Exodus 20:4-6 - A Picture Is Not Enough
July 6, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:4–20:6
[Exodus 20:4-6 - "A Picture Is Not Enough"]
A picture is not worth a thousand words, not when the picture is altered – photoshopped into falsehood. What we need to see is the real thing. And we see the One True God in his word.
[Pray - God, source of all light, by your Word you give light to our souls. Pour out upon us the Spirit of wisdom and understanding that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to know the things that pertain to life and holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 20:1-6 for context]
Vacation pictures. To the traveler they are priceless mementos - memory jogging relics helping us relive time in exotic places. But to the friends and family who didn't go vacation pictures can turn from genuinely interesting to mind-numbingly boring after the fifth picture of "Cousin Steve in the hotel lobby."
That's because we humans like to see and touch and taste and smell reality. We know a picture of the French Riviera with the Alps piercing into the Mediterranean can't compare to being there. A picture can't compare to the smell of the salty sea just like a friend's insistence, "The weather was perfect!" can't compare to a cool breeze on skin. A four-by-six postcard just can't compare to your own eyes seeing snow-covered peaks behind sandy white beaches while tasting a glass of local Grenache.
In the same way, an image of God simply cannot compare to the real thing. A partial picture doesn't do justice to his beauty. And an outright misrepresentation does not honor the glory and the dignity of the Creator and Redeemer God. But for humans who like to see and touch and taste reality, believing in a God we can't see isn't always easy. The weakness of our flesh looks for physical things on which to hang our hope.
And that's why we have the Second Commandment. Because as Jesus said, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24)
We're going to look at this text through a few questions to help us understand both what God would have of us and, more importantly, what he's done for us in Christ. So, first, we have to consider: what is God commanding here? Well, just like last week in the First Commandment, there is a negative and a positive aspect to the command - something NOT to do and something to do. As we consider what God is commanding, let's talk about the negative first. What does he command us NOT to do?
Well, in some ways the text is straightforward - "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...." Israel was surrounded by nations who worshipped images like those, gods they could see and hold, gods who satisfied their senses. Their gods looked like the things around them - sun and moon, birds and beasts, swimming things and man himself.
But YHWH isn’t like anything in creation - not the sun, not the moon, not birds, not cows, not fish - certainly not like men. Actually, he who made all these things. So, to worship an image of God based on those things was to worship a misrepresentation of God, which means they would be worshipping “not God.” Any representation they make of him, made in sincerity or ignorance, is going to be lacking, partial, incomplete and, ultimately, a misrepresentation of him. An image of God would be no god at all, because the Creator has been exchanged for the creation itself (Romans 1).
But there's a deeper problem still. Because the gods of the nations didn't just look like creation, they acted like men, having the same cravings and tempers and goals as men. The Canaanite gods mirrored the sexual obsession of the Canaanite peoples. The Egyptian gods mirrored the power obsession of the Pharaohs. They were easy gods to worship because they acted a lot like men.
But YHWH doesn't act like men. And whenever humanity creates - in wood or stone or imagination - some image of YHWH, we inevitably worship that part of God we like the most, the part that matches up with what we want. Every heresy, every teaching the Church has condemned as damning to the one who teaches or believes it - every heresy is rooted in either an over- or under-emphasis on one aspect of God's truth. A heresy is an image of God because it distorts the perfect, fragments the infinite; an image reduces him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23). An image of God is always incomplete; we only see (at best) part of who he is. And at worst an image is based on what we want God to look like, to be like. To worship only part of him, or to worship him as we want him to be, is to misrepresent him. And that, he says, his people should not do.
So, in the Second Commandment God says NOT to worship a misrepresentation of him. But in the Second Commandment, Israel, and we, are also being called (as one writer puts it) to worship God "in spirit and in truth, by faith and not by images which appeal to the senses" (A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus). This is the positive side of the command - this is what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to listen, and worship God based on the truth of his word.
In Deuteronomy 4:15ff. Moses says Israel didn't see any form of God when he spoke from the mountain. So, Israel doesn't know what God looks like, but they do know what he says and does. He saved them from slavery, so he is the God who redeems his people. But he is also the God who speaks, giving them his word through Moses and the prophets, telling them who He is and why he does what he does. So, even though God acted in their story, only through his word could the people of God truly know YHWH - so, only through his word could they know how to worship him in truth.
And God is about to tell them how he is to be worshipped. The last half of Exodus with basically all of Leviticus is concerned with the proper worship of God. There's no need for superstition, there's no need for them to imagine how to serve God in worship. He tells them in his word.
Throughout the life of the people of God, the Church has taken seriously this call to worship God according to his Word. We use terms like "The Regulative Principle," which is a really fancy way of saying the word of God determines how we worship. Put another way, if God has told us in his word how he wants to be worshipped, then we do it. And if he hasn't said it in his word, then we don't do it.
