August 25, 2019

Exodus 20:4-6: Worshiping God the Right Way

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: The Ten Commandments Scripture: Exodus 20:4–6

Exodus 20:4-6: Worshiping God the Right Way

Please turn with me in your Bible to Exodus 20. If you’re using one of the Bibles we provide, that’s on page 49. We’ve been working our way through the Ten Commandments one by one, and this morning, we come to the second commandment, given in verses 4-6 of Exodus 20. Exodus 20:4-6: 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. 

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures are able to tell stories and convey ideas and capture moments in a way that’s very powerful and memorable. For example, I could tell you that my kids like music and that they’ll sometimes do concerts for us in our living room, and I could then try my best to explain what those concerts are like. Or I could simply show you this picture of the concert they put on for us this past Christmas. The picture probably says more to you in a few seconds than I could say using words in a few minutes. Pictures are wonderful vehicles for communication. 

Yet, in the second commandment, God says that “you shall not make a carved image.” That’s the command we’ll be focusing on this morning. “You shall not make a carved image.” So God prohibits his people from trying to enhance or supplement their worship of him by making any images. And that includes not only images of earthly things but also images of him for the purpose of worship. Now notice that this is distinct from the first commandment. The first commandment, as we saw last week, says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” So the first commandment is about worshiping the right God. However, the second commandment is about worshiping the right God in the right way. We might say that the first commandment addresses who we worship, while the second commandment addresses how we worship. It says that we’re not supposed to incorporate images into our worship. Now, why do you think that is? We just talked about how pictures are such amazing vehicles for communication. So why wouldn’t God want us to use pictures to enhance our worship?  

Well, you see, God is holy. And for him to be holy means not just that he’s untainted by sin but also that he’s utterly distinct from everything he’s created. He’s beyond it all and above it all and in a class all his own. One theologian named Paul Washer writes, “The distinction between God and the rest of His creation is not merely quantitative (the same, but greater), but qualitative (God is a completely different being)….The most splendid angel that stands in the presence of God is no more truly like God than the smallest worm that crawls upon the earth.” So it’s not as if God is essentially like us but just a lot higher and greater. Rather, there’s a very real sense in which he’s not like us at all. He’s qualitatively different rather than merely quantitatively different and is in a class all his own.  

Therefore—relating that now to pictures or images of God—God prohibits images because images can’t ever represent him accurately. No image we make can ever do God justice. We’ll always end up misrepresenting and distorting who he is. And because God is perfect, any distortion of who he is will inevitably be a reduction of who he is. We’ll always be distorting him downward, reducing him to less than he truly is. It would be kind of like trying to take a picture of the sun in the middle of the day. Not only will doing so quite possibly damage your camera, it also won’t result in any picture that adequately depicts the glory or the brightness of the sun. I mean, have you ever looked at a picture of the sun that hurt your eyes or that forced to squint because it was so bright? Probably not—because pictures can’t really convey the sun’s brightness. They’re simply not capable of doing so. Pictures will always make the sun into something other than it is and less than it is. And just like no picture can ever do justice to the sun’s glory, no image can ever do justice to God’s glory. Images will always make him out to be other and less than he truly is. That’s why God prohibits images.

Now perhaps you’re wondering how the second commandment is relevant to us. Obviously, we’re not supposed to make any sort of statue or painting that represents God or that we try to use to enhance our worship of him. But what if you’ve never really been tempted to do that or even thought about doing that? How then is the second commandment relevant? Well, there are two ways I believe we should respond to the second commandment—and we’ll spend the rest of our time looking at these. Number one, correcting distorted views of God. And number two, embracing the ways God has revealed himself. 

Correcting Distorted Views of God

So first, correcting distorted views of God. Just about everyone has distorted views of God. We may not physically make an image that distorts him, but we often distort him in our mind. There seems to be something within us that always wants to reduce God into a more manageable form. Perhaps it’s because God’s holiness—the fact that he’s utterly distinct from his creation and in a class all his own—is very unsettling, if we’re honest. It makes us uncomfortable. And so, we want to remake God into someone we’re more comfortable thinking about—someone who doesn’t leave us quite as unsettled as a God who is truly holy does. You might say that we like to remake God in our image. The Bible says God made us in his image, but we like to turn that around and remake God in our image. I love the way Tim Keller describes this. He writes, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.” Very true indeed.

