The Second Commandment: False Worship Forbidden

The Second Commandment: False Worship Forbidden

If God has prescribed the correct way to worship Him, then we cannot simply ignore that command. That is emphasized in Hebrews 10:25 where saints are commanded not to neglect to gather together. Barna did a survey to see how the church in America has responded to the recent lockdowns. They learned that 40% of Christians watched the service of their home church in the previous four weeks. 23% watched the services of other churches (instead of or in addition to the service of their home church). But, it is the last statistic that is the most discouraging to pastors. They found that 48% of Christians had not participated in any kind of online service. 

Unfortunately, that was the reaction that many pastors feared would be the case. When people were forced into isolation, the virtual worship that was initially intriguing was quickly replaced by other activities. Sundays were no longer distinguished from the rest of the week. Routines of gathering for worship and fellowship were replaced by another day for self-indulgence. The Barna survey also revealed that the preaching of God’s Word is not as valued as pastors would like to think it is. We all learned that, given the opportunity to scroll past our sermon, the overwhelming majority would decide to do so within roughly three seconds. 

If the first commandment is about worshiping the right God, the second commandment is about worshiping the one true God rightly. We considered how this is a command to maintain pure worship. God has revealed the parameters of pure worship and the consequences of violating His will.

Read Exodus 20:1-6

We looked at the positive side of this command last week, but now we will turn to the negative side. 

The way in which you protect pure worship is by eliminating whatever is false.

I. Understanding False Worship That Is Forbidden

Even when someone recognizes the God of Scripture as the one true God, there is still the need to worship Him in the way that He has prescribed. Although Israel had rejected the worship of the false Egyptian gods (Sun god “Ra”, earth god “Geb and Nut”, god of the air “Shu”, etc.), they still had the assumption that the Lord God would be worshiped through imagery. 

The Israelites assumed that, as Egypt and their neighbors worshiped various gods through physical displays, they too would worship Yahweh in a similar fashion. But, God made it clear that you could not worship the Creator through His creation. So they instructed Aaron to create a golden calf that would represent the God who brought them out of Egypt.

The tragicomedy is recorded for us in Exodus 32. Moses remained on top of Mount Sinai for a total of forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). The people had grown tired of waiting for him to return, so they called upon Aaron to make “Elohim” for them “who shall go before us”. 

“Elohim” can be a reference to a plurality of false gods, or it can also refer to the Lord God. Context determines the proper translation. Is it uppercase “God” or lowercase “gods”? By creating the golden calf they either violated the first or the second commandment.

Aaron collected their gold jewelry and crafted a golden calf. The idea is that this image would go in front of them wherever they went. Aaron also built an altar before it to facilitate their worship through it. If it were many false gods, we would expect more than a single image to have been created. But the golden calf was to serve as a symbol of their loyalty to the God who brought them out of Egypt (Exodus 32:4).

Worshiping A Mental Misrepresentation of God

That was, in fact, the best they could do. Mankind is only capable of making a misrepresentation of God. Any and every attempt to portray the Lord is going to be inadequate. They cannot create anything that provides a proper representation of God. To be capable of doing so would put them in the place of God.

It is just as forbidden for us to do this with our minds as well. Our imaginations are fallen too (Romans 1:21). We must not invent our own ways of thinking about God because we are certain of coming up with nothing but corrupt ideas. At best we can only reduce God to our level. In other words, any image we create in our minds will be a false notion of God. 

We might come with the best of intentions, but we would only introduce idolatry. This is different than the idolatry forbidden in the first commandment because it has the correct God in view. But we are forbidden from worshiping the correct God with incorrect worship.

This is why our theology is so critical. A right understanding of God that is derived from his revelation is what safeguards our minds. In the end, mental images are not all that different from physical images. They both lead us away from the God who has revealed Himself in His Word.

Now, I should clarify that our imagination can be used in profitable ways. As we read God’s word, our minds will inevitably create pictures out of the words. The danger is not so much using our imagination at all, but inventing some picture of God with our minds that supposedly would help us deepen our worship of Him.

God is a spirit (John 4:24). He does not have a physical body. But, Scripture gives us some interesting pictures in Daniel and Revelation of light and colors emanating from God’s heavenly throne. We can’t help but picture that in our minds as we read about it. Those “pictures” of God are meant to evoke emotional responses to His glory and power. They are not provided so that we hire an artist to depict the scene for our “prayer room”.

Principles of Worship

We may even go so far as to say this command forbids all worship that is contrary to or not commanded by Scripture. Most Christians recognize and accept that it is wrong to worship in any way contrary to Scripture. This is known as the Normative Principle of Worship. It suggests that we can worship however we please as long as it is not explicitly forbidden by Scripture. The problem with this view is that creative worship is always condemned. Every example in the Bible is followed by God’s swift judgment. God takes worship very seriously!

The Regulative Principle of Worship, the principle that we subscribe to, suggests that we only worship God in the way that He has instructed. We should not get creative in the way we approach God in worship. We don’t ask the congregation to worship however they feel like worshiping. We are limited by the instruction provided in Scripture. God regulates our worship by His word.