Here at Grace (and in the wider PCA and many other branches of Christ's Church who seek to reform our life and worship according to God's word), part of the way that plays out is in front of you. In the order of worship, the liturgy incorporates elements of worship we see God approving in the Bible: a call to worship, an invocation of his name and presence, confessions of sin and of faith, songs, prayers, readings from the Bible and so on. (We worship through our tithes and offerings, too, of course, because God said he is to be worshipped with all that we have, including our material wealth. But we allow that element of worship to be done outside of the service through the little box on the back table because we don't see that as a necessary part of a corporate worship service.) In the bulletin in front of you, we've replaced the technical name of each element with sentence clauses. We did that to show how the Reformed Church has taken the biblical elements of worship, and put them together to form a particular shape - the shape of the Gospel itself. God calls us to him, always making the first move when it comes to redemption. Then we respond to his call and have to confess the reality of our sinfulness. But he speaks to us of mercy even before we confess, then he assures us of his grace in Christ after we do. Our songs, our prayers, our confessions, our celebration of the Lord's Supper - each part takes its place to form a whole Story, a new presentation of the Good News of Jesus each week, just like the sermon. Although there is plenty of room for creative expression of these elements (so that each local church will/should look and sound different) the unity of our worship remains intact because we're worshipping God according to his word, worshipping how he says he wants to be worshipped.
Because we come to know God through his word. In his word we hear about Christ’s death and resurrection. In his word we hear about the Holy Spirit who comes uniting us to Christ and applying his benefits to us. And when we hear his truth and receive it – relying on it, trusting him – then the Spirit is working in us, causing us to worship him in Spirit and in truth.
Worship governed by, based upon the word of God is vital because when it comes to the Gospel, vacation pictures of God's work through Christ aren't enough. We don't need partial pictures and misrepresentations of the Gospel - or of our need for God's work; partial pictures won't show us the truth, won't minister to our souls. On the contrary, worship of God that is based on partial images of him or imaginings of what he's like are deadly to us. Because those images are not God; they are misrepresentations. And in the warning attached in v.5, we see YHWH takes misrepresentation seriously, since misrepresenting God is to ultimately rejecting him, preferring a picture to the real and hating what God really is. God says, "... I YHWH 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...."
If breaking the Second Commandment (which implies a breaking of the First, too) - if breaking the Second Commandment is equal to hating God, then it's clear we're not talking about little things. And all this becomes profoundly important when we consider how the Scriptures talk about Jesus. Because the Scriptures say God has once again revealed himself to his people - not on tablets of stone, not through prophet's words in ink on paper, but through Jesus the Son of God - through Jesus "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (Hebrews 1:1-4). "He is the image of the invisible God...," Paul writes (in Colossians 1:15). In Christ, God once again calls humanity to worship him according to truth - through Jesus and not our imagination. He calls us to a godly discontentment with anything less than Him.
Because if God has revealed himself through Jesus, his final Word, and we're content with a picture or idea that misrepresents him, then we have to consider again what God says, "...I YHWH 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..." (Exodus 20:5). To be content with a partial picture, not the mention a false image, is seen by the One True God as nothing short of hatred of his Triune person.
But how many times have I been content with a picture of God and not God. This is where we have to conform our worship to God's design once again. Because we have to confess, as he commands, once again that even if we've never made a wooden idol or confused a painting with the real Jesus, each of us have worshipped gods of our own making - preferring an imagined God to the real. We've been content with a picture-god, an imagined-god when the real God is visible in His word.
That leads us to the next big question: How do we misrepresent God today? Well, we see it in the New Age movement, which confuses the Creator with his creation. And we see it in the cults that deny Christ as the only Son of God, who is God. But we must also see the ways we misrepresent this God by worshipping an image of him we have created for ourselves. What about when we assume God wants what we want? That job? That relationship? "Doesn't God want me to be happy," we ask? So, we substitute the God who allows purposeful suffering into the lives of his people for a god who is obsessed with happiness and comfort like us. Or what about when we focus on God's justice, thinking about his displeasure with others or with us? When I forget the mercy of God toward his people in Christ and become fearful of God, seeing him only as Judge – then have I not created an image, a partial picture in my mind that doesn't line up with the reality of who he is? The imagined god who is only a judge is not the God of the Bible; the God of the Bible is both Judge and Father to those who trust in Christ (1 Peter 1:17). Though he judges, he does not condemn those in Christ - fear is driven away when God is worshipped in truth (Romans 8:1; 1 John 4:18).
But in so much of life we see that all our hearts are bent toward breaking this Second Commandment; we imagine God or reduce God into a God who looks and acts more like us. And so, like our parents before us and our children who will suffer because of us, we stand guilty of misrepresenting God.
Why do we find it so hard to worship this God of the Bible, hearing and believing him instead of imagining and assuming what he's like? Well, I think it comes back to where we started; we humans like to see and touch and taste and smell reality. And because we can't see or touch or taste or smell this God, because he can only be heard in his word and seen with the eyes of faith, our natural selves reject him and run after something else. We look to what is tangible and touchable. Or we look to what we can imagine because I believe a god who is like me - who wants what I want - would make me happy.
