This year, our youth ministry is putting on the musical Godspell. We do this musical every few years, and of course one of the biggest questions is always “Who’s going to be playing Jesus?” The role obviously requires good acting skills, but more importantly, the actor himself must live a life in private—as in, when he’s not on stage portraying Jesus—that is worthy of the gospel. The build-up to the announcement, however, has sparked some other discussion as well: is it sinful to portray Christ in a physical form at all? One very good friend of mine has come to the conclusion that it is, and if he had been asked to be Jesus in the show, he would have declined. I, on the other hand, think that in certain cases it is okay. One of the key texts in examining this issue is Exodus 20:4-6, also known as the second commandment:
Exodus 20:4-6 “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.”
Some people make the comment that this particular commandment seems to be almost a repeat of the first commandment. I listened to Al Mohler’s fabulous sermon on this topic a few weeks ago (you can listen to it here, and find a very helpful summary here), and he made some very helpful distinctions between the two commandments: the first tells us that we are to worship only God, and the second tells us that he will be worshipped as he wants. The first speaks to the identity and exclusivity of God, and the second shows us how we are to rightly worship him.
In his last post on the first commandment (if you haven’t read it yet, click here), Josh dealt with a lot of the problems of idols. Some will say, “Sam, he already addressed your topic. This post is just going to be redundant.” But Josh was dealing only with one aspect of idols: what we identify with and spend our time doing. But there is another, more obvious kind of idol, the kind that instantly pops to mind when someone says the word “idol”: a little golden statue of a cow or Buddha or Apollo or something like that that people bow down to worship. “Exactly, Sam,” some will say, “This isn’t applicable to us. People don’t do that anymore, at least not in the civilized world.” But they do, and they do it every day, and in Christian churches across America. They are known as “icons.”
Now, I have heard several very strong arguments for the use of icons in worship, and all the arguments hinge on one thing: the icons themselves are not worshipped, but they merely provide visual aids to help us worship God. I can understand those arguments, and they have a lot of merit. However, I still don’t believe they address all the issues, and I think that the basic argument against the use of icons comes down to what Dr. Mohler said in his sermon: the second commandment shows us how we are to rightly worship God, how he chooses to be worshipped. And the way we are to rightly worship God is not through the use of icons.
I have heard it said that one of the reasons for the decline of American culture is the rise of the visual over the verbal. Our culture has become so infatuated with visual media (i.e. television and movies) that it has lost its ability to value verbal media (i.e. newspapers and books). The problem is that God has chosen to reveal himself through verbal, not visual means. In fact, he places an extremely high value on the verbal.
John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
God identifies himself as the Word. Not as an image, but as an inherently verbal being. And that’s how he chooses to be worshipped. He doesn’t want to be worshipped “through” something like a crucifix, he wants to be worshipped for who he is. Verbally. Worshipping him through visuals dishonors him.
Why is this important? Dr. Mohler made the point that “to worship the right God in the wrong way is not honoring to him.” As the Westminster Catechism states, the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” When we worship through icons, we are not worshipping him as he demands to be worshipped, so we are not glorifying or honoring him.
Another significant problem with worshipping through icons is that our hearts are, in an illustration that C.J. Mahaney once used, idol factories. Humans have to worship something, and thus we are churning out idols left and right. Even good things (such as relationships, computers, or music) can be turned into idols by our sinful hearts. And one of the easiest things to do when worshipping through icons is to subtly transition to actually worshipping the icons. This can be viewed in its extremes in the Catholic Church, where crucifixes are treasured and prayed to without any thought being given to Christ himself. Other denominations have similar problems as well. The majority of people in these denominations have forgotten that the icons are meant to spur on worship of Christ, and they merely worship the icon. Our hearts do this easily and naturally, perhaps too easily and naturally for it to be safe to use icons.
“Okay Sam, I agree with everything you’ve said so far,” you might be saying at this point, “but it seems like you’re destroying your own position here. Didn’t you say at the beginning of this essay that you believed it was okay to portray Jesus in a physical form?” Ah, now that is where a distinction shows up. Al Mohler made the statement that “Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, is our only icon.” What he meant is that the actual person of Jesus Christ is what we should worship, not any images of Christ, but himself as a person and as God.
However, are we worshipping the portrayal of Jesus in Godspell? Is that Jesus an image that we’re worshipping? I don’t believe it is, and here’s why: we are not worshipping the image of Jesus as portrayed by James Maresco (who got the part in this production). This image of Jesus is merely meant to tell a story, to illustrate a point. If anyone began worshipping James/Jesus, then that would be a sin. They would be breaking the second commandment. However, if people merely view James/Jesus as a vehicle for portraying a truth from God’s Word, I don’t believe this is in violation of the second commandment. The same goes for pictures of Jesus in Bible storybooks. I don’t think that anyone, even a little kid, would look at a picture of Jesus found in The Beginner’s Bible and start to worship that picture of Jesus. The pictures are merely a vehicle, a means to tell a story. The purpose is not to worship them. So I don’t believe that such portrayals are sinful.
In conclusion, the best application of all that I’ve discussed in this post here is to recognize, as Dr. Mohler said, that we all are natural-born idolaters. We are constantly looking for something to worship, and our sinful hearts loves to grab even things that are gifts from God and turn them into idols. So our first instinct must be to distrust our hearts, and constantly be examining ourselves to determine whether or not we are turning this thing into an idol. We must ensure that we are, at all times, worshipping only the true and living God, and that we are worshipping him as he wants to be worshipped.