Exodus 32:1-6 1When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." 2Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." 3So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD." 6So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
Colossians 1:15-20 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. 17He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Him, 20and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross.
A number of years ago while I was still in my previous job I was in the Ladysmith area and I had an afternoon to myself. I’ve always had an interest in history, so I took a drive to Spionkop. There was a crucial battle fought on this little mountain during the Anglo-Boer War, and there a little cairns and statues, and even graves which mark out what happened. It was great because I was the only one there, and I spent a few hours just walking around trying to picture the battle. But there was no gunfire. There were no wounded horses or wounded soldiers crying out in agony. I couldn’t actually see and smell fear. All I had were some one hundred year old graves and a couple of statues. All over the world there are reconstructed battle sites, from the American War of Independence, to the beaches of Normandy and even a laager of bronze ox wagons on the banks of the Blood River. But none of these war memorials of wood, stone and metal can capture the real thing – victory and defeat, and the human drama. It’s foolishness to even try. Now imagine something different. Imagine trying to capture all of who and what God is using wood, metal and stone – things that He has created – and then trying to confine Him to an image of something that is a part of this universe. Imagine trying to put God in a box. That is the essence of the 2nd of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20 – “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.”
At first glance, it might look like this would be the easiest of the 10 to keep. We don’t have little carved images of stone and wood in our homes that we bow down to every night. We can handle this one. It’s not too difficult to grasp. It’s in the other ones that we need lots of help – the ones that talk about not lying, not stealing, and not wanting what my neighbour has. Those are the hard ones. Those are the ones that I need help with. This one I can handle. But which was the very first commandment the Israelites broke? It was this one. And if it wasn’t so easy a command for them to keep, could it be that we are weak in this area too? What is an idol? It is a man-made physical or mental representation of a spiritual being which is meant to help the worshipper focus on that spiritual being. In other words, by giving you something to look at with your eyes or with your mind, an idol is meant to help you worship God. The idol was not intended to be a god; it was intended to focus attention on that god. That’s what makes this command different from command 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me”. The second commandment doesn’t prohibit the worship of more than one god. That was already taken care of by the first one. This commandment prohibits creating your own image of the true God. But if an idol of God was intended to help in the worship of the true God, then why is God opposed to idols? If an image will help us, why is it so wrong?
This is what Isaiah writes in chapter 40 – “To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare Him to?” In other words, if you wanted to make an image of God, physical or mental, what image could you come up with that would do justice to God’s majesty, His glory and His holiness? What would be an accurate representation of God? That’s the problem with images of God that we design to try and “help” us with worship. Aaron’s dilemma was that the Israelites were ready to rebel against God. He knew that he couldn’t let that happen, so he came up with a plan. He still wanted the people to worship God, but the people weren’t willing to follow a God that they had to accept by faith alone. So the solution that Aaron came up with was this. He would re-shape God into something that was a little bit more palatable to the people. He would fit God into more of what they were looking for in a God. The first step would be to give them an image of God that they could see. That would bring God down to their level and fit Him into their experience. The next step was to figure out what image he was going to use to represent God. He chose to picture God in the image of a calf. Why a calf? One commentator has said that a calf is a servant – its only role is to serve you either by providing you with milk or by providing you with meat. A calf makes very few demands on us. Apart from the occasional injection and dipping, the only thing that you have to provide for a calf is a field to graze in. They pretty much take care of themselves. You keep them penned up, and the only time that you have anything to do with them is when you need something from them. This God wouldn’t tell you what to do. You would be the one to tell Him what parts of your life He could help with when you wanted Him.
