The Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6)
The Second Commandment of the Decalogue prohibits the making and worshiping of images, whether of God or otherwise. God prohibits this because He is a jealous God (v.5). He is jealous for the exclusive worship of His people. Regardless of who/what the image is fashioned after, bowing down to them and worshiping them is inappropriate (v.5). This prohibition extends to images of Himself. To make an image of God and bow down to it in worship is an abomination, per the Second Commandment.
Images prohibited in verse 4 are those which are carved, which, practically speaking, means anything crafted. Throughout Scripture, this prohibition against physical images/idols is plain (Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 27:15; Psalm 97:7). However, the Second Commandment prohibits more than totem craftsmanship, as Acts 17:29 says, “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.” Gold, silver, and stone are particular mediums within the broad category of anything fashioned by the art and imagination of man. When considering what types of images by which God may or may not be represented, we must include any picture or icon which comes from our minds. The Second Commandment is actually a prohibition against forming any type of image, physical or mental, for worship.
Forming images for worship after anything is prohibited by the Second Commandment, but a particularly grave evil is forming images for worship after God. An image of a creature is not sinful in and of itself, because you are not obligated to worship creatures. However, you have deep obligations to worship God. Anytime we see God without worshiping God, we refuse Him the honor He is due. Therefore, images of God and worship of God are inseparably related. So if God is not an image from our imagination (Acts 17:29), then we should not draw images from our own imagination when considering God. We should not make for ourselves an image, one to bow down and serve (Exodus 20:4).
Israel broke the Second Commandment in this manner in Exodus 32. The people grew impatient with Moses’ delay and demanded Aaron make gods for them (v.1). Aaron made a golden calf (vv.2-4) and the people worshiped it (vv.4-6). By “gods” Israel did not mean deities distinct from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; rather, they had in mind God Himself, for they attributed to the calf the works of God (v.4) and Aaron himself declared a feast to the LORD (v.5; God’s personal name YHWH is translated LORD in ESV) before the calf. Israel was attempting to worship God. Undoubtedly, there were Israelites who also attempted to offer worship to Egyptian gods, but the order of service before the golden calf was intended for the LORD.
The error of the golden calf was not an explicit abandonment of God. Rather, the error was an abandonment of how God had revealed Himself. The Second Commandment does not say we have no images of God. God has revealed Himself to us in many ways, especially in these last days (Hebrews 1:1-3). However, there is a difference between seeing God as He reveals Himself and seeing God as we conjure Him up to be. Israel devised their own image of God from their imagination. This was wrong because God had not told them He was imaged in that golden calf. God sent with Moses an image of Himself in the Ten Commandments, which were His own work, the writing of God (Exodus 32:16). In this revelation, Israel could see and worship God.
The Second Commandment, then, guarded Israel against any views of God (physical or mental) which were not from God. God was revealing Himself to His people, but He alone would define Himself. This is a good reminder for us, that we are not permitted to imagine for ourselves what God is like. We must always look to how God has revealed Himself, and exclusively in those images we may see and worship God.
Of the many ways in which God has revealed Himself to us (general revelation, Scripture, His law written on our hearts, etc.), there is no greater image than the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:4), the Word made flesh (John 1:14). Jesus has made God known (v.18) by His incarnation, when He took the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of a man (Philippians 2:7; cf. Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4). He images God perfectly and sufficiently for any revelation we may have want for, because “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19), and again, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9).
The perfect and sufficient incarnation of Jesus Christ is made plain in Hebrews 1:1-4. In the Old Testament, “God spoke by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by his Son” (vv.1-2). Who is this Son? “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (v.3). Therefore, in Jesus Christ we find the greatest and most glorious self-revelation of God, because Jesus is God Himself in hypostatic union with something we can touch, see, and hear.
God always intended to reveal Himself perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. The first Christmas was not a mistake or surprise. We can see now the great utility of the Second Commandment. God was not barring His people from ever seeing and dwelling in perfect union with Him. Rather, He was guarding them against seeking such union by their own devices and imagination. The Second Commandment was guarding the uniqueness and power of the first Christmas, when for the first time His people would begin to gaze upon their God.