Now, sometimes, it’s very obvious when people are doing this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say something like, “I can’t worship a God who….”—fill in the blank. “I can’t worship a God who would send people to hell” or “I can’t worship a God who would let this or that tragic thing happen without doing anything to stop it.” Or here’s another thing I’ll hear people say: “I like to think of God as…” whatever. Usually, they go on to suggest an idea that’s blatantly unbiblical. So sometimes, people will say these kinds of things and make it very obvious that they have no desire to worship God as he’s revealed in the Bible but simply prefer to worship their own ideas about God instead. It’s kind of like those “Build-a-Bear” stores where you can just go in there and build whatever kind of bear you want. Whatever your heart desires for your bear to be like, you can build a bear to fit those preferences. 

However, sometimes people have wrong ideas about God that aren’t so obvious. In fact, I would say we all do—at various times and to various degrees. Even if we never make statements that are as unbiblical as the kinds of statements I just talked about, we often think thoughts about God that are unworthy of him in more subtle ways. Yet they’re still examples of us remaking God in our own image. So to help you identify any of those thoughts about God that may exist in your mind, I’ve come up with a list of five ways in which we often remake God in our own image. These are all examples of how we might unintentionally break the second commandment even as well-meaning Christians. 

Number one, we can sometimes think, “God is love…and that’s mostly it.” Now, this is a tricky one, because it does refer to a Bible verse. 1 John 4:8 states that “God is love.” However, that verse is often taken out of context and quoted as if God’s love is incompatible with his holiness and righteousness and commitment to judge sin. Some Christians think like that and, unfortunately, some preachers preach like that. But that doesn’t make it true. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 states, 9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. So God never sweeps sin under the rug. Yes, he’s loving, but he’s also the Judge of those who do wrong. 

Number two, we can sometimes remake God in our own image by thinking, “God needs me.” “God needs me.” Maybe it’s that “God needs me in order to be happy”—as if, before God created us, he was sitting around in heaven being really lonely all the time. But then he brought us into being, and that made him happy. No. God doesn’t need us in order to be happy. He was fully satisfied in himself before he created anything. And not only does God not need us to be happy, he also doesn’t need us to accomplish his mission in this world. Unfortunately, preachers will sometimes seek to persuade people to become overseas missionaries by implying that God somehow needs us or is dependent on us to spread the gospel—as if he’s up there wringing his hands wondering what in the world he’s going to do to spread the gospel if we don’t answer his call to go. Yet that’s not at all a biblical picture of God. God invites us to be a part of his mission not because he needs us but because he loves us and wants to give us that privilege. So God doesn’t need us for anything. In Acts 17:24-25, Paul states, 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

Then number three, we sometimes remake God in our own image by thinking that “God isn’t always able to take care of me.” Like, “He’s trying his best to take care of me, but he may not always be able to pull it off.” If we’re honest with ourselves, this is often an underlying assumption beneath a lot of our anxiety about various things in life. We’re often anxious because we don’t really believe God’s in control. We think that he has good intentions and that he’s doing what he can to help us out, but sometimes things might be just a little too much for him and he’s not quite able to take care of us in the midst of those things. Yet David, being guided by the Holy Spirit, writes in Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” God’s always able to take care of us. 

Number four, we sometimes remake God in our own image by thinking, “God owes me” as if God were obligated to us in some way. Perhaps we think he owes us a life free from suffering or that he owes us a baby or a certain job or physical healing or a happy marriage or whatever it is that we have our heart set on. And when we don’t get whatever we think God owes us, we become bitter against God. That’s the sign someone has this mentality. They become angry at God when life doesn’t go their way. Yet the Bible asks this in Romans 11:35, speaking of God, “Who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” That’s a good question. “Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?” God doesn’t owe us anything. Now, he is a loving Father who delights in giving good gifts to his children, but he doesn’t owe us those gifts. 

