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The Right God, the Wrong Way

Uncovering our subtle idols
This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Good Life". See series.


Last week we began a series on the Ten Commandments. We saw that the Ten Commandments weren't given as a requirement for salvation, but rather as a response to salvation. That's why they begin with these words; "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt." God says: Before you try to keep these laws, you need to know that I've delivered you. I've made you my people. I'm not giving you this law so you can earn that privilege, but, rather, so you know how to live in light of that privilege. This is even more relevant for us today. Jesus came to bring us out of our own Egypt—to save us from our own slavery to sin. We don't earn that; we just receive it by faith.

But here's the thing—you can't separate the privilege from the response. You can't have "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt" without the commandments that come after. The two go together. So, having been saved by grace, we don't ignore God's law; rather, we gladly embrace it, because we want to please the One who rescued us. Grace, to really be grace, will always be followed by good works. A lot of people want the privilege without the response; they want salvation without works—what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." But the grace of God in salvation will always be joined with a response of obedience to his word.

Last week we looked carefully at the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." This week we're moving on to the second commandment: "You shall not make for yourselves an idol." These two sound almost the same. And in some traditions, these two commands are actually made into one command against idolatry. But I think they should be kept separate. Yes, both of these commands have to do with idolatry. Both of them tell us to keep our relationship with God pure. But they're dealing with two entirely different problems.

What is the meaning of the second commandment?

The first commandment tells us not to worship false gods. But the second is different. The second commandment isn't concerned with false gods; rather, it's concerned with worshiping the true God falsely. "Don't make for yourselves an idol." The first command is about who we worship; the second is about how we worship. The first command is about worshiping the right God; the second is about worshiping the right God in the wrong way.

I heard a story about a 24-year-old guy named Dave Davila, who took a job in Chicago and had to leave his close-knit family. His mother missed him so much that she took a digital photo of him and had it blown up to his actual height and mounted on heavy cardboard. So there's Dave, standing casually, hands in pockets, a blue button-down shirt hanging untucked over his khaki shorts. They all call him Flat Dave. At first, Flat Dave just stood quietly by at family gatherings. Then word spread throughout the town, and he became a celebrity. Complete strangers wanted to pose with him. His brother even said, "I think Flat Dave's actually better looking." Sometimes things get somewhat awkward for the real Dave, who they now call Thick Dave. He says, "I'm in Chicago talking to my mom on the phone, and she says, 'Hold on, I've got to load you into the van.' It's a little weird."

Now what's the problem there? The problem isn't that they've replaced Dave with another son. The problem is that they're trying to stay close to Dave through an image of him. This is exactly what the Israelites did when they got impatient while Moses was on Mt Sinai. They told Aaron to make them a god they could see and touch. And so Aaron melted down their jewelry and made a golden calf. But listen to what he said: "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." What's Aaron saying? He's saying: This is the same God as before; the only difference is we now have an image of him. We have something we can see and touch.

So what does the second commandment mean? Simply put, it means we're not to use man-made representations of God for the purposes of worship. That's why the second commandment goes on to say, "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them." The Israelites had been living with the Egyptians, who worshiped many gods, most of which they represented in the form of animals. The god Horus had the head of a falcon; the god Anubis had the form of a jackal. They bowed down to these images. God says: I don't want you to use any likeness of me in worshiping me.

This doesn't mean religious art is somehow inappropriate. One of my favorite books is My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. It's about a boy who is a gifted artist, a prodigy, but he grows up as a Hasidic Jew. Hasidic Jews don't allow art of any kind, in fear of breaking the second commandment. But the point of the second commandment is not that God is opposed to art. When it was time to build the tabernacle, the Spirit of God inspired certain Israelites to "make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship" (Exodus 31:4-5). That sounds like art to me. It's not wrong to create art. It doesn't even mean that symbols are wrong. The art in the tabernacle was all symbolic. We have a symbol in the cross. Jesus gave us a very powerful symbol in the bread and wine of communion. We don't worship those symbols, but we do use them in worship.

What is forbidden in this commandment is creating images of God that serve as objects or aids to worship. There is a fine line here. Symbols are one thing, but to somehow try to replicate the very image of God, whether in a painting or a statue, and then to use that as an aid to worship is crossing the line. In the dome of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's depiction of God reaching out and touching Adam is a beautiful work of art. And it's as natural and good to appreciate that as we would a spectacular sunset. But if somehow that likeness of God becomes a part of your worship of God, something is wrong.

Now deep down some of you might be thinking, What's the big deal? Why did this make the top ten? What harm is there in using images if they help me get closer to God and worship him? What if I just use these things, whether it be a crucifix or a picture of Jesus, and they help me focus my thoughts as I pray? What could be so wrong with that? Let me give you a few reasons.

