************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 96-98 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 31, 2011
Q & A 96-98
"The Second Commandment"
When the Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70 they also destroyed the temple, Israel's place of worship. They hesitated at the temple for there was fear in their hearts. In their minds this seemed a dangerous thing to do. The God of Israel might harm them. They had heard stories about this God and His mighty deeds. For some reason Israel's God had allowed them to conquer Jerusalem. But surely He would not allow the Romans to tamper with His house. So, in fear and awe, the Roman soldiers entered the temple of this strange and mysterious God. They wondered what they would see when they went into the sanctuary into which only priests had ever entered, a place where the common people never set foot. Most of all, they hesitated to go into the special room into which only the high priest would enter once a year.
When the Roman soldiers finally crept into the Holy of Holies, there was amazement and relief. For there was absolutely nothing there: no statues, no images, no idols; not a thing that gave than any real idea what this God was like. The room had only a few objects – but nothing really to look at. So, there was no mystery, nothing to be afraid of. They had a big laugh about those Jews who had been praying into thin air for all those years. The big, beautiful temple was awe-inspiring, but it was empty. What kind of religion was this?
We are looking at the second commandment today. You may realize that the Roman Catholic Church joins the first and second commandments together as one commandment; so that there are still ten commandments, they divide the tenth commandment into two commandments.
We, however, keep the first two commandments separate and apart. One of the reasons we do this is because they answer different questions. The first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me," answers the question, "Who is the God we worship?" The answer: "The God we worship is the one only true God Who alone saves us." The second commandment, "You shall not make for yourself an idol ... You shall not bow down to them or worship them," answers the question, "How are we to worship God?" The answer: "Not with images, not in our way, but in the way God commands, by coming to Jesus Christ."
I No Images of God
A When it comes to faith and religion, we humans tend to have a weak spot: We want a god we can somehow see, touch, handle, and manipulate. This is the reason the Roman Catholic churches at the time of the Reformation were filled with relics, objects, statues, and icons. For instance, many churches in Europe claimed to have a piece of the cross upon which Christ was crucified. By the 1500s there were so many bits of cross on display that John Calvin scoffed, "If all the pieces of the cross were collected into a heap they would form a good ship load."
The ten-inch Roman spikes which nailed Jesus to the cross were also much treasured relics. Eventually, a total of fourteen of these nails were proudly shown by as many churches. Of course, it is doubtful if more than four were used by the Romans.
The crown of thorns, too, began appearing in amazing quantities. There were so many thorns that it was suggested the crown must have been made from an entire hedge.
Other relics that were claimed to be the real thing were goblets filled with the blood of Jesus, the tail of the donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem, and a piece of the fish that Jesus gave to Peter.
No sermon on this topic can be complete without also mentioning the Shroud of Turin – the cloth in which Jesus was supposedly embalmed and buried. To this day, millions claim it is the real thing.
As I said, these relics all stem from the same thing: a desire to see, touch, handle, and manipulate. Somehow, fallen man thinks this helps him to believe and have faith and worship God.
B I am glad that the Roman soldiers did not find an image when they entered the Jewish temple in A.D. 70. Likewise, I think it is absolutely wonderful visitors will not find relics, statues, or icons in our church building.
I have four reasons for saying this. First, is that images, idols, and statues are against God's Word. More specifically, they are forbidden by the second commandment. God has commanded us not to make images or idols of Him.
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 ...
Second, God cannot be portrayed. It is simply impossible. God is the invisible God. God is so almighty that He cannot be shown to us in a statue or image or picture. He is beyond all human comprehension and understanding.
(Is 40:18) To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?The answer, of course, is "no one." God is the Incomparable One.
(Is 40:25) "To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One.
Third, images, pictures, and statues pervert our worship of God. In the Middle Ages the worshipers thought they were using the bits of cross, the Roman spikes, the crown of thorns, and the Shroud of Turin to get closer to God. The fact is, though, these things started to replace God. People worshiped these alongside of or in place of the one only true God.
Take Israel as an example. When the people were disobedient, God sent serpents among them and many died. They were saved only when they looked up to a bronze serpent (Num 21). It wasn't the bronze serpent itself that saved the people; instead, the New Testament makes clear that this bronze serpent represents the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus (Jn 3:14). Unfortunately, the bronze serpent was then thought to have magical powers. It reached the point that by the time of King Hezekiah the people of Israel burned incense to it. Hezekiah wisely had the serpent broken into pieces (2 Kings 18).
Fourth, we cannot have images of God for they always take away from God. They subtract, never add. They hinder, never aid. They make God something less than He really is.
When we image and portray God, worshiping Him through some visible likeness, we deface His self-portrait. Sometimes, children draw mustaches or beards on someone's picture. To do this in North Korea to the picture of their supreme leader results in punishment. To do this in some Muslim countries to the picture of Mohammed results in death. Because this is viewed as an insult that defaces the person in question. Likewise, our images of God deface God. They disfigure Him. They make Him less than He really is.
