It’s that most wonderful time of year. The time for caroling, Christmas trees, Advent calendars, and nativity scenes. But it’s also the time of year when you start seeing social media arguments from some in certain circles who are adamant that having a nativity scene is displeasing to God. Or even a children’s Christmas pageant. Why? Because some have concluded that anything that portrays an image of Christ is a violation of the second commandment. And they can be pretty opinionated. You will see their posts or comments saying “God says No artwork of Jesus.”, or “God doesn’t allow any images of things of heaven.” They bristle not only at nativity scenes, but also at coloring books depicting Jesus with the little children, and certainly not allowed are movies where an actor portrays Christ. But what does the second commandment really say? And what is the heart and intent of the commandment?
You can find the second of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:4-6:
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
I can go along with the supposition that God the Father would not want any image created of HIMSELF, as God is Spirit and has no earthly form. But this doesn’t seem to be the context of this scripture. And the context surrounding this commandment is very important: It is IDOL WORSHIP. The second commandment forbidding “graven images” is clearly a continuation of the first commandment which is:
“You shall have no other gods before me.”
In fact, I could lightly infer that the second commandment could be thought of as “First Commandment: Part II”, as it were, because the context is of the worship of other gods. Where had the Hebrews just come from when God gave Moses the tablets? They had just been delivered from captivity in Egypt where the worship of innumerable pagan gods was rampant. Since they were enslaved in Egypt for 430 years, all the Israelites in the exodus were born into this land where worship of false gods was a witnessed part of everyday life. It wasn’t strange or shocking to them. They saw sun worship, moon worship, and idols of animals. Even the Pharaohs were worshipped. We have archaeological proof of this “worship of things above” as seen here:
While the second commandment certainly applies to the people of every generation, commanding the abstention from any form of idol worship, I find it interesting that when God gave the commandments to Moses to take to His people, His directives specifically included:
No worship of engraved images of things “in heaven above”:
“Or earth beneath”:
Pictured: Bast, the cat goddess, the faithful cat of the god “Ra”.
“Or waters below”:
Pictured: Ancient Egyptian Fish goddess, Hatmehit
So, when Moses brought down the tablets from Mount Sinai and saw the worship of the golden calf, he witnessed the Israelites engaging in the very debased practices God had just given the commands against. When they heard these commandments, do you think they could have pictured the very “engraved images” God was prohibiting? Absolutely they could! And why would God use the distinct words “engraved images” when laying out his prohibitions to the Hebrews? Because they had lived in a land FULL of them! ( And obviously had practice making them when you consider the whole golden calf debacle! Maybe a task they were forced to undertake during their captivity? )
In its most clear context, the second commandment forbids the worship of idols, the worship of gods other than the One True God. Ligonier ministries says this:
“The fallen human heart, John Calvin reminds us, is an idol factory that is ever coming up with new ways to image false gods. This is the context in which we should consider the second commandment, which prohibits the fashioning of idols (Ex. 20:4–6).“
Most people today who are convinced that any depiction of Christ ( Please note, the commandment doesn’t mention Christ, because remember, we are in the Old Testament. ) violates the second commandment only focus on the first part of it, which forbids “graven images” of anything in heaven above. This is where they stop and hang their hats and exclaim “A-ha!”. But they neglect the rest of the commandment that mentions “things on earth beneath or in waters below”. If they were consistent, they would have to be against statues in parks,
or photos of galaxies from the Hubble telescope:
Or pics of their vacations swimming with dolphins:
The crux of the second commandment is in verse 5: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” The focus is on the worship and the heart of someone who would create their own idol to bow down to.
Why would God say not to create ANY graven image of things above, but soon after, give the instructions on how to construct the Cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant? There were also Cherubim depicted on the curtains of the Tabernacle as well as Solomon’s Temple.
And in the book of Numbers, God directs Moses to fashion an image of something from “earth beneath”, a serpent made out of bronze.
So since God cannot contradict Himself, it is obvious that He isn’t against all “graven images”. Only the ones that replace Him in the hearts of men.
I don’t know of anyone who is worshiping their nativity scene, or a children’s book, or Sunday School literature depicting an artist’s rendering of Jesus. We worship the Christ Himself, the Son of the Living God. For us to celebrate His coming by watching a Christmas movie about His birth, or letting our kids color a Baby Jesus coloring sheet in Sunday School, as far as I can understand, is not a violation of scripture. So embrace the beauty and mystery of the season, but most importantly, embrace the Savior. And don’t feel the need to toss out your nativity scene. Instead let it be a lovely symbol, reminding us of the One who became flesh and dwelled among us.