“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Ex 20:4 KJV)
In this, the second of the ‘Ten Commandments’ given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God forbade the Israelites to make for themselves any idols, or ‘false gods’, or indeed even an image (statue or whatever) of God Himself. Unlike the other nations in the area at that time, they were not to use idols to worship, but instead they had to worship the One God Himself.
It’s easy to see why. If you think about it, if the people gave any worship – or ‘worth-ship’ – or value – to what was essentially just a wooden, metal or stone statue, before long they would believe that the statue itself was God and that God is like the statue. Apart from giving the statue the worship and attention that is God’s alone by right, they would also create in their minds and hearts and expectations a completely unrealistic picture of what God is really like. Clearly, you can’t represent God in all His love, power, majesty and splendour in a 30ft tall ‘graven image’, no matter how well decorated it is! There are many other reasons too, but this is the main one for the purposes of this post.
Fast-forward many centuries from Mt. Sinai to the time of Jesus. The religious authorities followed a strict system of rules, regulations and observances that not only they, but everyone else, had to follow. For various complex reasons, which I will go into in a later post, God was seen as a harsh, vengeful and implacable autocrat, and people were only acceptable to God by a) following an increasingly rigid and detailed set of rules and b) participating in blood sacrifices (involving the killing of animals). Departure from these rules would result, not in the threat of ‘hell’ as our religious people threaten with these days, but in a system of various punishments ranging from exclusion from the assembly (like being excommunicated) right up to the death penalty which would be administered by the barbaric practice of stoning. And, remember, all this would be done ‘in the name of’ the god they worshipped.
So effectively the religious authorities of the time had made a ‘graven image’. They had built themselves an image of God in their minds and in their writings, and they thought that God was like that image. This image of God they had made was of course, like all graven images, completely incorrect; even in the Old Testament, God describes Himself as a God of Love, which their graven image did not reflect. They had set up, in the place of the Loving Father, a man-made, stone-faced image of a ‘nasty god’ which bore no resemblance to the loving Creator of the Universe. Ask any person even nowadays what they think of God, and the chances are that they think of him as an angry old man up in Heaven just looking for people to get radgy with. This is the legacy of the graven image that these people worshipped – and, sadly, that many people still worship today.
But then Jesus came onto the scene. Jesus, the Man Who is God. Jesus, the Man Who came to show us what God is really like. Showing right from the start how much He wanted people to enjoy life – His first miracle was the one where He turned water into wine; and not just any old wine, but strong wine! – and how much He wanted people to be free of the horrible things that happen like sickness and death, by performing His healing miracles. The significance of Jesus’s miracles was not simply to show us who He is, nor just to help those whom He healed (although these were of course important in themselves), but to show us the nature of God’s Kingdom, and thereby the nature of the King Himself.
If you like, Jesus was – and is – God’s ‘graven image’ of Himself, made by Him and honoured by Him. Here at last is the Image of God, not made of wood, stone or metal, but as a Man, as a human. Col 1:15 says, “He is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation”. Here is the Absolute, the Ultimate. Here is Jesus. He’s the One Who shatters the graven image made so popular by religious people, the image of the ‘nasty god’, and replaces it with the Real Thing. And, guess what? He still does the same today.
This, then, is why the ‘graven image’ was forbidden. Because anything less than the Real Thing – Jesus – falls woefully short of the mark!
The picture of the Easter Island statues at the top of this post was not just to illustrate the idea of a stern, frowning ‘graven image’. I also wanted to poke some fun at the idea of a static, set-in-stone concept of God, with this cartoon.
(For those who don’t remember the Pez sweet dispenser, click the image below to be taken to the Wikipedia article on it):