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).

 

Reading

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 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. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”?

Or again,

“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”?

And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

In speaking of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

But about the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever,
and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

He also says,

“In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”

To which of the angels did God ever say,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet”?

Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:1–14)

Questions

Why did early Christians seek to rid the church of icons or images?

In what ways can Christmas art (e.g., nativity scenes, paintings, ornaments, etc.) enhance our worship of Christ?

Christmas Carol

Good Christian Men, Rejoice
—Heinrich Suso; English Translation by John M. Neale

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Give ye heed to what we say:
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow,
And He is in the manger now.
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Joy! Joy!
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He hath opened the heav’nly door,
And man is blessed evermore.
Christ was born for this!
Christ was born for this!

Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice;
Now ye need not fear the grave:
Peace! Peace!
Jesus Christ was born to save!
Calls you one and calls you all
To gain His everlasting hall.
Christ was born to save!
Christ was born to save!