God Delivers His People From Idolatry
by J. Virgil Dunbar
Before God sent His Son into the world to be the Saviour, He prepared a people who would not make images of Him. God revealed Jesus to this prepared people so that they could tell the world about Him. Why did God wait two thousand years until the time when His chosen people would not make images of His Son? Because for many centuries the world’s people made images of what they thought God was like. Soon there were many concepts of God. False images of God corrupted mankind. (See Romans 1:22-32.)
How did God prepare a people who would not make false images of Him? God’s battle with idolatry is an important theme of the Bible and of church history.
First, God chose a man named Abram (later called Abraham) to be the father of that nation that would be God’s nation. Abram’s own father served other gods. God called Abram out of that idolatrous land and promised him the land, which we know as the land of Israel. Over the next four centuries of time, God multiplied Abraham’s descendants so that they became a small nation of several million people. But God’s little nation, Israel, had become slaves in the idolatrous land of Egypt. Where was God’s promise to give Abraham’s descendants their own land?
God kept His promise to Abraham. God sent a man named Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt. God made a dry pathway through the Red Sea as an escape route for Israel. The Egyptian army chased Israel on that road through the sea, but God caused the Red Sea to flow back onto the Egyptian soldiers TO drown them. God delivered Israel out of Egyptian slavery.
Secondly, God gave Israel His covenant telling them how they were to live as His people. This covenant is what we know as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments taught Israel that they must not make an image of God.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20: 4-6)
Does this COMMANDMENT mean that God’s people cannot use any image for any purpose? No. A thorough study of the Bible shows that this commandment only forbids making any image of God; it does not forbid images and likenesses of created things as long as those images are not considered to be images of God. When God gave Israel this covenant, the people heard His voice but they did not see any form. God explained that He did not reveal Himself to them by any form so that they would not make images of that form and thereby corrupt themselves (Deuteronomy 4). God’s people must remember this principle. If God ever revealed Himself to them, they were not to make an image of that form. This principle prepared the people to not make an image when Jesus, the Son of God would appear.
Thirdly, God punished His chosen people every time they tried to make an image of him. For instance, Israel made an image to represent God while their leader, Moses, was away (Exodus 32). Israel made the image to stand for the true God who had delivered them from Egypt. God saw what they were doing and became very angry at Israel. God told Moses that He was going to cast away Israel and no longer be their God. But Moses prayed for God to forgive Israel. Moses smashed the image into powder, threw that powder into the water, and made Israel drink that water. In this way, God showed that no image can stand for God, no matter if people using the image think it helps them to remember and follow God. God did forgive Israel and He then led them on to receive the land He had promised to Abraham and his descendants.
We should note that the land of Canaan, which was the land that God gave to Israel, was filled with idolaters. God told Israel to destroy all the idolaters of that land, and God empowered Israel to conquer and destroy those people. This shows how much God hates idolatry. The Canaanites corrupted the world with idolatry; God removed the Canaanites and replaced them there with Israel, the people He was teaching to not use idols, the people through whom God would give Christ to the world.
Five hundred years after entering the land, Israel again tried to make images to represent God. King Jeroboam, a rebel leader, took away 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes from the hereditary king. Jeroboam wanted his 10 tribes to stay inside their collective borders instead of going up to Jerusalem to worship God. If they went to Jerusalem, they might return to the true king. Jeroboam made two images to represent God. He set these images up at convenient locations, and told his 10 tribes to worship God before these images (Ist Kings 12:28). God rejected these images: they were not acceptable representations of Him. But this time God did not immediately destroy those 10 tribes for making an image to represent Him; this time God allowed their idolatry to slowly work out its natural consequences in their lives. After a couple of hundred years and the leadership of 18 more kings who followed in Jeroboam’s idolatry, that nation of 10 tribes was destroyed.
At the same time, the two tribes of Israel that continued to worship in Jerusalem often worshiped other gods. Their idolatry was also punished severely. God empowered the king of Babylon to carry them away into captivity for 70 years.
Israel’s history teaches us that God does not tolerate idolatry in His people, even though He may patiently wait centuries before He brings final judgment upon it. God taught Israel that His people must not use images to represent Him and, of course, they must not worship other gods. After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, God brought a remnant of Israel back to the Promised Land. Would Israel again use forbidden images to stand for God? The next 400 years was a time of testing.
Finally, Israel became known as the people who would not make images to represent God. When the time of testing was over, God sent His only begotten Son into the world to Israel, to be born of the Virgin Mary. What amazed other nations, like the Greeks, Syrians, and Romans, was that Israel did not allow anyone to put into God’s temple any image to represent God. The people of Israel would fight to the death before they would allow such idolatry.
To this little nation of Israel God sent His Son. We know God’s Son by the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to Israel, and when some began to recognize who He was, the Son of God, He offered Himself on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. He rose from the grave on the third day after being crucified. He revealed Himself alive in His physical body to His disciples on various occasions for 40 days. Then His disciples saw Jesus ascend toward heaven until He was hidden by a cloud. Jesus is now in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. He will not be seen again on earth until He returns to judge the world. His body is in heaven, it is impossible to make a true image of it. This is just one more way God teaches us to not make images of Jesus.