Questions Concerning Forbidden Worship

What about images of God that are portrayed in movies or television shows? Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ was a huge hit. The Chosen is popular right now. We know that these are merely actors representing Jesus. I’m not personally of the opinion that you will be tempted to picture Jim Caviezel when you read the gospels. This has to be left as a matter of conscience. I would say the same thing about children’s books that contain images of Jesus. 

But I do think it is relevant to consider the danger. Passion plays depicting the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ began sometime before the 14th Century. They were often infused with secular ideas and concepts that filled out portions of the story that were not recorded in Scripture. This will necessarily cloud our interpretation of Scripture. We may assume the accuracy of things we saw in a play or movie or television show. But, God’s word must remain the only source of accurate knowledge about God. 

Some defended images as the “books of the laity”. They suggested that those who could not read were able to better understand theological concepts through images. But, God did not reveal Himself in images, and we ought not to think ourselves wiser than God. We should be content to learn about God through the preaching and teaching of His Word (HC Q.99). 

When images are not explicitly tied to worship, I think you need to decide for yourself what is and is not appropriate. I tend to avoid these dilemmas altogether. I do not trust my ability to discern what is and is not influencing my thinking. Will a particular image or scene unduly affect my ability to rightly interpret Scripture? God revealed Himself most perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. So I think the safest way to protect the image of Jesus, is to wait until I see Him face to face. But I do not think it is such a black and white issue that I would call it a sin to watch The Chosen

However, I want to be clear that we will never display any image of God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit in our worship services. You will never find that in our slides or bulletin. We will never show movie clips depicting Jesus in order to help us worship God. We should all agree that it is explicitly forbidden by this commandment.

False Notions About God Lead to False Worship of God

God’s design for worship has always been counter-cultural. What we win them with is what we win them to. Let us opt for the slow, patient approach of teaching the Bible bit by bit. After all, in the beginning was the Word (John 1:1), not a play, a picture, or a production.

Kevin DeYoung, The Ten Commandments

We are not left to our own guess about God. We should be leery of anyone who says, “I like to imagine God like this…” We need to consider whether that image or illustration of God is compatible with Scripture. The Bible becomes the standard by which we judge our practice, not our imaginations or feelings.

We become like what we worship! If we worship a false notion of God we are following a map that points us in the wrong direction. The result will be more corrupt worship. Therefore, we will not become more godly, but more corrupt in practice.

However, when we worship God through Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit, we recognize that we are being remade or transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).

And typically the impact of that work goes beyond the individual, even beyond the immediate family, it extends to future generations…

II. Replacing a Legacy of False Worship

God is jealous for pure worship. He possesses a fervent zeal for worship that is given according to His word. This means we ought to be passionate for His holy name. We ought to recognize the severity of God’s indignation for false worship. To offer to God anything less than He commands is to be spiritually unfaithful. God demands exclusive devotion. Everything else is adulterous and idolatrous worship.

At v.5 God warns that he will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon their children to the third or fourth generation. These are those who break the commandment, thus proving their hatred of God. Punishment, just like blessings, is tied to generations of a family unit. There are typically three to four generations in existence at any given time. It seems unfair for God to punish children for the sins of their fathers. 

In fact, it seems to contradict Deuteronomy 24:16, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” No innocent person will receive eternal punishment. The point is that successive generations tend to commit the same sins as their parents. No one will be able to make the excuse, “I learned it from watching you!” God will punish each generation for their own sins.

The Extent of God’s Mercy

But the theme shifts from judgment to mercy in v.6. Even the affliction of God is a call to repent and return to Him. The grammatical and numerical stress of this commandment falls upon the mercy that is shown to thousands. It is the keepers of the commandment who love God and pass on their love to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What’s emphasized in the passage is not the punishment, but the blessing for obedience that extends to “thousands”! 

We can easily get worked up about the corruption of the Church or State. We quickly criticize all of the ways our generation has failed at corporate and institutional levels. We love to blame the nebulous governing authorities whether they be civil or religious. And I have to admit that much of the critique is valid. 

But the primary blame lies within the home. It is our neglect of worship outside of Sunday mornings, that is creating the greatest deterrent to Christianity. It is because there are many families who have a routine of worshiping God in a church building on Sunday but do not have a routine of worshiping God in their home Monday through Saturday. When a family has abandoned regular worship, there is very little hope that the church or state will recover their faith for them.


God is perfectly holy and He must judge sin. Justice will fall upon the wicked. No false worship will ever go unpunished. But just as severe as that warning is, so is the promise of mercy that is held out to those who worship God through His Son. Only Jesus could perfectly display the image of God.

He is the image of the invisible God…all things were created through him and for him…in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-23 (ESV)

The way to reverse the legacy of false worship is to repent and come under the true proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not neglecting to worship as so many feel comfortable doing altogether. You must remain grounded in the gospel, not shifting the source of your hope to anyone or anything else. And, don’t ever lose sight of the responsibility to pass on the example of your faith to your children. That’s true on Sundays, but even more important throughout the week.