C The second commandment tells us God is a jealous God. Listen to the entire commandment:
(Ex 20:4-6) 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. (5) You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, (6) but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
God is jealous. But, of what is God jealous? He is not jealous of competitors – for He has no competitors. He is not jealous of other gods – for there are no other gods. He is the one only true God. But, nonetheless, He is jealous. He is jealous of His image. He is jealous of His worship. He guards His holiness. He becomes terribly angry when we make idols, images, and pictures of Him.
God reserves for Himself alone the right to portray Himself among men. How He is to be seen, how He will be worshiped, how He will be remembered – God Himself determines. For us this is all forbidden territory.
D As far as I know, no one in our congregation worships an image or idol of God. No one approaches God through the assistance of a holy relic or icon. This does not mean, however, that we do not break the second commandment.
In the early 80s a book was published with the title, "Your God Is Too Small." What an indictment of the Christian evangelical church. According to this book, some see God as "Meek-and-Mild"; others see Him as a "Heavenly Bosom"; still others see God as a "Resident Policeman" or a "Grand Old Man." None of these pictures, these mental images, of God measures up to the awesome view of God that is presented in the Bible.
A. W. Tozer wrote, "No religion has ever been greater than its idea of God." And, "Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God." So, congregation, I want to ask you this evening about your idea of God, your mental image of God.
Is your God big enough? Does your mental image of God correspond to what God teaches in His Word? Or, do you limit God? Our image of God must include all of what Scripture tells us about Him.
II God Determines His Worship
As I said earlier, the question answered by the second commandment concerns worship: "How are we to worship God?"
"How are we to worship God?" The answer, so far, is that we are NOT to worship God through the use of idols, statues, or images.
But there is more to the answer of how we are to worship God. The Bible tells us worship is not according to our devising but only according to God's will.
Have you ever wondered about all the instructions for the tabernacle? There is page after page in the Bible. No detail was too small for God to leave to human decision. God laid out in detail what sacrifices were to be performed, in what way, and at what time. The tabernacle was designed by God Himself. He decided who would build it, He determined its dimensions and materials, He ordered all the worship procedures (cf Ex 26-30).
Telling us what? Telling us that God determines everything connected with His image and the worship of it. He insists on the last word. He insists that we worship Him in His way and not in our way. He is a jealous God.
The Catechism tells us that God's will for us in the second commandment is that we are not to "worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word." And, further on, we are informed that God "wants His people instructed by the living preaching of His Word – not by idols that cannot even talk."
Again, God determines His worship. Not man.
III Jesus is the Image of God
When the Roman soldiers entered the temple, they were allowed by God to do so because the temple no longer was important. Indeed, there was nothing left anymore. God Himself had ripped the curtain at the death of Jesus – showing by this that He did not live in the temple anymore. The Jews probably repaired or replaced the curtain but that did not bring the Lord Himself back.
God no longer dwells in buildings made of bricks and stones. Instead, Jesus – and His body, the church – is now the temple of the Lord.
Do you realize what this means? This means that our worship of God has to be centered on Jesus. For, it is in Jesus that God has chosen to reveal Himself.
(Col 1:15) [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.Did you catch what Jesus said to Philip in our Bible reading? "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (Jn 14:9).
(Heb 1:3) The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being ...
To worship God, then, we must come to Jesus. For Jesus alone is "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).
IV The Paradox of God
God is infinitely beyond we humans in every way imaginable. His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways (Is 55:8-9). Yet, God has also come so close to us in Christ that He adopts us as His children and personally lives within us.
God is so far beyond, so transcendent. Yet, God is also so very close, so immanent.
Is this our image of God? Is He way out there and yet also in me at the same time?
Consider some examples. Before a trip, we ask God to watch over us and give us traveling mercies. But as we drive, we conveniently forget that God is watching over us as we break the speed limit. God is close enough to protect but we do not want Him so close as to interfere with our driving habits.
Or, we pray that God may bless and help our neighbor or classmate or someone we work with. But we ourselves don't ever want to be the hands and feet of God.
We ask God to forgive us our sins and to remove our shame. But we conveniently forgot Him when we sinned in the first place. And, we don't want Him too close when we do our taxes, or watch a godless movie, or pass on the latest gossip.
By way of contrast, the Bible teaches that God is the One to Whom we must devote every act, every thought, every feeling. He is a God to fear, to wonder at, to kneel before.
Do you see what we want? Do you see what we make of God? We want a God Who is close but not too close. We want a God Who is powerful but not too powerful. We make God into something less than He really is.
Don't forget the setting of the Ten Commandments and the Catechism. We are dealing with the life of gratitude. We are talking about those who have been born-again by the blood and Spirit of Christ. We are talking about those who are saved from their sin and misery.
Those who are saved by the blood of the Lamb worship God in the way He has commanded in His Word. They worship God by coming to Jesus. As they ponder a God Who is far and yet near, they worship, they wonder, they thank, they praise, and they obey.
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