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Second Commandment Issues--Art, Plays, and Movies of Jesus
(Make No Graven Images, or, Make No Idols?)
Copyright © 2004 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

"You shall not make for yourself an idol (a carved/engraved image that is worshipped as a god), or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth." (Exodus 20:4, NASB)

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." (Exodus 20:4 KJV)

Introduction to the Second Commandment

May believers photograph their children and hang those pictures on the wall without violating the second of the Ten Commandments? May they videotape a wedding of a family member for viewing years later? May a believer attend an Easter play in which Jesus is portrayed by an actor?

All these questions grow out of a concern and a sincere desire to be properly obedient to the Second Commandment. For this reason, the conclusion that any believer ultimately draws should not become a cause of scorn, ridicule, or condemnation from others. Still, we must faithfully explore the Word and honestly interpret it to come to as correct a knowledge of the commandment as God intended for us to have when He wrote it with His own finger onto the stone tablet.


The First Commandment is an express statement, "You shall have no other gods before Me." We know from a preponderance of Scripture that God means that we should not esteem the starry heavens as gods, nor the storms of nature, nor a king, nor our family, nor our imaginations and myths, nor even pursue our own sinful pleasures as if they had godlike importance. There is only one true God. All the other commandments instruct us how to obey the First Commandment.

And this is the context of the Second Commandment. Put no other gods ahead of the true God.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments." (Exodus 20:4-6, NASB)

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) correctly translates verse 4, "You shall not make for yourself an idol." Regrettably the King James Version (KJV) translated "pesel" to read "carved (graven) image" which is more properly understood to mean "idol." Had the word been "pasal" the KJV translation would have been more correct, however, the word "pesel" is most properly translated as "idol" or "idolatrous image".

In the First Commandment God informs the world that they must have no other gods but Him. In the Second Commandment, he demands that they create no artificial representations of any gods, including the true God.

Why not create a representation of the only true God? God, through Moses, interprets the meaning of the First and Second Commandments for us.

"Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form--only a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it. So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (Deuteronomy 4:12-19)

God is without form, He is not a man, animal, or object; He is a spirit, so no image or representation can reflect Him. Further, the worship of any image as if it were God, even the worship of the moon or stars, things man does not create, is forbidden.

Is All Art and Photography Forbidden by the Second Commandment?

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6, NASB)

'You shall not make for yourselves idols, nor shall you set up for yourselves an image or a sacred pillar, nor shall you place a figured stone in your land to bow down to it; for I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 26:1)

"So watch yourselves, that you do not forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a graven image in the form of anything against which the LORD your God has commanded you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. When you become the father of children and children's children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the LORD your God so as to provoke Him to anger, call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed." (Deuteronomy 4:23-26)

That all the above verses mean no one is to make an object to bow down to, serve, and worship is clear from the text. In other words, no man is permitted to make a "god" with his own hands, carved, painted, molded, extruded, or imagined. However, is it possible that these passages also mean that no person is permitted to make artwork or to use photography? Would this include artwork used to decorate churches or the pulpit?

Before you draw a hasty conclusion one direction or the other, consider carefully the words used in the Second Commandment. "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth." When separated from the second half of the command which instructs us not to worship these "idols", the statement appears to be a prohibition against all artwork. "You shall not make Ö any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth." Is God saying, "make no artwork that represents any object in heaven, on earth, or in the seas" or is God saying, "make no image for the purpose of worshipping it"?

We turn to other Scripture to assist us in this interpretation.

"You shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet material and fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim, the work of a skillful workman." (Exodus 26:31)

Moreover, he made the veil of blue and purple and scarlet material, and fine twisted linen; he made it with cherubim, the work of a skillful workman. Exodus 26:35

Cherubim are real living beings created by God to serve Him in heaven and on earth (Genesis 3:24, 2 Kings 19:15, 1 Chronicles 13:6, Psalms 80:1, Ezekiel 10:17). Yet God ordered that these be woven into the veil for the tabernacle by a skillful workman.

