The Substance of the Second Commandment
The second commandment prohibits the carving of idols for worship (Exodus 20:4-6). This goes beyond physical totems. In brief, we are prohibited from imagining God. Creativity does not belong in the worship of the Triune God. When we begin to mine our imaginations for images of God to worship (whether these are brought into the material realm or remain in our minds), we inevitably create/carve an image He has not given us. We inevitably worship something that is not God.
The correct order of revelation is “God to us.” God reveals Himself to us. We do not reach up and grasp the knowledge of God. This is just another form of trying to work our way to God. Covenant requires God to condescend to us, to stoop down of His own sovereign will and make Himself known to us. If He does not do this, then we, as finite creatures, cannot know Him.
God has condescended in to ways, in general and special revelation. General revelation is also called “natural” revelation. This is the knowledge of God imbedded in the fabric of the universe. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19). All people have access to the natural revelation of God. Special revelation is also called “supernatural” revelation. This is the knowledge of God given in supernatural, historical events. When God spoke to Abraham, this was a form of special revelation (Genesis 12). We live in a glorious time rich with special revelation: the Word of God, contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. This is God’s supernatural revelation of Himself to us today.
To bring this full circle: the second commandment says prohibits our striving for the knowledge of God through a third avenue – we might call it man-centered revelation or anthropocentric revelation. This is a theory of the knowledge of God that says our imaginations are a source divine information. This is distinct from the conscience (a form of natural revelation) or from memories of special revelation (e.g. memorizing Bible verses). anthropocentric revelation says that man is a well of divine knowledge, a portal into the depths of God’s infinite truth.
This is not true – we only know what God tells us. All that we know about God is what He reveals to us. Therefore, we cannot treat our imaginations like a spring from which to quench our spirits in worship. We must obey the second commandment and not worship what we imagine of God, but only what we have been given of God, by God.
Principles for Image Worship
It is clear, then, that the second commandment is not for banning images in worship, but for banning images we create in worship. The issue is the origin, not the presence, of the image. If God has given the image, then it should be part of our worship. If God has not given the image, then it should be banned.
At this point, we could walk through the Scriptural accounts of the images by which God has revealed Himself, but I’m going to cut to the chase. Christmas gives us the ultimate image of God: Jesus Christ. He “is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). He is God made flesh (John 1:14). He is truly God and truly man (Philippians 2:7) and “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). He is the only perfect image of God.
How does the second commandment apply to Christ? I perceive that the popular, default answer among evangelicals today is that Jesus is a man, and so He may be depicted as a man in various ways (e.g. paintings, movies). Jesus is the incarnate God born in Bethlehem, and that gives us liberty to carve wooden figurines of Him as a babe in a manger.
The problem with this position is that God the Son is not any man, but only Jesus Christ, and no one alive today knows what He looks like – enough to sketch it out, anyway. This means that, in order to make that TV show about Jesus, you have to draw from another source aside from God’s revelation to image Christ (Who is God incarnate). We may use images to worship God, but only those images which He gives us, and at this time in redemptive history, the physical image of Christ is not on the table.
Believers do not see Christ bodily at this time (John 14:18-19; 16:4-16). Paul’s experience was unique (Acts 9:4-6). Therefore, let us not grow impatient during this time of waiting. Let us not fashion a golden calf because Christ tarries too long in the presence of the Father. Instead, let us hold fast to the revelation of God we have access to and look forward with joyful, prayerful longing to the day when our faith is made sight (Revelation 7).
This is the true Spirit of Christmas – the Holy Spirit, to be exact. He bears witness about Christ (John 15:26), and without handing out posters. The Spirit teaches us obedience (vv.1-17) and patience to come to Scripture when we yearn to see Christ in some true way (2 Timothy 3:16-17). By the Helper’s aid, this will leave us wanting for no vision, for in the Scriptures we miraculously find the glory of Christ (Luke 24:27).
This practice also creates eschatological problems. When we attempt to fully depict Christ as a man, we prematurely usher in His second coming. That is not our business. Our job is to wait for Him by obeying His commandments while He is gone (Acts 1:9-11). For now, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; cf. Hebrews 11:1).
Movies, pictures, figurines, plays, etc. which meticulously depict Christ violate the second commandment, grieve the Spirit of Christmas, and prematurely usher in His second coming. I hate to rain on your nativity, but, as Ben Shapiro quips, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” Merry Christmas!