Of Divine Worship According to God's WordPsalter No. 268 st. 2, 4
Lord's Day 35
Lord's Day 35
Acts 17: 15-34
Psalter No. 423 st. 4 & 8
Psalter No. 33 st. 5
Psalter No. 290 st. 2, 6, 11
A plain man, a maker of tents passed through the city of Athens. His spirit was so stirred because of the idolatry committed in that place by the very superstitious people, that in holy zeal he was eager not only to speak in the synagogue of the Jews, but even in the market place, to debate with anyone that would listen. It was Paul. To everyone with whom he conversed he spoke of the only true service of God and of Him Who arose from the dead, to be the Author of eternal salvation for His people. Even the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with Paul in the market place saying, "What will this babbler say?" Some said, "He seems to be a setter forth of strange gods," with the result, he had to defend himself on Mars' Hill. Paul appeared before that Court for the purpose of determining whether he could be accused of having introduced a new religion in Athens.
We have just read to you Paul's discourse on Mars' Hill, in which we can observe the light which God, the Holy Spirit gave him, and with how much wisdom and discretion he spoke to the Athenians, telling them that he had seen an altar upon which was written, "To The Unknown God." That God Whom you do not know, I shall declare to you. I do not bring you something new, but I declare to you the God Who created heaven and earth and made of one blood all nations of men. That unknown God has given His Son, Who is the resurrection and the life. One day He will raise all the dead to appear before His judgment seat."
Would not our hearts be stirred if we could see the idols in our Christian nation? Were we ever shown that the God who made heaven and earth does not dwell in temples made by hands, but that He has glorified Himself in the Son of His eternal good pleasure? Then we would forsake all that displeases Him and seek that only Mediator and receive through Him the preparation necessary for that great day of judgment that shall surely come, when we shall stand before the judgment seat of God.
The manner in which we bring our religion into practice is of utmost importance. The Lord demands that we shall serve Him according to His Word and that we shall set our hearts on His truth, as the means whereby He shall glorify Himself in us through the power of His Spirit.
How clearly has He Himself taught us in what manner He wants to be served when He forbade our making any image to serve or worship Him thereby. We are now to consider the commandment which forbids image worship, as it is explained in the thirty-fifth Lord's Day of our Heidelberg Catechism which reads as follows:
Q. 96. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.
Q. 97. Are images then not at all to be made?
A. God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: but as to creatures; though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them.
Q. 98. But may not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity?
A. No; for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word.
This Lord's Day deals with the prohibition against image worship and our attention is drawn to:
I. the sins forbidden in this commandment;
II. the spiritual keeping of this commandment.
The second commandment is not merely an appendix to the first. It differs from the first, although all God's commandments are so closely related to each other that whosoever offends in one commandment, is guilty of all. Yet there is a difference. The first commandment teaches us Whom we are to serve, namely, the Lord alone. The second tells us in what manner God wishes to be served; namely, according to His Word, and by not making an image.
The Roman Catholic Church combines the second commandment with the first, thereby allowing only three commandments in the first table. Why does Rome do this? To make room for images in the church. Does not this tampering with the Holy Law of God to cover its sin, bring the strongest indictments against Rome's image worship?
In this second commandment the Lord teaches us that He does not want to be served by means of images. "Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything"--no graven image, no painted image, no sculptured image. Here God forbids image worship. There is to be no image of anything that is in heaven above, which is the third heaven, the throne of God--the third heaven, created by God, where He reveals His glory more than anywhere else. Does not the Lord say that heaven is His throne and the earth His footstool? The Lord reveals His radiance and majesty in the third heaven more than on earth. There God Himself swells. Therefore it is forbidden in the first place to make an image of God, either of His Essence or of His Attributes. We may not make an image of His Essence, because the Essence of God can never be expressed by any image. God is a Spirit, and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. He is the Omnipresent One, and every effort to portray God violates His Omnipresence. Furthermore, His Attributes can never be expressed by an image. Remember for example, what Israel did when it attempted to express God's Omnipotence through the golden calf with these words, "These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt." To represent God in this way conflicts with the spiritual existence of God, because, in the first place God's Attributes are God Himself. Secondly, when we attempt to separate those attributes we strike at the Divine Essence. Our Catechism speaks correctly when it says that God neither can nor may be represented in any manner. The Lord pronounced a curse upon it in Deut. 27:15, "Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the Lord, the work of the hands of the craftsman." Yet the children of Israel became guilty of this repeatedly. They did not intend to stop serving God, but wanted to serve Him by means of images. I have already mentioned the golden calf at Mt. Sinai. Later, when Israel revolted, Jeroboam introduced the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. Micah, too, of whom we read in Judges 17, gave two hundred pieces of silver to have an image made, the same sin which was forbidden here, and into which sin Israel fell time after time. God neither can nor may be represented in any manner.