Now Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; its length was two and a half cubits, and its width one and a half cubits, and its height one and a half cubits; and he overlaid it with pure gold inside and out, and made a gold molding for it all around. He cast four rings of gold for it on its four feet; even two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side of it. He made poles of acacia wood and overlaid them with gold. He put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry it. He made a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide.

He made two cherubim of gold; he made them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat; one cherub at the one end and one cherub at the other end; he made the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at the two ends. The cherubim had their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces toward each other; the faces of the cherubim were toward the mercy seat. (Exodus 37:1-9)

God ordered that the mercy seat be covered with hammered gold images of cherubim, their wings covering the seat (Exodus 25:1,18). These carved and hammered wood and golden images of heavenly creatures were to reside on the mercy seat of the perhaps the most sacred of artifacts used in genuine worship of the true God--and these were not considered idols. Nor was this religious art considered to be a violation of the Second Commandment.

Then he made the lampstand of pure gold. He made the lampstand of hammered work, its base and its shaft; its cups, its bulbs and its flowers were of one piece with it. There were six branches going out of its sides; three branches of the lampstand from the one side of it and three branches of the lampstand from the other side of it; three cups shaped like almond blossoms, a bulb and a flower in one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, a bulb and a flower in the other branch--so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. In the lampstand there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, its bulbs and its flowers; and a bulb was under the first pair of branches coming out of it, and a bulb under the second pair of branches coming out of it, and a bulb under the third pair of branches coming out of it, for the six branches coming out of the lampstand. Their bulbs and their branches were of one piece with it; the whole of it was a single hammered work of pure gold.

The lampstand was decorated with gold flowers, bulbs, and almond blossoms. Representations of objects found on earth. From this we know that God had not prohibited men from using artwork to decorate sacred furniture or dwellings with images of heavenly beings and earthly objects. In short, religious artworks were required to be used in the first tabernacle.

From the very outset, the Jews never interpreted artwork, even artwork used in religious services and covered with angelic beings and carved images of plants, to be in any way a violation of the Second Commandment. Such works of hammered gold were not idols because they were not worshipped.

Solomon Builds the First Temple, the House of the Lord

The house, that is, the nave in front of the inner sanctuary, was forty cubits long. There was cedar on the house within, carved in the shape of gourds and open flowers; all was cedar, there was no stone seen.

Then he prepared an inner sanctuary within the house in order to place there the ark of the covenant of the LORD. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits in length, twenty cubits in width, and twenty cubits in height, and he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar.

So Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold. And he drew chains of gold across the front of the inner sanctuary, and he overlaid it with gold. He overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar which was by the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold.

Also in the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olive wood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the one wing of the cherub and five cubits the other wing of the cherub; from the end of one wing to the end of the other wing were ten cubits. The other cherub was ten cubits; both the cherubim were of the same measure and the same form. The height of the one cherub was ten cubits, and so was the other cherub. He placed the cherubim in the midst of the inner house, and the wings of the cherubim were spread out, so that the wing of the one was touching the one wall, and the wing of the other cherub was touching the other wall. So their wings were touching each other in the center of the house. He also overlaid the cherubim with gold.

Then he carved all the walls of the house round about with carved engravings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, inner and outer sanctuaries. He overlaid the floor of the house with gold, inner and outer sanctuaries. For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood, the lintel and five-sided doorposts. So he made two doors of olive wood, and he carved on them carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold; and he spread the gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees. So also he made for the entrance of the nave four-sided doorposts of olive wood and two doors of cypress wood; the two leaves of the one door turned on pivots, and the two leaves of the other door turned on pivots. He carved on it cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; and he overlaid them with gold evenly applied on the engraved work. (1 Kings 6:17-35)

Then he made two sculptured cherubim in the room of the holy of holies and overlaid them with gold. The wingspan of the cherubim was twenty cubits; the wing of one, of five cubits, touched the wall of the house, and its other wing, of five cubits, touched the wing of the other cherub. (2 Chronicles 3:10-11)

Within the room called the Holy of Holies were placed two massive cherubim statues, carved from olive wood and covered with gold. These angels were so large that their wings touched one wall to the other and met in the center. Gourds, flowers in bloom, and palm trees also decorated other rooms and even the temple doors. None of these graven (carved) images were idols since they were there not to be worshipped, but to point the worshippers to remember the power of the God who created all that these things represented.