After they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles who had lived with Jesus for three years began telling the world. They preached first to Israel. Sadly, most of Israel did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. But the true children of Abraham, Abraham’s spiritual children, those who have the same faith as Abraham, did believe. God’s family today are the people who believe in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. The apostles went everywhere preaching that God sent His Son to save the world from idolatry and its consequences. The apostles, who had seen Jesus, never described what He looked like. The apostles told what He said and what He did. They emphasized Jesus’ death and resurrection, explaining what those events mean and how we must believe in Jesus death and resurrection to be saved. They taught people to know that Jesus is the IMAGE of God, the God of whom we cannot make an image. We only know Him by His Word, as the Holy Spirit gives us understanding.
Since God did not send His Son into the world until He had prepared a people who would not make images of Him, how then should Christians live? Should we make images of Him? Let us see what the apostles taught the church.
The apostle John said that Jesus is the true God; therefore we should not use images to stand for Him (1st John 5: 20-21). The apostle John also wrote the book of Revelation, which shows how God ultimately will destroy all idolatry and all idolaters from the world.
The apostle Paul told the idolatrous Athenians (Athens, the capitol of Greece) that it is unreasonable to think that God is like art that people imagine and devise to stand for God. God patiently overlooked idolaters’ ignorance in times past, but now He commands everybody to repent of such idolatry. (Acts 17)
The apostle Paul explained how idolatry began when people foolishly started using images to stand for God. Paul described how idolatry has corrupted the world. (Romans 1)
After the apostles died (most of them were martyred for preaching about Christ), did the church use images to stand for Christ? Most people think the early Christians used such images. It surprises us to discover that the church did not use pictures or images to represent Christ for two centuries. Think how long a time 200 years is. The church spread around the world into idolatrous lands in Europe, Asia, and Africa. We would expect people in those idolatrous lands to naturally use images to stand for their new God when they became Christians. Eventually, after several centuries, this did happen. But, amazingly, the first tradition of the church, the first teaching of the church was to reject such images. No images to represent Christ have been found from the first two centuries of the church. All the writings of the leaders of the true church in that time taught the people to not use such images because that would be idolatry.
How, then, came idolatry into the church? Very gradually. Then more and more. Eventually, idolatry was accepted officially. But no pictures to represent Jesus were tolerated for about 200 years at the beginning of the church era. In 313 A.D., when the Roman emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire, pagans began to consider themselves to be Christians. Such “Christians” did not know that God couldn’t be pictured.
Yet, biblical Christians opposed using pictures to represent Christ. Controversy raged back and forth for several centuries. Lots of exciting things happened. In the year 754 A.D., a large council of bishops declared that such pictures are not biblical and not acceptable in the church. But 23 years later, another council of bishops reversed that teaching. The Second Council of Nicea (“Nicea II”), met in 787 A.D. Nicea II requires Roman Catholics to use pictures to represent Jesus.
This terrible idolatry in the church, this breaking of God’s covenant, led the church into the Dark Ages. Finally, Bible teachers began to make the church aware that it is idolatry to use pictures and images and call them images of Christ. The lawless Antichrist would use such images to deceive people into breaking God’s law. Many people noticed that the popes’ promotion of idolatry seemed to match the biblical description of the Antichrist. To escape idolatry, many people left the Roman Catholic Church. Bible churches sprang up in many countries. John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformed churches said, “Everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false.”
Why then, today, are there so many pictures to represent Christ even in evangelical churches? It is hard to find a church that does not use them, and it is hard to find a Christian who knows that it is idolatrous to use a picture to represent Christ. There are a number of reasons for this modern ignorance and idolatry. First, there is man’s sinful, idolatrous nature: images of God seem so necessary to natural man. Other reasons include the church’s lack of Bible teaching, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church which is committed to this idolatry of making images of God, the idolatrous influence of other religions, etc.
We have now traced idolatry from its origin (making images to represent God) to modern idolatry. The book of Revelation shows the final end of idolatry. God casts all idolaters into “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
What then should a sincere Christian do today? Idolatry is one of the sins for which Christ died: He offers forgiveness. Repent of idolatry and seek God’s forgiveness (Acts 17:30-31). “To repent” means to change one’s mind and heart: in other words, believe God and do what His Word tells us to do. The Bible tells us to “flee from idolatry” (Ist Corinthians 10:14). The apostle John said to “keep yourselves from idols” (Ist John 5:21). Seek fellowship with people who do not use idols. The apostle Paul said, “What agreement does the temple of God have with idols?…Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” (2nd Corinthians 6:16-18). Remember that the true knowledge of God comes from the Bible, not from images. It is important to faithfully read the Bible, trusting the Holy Spirit to give the Biblical knowledge of Christ.