The way that Aaron made this golden calf is important. In verse 4 it says, “He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.” He took the gold, melted it down, and shaped it with a tool. He took a chisel, and chipped away a little bit of the gold. If there was something that didn’t look quite right, he would chisel at it a bit more until he was happy with it. And it was to this image that the people brought their offerings. It was only when they were satisfied that the image looked good to them that it was worshipped. Now what does this command have to do with me? I don’t have a golden calf in my lounge, and I’m sure that you don’t either. Remember that an idol is a man-made physical or mental representation of a spiritual being which is meant to help the worshipper focus on that spiritual being. When you think of God, what is the image that comes into your mind? (Father Christmas, a great light, a mean tyrant, or a kind old gentleman with a long beard?) If you think of God in any of these ways, then you have been doing just what Aaron did. You have been chipping away at God until you have whittled Him down into something that looks good to you, something that you can handle. But this is where the second commandment challenges us. We either accept all of God, or not at all. He is simply too big, too holy, too glorious, too “other” to be confined to something that we reduce Him to in our minds.
Christians often struggle when challenged by non-believers to explain just who God is. We feel like we’ve been backed into a corner and we have somehow failed God because we can’t articulate His character to someone demanding answers from us. Actually though, I don’t want a God that I can handle. I want a God who is a whole lot bigger than my little brain is able to grasp. I am very comfortable knowing that there is so much about Him that I simply cannot explain or understand. So if we are to keep away from images and golden calves, how are we supposed to get an accurate picture of God? Is there anything that God has given us to enable us to get to know Him the way that He wants us to know Him? Yes, there is. His name is Jesus. The only way to know what God is like is to look at Jesus. On the night before Jesus died, Phillip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus replied, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Colossians 1:15 says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” And Hebrews 1:3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” If you want to know what God is like, if you want to know what the true image of God is, then you have to look to Jesus. There is no other God, and there is no other way to God the Father, except through Jesus Christ. This is where the second and first commandments are so closely linked. It’s the exclusivity of the Gospel again, something that goes against so much of what the world teaches. Part of the problem though is that a lot of people don’t like the God that Jesus showed them. When the only true and accurate image of God – Jesus Christ – came, the people didn’t accept Him because He didn’t fit their idea of what God was like. God wasn’t supposed to hang around with prostitutes, tax collectors, and all the other sinners. And He certainly wasn’t supposed to die like a common criminal. This is why the cross is such a stumbling block for so many. But it was only those who were willing to change their view of God when they met Jesus who found salvation.
It is possible to worship false gods, but it is also possible to worship the true God falsely. It is not enough that we attempt to worship God. We must worship Him His way. After God laid down the ten commandments, He also laid out elaborate instructions on how Israel was to worship Him. He gave them instructions on the sacrificial system, the materials and design for the tabernacle where they were to worship Him and festivals and feasts when they were to celebrate God’s character and things that God had done for the nation. God was very exact on the colours of material used in the fabrics that covered the tabernacle. He was very particular on what day each festival was to begin. He was particular on what animals could be used for sacrifices and which could not. The whole book of Leviticus is a worship manual for the Jewish people. God wanted them to worship Him, but they had to do it His way. They couldn’t just invent their own system and expect God to be pleased with it. What happened when Cain brought His offering to God? God wasn’t pleased with it. What was wrong with it? Cain wanted to worship God, but he wanted to do it his way. It is important to do the right thing, but it is just as important to do the right thing the right way. How many of us try to worship God on our terms and in our own way? We say, “Lord, so long as you fit within the confines of my understanding of you, I will worship and serve you. As long as you don’t make any requirements of me that are too demanding and as long as you behave in a predictable manner, we can be on good terms with each other. But as soon as you do something that doesn’t fit with my preconceived notions of you, I’m out of here!” The moment He allows some pain into our lives or the moment that He starts to convict us about some change of heart or change of action that needs to happen in our lives, we begin to question whether or not we really want to follow Him. What image do you have of God? Do you need to see things in order to believe? Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” In verse 6 it says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Does He need to fit inside your box of understanding before you fit Him into your life? How do you react when God does something in your life or in your world that doesn’t fit your picture of Him?