Solomon commissioned Hiram, "a worker in bronze; and he was filled with wisdom and understanding and skill for doing any work in bronze", to make the utensils and many of the furnishings of the temple. Decorating these utensils and furniture were animal carvings, plant carvings, and of course cherubim, things which are in heaven and on the earth. This is to say little about the twelve oxen statuettes that held the massive "sea" basin. Nor will we take time to dwell on the twelve lion statues that surrounded Solomon's throne of which the Bible says, "nothing like it was made for any other kingdom." All these animals, plants, and angels represented things in heaven and on the earth.

This was the design of the stands: they had borders, even borders between the frames, and on the borders which were between the frames were lions, oxen and cherubim; and on the frames there was a pedestal above, and beneath the lions and oxen were wreaths of hanging work. Now each stand had four bronze wheels with bronze axles, and its four feet had supports; beneath the basin were cast supports with wreaths at each side. Its opening inside the crown at the top was a cubit, and its opening was round like the design of a pedestal, a cubit and a half; and also on its opening {there were} engravings, and their borders were square, not round. The four wheels were underneath the borders, and the axles of the wheels were on the stand. And the height of a wheel was a cubit and a half.

The workmanship of the wheels was like the workmanship of a chariot wheel. Their axles, their rims, their spokes, and their hubs were all cast. Now there were four supports at the four corners of each stand; its supports were part of the stand itself. On the top of the stand there was a circular form half a cubit high, and on the top of the stand its stays and its borders were part of it. He engraved on the plates of its stays and on its borders, cherubim, lions and palm trees, according to the clear space on each, with wreaths all around. He made the ten stands like this: all of them had one casting, one measure and one form. (1 Kings 7:28-37)

Even Moses was commanded to make religious artwork in the form of earthly animals.

The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. So the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live." And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

This bronze snake was not an idol because it was not worshipped. Of course, later in history the Jews moved the bronze serpent into their place of worship and began burning incense to it, making it an object of worship instead of just an object of art. King Hezekiah was forced to destroy it as he did many of the places of idol worship (the high places). This is a dramatic example of how something God commended (artwork in the form of a bronze snake) became a hated idol which God forbade.

Hezekiah Reigns over Judah

Now it came about in the third year of Hoshea, the son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem; and his mother's name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. He did right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.

He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel; so that after him there was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among those who were before him. For he clung to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:1-6)

From this we can see that God did not forbid the making of artwork (images of things in heaven or on earth) so long as the images were never worshipped. This is why Christians may take photographs of their family and friends, video tape family vacations, and paint portraits of one another. For these images are not objects of worship, but rather simple representations or likenesses of those objects and persons who are on the earth.

Men Are Made in the Image of God

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:26,27)

Man himself is an "image" of God. God is spirit, of course, so man is merely a physical representation of certain attributes of God. Nonetheless, every time one person sees another, he must be reminded that man has been made in the likeness of God.

Men do not worship men. Men, therefore, are not idols, even though they are all made in the image and likeness of God. This is why it is no more improper to paint portraits of men as it is to make likenesses of palm trees and oxen or even cherubim.

Jesus came to earth as a man. Men are made in the image of God, yet it is not sin to take photographs of them. Had someone painted a portrait of Jesus, of His human form, it would not have been a sin. For man to look upon the face of God would have resulted in the manís death (Exodus 33:20). Yet men looked on Jesusí face without dying. This is because Jesus was a man. God chose to cover Himself in human form and walk on the earth.