Then finally, number five, we sometimes remake God in our own image by thinking that “God is limited by my intellect.” In other words, “If I can’t understand something about God, it must not be true.” Or “if I can’t understand something about God’s ways, they must not be right.” This is the assumption whenever a skeptic uses the presence of evil in the world as a way of arguing against God’s existence. The objection usually goes like this: “If God exists and is good and powerful, then why is there still evil in the world?” And although that might seem like a very powerful objection to God’s existence, I don’t really think it is—because that objection assumes that the only kind of “God” that can exist is one who always acts in ways that we can understand. It assumes that God is limited by our puny minds. And sometimes, not only skeptics but also Christians can get caught up in that line of thinking and begin to have doubts about God. We forget that God is infinitely wiser than us and is perfectly capable of acting in ways that surpass our understanding. As God states in Isaiah 55:8-9, 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

So all of these statements are ways we often unknowingly remake God in our own image. We view God as less than who the Bible says he is. And that is a violation of the second commandment. We may never break the second commandment by trying to paint a picture of form a statue of God, but we do often break the second commandment by viewing him as other than and less than he truly is. 

 And here’s the thing: whenever we think wrong thoughts about God, it has a way of throwing us off in just about every area of our lives as Christians. Wrong thinking always shows up in wrong living. You may have heard that the reason the leaning tower of Pisa is leaning is because of its foundation. Apparently, when they built the tower, they didn’t dig down deep enough for the foundation. And unfortunately, the ground beneath the tower was rather soft. So after they finished constructing the first floor of the tower and started constructing the second floor, one side of the tower began to sink into the soft ground. It then kept on sinking—very slowly—for hundreds of years and would have caused the tower to fall over if modern engineers hadn’t intervened. That’s what happens when the foundation isn’t properly laid. And just as a faulty foundation can have devastating effects on a building, an incorrect view of God will really trip you up as a Christian. It’s going to hinder you from a proper understanding of the gospel, it’s going to distort the way you view yourself, it’s going to affect the way you approach God in prayer, and it’s going to throw off just about everything else in your life. That’s why A. W. Tozer said that “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” So the second commandment guides us to think biblically as we think about God and correct our distorted views of him. 

Embracing the Ways God Has Revealed Himself

In addition, we should respond to the second commandment not only by correcting distorted views of God but also by embracing the ways God has revealed himself. That’s the second way we should respond to the second commandment: embracing the ways God has revealed himself. And the two most important ways God has revealed himself are through his Word and through his Son.

Through His Word

First, God’s revealed himself through his Word—which we have set forth in the Bible. God’s chosen to use words rather than images, to reveal what he’s like. Why is that? Well, again, images will inevitably distort God. Just like no picture of the sun can possibly do justice to the sun’s glory, no image of God can possibly do justice to God’s glory. Images inevitably distort God and make him out to be less than who he truly is. 

That’s why most Protestant churches at least aren’t very comfortable with statues or pictures of things in the church—especially pictures of Jesus that we use to focus our thoughts or lead us to worship him. On the basis of the second commandment, we believe God calls us to word-based worship rather than image-based worship. Now that doesn’t mean we have to send someone back to the children’s ministry area right now and tear up all of the pictures they’re drawing of Jesus and then go home and throw out our nativity sets. It simply means that we shouldn’t use images to try to enhance our worship or focus our thoughts when we’re praying or things like that. 

And in case you’re wondering, yes, being committed to word-based worship rather than image-based worship does require abstract thinking. It’s something you have to train your mind to do. But that’s the way God’s revealed himself—through words and abstract concepts and metaphors. These are the ways God wants us to understand him. A word-based approach may be difficult for some and require effort, but if you think about it just about everything that’s worth doing in our lives requires effort. So work at it! Read the Bible, develop those mental categories, learn those key terms and phrases and metaphors, become familiar with biblical themes. 

