Christian Research Institute

The Heart of Christmas – Devotional – Day 16

Are Images Idolatrous?

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation
of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided
purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

—Hebrews 1:3

It is not at all uncommon to see images such as Caravaggio’s Madonna and Child or Da Vinci’s Virgin and Child in magazines, in movies, or in manuscripts. Which begs the question: Are such images of Jesus idolatrous? Byzantine Emperor Leo III apparently thought so. As such, in the eight century AD he ordered the abolition of icons (revered images or sculptures) of Jesus, Mary, angels, and saints. This sparked the great Iconoclastic Controversy, so called because those who supported the eradication of icons, often on the grounds that they violated the second commandment’s prohibition of graven images, were known as iconoclasts or “image breakers.” The controversy sparked in the fourth century persists to this very day. As such, the question emerges “Do the images of Jesus really violate the second commandment?”

To begin with, if the second commandment condemns images of Jesus, then it condemns making images of anything at all. Therefore, God would have been guilty of contradiction Himself because He commanded the Israelites to adorn the Ark of the Covenant with the images of cherubim (Exodus 25:18–20).

Furthermore, in context, the commandment is not an injunction against making “graven images,” but an injunction against worshiping them. As such, God warns, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4–5, emphasis added).

Finally, if viewing an image necessarily leads to idolatry, then the incarnation of Christ was the greatest temptation of all. Yet Jesus thought it appropriate for people to look on Him and worship Him as God (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:52). That worship, however, was to be directed to His person, not to His appearance. Indeed, idolatry lies not in the making of images, but in the worship of man-made images in the place of the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

This Christmas season, may images of Jesus, Mary, old Saint Nick, and angels praising God on high cause you to worship the incarnate God saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).