Is it wrong for men to make movies of Moses? Most Christians would say it was fine to do so as long as we did not worship the image or the film. Similarly, no one would find fault with having a pastor dress up as Paul and read one of Paulís epistles with all the emotion and emphasis that Paul himself might have done.

Is it wrong to do the same with the role of Jesus? Jesus was a man. He did come in the form of human flesh. Yes, He was also God, but He did not come to earth as spirit, without form. What men saw was a flesh and blood man, truly human. They talked with Him, ate with Him, accepted His touch for healing, and even injured Him for their own purposes. When men today draw or represent Jesus, they represent His humanity, not His deity. Just as any photograph of a family member represents the personís body and not his spirit. Can any person be split off from his spirit? Of course not so long as they live, just as it is not possible to separate Jesus from His deity. A representation of Jesus no matter how imperfect, such as a mental image invoked by a reading of the Gospels or church play explaining the meaning of Easter or a film of His earthly ministry, does nothing to separate Him from His deity for that is not even possible.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. Ö

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:14,18)

Men saw and interacted with Jesus, as if He were another man, for over thirty years. He reflected the attributes of God, not in His physical appearance as many erroneously suppose, but in His character and behavior, full of grace and truth. And though we have not seen the Father, Jesus has explained Him in word and in deed. Imperfect images of Jesusí physical appearance do not detract from what Jesus said and did.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that it is not a sin to portray Jesus in plays, film, or artwork. For in this we represent His humanity, such as would have been visible to any visitor to His carpentry shop, and as would have been remembered by His disciples for as long as they lived on the earth. Yet, to worship such an image, to bow down and serve it, to burn incense to it, that would be the sin of idolatry for such images are manmade objects.

Imperfect Images

Since we do not have a genuine portrait of Jesus from 2000 years ago, and we have no detailed description of His appearance, are not all attempts to portray Him in error and therefore improper?

Similarly we do not have any portraits, sculptures, or detailed descriptions of Moses, Jonahís whale, King David, Goliath, Peter, Noah, or even the cross on which Jesus was sacrificed. Yet this does not stop us from representing them in drawings and in film. No one expects an artistís conception of such historical figures to be accurate, that is not the purpose of the drawing. No one expects actors to be twin images for the personage they are playing, for this too is not the purpose of the drama.

What did Jesus look like? Like the typical Israelite of His day, same hair color, same eye color. Just typical.

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. (Isaiah 53:2)

Indeed, Judas had to single Him out to the guards who had come to arrest Him because His physical appearance was like any other man.

Just as the symbol of the empty cross which we hang in almost every sanctuary in almost every church in the world is not meant to be an exact duplicate of the original, paintings and dramas of Jesus are not meant to be exact duplicates of Him. Worship of the cross and worship of the paintings and films is not the objective or the purpose. They are reminders of what happened and what He did.


Historically the Jews used images of heavenly creatures and earthly objects in their places of worship to remind them of the power of God. These reminders were not worshipped and therefore were not idols which would violate the Second Commandment. Today, we see images of the cross and even scenes depicting the life of Jesus and the apostles reminding us of the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus. These reminders are not worshipped, but they do call us to remember the teachings of the Word which tell us of His attributes, His grace, His glory, and His words.

Just as happened with the bronze serpent of Moses, should we ever find ourselves revering the object, it becomes for us an idol. This would be just as true of living family members as it would be of their photographic likenesses. These are persons and things we must never worship.

Let us remember instead that God is spirit and that His son died for our sins. Let us serve and worship the One of whom the Scriptures speak and impart knowledge, the author and finisher of our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ.

NOTE: In Ezekiel 4 and 5 we find that the prophet was called upon by God to orchestrate a year-long, one act, mini play, a tableau. Ezekiel himself was the only living "actor", and as such he was obligated to visually represent the acts of God when God hid His face from Jerusalem. To read more extensively about this event, go to the article, Ezekiel's Drama.

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