Worship is commonly considered a harmless activity. Some people think it's as bland as a mashed potato sandwich. Consider, however, the possibility that worship might be highly dangerous. Certainly in the mind of those who drew up the first biblical code of moral law, worship gone wrong ranked right up there with such vices as murder, theft and adultery. The first two of the ten commandments deal with worship.
Nowadays people feel less guilty about breaking these commandments than they feel about breaking the other eight. Would it surprise you to know that the Bible has more to say about the second commandment than any of the rest? Here's what God said through Moses: "Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation. But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws" (Exodus 20:4-6).
The second commandment has two parts: don't make images and don't worship them. When you tell your kids not to do something, do they ever ask why? Do you ever say, "Because I said so." For nine of the ten commandments God tells us what to do because he said so. But the second commandment gives us three reasons: (1) God will tolerate no rivals; (2) and will punish those who hate him; and (3) reward those who love and obey him. In other words, how we worship is important because the God we worship makes a difference. If God did not love and hate, punish and reward, then who cares how or whether anyone worships him? Worship has been trivialized because people know how much it matters. It matters to you. And it matters to God.
The second commandment refutes the popular notion that as long as someone is sincere, God is pleased with any kind of worship. Specifically, your worship must be without images.
Images of the true God are forbidden just as much as images of false gods. That's how Aaron got in trouble. While his brother, Moses, was up on the mountain receiving the law, Aaron was down in the valley making a golden calf out of the earrings the Israelites took from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35). They dedicated the golden calf explicitly to the true God of Israel. Aaron and his cohorts would have been shocked if anyone had suggested they were worshiping a foreign god. The people said, "This is our god, who led us out of Egypt," and they called a festival to "honor the Lord [Yahweh]" (Exodus 32:1-5). They were sincere, but God was not pleased. He said the people sinned and rejected him. The image borne his name, but he knew it wasn't really him the people worshiped.
Religious relics become idols when they divert attention from God. The bronze serpent, for example, was a national treasure. God told Moses to make it and use it to heal the Israelites from snake bites in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9). It became a symbol of Christ's saving power (John 3:14-15). But when it was worshiped as an idol it had to be destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:4). Images of the Holy easily become holy images — images that people worship in and of themselves.
I believe it is by God's mercy that we don't have a single original manuscript signed by an apostle or prophet. Our Bible is translated from ancient copies of the original. If we had an autographed copy by Peter or Paul or John, we would surely turn it into an idol, focusing not on what it said but on the thing itself.
Recently a great deal of interest has been aroused in trying to verify the Shroud of Turin as the burial clothes of Jesus. Frankly, even if it is the actual garment that our Lord wore in the tomb, I hope it can't be proven. The temptation would be overwhelming for people to give more reverent attention to Jesus' burial clothes than to the risen Lord. We are fortunate that we have no Noah's ark, no ark of the covenant, no temple, and no genuine relic of Jesus and the apostles. Our worship must focus on God alone and not on the things God used through history to make himself known.
To deal with the chronic temptation of turning the means of worship into the end of worship thus corrupting the act of worship, God commanded, "Do not make for yourselves images of anything… " Back in the eighth century wars broke out between Christians over the interpretation of the second commandment. The Iconoclasts (Yes, that was their real name; the word means "image breaker.") demanded that all images be eliminated from worship. To this day the Eastern Orthodox Church restricts images to colored pictures on a flat surface while the Western Roman Catholic Church allows sculptured images. Neither measure, of course, gets at the core of the issue: the attitude and intention of the worshiper. An image is but a solid metaphor. Any metaphor — sculptured, painted, written, or spoken — can become an idol when it is treated as holy in and of itself.
C.S. Lewis suggests this "Footnote to All Prayer."
whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
Metaphors and images are inevitable. The wife of a prisoner of war keeps an image, i.e. picture, of her husband in a prominent place in her home. It serves as a cherished reminder of her husband in his absence. But when he returns, she puts the picture aside and gives full attention to him. And, what is most important, she allows him to be different than her memory and picture portray.
The church, which is the Bride of Christ, needs the same good judgment about all its images. Too often throughout history, the church has substituted pictures for the Real Presence. Then when God breaks into our world from time to time, the church is found foolishly clinging to its inadequate images. Such image making nonsense could be dismissed with a laugh were it not that certain dreadful consequences follow.
Image making depersonalizes God. It makes the great "I Am" into a thing. Why, you may wonder, would anyone want to do that? It keeps God "in his place." If God is a thing instead of a person, people can think about him, preach about him, study about him, write about him, prove his existence, and use him to gratify their desires. That's a handy kind of god to have around — a cosmic bellhop to whom people give a 10 percent tip if he renders good service!
But God is not a thing. He is a person. And a person is satisfied only with loving relationships. Would you want your husband or wife or best friend to treat you the way image makers treat God? Would you be flattered if they proved your existence, thought about you, talked about you and studied you? A person you can know; a thing you can only know about. It is not enough merely to know that there is a God. Do you know the God you know there is? Can you say with the apostle Paul, "All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Philippians 3:10)?
Image making attempts to control God. It's embarrassing to worship a god who neither conforms to our understanding nor does what we expect of him. Throughout history we have tried to domesticate the Deity, to tame the Great Almighty. Our efforts have always resulted in some form of idolatrous image. Every effort to comprehend God as an objective fact "out there" or an exalted ideal "in here" tries to take God into our possession. We do this by making idols, both metal and mental. Idolatry is not only the false image we hold in our hands but also the false idea we cherish in our hearts.
But God transcends everything we can grasp or contain. When we think we "have" God, the truth is that God has slipped through our grasp, and we are left clinging to some pitiful image of our own making. We can never know God by seeking to grasp him, but only by allowing him to grasp us. We know God not by taking him into our possession, which is absurd and blasphemous, but by letting ourselves be possessed by him and by becoming open to his infinite being, which is within us and around us and above us (Ephesians 4:6).
Image making destroys human personality and freedom. Idolaters create gods like themselves, but with one exception: their gods lack freedom and personality. Whether their idols are rag dolls from a savage tribe or some bloodless philosophical concept, they never acquire the personality and freedom of their makers. The image makers themselves are more alive than their images. Thomas Carlyle observed that people become like the gods they serve. In gradually becoming like the gods they worship, idolaters ultimately lose freedom and personality. They become less a person and more a thing — a thing that cannot act but can only react to conditions around it. Ralph Waldo Emerson warned us: "The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And a man will worship something — have no doubt about that, either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart — but it will out. That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming."
The ancient psalmist said it best: "Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's 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 are like them; so are all who trust in them" (Psalm 115:2-8 RSV).
The worship of God, it turns out, is dangerous business. When it is distracted or distorted by vain images, it insults God by seeking to depersonalize and control him. Furthermore, it dehumanizes the worshipers by destroying their personalities and freedom. Worship the true God in the right way.