What are the reasons for the second commandment?

Man-made images of God inevitability distort the glory of God. John Calvin wrote, "A true image of God is not to be found in all the world; and hence &hellip his glory is defiled, and his truth corrupted by the lie, whenever he is set before our eyes in a visible form …. Therefore to devise any image of God is itself impious, because by this corruption his majesty is adulterated and he is figured to be other than he is."

Perhaps some examples of this would help. The Israelites believed there would be no harm in creating a likeness of God in the form of a golden calf or a bull. This was meant to be a symbol of Almighty God who brought them out of Egypt. They were trying to honor God with what they thought was a fitting symbol of his great strength. But that symbol of his strength actually insulted God, because it fell short of depicting his true glory. What does that symbol say about his moral character, his goodness, his justice, and his patience?

Another example is closer to home for many of us: a crucifix. Many of us grew up with not just a cross but with the dead body of Jesus hanging on the cross. What could be wrong with that? But even that distorts his glory because it hides the fact that he was victorious over death and he's alive today. It depicts his love and vulnerability, but it conceals his strength and power.

You see, God is limitless in his power and his knowledge. You can't confine God spatially; he's everywhere at once. You can't confine him in time; he always has been and he always will be. No beginning and no end. How do you put all that into a statue or a painting or even a movie?

And if these images distort the glory of God they also mislead people. They pervert our thoughts of him. Michelangelo was a great artist, but did God the Father have a long flowing gray beard and a pinkish tunic? Can you see how any image or likeness of God we create falls short, distorting the glory of God and misleading people as to what he's really like?

Man-made images of God rouse God's jealousy. Look again at verse 9, "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God." God's jealousy is a hard concept to understand, because we think of jealousy in such negative terms. That's why we call it "the green-eyed monster." But we all know that while some jealousy is indeed rooted in selfishness, there is an appropriate kind of jealousy that's rooted in passionate love. God's jealousy is not the insecure, insane, or possessive human jealousy we all disdain, but rather it's the intensely caring devotion he has to the objects of his love. A God who isn't jealous over his people is as contemptible as a husband who doesn't care when his wife is unfaithful to him. Now we might say, "But why would God be jealous of our depictions of him? Again, this is not about worshiping other gods. We're still worshiping the true God, but we're just using an image of him to help us."

One of the things about God is that he's jealous for his name. Part of God's jealousy is zeal to protect and maintain his own glory. So when we use an image of God in our worship, we rouse his jealous passion, because we're worshiping a distorted image of who he is. God cares as much about our worship of him being pure as he does about it being exclusive.

Man-made representations of God have consequences for ourselves and those around us. The second commandment goes on to spell this out: " &hellip for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments."

This commandment contrasts those who hate God with those who love God. Now this is a bit strange, because since when did we ever talk about hating God? How did we get from worshiping images of the true God to hating the true God? Here's how: those who make images of the true God and use them in worship will end up not only with a distorted image of God but also with a distorted image of what he wants from them. And that will get passed on to their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. He's not saying he's going to punish your family and your descendants for your sin; he's saying your choice to worship an image of him will infect your family with a disease which results in them hating him. You set them on a trajectory; at first you're not far off but the farther out you go, the further away from God you get. That sounds extreme but is exactly what happens. Let me tell you something: it is a solemn and dangerous thing to pass on to your children a wrong conception of God.

But there is another contrast here. Notice that while the disease of God-hatred continues to the third and fourth generation, on the flip side, the lovingkindness of God extends out to a thousand generations towards those who love him and keep his commands! Isn't that wild? A thousand generations is a very, very long time—longer than recorded human history! This seems to mean that God is far more interested in blessing people than in judging people. It's like the scales are tipped; God's character is weighted towards mercy. It reminds me of Psalm 30:5: "His anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime." What a great motive this is to keep the second commandment! We infect a thousand generations with a love and obedience towards God.

How can we apply this to our lives today?

You might be wondering how all of this might apply to us today. If you look around this church building, you won't find a lot of physical representations of God. That might be different if we went to another part of the world, but we don't have this problem, right? But what if we looked a little closer and deeper? Last week we talked about idols of the heart and how we worship other gods like family or money or sports. I wonder if we do something similar that relates more to the second commandment. How do we fall into the trap of worshiping the right God in the wrong way? I believe we can do that in several ways.