Now, I know that a lot of Christians struggle to understand the Bible as they read it and feel very inadequate. If that’s you, the single most important thing you can do is to simply keep reading the Bible on a regular basis. Yes, there are study aids, yes there are books you can read that will tell you how to interpret the Bible in a step-by-step fashion, but none of those things will help you as much as spending time daily reading Scripture in a thoughtful way. David Mathis writes, “As much as we want a quick fix, some fast lesson that makes us near-experts in just a few short minutes, the best of Bible reading isn’t learned overnight or even after a semester of lectures, but day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, imbibing the Bible, having God’s words inform our minds, inspire our hearts, [and] instruct our lives.” 

And I understand that, initially, you may be so unfamiliar with the Bible that reading it makes you feel like you’re wandering around in a strange city—like someone just dropped you off in the middle of Tokyo and you’re trying to find your way around. I get that. I’ve been there myself. The answer—again—is to just keep reading. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the best way to learn how to get around in a city is to intentionally get lost in that city and then try to find your way back home—without a GPS, of course. And through the process of trying to find your way home, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about how to get around in that city. Now, the illustration isn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways that’s a good thing to do with the Bible. Just start reading the Bible thoughtfully on a regular basis without being afraid of getting lost a little bit. And also, by all means, stop to ask for directions. It may be a good idea to meet once a week with a more mature Christian and simply discuss what you’ve been reading and ask questions and let them help you. I know there are several elders and other mature Christians in the church who would love to be helpful in that way. 

Through His Son

So we want to be responsive to the fact that God’s revealed himself through his Word. However, God has revealed himself not only through his Word but also through his Son. And that’s actually the greatest way God has revealed himself. The citadel of God’s self-revelation is through his Son Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 states that “[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature….” Also, Colossians 1:15 refers to Jesus as “the image of the invisible God.” Now, think about that. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” Yet doesn’t the second commandment prohibit us from using images to worship God? Why would God say that we can’t make images to use for worship but then turn around and give us an image? Well, the ultimate reason why God prohibited images in the second commandment was because he was getting his people ready for the time when he would provide the appropriate kind of image of himself. And that image wouldn’t be a painting or statue but rather a person—a person who was fully God and fully man, the Lord Jesus Christ. As Jesus walked on this earth, he showed us what God is like. The compassion he displayed toward the least and the lowest, the righteous indignation his displayed toward religious hypocrisy, the wisdom he displayed in his teachings that silenced his opponents, the power he displayed over nature and the laws of nature, the righteousness he displayed in resisting Satan’s temptations in the desert, the faithfulness he displayed in following his Father’s will even when it led him to the cross—all of these things show us what God is like. 

And then Jesus continued revealing God to us through his death on the cross. Jesus died for our sins, taking on himself the punishment we deserved. You see, God’s justice means that he doesn’t turn a blind eye to sin. That would be unjust and unrighteous. Yet God also loves us and desires to rescue us. So he sent Jesus to die on the cross as a perfect expression of both his justice and his love. We might say that the justice of God and the love of God meet each other in a climactic way at the cross. But God’s self-revelation through his Son didn’t stop at the cross. Jesus victoriously resurrected from the dead three days later in order to demonstrate his power and supremacy over all. So it’s as we look at Jesus—his perfect life, his sacrificial death, his victorious resurrection—that we see in a defining way what God is like. Jesus is indeed “the image of the invisible God” and the citadel of God’s self-revelation. Therefore, to keep the second commandment is ultimately to embrace God’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus. So have you done that this morning? Have you ever looked to Jesus and put your trust in Jesus to rescue you from you sins? That’s the only way you can ever be forgiven and saved—by looking to Jesus and him alone. And the closer you come to him, the more you see that he’s beautiful and lovely and wonderful in every way. And the more you know him, the more he changes you and conforms you to his image.

other sermons in this series

Nov 24


Exodus 20:17: You Shall Not Covet

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:17 Series: The Ten Commandments

Nov 3


Oct 20


Exodus 20:15: You Shall Not Steal

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Exodus 20:15 Series: The Ten Commandments