertinent, prudent comment: “The more inclined the playfulness of the human mind is to dream up various rites with which to deserve well of him, the more diligently ought we to mark this fact. In all ages this irreligious affectation of religion, because it is rooted in man’s nature, has manifested itself and still manifests itself ” This being true, how do some of the endorsements from “name-brand” theologians stand up under scrutiny? A man of the stature of Billy Graham said, “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things I saw one the screen will be on my heart and mind” Greg Laurie weighed in with these words, “I believe The Passion of The Christ may well be one of the most powerful evangelistic tools of the last 100 years, because you have never seen the story of Jesus portrayed this vividly before.”
I submit to you that such statementsas well-intentioned as they are, and I have no doubts that they are truly well-intentionedare slams and slurs against the Word of God and the Holy Spirit who inspired it. If the Holy Spirit is so inept that he has not been able to burn the truth of the passion of Christ in dying for our sins from Scripture, how in the world do we ever think a movie by someone who is not in the trinity will be able to accomplish that?
Couldn’t Dr. Graham have just as easily said, “Every time I preach or speak about the Cross, the things the Word of God and his Spirit have taught me will be in my heart and on my mind”? Isn’t it more likely that Greg Laurie should have said, “I believe that the Word of God is, most definitely, the most powerful evangelistic tool in all the world, for in it I hear the very voice of God. In it, the total Christ, with all of his treasures, benefits, and riches is vividly portrayed to my soul”? The bottom line is that modern manlike his forebearsis not satisfied with God’s all-sufficient Word. We continue to long, yearn, and hanker for something else.
In the case of the modern Church, being ignorant of the Word, she yearns for an image to help her. In so doing, we fail to remember or realize that, “the worship of God (is) the beginning and foundation of righteousness.”
Calvin locates the essence of the 2nd commandment in this, that it, “restrains our license from daring to subject God, who is incomprehensible, to our sense perceptions, or to represent him by any form.” Already in 1.11.2, Calvin had explained himself in this fashion. “He (IsaiahRG) teaches that God’s majesty is sullied by an unfitting and absurd fiction, when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit an inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone, or gold [Isa. 40:18-20 and 41:7, 29 45:9; 46:5-7].”
In 1.11.7, the editors inserted a heading that is entirely appropriate. It reads, “There would be no ‘uneducated’ at all if the church had done its duty.” Calvin says the following in this section. “But then we shall also answer that this (imagesRG) is not the method of teaching within the sacred precincts believing folk, whom God wills to be instructed there with a far different doctrine than this trash. In the preaching of his Word and sacred mysteries he has bidden that a common doctrine be there set forth for all.” Yep. My point precisely. Obviously, Calvin was railing against the Roman Catholic Church of his day.
Nevertheless, with the necessary changes having been made, the same accusation can legitimately be made and the same question asked of the modern Church. He asks, “But whence, I pray you, this stupidity if not because they are defrauded of that doctrine which alone was fit to instruct them?” So I ask: If the modern Church had been properly taught and not defrauded of spiritually hygienic doctrine, would the thought of the need for a movie like The Passion even arise?
In 1.11.8, Calvin reminds us that the origin of images is man’s desire for a tangible deity. From that driving, insatiable desire, Calvin deduces that, “From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
Throughout the centuries, those who have espoused and endorsed the use of imagesfor whatever reasonshave not thought that what they were doing was wronging God. During the Middle Ages ignorance and superstition was rampant. Illiteracy was very high. The Roman Catholic Church offered “images” as “books for the laity” in order to “help” them worship God better through the images.
I cannot help but reading the same response into the endorsements for Mel Gibson’s film. Have we really come that far again? Unfortunately, it appears that we have and some “worth knowing” theologians are leading the charge to the box office. Did Calvin have no eye for art? Was he so concerned with spoiling everyone’s fun and writing biting treatises on predestination that he never gave any thought to Christianity and art? Let’s listen to what he says.
He begins 1.11.12 with these words, “And yet I am not gripped by the superstition of thinking absolutely no images permissible. But because sculpture and painting are gifts of God, I seek a pure and legitimate use of each, lest those things which the Lord has conferred upon us for his glory and our good be not only polluted by perverse misuse but also turned to our destruction.”
His view is that, “We believe it wrong that God should be represented by a visible appearance, because he himself has forbidden it [Ex. 20:4] and it cannot be done without some defacing of his glory. And lest they think us alone in this opinion, those who concern themselves with their writing will find that all well-balanced writers have always disapproved of it.”
