Posted in images of God, pictures of Jesus, second commandment

Is it sinful to create or use art images of God, Jesus, and the Dove?

Yesterday I’d posted an essay titled “Back to Basics: The Importance of Prophecy“. I like to use ancient art to illustrate a point, to fire the imagination, or to break up the text so readers see something visual. The essay drew some comments, including this admonition from a commenter. It was a good admonition, and I’ve been studying and thinking about it ever since.

I enjoy reading your blog very much. However, the first illustration set my teeth on edge and I feel like I really must address it’s usage.

The Bible is very clear about making images of God – it is forbidden.
Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

Matthew Henry: “The second commandment refers to the worship we are to render to the Lord our God. It is forbidden to make any image or picture of the Deity, in any form, or for any purpose; or to worship any creature, image, or picture.”

Numbers 23:19 begins “God is not a man” and John 4:24 begins “God is spirit”. If we want to illustrate God according to scriptural reference, we would have to add wings and feathers, among other things – like roving eyes!

I personally use pictures of Jesus when teaching young children because Jesus was both man and God, fully human and fully God, he lived and died and rose again here on earth and ascended back into heaven with a human body (glorified). Jesus also appeared on earth in the Old Testament several times as theophanies, in form as a human being. But I ALWAYS remind children that we do NOT know what Jesus looked like and that the pictures I use are just to help us understand the story. I’ve even talked to my young Grandson about John’s description of Jesus in Revelation 1 which is not at all what most people think Jesus looks like.

Although I’ve used a dove to represent Holy Spirit, again, I always tell children it is just a representation, as described in Luke 3:22 ” the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove” NIV. other translations say “as” or “in the form of” – but NEVER that Holy Spirit IS a dove – He just descended like a dove would.

I cannot do that with God the Father. God is a spirit and just as we cannot see our spirits, we cannot see God, and the Bible says we cannot see God and live! Pictures like the illustration you used just make God seem to be an angry old man, totally destroying His magnificence and “otherness”.

I encourage you, humbly, to rethink your use of images of God the Father. Study it out. Art is beautiful many times, but that does not mean it is good.

I took the comment seriously. I’ve been researching from my favorite authoritative sources. I have not arrived a clear-cut decision but the preponderance of evidence had led me to decide on one particular way. But first, I want to go through my thought-process and ask some meandering questions. I’m thinking out loud in this one, rather than delivering my usual definitive explanation, lol.

The commenter wrote, “The Bible is very clear about making images of God – it is forbidden. Exodus 20:4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”

Technically the Commandment does not forbid any image of God. It forbids graven images, or making an idol out of the image. There is a difference. You can read that verse in all the standard bible translations, here. I acknowledge it is splitting hairs, but I want to make note of the what the Commandment actually says in its truest form. Got Questions explains what a graven image is, and does it very well. I’ll get back to this notion and explain my thinking further, in the part discussing drinking wine, below.

There is no doubt that art which illustrates the great bible scenes is moving and inspiring. I am lately finding that Annie Vallotton’s simple line drawings which illustrate the Good News Bible especially moving. I also love the old Renaissance art and William Blake’s watercolors. I saw Michaelangelo’s David at the Gallery in Florence and deemed it the most beautiful man-made thing I’d ever seen.

God delivers to the believer the gift of the Holy Spirit. In using that gift we honor the Lord in all we do (or we should). This includes the making of hymns and songs. (Ephesians 5:19). Does this also include the making of art? According to Exodus 35:30-33, it does. Bezalel was gifted with the Spirit in order to honor the Lord by assisting the people in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Bezalel was not directed to make images of God, I am sure. However, “the God who created us, and who knows how deeply we are affected by sin, understands our desire to condense Him into a form we can see and understand”, the writer at GotQuestions relates.

So where does that leave us? Let’s go directly to the Word and look at the Second Commandment.

“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).

On first read, it seems that God is prohibiting any representational art at all. Is He really saying, don’t make an image of a tree or a fish or of a goat? That cannot be right because God later told Moses to make the cherubim for the ark, the serpent for the purpose of lifting up sin. Solomon was directed to make an image of palm trees and olive trees for the Temple doors. (1 Ki 6:32) and so on. So it cannot be that we are prohibited from making any representational art.

So what is the deal here, anyway? The Second Commandment prohibits worship of the above. God clearly prohibited bowing down before any image of any kind at all when the image represents someone or something the one to whom one is praying, like and Ashereh pole or a totem pole. In 1 Samuel 5:3 the people brought the man-fish idol Dagon and put it next to the Ark of the Covenant. “And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.” The next day Dagon was in much worse shape, and the people got rid of the idol, the point having been made.

