“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. 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, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6 ESV)
Is there a Difference Between Art and Icon?
By icon I mean art that is religiously venerated and treated as God or a means to God. Over the years, I have traveled to see missionaries in various parts of the world. In each part of the world I have seen a local religious culture’s violation of the second commandment. It seems normal because much of this type of worship is generational. Much of it is ancient so it feels reverent and holy. India’s religion of 300 million gods is worshiping the wrong gods wrongly. But many violations are at least Christian in name. There are huge cathedrals and worship expressions that are centuries old.
The ancient churches of Christianity battled over the proper use of icons in worship: Western Church versus Eastern Church. This was a big deal. This was a big deal in the Reformation which reacted against the worship of icons by stripping their churches of all art; no images at all. So is it wrong to have a picture in your house of Jesus praying or of Jesus at the Last Supper?
What is the difference between art and icon? A good example is the story of Moses and the bronze serpent. If you remember, some Israelites were grumbling to Moses about bringing them into the desert and giving them the “worthless food” of the manna. So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, they were bitten, and many died. And the people came to Moses in repentance and asked the Lord to take the serpents away. So God told Moses to make a brass serpent that would provide healing for all those who looked upon it. Eventually, that serpent became a stumbling block for Israel because they actually started worshiping it. The art and gift from God became an icon and a stumbling block.
And often that’s what happens. The artist may not have meant it to be an object of worship (it was simply an expression of his faith), but over time people have a picture of Jesus or Mary and they get religiously superstitious; and artistic expression can become icon as people venerate, and in a sense, deify it. Or they look to it as a means to God. Only Jesus himself is a means to God. He is the way, the truth and the life; not his picture.
This is what is so prevalent all around the world. Churches and houses of worship have art that has become icon. People light candles and pray to the icon. In their homes they have little images that are prayed to or put in a place of near worshipful prominence. Art is not the way to God. Pictures of Jesus are not the way to God. The disciples’ remains or graves are not the way to God. Mary is not the way to God. Pictures, paintings, sculptures big and small are not the way to God. Jesus is the way to God and these other things are distraction in the least and idolatry at worst.
I remember being on a church tour where we were in a famous ancient church filled with people bowing down and praying to statues and pictures. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people. In our group was a young woman who was raised praying to icons. She had recently become a Christian. She looked around at all the art and statuary. I asked her what she was feeling. She said with tears in her eyes, “These are all the things that got in the way.” Got in the way of what? Seeing Jesus as the way to God.
Is it wrong to have pictures of Jesus in your house or even church? Is it wrong to use pictures of Jesus to teach our children? Does a film like the Passion of the Christ or Michelangelo’s Piate violate it? No, not technically. However, we must be careful that art doesn’t become icon to us. Religion in the world shows how slippery this can be. If your art can stay art and you don’t limit God to the object, I think it is as appropriate as God’s command for Israel to fill the temple with art. It’s not the art; it’s the heart. Don’t worship it. Don’t pray to it. Don’t talk to it. Don’t bow down to it. Don’t light candles to it. Don’t worship it. Art can draw our hearts in worship to the one true God, but be careful that it doesn’t become God to you or superstitiously a means to God.
Finally, see the promise here. “But showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:6) The ESV has the footnote and alternate reading you may be familiar with: a thousand generations. I’m not sure which it is but the point is the same. For those who love him, God shows a steadfast love to them, and through them, to many others. A life lived to the glory of the one true God not only is blessed by God, but also blesses by example and inspires many others including their family. Here’s the point: why worship a thing when we can worship the one true God who promises steadfast love to all who worship him and worship him rightly?
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
©2014 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here