Shorter Catechism Qs. 49–52

Q. 49. Which is the second commandment?

A. The second commandment is, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven 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: Thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Q. 50. What is required in the second commandment? A. The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.

Q. 51. What is forbidden in the second commandment? A. The second commandment forbiddeth the worshiping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his Word.

Q. 52. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment? A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he hath to his own worship.

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“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)

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Lev 10:1–2)

See Deuteronomy 12:1–14

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Hang a picture of Jesus in your home, and your sins will be visited upon your children and your children’s children.

I'm sure I have your attention now!

But, surely, this is a groundless exaggeration. Isn’t it? Indeed, I do not think there is another commandment which elicits the responses “But, wait, no way, I don’t buy it, I can’t accept it” as much as the Second Commandment. However, I hope you will consider the source. It was the LORD who warned Israel about making images, and it was the LORD who warned them of the effects that making images will have upon their children. Apparently, the LORD thinks much more seriously about making images than we do. If so, before we take issue with the Second Commandment, we need to pause and consider what it is about this commandment that we cannot say, “Yes, your will be done!” but say, “I don’t think so!” Indeed, it is not that the LORD is unreasonable as much as we are not seeing the dangers as clearly as we should.

But what’s wrong with making images? The Tabernacle itself incorporated into its architecture and its décor certain pictorial representations as well as graven works. But they never became the objects of worship or devotion. Indeed, Scripture does not forbid painting or sculpture for artistic or entertainment purposes. What the Second Commandment forbids is making of any images or representation as a means by which we worship God. Because when we do that, then the works of our hands, and not the Creator, become the objects of our devotion.

The problem is that we hardly think about the Second Commandment these days. It’s not uncommon to find pictures of Jesus at our local Christian bookstores. Indeed, I grew up in churches that didn’t think twice about having pictures of Jesus. So from my earliest childhood, the pictures of Jesus — but whose face is this, really? — were burned into my impressionable mind. To this day these images often flood my mind when I pray. Perhaps I was more impressionable than others of my age. But thanks to such cavalier disregard for God’s law, I struggle to this day to get rid of these images in my mind. My heart is bound to the works of human hands for devotion. It is a form of idolatry, isn’t it? The second half of Romans chapter 1 has something to say about this. And, just in case you’re wondering, it’s nothing good.

But the real question, actually, is who can best decide how we can worship God. Is it God or man? God decides. He tells us in his word how we should worship and how we should not worship. That is, worship is not about out creativity. It is not about what we find attractive or appropriate. God tells us what is right and proper way of worshipping him, and we must obey.

Deuteronomy 12:1–14 gives Israel instructions about worshipping God in the Promised Land. The on-going emphasis is “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” (v.4) and “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes” (v.8). That we are New Testament Christians does not change the fact that we worship the same God who spoke these words, a God who is pleased with our humble obedience rather than “doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” This principle, as the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to write, is the crucial principle of worship. Where worship is concerned, we must not be driven by the whims of our imagination, but obey God’s word.

And since the LORD has enjoined this commandment with the duties of parents for their children (“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”), we should briefly consider what this commandment teaches us about parenting. The parents’ duty, first and foremost, is to teach their children to worship the LORD according to God’s word. God reaches our heart through our mind. Lasting and true changes come only when our mind is soaked in God’s word that results in the changed affections of the heart. That is why hearing the great testimonies of spiritual heroes can momentarily challenge us spiritually, but does not bring about a true change. Listening to Christian music can move us, sometimes deeply. But, again, unless the mind is gripped by the word of God, no lasting change comes.

Every Christian parent, then, should be catechizing their children so that the word of God takes deep root in their children’s mind, and ultimately, in their heart. In this way, we will leave a legacy of blessing for our children. You cannot pass off this duty to your pastor, church elders, or youth pastors. The LORD has given you, parents, this task to fulfill.

This post began with a startling statement: “Hang a picture of Jesus in your home, and your sins will be visited upon your children and your children’s children.” It really wasn’t an exaggeration, for the Second Commandment’s great aim is to teach the parents the importance of teaching their children how to worship God according to his word. Indeed, neglect this duty, and the consequence of that spiritual dereliction will be visited upon their children and their children’s children.

So, where should you start? Start with the Shorter Catechism! Saturate your heart and the heart of your children with God’s word rightly interpreted. And look for the fruit the LORD will bring to bear!