God continually tells people throughout the Hebrew Bible to not turn to idolatry.

Exodus 20:4:

“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."

Does this mean that they should not try to understand what God "looks" like by trying to recreate an image of Him (we are finite minds, God is an infinite mind), or that they should not make such images because that would lead them to venerate nature gods?

Because the Israelites do make carved images of something that is "in heaven above," namely angels (cherubim): God tells Moses to place cherubim on the Ark.

So then the making of images mentioned in Exodus 20:4 (and other laws concerning idolatry) does not pertain to, for example, making an image of Jesus or making images of various Saints, because those figures are, (in the Christian sense), a continuation of the OT, and thus they are beings created "in the image of God"?

What is actually meant by all this? To not make images of various things for worship because they were not created "in the image of God"? (God is above, beyond, and outside of nature, and equating God to nature images by creating what is "in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath" is offensive to God?)

Because, once again, didn't God tell Moses to place Cherubim on the Ark?


6 Answers 6


Normally, I don't link to my own sermons. But in this case, I'm going to make an exception. As a Baptist pastor, I wrote this sermon specifically to address this question - Why would God prohibit making graven images?

The upthrust of the answer is that images stick the thing of which the image is made in a fixed point in time. And, the truth is, that as humans change, our images need to change with us. Idols don't do that. But our perception of our God does. My image of parents is not the same image I had when I was 5. If it were, something would be seriously wrong.

Unlike Muslims, we don't have a prohibition on images per se - only on images that we would worship. The Seventh Ecumenical Council in particular clarified that images of Jesus weren't sinful - indeed, God himself had incarnated and taken an image.

The Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant were decoration - indeed, they were only said to "adorn" the Mercy Seat. The Ark itself was not something to be worshipped, but rather the God who sat there. To have prohibited any adornment would have been to diminish from the grandeur afforded any monarch.

Christians may have images that remind us to worship, but we are specifically not worshipping the thing itself. Crosses and crucifixes can, incorrectly, be viewed as idols to the unitiated. But the theology behind it (again see the Seventh Ecumenical Council), is clearly not idol worship any more than a To Do application on my phone dictates my life or a telephone is the thing to which I talk. It may be a medium that reminds me, but it is not the thing in and of itself.

But to make an image of God specifically is an affront to his character and our own. By fixing an image of God, it becomes too easy for that to become our only image of God. And, no one image can capture the full magnificence of his splendor.

As an example, I have, on my desk, this picture I took of the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon

I took that one my way down. The Canyon itself hasn't changed in thousands of years, but as I walked, my perspective of it changed dramatically. The deeper I got, the more amazing it got. I can't give you one picture of the Canyon that captures its full essence - and no one can give you one picture of God that communicates his full majesty. We just aren't equipped for it.

This is God's motivation - he wants us to experience His fullness and not settle for a single image. As such, the prohibition on making his image isn't because he doesn't want us to imagine him at all - but rather because he doesn't want us to settle for limited scope. I can show you what Ganesh looks like. There are pictures of other "gods" that abound.

But the God that Christians serve is

"able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

When we

... exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles (Romans 1:23)

then we know that our foolish hearts will be darkened (Romans 1:22) and that we become sinful and stuck. (the rest of Romans 1).

tl;dr> In short, the prohibition on images isn't for God's protection, but our own.

  • But the verse is pretty clear that "you shall not..", how can you get away from that clear prohibition? Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 20:52
  • 1
    How am I avoiding it? In context, the meaning is clear - no images that you worship. Done correctly, real Christians don't worship images. (And there are other questions that clarify it). Nowhere in what I wrote did I say it was ok to make an image of something that you worship. Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 0:39

The issue is verse 4 is not a complete sentence, you need to read verse 5 to finish it which says...

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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 nor serve them.

The prohibition is against bowing down to or serving a carved image. So when they made cherubim for the ark, they never bowed down to the cherubim nor served them. If I had an artistic picture of say Mary the mother of Jesus on a wall or on a cover of a book, not a violation, why, because I'm not bowing down or serving it. But if I make say a Mary statue and bow down and pray before it, even if I do not serve it, it is still idolatry because you shall not bow down OR serve.