We worship the right God in the wrong way whenever we place seeing above hearing. One of the problems with physical images is that they can so easily distract us from listening to God's Word. Moses made a point of this in Deuteronomy 4 when he reminds Israel that upon Mt. Sinai they couldn't see God, but they could hear him. He said, "Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice" (4:12). The way God revealed himself at Mt. Sinai wasn't through a visible image but through an audible word. This tells us something about how God wants to be worshiped. Instead of looking, he wants us listening. This is sometimes hard for us to swallow, because we live in such a visual age. To accommodate that, we bring big screens into the church and have banners and props and drama. Many of us are more visual learners and we feel these kinds of things communicate to us more powerfully than the spoken word. I don't believe visual communication is necessarily bad, unless it somehow distracts us from hearing the word of God. It can do that, so we need to be careful.

We worship the right God in the wrong way whenever we make a particular expression of worship more important than the essence of worship. The expression of worship has to do with style; the essence of worship has to do with God. We all have preferences in worship style, don't we? I hear about them from time to time. Someone comes up to me and says, "The music is too loud." Someone comes up to me the next minute and says, "The music is too mellow." The next Sunday someone comes up to me and says, "We need to sing more hymns." Someone else a minute later says, "We need to be more contemporary." It goes on and on. And across the nation churches have been divided over this issue. Whenever our focus shifts from the person of God to the style of worship we're in danger of breaking the second commandment. Whenever we exalt a style to the place where we say, "I just can't worship unless it happens in this way or that way," then something is wrong. God is bigger than any worship style. Whatever our preference is, as long as it exalts the true God and focuses our attention and adoration on him, we should thank God for it.

We worship the right God in the wrong way whenever we imagine God to be someone we can manipulate. One of the reasons people in history loved to make images of God was that it allowed them to manipulate God. They could take them with them. The thinking was, If I do this or that, then I'll be able to get the god to do what I want. We tend to do the same thing. We want a user-friendly god who will adapt to our desires and purposes. We think, If I do this, he'll do that. If I pray a certain way, he'll give me what I ask for. If I have enough faith, he'll heal me or make me rich. If I follow God's priorities for parenting, my children will grow up and be good Christians. If I have my quiet time each morning, God will bless my day. Whenever we try to manipulate God with actions, we're breaking the second commandment because we're imagining him to be something he's not. God won't be captured, contained, assigned, or managed by anyone or anything.

We worship the right God in the wrong way whenever we worship God for some of his attributes but leave out others. Some people want a God of love. So they focus on his love and compassion and mercy and leave out things like his holiness and his justice and the reality of both heaven and hell. Others want a big God who is holy and sovereign and way above and beyond any of us. So they focus on that and leave out the idea that God is also close to us; he's not just our ruler—he's also our Father.

A few years back, hundreds of women gathered in Minnesota because they were tired of worshiping a patriarchal construct of God. So they gathered to reimagine the true God in feminist terms. They didn't go so far as to deny the person of Jesus Christ. They still saw themselves as Christians. But they wanted a more female-friendly God, so they gave God a new name: Sophia. That's the feminine name for Wisdom. They emphasized his feminine qualities. That's an extreme example of worshiping God for some of his attributes but leaving out others.

We worship the right God in the wrong way whenever we divorce our concept of God from the product it produces in our lives. Worshiping God in the right way impacts the way we live our lives. Worship brings us into an encounter with the living God, and that encounter will change us if it's authentic. We live in a country where scores of people would claim to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, but when asked about how that relationship really impacts their lives and their decisions, they are silent. If you or I think we can come in here and sing a few songs, pray a few prayers, feel some warm feelings, maybe even get really convicted by the sermon, but then we just go out and live the way we want to live, we might think we're worshiping the right God, but I'm not sure.


Do you know what's strange about all of this? Here's a mystery: the God who told us not to make an image of himself has, in fact, given us an image of himself. Do you know who that is? It's Jesus. In the Book of Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God" (1:15). The writer of Hebrews says Jesus is "the exact representation of [God's] nature" (1:3). And Jesus himself said, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

Now we don't know what Jesus looked like, and we don't worship a physical image of Jesus, but in order to worship the right God in the right way, we need to focus on the person of Jesus. When we focus on the person of Jesus, we find ourselves becoming more and more like him. This brings us back right where we started. The privilege and the responsibility go hand in hand; you can't separate the two. When you worship the right God in the right way, your worship will be centered on the person and work of Jesus, and that will lead to a transformed life.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Mark Mitchell served as Pastor at Central Peninsula Church for 35 years and is now the Executive Director of the Bay Area School of Ministry (BASOM), a ministry seeking to raise up pastors and ministry leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Sermon Outline:


I. What is the meaning of the second commandment?

II. What are the reasons for the second commandment?

III. How can we apply this to our lives today?