But I thank God that he's not like me. Where would you be if God was like me? We'd both be dead.
But as it is, through faith in Jesus, the Son of God, you are alive. And the steadfast love of God he promised to thousands of generations of those who love and obey him (v.6) – that love is set on you who repent of worshipping imagined gods and turn in faith to Christ.
The steadfast love of God is set on all those who trust in Christ because Christ loved and kept God’s commands, including this one. Jesus never worshipped a god of his imagination. His worship was always governed by the word of God.
In the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, Christ went out after his baptism to be tested by Satan for forty days (read Matthew 4). And when each test came, he answered and worshipped God alone according to his word, not Satan’s partial picture of God. Jesus submitted himself to the God of the Bible saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” and, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And in the final test, when Satan set himself up as an image of God, displaying in a partial picture tremendous power by showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment, promising to give them to Jesus, Christ answered, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
Even in Gethsemane, during his dark night of temptation, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” And it was the will of God, revealed in his word, that the Christ be crushed for our false worship (Isaiah 53).
Jesus didn’t serve a god of his imagination. He didn’t worship the partial picture of God Satan tried to give him. Which means he didn’t take the easy road on his way to reigning over all the kingdoms of the world. To be sure, Jesus would reign. To be sure, Jesus does reign now. But his reign did not come by the easy road or by worshipping a vacation-picture god.
Christ claimed his victory and his throne because he went to the cross. His commitment to worshiping the One True God in spirit and in truth led him to his death. But that worship – true worship in spirit and in truth – was acceptable to God. So, it did not only lead Jesus to death. It also led Jesus back to life in the resurrection.
When Jesus talked about worshipping the One True God, he said to a woman at a well (in John 4), “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
The Father is seeking people who will worship him according to his word, empowered by the Holy Spirit himself. The Father is seeking people who won’t rely on their senses or their imagination to determine what God they serve. And although Jesus is the only one who ever did that, the Gospel says that all who embrace Christ by faith have been rescued from our false worship – we have been forgiven and purified to serve the Living God (Hebrews 9:14). Empowered by his Holy Spirit and guided by the truth of His Word, you can worship the Father in spirit and in truth through faith in Jesus the Son of God.
In Christ you can begin to see God not only as Judge but also as Father. Taking hold of his word, we can begin to know him as he really is – not how we imagine or want him to be. We’ll hear there how he allows his children to suffer for a purpose. And we’ll also hear his purposes to make all things new – in his word we’ll hear hope that can carry us through this present darkness and pain. And as we see God more and more in his word, we’ll learn to worship him more and more in truth, even as the Spirit teaches and reveals him to our hearts and minds.
In Christ, the Father finds in you a true worshipper, because he receives your worship through the perfection of Christ. Only in him, the Scriptures say, is our fleeting, imperfect, distracted worship acceptable to God (Hebrews 13:15). But now and forever in Christ, the steadfast love of God toward Christ is upon you and generations to follow you as you embrace Christ by faith. Because he was faithful, you, by faith in him, are counted as faithful, too.
[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]
Is that still hard to believe? It is for me, too. So I thank God that he knows how badly we need things we can see and touch and taste and smell. I thank God that he, because of our weakness, gave us this meal.
Because in this meal we see and touch and taste and smell the Gospel of Jesus. And it doesn’t look like we would imagine it. Just like God in the flesh didn’t look like we thought God would look - just like the Christ “…had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) – God gave us ordinary bread and wine (juice here) as a picture, a sign and a confirmation of his promises in Christ. Here in the bread and cup we see a picture of the body and blood of the Savior. Here we see the promises of God toward us in Christ – that through his beaten body and poured out blood he has won forgiveness for his people, for all who trust him. Here in the bread and cup we see and touch and taste and smell the promise God that Christ died for us, to make us into worshippers of God in spirit and in truth.
[Pray – Father, as the God who created all things by his word, as the God who spoke promises of redemption when our fall was a fresh affront to your goodness, as the God who acted in history to ransom us with the blood of your own Son, Jesus – for your steadfast love and mercy toward us in Christ, we praise you. There is no other God like you, no other God pardoning sin at such great cost to yourself. Thank you for revealing yourself to us in your word. Although creation shouts your goodness and beauty, we would not truly know you apart from your word that teaches us that name above every name – Jesus the Christ, the Lord and Savior of your people. For your Spirit who gives us faith in Christ and causes us to become worshippers of you through him, we thank you. And we would pray that you would continue the work you’ve begun in us, helping us see you more and more clearly through your word as we see our Savior in the lines on every page. Every story tells us about him. Every line teaches us more of the grace and truth that is in him. May we listen and see him, rejoicing that we are his and he is ours and worshipping you, our everlasting God. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.