  • Exactly. It's not the manufacture of these; it's the purpose for the manufacture that is prohibited, i.e. worshipping and serving them.
    – user900
    Commented Oct 4, 2013 at 0:51
  • Which translation makes these two sentences into one sentence, like you have done? Or is this your own personal translation. If it is your own personal translation, what are you Hebrew translation credentials? Thanks.
    – Jay
    Commented May 29, 2015 at 10:45
  • Hi Jacob, the translation I quoted is from the New King James Version.
    – HelloWorld
    Commented Jun 1, 2015 at 17:36

Moses interpreted God. The way to experience God is to have no image of God. If we think on what an image is, then we can see that it is an expression of a person or an object in another form. For example an image formed by a camera on a film. Thus creating Gods image would be to depict God in another form. Speaking about God or thinking about God or Writing about God in another way is also an image of God in a different form. So even though we say we don't worship idols, we have a mental image, written image or a verbal image of God. Gods name in the Bible was represented by 4 words YHWH and was not to be pronounced. Which means that Moses did not want to have a verbal image of Gods name. So the attachment to God in general was supposed to be a feeling or an experience than a mental image or an idea of the mind. So when people experienced God, they depicted him in the ways they could interpret it, and hence the idols and images. And the perfect form of it is to have no image at all anywhere even in our minds. When you have no image at all in you, you will be in a position to experience God to the fullest. And if we are able to live like that every moment, we would be following Jesus Christ.

When someone makes a specific image he gets stuck in that form. The experience of God doesn't widen out. But after some time people will move from one form to another. If you would have to express God in a population where they cannot hear, speak or write, you have to convey it in a different form.

The exact inverse idea of this is that the whole existence is GOD. This is the external view in some religions. Some religions define it internally and some religions define it externally. And once you are able to merge both of them, you would be led to spiritual enlightenment.

Jesus was the living image of God. As Moses himself said that Man was created in God's image. He was talking of a man who is experiencing GOD in all moments of his awakened life.

Worshiping images misleads the ignorant person. He is misled to think of beliefs where power is concentrated and thus can create harm for himself and others. Hence an image of God is not necessary.

As Jesus told the 2 commandments in which everything is included is sufficient 1. Love God 2. Love Neighbour

And Love is very difficult to define :). This along with the Lords prayer is the fastest way to experience GOD :). The reason why Jesus suggested to ask for todays bread is to get rid of all the worries and the mind is free. And once it is free of the past and the future, thoughts are less, and hence you can have no images in your head and experience God and his will might be revealed. Knowing or unknowing it is only Gods will that happens. But if we are aware and accept it we reduce our suffering within.

I have done my best to explain the gist to the way in which to think why there should be no image and the way to experience God.

  • Welcome to C.SE! When you get the chance, please check out our tour page and how we are different than other sites. This is a good answer, although it would benefit from documenting the perspective from which it is written. Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 19:37
  • Thanks for the comment. There is no one single perspective for my answer. Perspective reaches perfection only if it considers everything that is in existence. So my answer is from multiple perspectives. One is to think logically putting ourself in the place of others, and the inverse is to take the other persons personality and apply in ourselves. Mine was to think on Moses's perspective and Jesus's perspective. Simple explanation is that No one has seen God, and it would be impossible to create an image of God. But does that suffice? Commented Sep 26, 2013 at 6:02

Making images and vowing to them and serving them in sinful. Also trying to make images of God is sinful because it lowers our perception of God. I believe pictures of Jesus also lower our perception of Him, but more importantly it prepares us for deep deception in the last days. I believe that it is important to note the words of Jesus:

Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:23-27

So what does this have to do with pictures of Christ you ask? We are very visual creatures. We have gotten used to an image of Christ. In the last days Satan himself will take the form of Jesus, the Jesus we see in pictures. And many will fall and be deceived because he will look like Jesus and do wonders like He did, when in reality we don't even know what He really looked like, or if the artists' depiction of Him is even close to the real one. Notice Jesus says that we should not even LOOK, or behold, when someone tells us the Christ is in this place or another.

Many will be deceived by the physical aspect of Jesus and because they do not know the Jesus of the Bible. Get to know the real Jesus, not by pictures but through His Word.

EDIT: Even though I know it might get me down-voted, this is in direct opposition to God. I'm not judging people from any religion or denomination, though it seems to happen in some more than others. I'm just saying that this is EXACTLY what God prohibited.



Having read the answers to your question, I find it hard to believe no one seems to have interpreted Exodus 20, verses four and five in light of the New Testament's teaching on idols and its application to our lives today.

The apostle John concluded his first letter with the following words:

"Little children, guard yourselves from idols" (5:21).