This leads Calvin to conclude, “If it is not right to represent God by a physical likeness, much less will we be allowed to worship it as God, or God in it. Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing: let not God’s majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased through unseemly representations . I only say that even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value in teaching.”
Calvin’s covenant theology causes him to have a pastor’s heart as he explains the words of the 2nd commandment. He describes God as a “husband.” He writes, “Indeed, the union by which he binds us to himself when he receives us into the bosom of the church is like sacred wedlock, which must rest upon mutual faithfulness [Eph. 5:29-32]. As he performs all the duties of a true and faithful husband, of us in return he demands love and conjugal chastity.”
I’m sure you won’t believe this, but when I started out to write this article, I never intended to go on this long. Once I began, however, one thing led to another. The 2nd commandment is a sort of “labyrinth,” which, once entered, can lead you in various directions. As I conclude, I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of the spiritual and literal meaning of the 2nd commandment. It is true, however, that all things must come to a (tentative) end.
Once again, I have been reminded of the consummate joy that comes with being the pastor of a church of Jesus Christ that loves God’s Word. It was the congregation at Grace Presbyterian Church that was the catalyst that moved me to take another look at the Law of God. It is patently true, that if you’re a student of the Word, you must never stop learning from it. Therefore, I read and re-read.
What has been reinforced to me in this article are the following truths:
First, the Law of God is still relevant and applicable for the New Testament Church. What Yahweh commanded in the Old Testament still applies for the New Testament saints.
Second, New Testament Christians are still prohibited from making any image of the deityeven in a movie or in art. The reason is that it is impossible for any artist to depict the godhead or spiritual matters, but more importantly, no matter how necessary or essential we might believe a movie to be, God has said “No.” That ought to be more than sufficient for us.
Third, just as the Word, Circumcision, and Passover were sufficient in the Old Testament, so also are the Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper sufficient for the New Testament Church.
Will I go see the movie? No. Will I recommend it for others? No. Do I think it’s necessary? Well, if you’ve followed what I’ve said in this article, the answer if obvious. Again, the answer is No. Why not? Simply because the older I get the more the Lord God Almighty impresses upon me his all-sufficient nature. All I really need is found in him, his covenant, his Word, and his Son. There may be times when, in my old nature, I might desire for an imagephysical or in my imaginationbut I pray that by the grace of God I will put myself and my desires aside and worship him in spirit and truth and in thankful obedience.
Te Ron Gleason is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, Calif.
For more articles like this go to PCANews.
 http://www.newsmax.com, “Mel Gibson Rebuts Vatican Denial,” (1/1/9/04), p. 1.
 Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word, (Joyce Hanks, trans.), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
 Ibid., 62.
 Ronald S. Wallace, The Ten Commandments. A Study of Ethical Freedom, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 29.
 Jochem Douma, De Tien Geboden, I, (Kampen: Uitgeverij van den Berg, 1985), p. 52.
 See 1 Kgs. 14:16; 15:30; 16:2, 19, 26, 31; 2 Kgs. 10:29, 31; 13:2, 6, 11; 14:24; 15:9, 18, 24, 28; 17:22.
 Wallace, The Ten Commandments, 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Just as an aside, by the way, I truly like Mel Gibson as an actor. He’s one of my favorites. I especially enjoyed Braveheart, The Patriot, & We Were Soldiers. This is not a diatribe against Mr. Gibson, but about whether it is legitimate to make a film depicting Jesus.
 Wallace, The Ten Commandments, 34.
 Ibid., 30.
 Ibid., 36.
 Douma, DTG, 55.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 58.
 Cf. Douma, DTG, 60.
 Ibid., 61.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1, (John T. McNeill [ed.] & Ford L. Battles [trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 35.
 Inst. 2.7.5, p. 353.
 Ibid., 354. Italics mineRG.
 Ibid., 360.
 Ibid., 360-361.
 Ibid., 362.
 Ibid. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 367.
 Ibid., 369.
 Ibid. Italics mine.
 Ibid., 371.
 Ibid., 377.
 Ibid., 383-384.
 Inst. 1.11.2, p. 101.
 Ibid., 107.
 Ibid., 108. Latin: idolorum fabricam.
 Ibid., 112.
 Inst. 2.8.18, p. 385.
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