The real challenge of the second commandment is idolatry. Again, we need to make the connection with the first commandment in order to really understand the second. “You shall have no other gods before me,” teaches that since God is who He is, and since He has done what He has done, He will not share His worship, He will not share His praise, He will not share His service, He will not share His glory with another. He is exclusive. He alone deserves the glory, the honour and exaltation. And He calls us to complete loyalty to Him. The first commandment deals with whom we worship. It deals with the object of worship. The second commandment deals with how we worship, the right way of worshipping the one true God. And it’s all about Jesus. God’s written Word, the Bible and the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ are to be the source of our idea of God. A golden calf does not do justice to who God is. Even His creation itself, as awesome and as breath-taking as it may be, does not do justice to the character of God. Appreciate the creation and marvel at it by all means, but don’t worship the creation. Worship the creator. The apostle Paul deals with idolatry in Romans 1: “Although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
If only the challenge of idolatry was simply about cutting down on the amount of TV we watch or by not pursuing riches and success as much as we usually do. That would make it one of the easier commandments to keep, but because it deals with idolatry at a much deeper level, it soon becomes very clear to us that the moment God is not who we want Him to be, we have failed to live up to His standards for us. Another commentator has said, “If you can think about God anyway that you want to think, if you can picture God, as it were, in accordance with your own imagination instead of who He really is, then you are sovereign over God. If the God of Heaven and Earth is only as sturdy and unchangeable as your opinion, then He is no longer sovereign. We have a whole generation that is encouraging us to idolatry in precisely that area. It says, ‘I can think about God however I want to think about God.’” Bringing God down to our level and reducing His power over us is something we all struggle with, and it directly transgresses the second commandment. We might not have actual golden calves in our lives, but we do have our own ideas of what God is like and what He should be like. And that is just another form of idolatry. When we worship and serve the God we want than rather than the God who is, we are not worshipping the true God. Hebrews 1:3 again: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Our own mental pictures of God are wrong. We cannot understand God except through how He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus.
If we want to see what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. Jesus is the perfect picture of God. If we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God. If we listen to Jesus, we’re listening to God. And when we look at the cross and see what God did for us there, we begin to see and understand just something about how deeply He cares about what we do, the way we act, the way we think and the way we conjure up false images of God. It is when we see Jesus on the cross that we see how seriously God sees our sin. He takes it so seriously that Jesus had to die to take the punishment. We see that God really does care about us, and that He loves us so much that it wasn’t us dying on that cross under God’s judgement, even though it should have been. It was Jesus, dying for us. We see that because Jesus has died, He has taken the punishment for whatever we’ve done wrong, so that whatever we’ve done, however we are caught up in the sin of idolatry, we can be forgiven and we can come back into relationship with the real God, because Jesus has dealt with it. Have you ever considered that the second commandment is really about Jesus? Remember, the first 2 commandments are about worship. They’re about who we worship and how we worship. And as we saw last week, you cannot worship the one true God unless you come to Him through Jesus Christ. You can’t worship Him, you can’t have fellowship with Him and you certainly cannot find grace and forgiveness from Him unless you come to Him through Jesus.
The first thing we need to do in order to obey the second commandment is bow the knee to Jesus Christ. To accept Him as Lord and Saviour and never again dare to come into the presence of the Heavenly Father without clinging to the cross. Augustus Toplady understood this mystery when she penned the words of the hymn Rock of Ages: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; helpless, look to Thee for grace. Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me, Saviour, or I die.”
Read Exodus 32:1-6 There are many religions that worship statues, but the idea of bowing down to a golden calf seems rather odd to most Christians. If you were to ask believers which of the Ten Commandments is the easiest to keep, most would say the second. Yet, this is one of the areas where we fail the most.
The first commandment deals with whom we are to worship, while the second teaches us how we are to worship. How have you reshaped and moulded God to fit in with your ideas of who He is and what He is like?
The concept of idolatry goes much deeper than just watching too much TV or chasing after riches and success. How have you been distracted from worshipping the one, true God?
Read John 14:6 and Hebrews 1:3 As we see throughout Scripture, it’s all about Jesus, and how we are to approach the Father through Jesus alone. Look at the first two commandments in Exodus 20. Discuss how these commandments point us to our need for Jesus.
Next week: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.”