Installing Dagon was a violation of both the first and second commandments. Dagon was a competing earthly, representational object which had been formed with the purpose of  receiving prayer and representing a false God. God is God and there is no other. Therefore Dagon had to go.

So it is OK to create an image of God if the purpose is not to worship it? Maybe, but likely not. I would say no, for two reasons. First because I personally believe that the 2nd Commandment is in place because becomes too easy to imbue the representation of God with spiritual qualities, pray to it, make a shrine or otherwise violate the commandment. It happens quickly and without one being aware of it, even. “The golden ephod, which Gideon had made and even the brazen serpent, became a snare to Israel, distracting them from the worship of their God, as they, “…changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25), wrote pastor G.D. Buss of the Old Baptist Chapel in Chippenham.

Even though the prohibition not to become drunk is not a commandment, I liken it to the second commandment in execution. The bible doesn’t say not to drink. It says not to get drunk. (1 Tim 3;3, 3;8; Titus 1:7; Ephesians 5:18). So on one particular day if I am drinking a glass of wine slowly and with food, I may not get drunk. On another day, if I drink it a bit too quickly and have no food in my stomach, two glasses of alcohol may may get me insensible- and I have sinned. If the line is THAT close, then why tempt myself to sin? I want to err on the side of caution, and NOT drink at all.

It is the same with an image of God. In my opinion we are not prohibited from making any image at all, but in making one that becomes an idol. However if it is so easy to sin in idol worship, as the bible repeatedly shows us, then why tempt myself and use a representation of God casually or spiritually disrespectfully- and thus to sin? I want to err on the side of caution and NOT make or use an image of God at all.

God is invisible. (1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 11:27). Another scripture says “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) therefore “Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination.” (source)

Ultimately, if God is invisible, can we make Him visible? We dare not! Ultimately, if He is Creator, can man create him? We dare not! If an image can become graven so easily, should we make one? We dare not! So the commenter’s wise admonition to me is well taken and I’ll stop using artistic representations of God on the blog. Thank you for the correction!

That leaves us with a murkier question though, both for me and for the commenter. I’d really like all people to weigh in on this. What about artistic representations of Jesus and the Dove, which are also God? The commenter said he or she uses them with caution and gave reasons. Yet, J.I Packer said, “If paintings, drawings and statues of Jesus, the incarnate Son, were always viewed as symbols of human perfection within the culture that produced them (white–faced Anglo–Saxon, black–faced African, yellow–faced Chinese or whatever), rather than as suggesting what Jesus actually looked like, no harm would be done. But since neither children nor unsophisticated adults view them in this way we shall in my opinion be wiser to do without them.”

So I would in turn ask the commenter to humbly study the use of Jesus and the Dove in imagery with children…as I will do myself.

For us adults, is representing Jesus also a violation of the Second Commandment if we understand in our maturity that it is only a symbol? Jesus is God. Whoever has seen Him has seen the Father. (John 14:9). But if Jesus is the image of God and walked the earth to be seen by men, is it now wrong to represent Him in likeness?

Maybe so. After all, the apostles were with Jesus for three and a half years, saw Him every day, and never once made mention of how He looked in the scriptural writings. If it was important for us to know, wouldn’t they have said so, somewhere? As a matter of fact, the only writing we have on how He looked was that He had no likeness to commend him, no beauty or majesty. (Isaiah 52:2b).

Jesus did not reveal Himself to the two on the Road to Emmaus visibly first, He revealed Himself by the Word first. As a matter of fact, he deliberately kept them from recognizing Him initially (Luke 24:16). He didn’t say, “Hey look at Me,” He said, “Hey, listen to Me.” (Luke 24:27).

Therefore is it wrong to have stained glass windows at church with images of the Dove or of Jesus? Bible illustrations? Representational art of Jesus or the Dove? Is it wrong to watch movies that show Jesus, hiring actors who “look” like Jesus,  to ‘be’ Jesus, such as The Passion of the Christ or Jesus Christ Superstar or the Jesus Movie? Are they violations of the Commandment also?

As J.I. Packer explained, “Accordingly, we take the second commandment ­as in fact it has always been taken­ as pointing us to the principle that (to quote Charles Hodge) “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.” In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship. The commandment thus deals not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it; what it tells us is that statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping him.”

Adhering to this definition would indicate that NO image of Jesus, as presented to children or any other person, and NO dove, as represented in art or any other way, would be acceptable- if it is used for worship. .

What are your thoughts on art depicting Jesus and the Spirit? If they are not used for worship?

This is all food for thought, open for discussion. What do you think?


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.