An idol is a substitute for God. In other words, an idol is a god, with a lower-case G. Someone has defined a god as

"The one from which you seek your highest satisfaction, to which you yield supreme allegiance, for which you’ll pay your greatest price to retain, upon which you pin your hopes for your security, your well-being, and your future."

In the modern age, the worship of idols which are fashioned after creatures, real or imagined, is relatively rare, save perhaps among primitive people-groups with an animistic bent. What is much more common today--and some would suggest it is virtually all-pervasive--is the worship of God-substitutes.

Perhaps the most pervasive God-substitutes, particularly in the minority world, are the four P-words: p- possessions, p-power, p-pleasure, and p-preeminence, none of which requires much, if any, explanation.

Other not-so-readily identifiable idols or gods, many of which flow from the four Ps, include

  • Intellectualism and the worship of knowledge
  • Self, in its many guises, such as self-improvement, self-actualization (i.e., achieving one's potential through one's own efforts), self-advancement, and self-promotion
  • Entertainment, an offshoot of pleasure
  • Financial security
  • The cult of celebrity
  • One's family, and modern forms of tribalism, including the belief in the superiority of one's family tree
  • Nature and its many wonders, intricacies, and beauties, but without reference to God, the Master Designer
  • Food, and living to eat rather than eating to live
  • The latest fashions and the emphasis of the fashion industry on externals, appearance, and youthfulness
  • Fitness and nutrition, and the quest for a "fountain of life"
  • Belonging and group identity
  • The founders of false religions and cults

The above list is far from exhaustive, but it covers perhaps the major bases. Universally, human beings are drawn to any number of God-substitutes in search of something which will fill the God-shaped vacuum within their innermost being. We Christians know, however, that no God-substitute can ever satisfy the human heart. For this reason Jesus came to offer us Himself as the bread of life and the water of life, so that by believing in Him we need never hunger or thirst again.

In conclusion, many Christians today, myself included, live divided lives, torn between knowing intellectually that God has given us all things richly to enjoy, and yet allowing the things of this world to obscure our spiritual vision and at times even to blind us to eternity's values.

"Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17). "'You cannot serve God and wealth'" (Matthew 6:24).

As Jesus commanded us,

". . . store up for yourselves treasure in heaven . . . for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:20,21).


In the book of Deuteronomy Chapter 4:15

Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb or of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male of female.

God, at this time, had not revealed to us his image, and Israel having shown a desire to make images and worship them as God, God commanded them, informing them why, the reasons you cannot is that I have not revealed to you my image.

Short of this explanation, the cherubim, the serpent, the artistry in the temple would be a cause of confusion to the Jews. However, like the Church Christ founded, there is no confusion of what God meant when he spoke to Israel.

There came a time later however, that the confusion entered into people of God and the Serpent had to be destroyed as some were making offering to it.

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. 2 Kings 18:4

The Nehushtan was a relic and they were worshiping it as God in a manor as the eqyptians did, in that god was dwelling in the Serpent.

When God became man something changed concerning images. For Moses said we should not make images God having not revealed himself, the fulfillment of this instruction was the Incarnation. God now having been revealed to us we are free and encouraged to express the image of his son and the once for all time sacrifice he made for us.

It the book of Acts, Paul sees a monument to an unknown God, yet we have known him, we preach Christ Crucified and we preach Christ on the Cross, for a Cross empty of Christ is empty of power and just 2 sticks.

The Greatest example of Gods self Gift (Love) is Christ revealed to us on the Cross, when a Catholic kneels before it, or any of the Saints it honors we do not worship the wood or the stone or the Gold or the silver but the Love that that image represents, Christ himself.

We are allowed to have images, because Christ the very image of God has been made known to us, he did not speak through a pillar of flame but as the visible person of Christ.
why is it allright to have images when previously we could not, I would simply say that God was speaking to those who he did not reveal his image to. Now, having revealed himself to us the commandment of making images no longer pertains to us, as the reason that was given no longer exists.

He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and avoice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (the image of God Revealed) When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them saying, "Rise, and have no Fear"

We Catholics have no fear when we kneel before a Cross with Chirst on it, for we know that he has revealed the image of himself to us.

So, if you want to understand why Images are ok, simply read the scriptures and see why they were forbidden in the first place it is right there for you to read. Reading was a luxury that many Christians didnt, Before the advent of the printing press people relied on images and sculptures and stained glass and everything you can think of to be evangelize and to be evangelized.

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