In the second place this commandment refers to the creatures in heaven. In the third heaven are the angels and the souls of them who shall be heirs of salvation ... Of them no image may be made to worship God thereby. No doubt the intent here expressed is singled out and emphasized. The service of God is so spiritual that the making of any image whatever is entirely condemned by the Lord. Thou shalt not make any graven image of the starry sky or of the clouds. Neither shalt thou make any graven image of men, animals, plants, or anything else that may be found on earth, in order to serve or worship God thereby. Neither fishes, nor creeping things, nor any other creatures may ever be represented by images. God cannot be, but creatures can be so represented.
The making of images is not always forbidden. The Lord has even given talents to do so. Think of Aholiab and Bezaleel who were given wisdom by the Lord to make the tabernacle according to the pattern which the Lord had shown to Moses on the mount. God gave them the talents for it. Later in the temple there were cherubim and the brazen sea set upon twelve oxen. On the steps to Solomon's throne there were images of lions. When the Lord Jesus was on earth He was shown a penny bearing the image of Caesar. The Lord did not show His disapproval of this, but only said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's." Hence, to make images of creatures is not condemned as such. God does not condemn the art of sculpture and painting. This we must remember, that the work of art must be sober and modest. Nakedness in sculpture must not be publicly displayed, lest iniquity abound. Now, though images creatures are not forbidden, it is forbidden to make them a part the service of the Lord.
Although it is possible to make images of creatures, God forbids our making or having them for the purpose of honoring them or serving God by them. For that reason the punishments of the Lord were so dreadful upon the children of Israel that on one day three thousand died at Mount Sinai. For that reason also God pronounced a judgment upon the altars at Dan and at Bethel. He shows His displeasure with will-worship, which includes the use of images in the service of God. This is the practice of Rome which kneels before images and sponsors pilgrimages. Therefore the instructor says that we may not make them to bow down to them or to serve them. Rome honors its images decorated with gold and silver, and bestows incense and glory upon them, but it is God Who forbids such practice. We should be deeply moved that our land is filled with Romish idolatry, and that this great evil is progressing from North to South and from East to West. I ask you, is it mere hatred of popery to do so or is it the glory of God that makes us concerned about it? We have the Word of God and therefore it is disturbing to see that our people are fast asleep and indifferently close their eyes to the danger of Rome. All that Rome stands for is tolerated much too easily. Why? Because the honour of God does not weigh heavily enough upon our souls; because we are blind to the holy displeasure which God will manifest toward a people that is forsaking Him, a people on whose behalf the Lord performed His miracles in times past.
This will become more evident when we consider the reason why the Lord gave this commandment. He says, "I am the Lord thy God." He is the God of gods, Who dwells and is enthroned in the high and lofty place, surrounded by His holy angels who cover their faces with their wings, crying out, "Holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory." This God placed Israel in a covenant relationship with Himself, and the people of Israel bound themselves at Mt. Sinai with a solemn Amen, to keep the covenant of the Lord God and to observe His ordinances. Now the Lord says, "I am thy God Who forbids you." This word alone should sink so deeply in our hearts, that we would utterly abhor all that God forbids in His Law. In addition the Lord says also, "I am a jealous God." By jealous is meant, "zealous for My honour." As a man cannot tolerate his wife's attention to others, much less can the Lord tolerate our bowing to images. The Lord is jealous of His honour, and is zealous for it. Does He not in His Word speak of image worship as spiritual adultery? Did He not often remind His people with reproofs, that they were unfaithful to Him when they bowed to idols? Time and again the Lord uses the example of a man who is forsaken by his wife. Will he approve of such conduct? Will he not rather vindicate his honour? "I shall do likewise", says the Lord, "for I am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me."
God punishes sin in succeeding generations. God punishes the fathers by visiting the children in the third and fourth generation. Is this not contrary to what is told us in Ezekiel 18:20, namely that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father? No, that text does not conflict with these words of the second commandment. Israel tried to hide behind the guilt of the fathers by using the sins of the fathers as an excuse. But the Lord says, "I am punishing you for your own sins." In these words of Ezekiel the Lord shows not only that Israel is indeed punished for its own sin, but also that God punishes sin with sin. This means that the succeeding generations follow in the footsteps of their parents, multiplying their iniquities and making themselves all the more deserving of the judgments of God. Sin is a steep incline and whoever sets his foot upon it will find that he with his posterity is running faster and faster toward destruction. This is the motive by which the Lord persuades us to fear sin - in this case image worship - so that our hearts may cleave to Him, fear Him, and serve Him, as He testifies in His Word.
On the other hand, the Lord proclaims the riches of His mercy and the greatness of His Divine grace: showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments. The Lord delights in mercy rather than judgment toward those who walk in His ways; who honour Him according to His testimonies, who direct their lives according to His commandments, and shun those things that are displeasing to the Lord. Yes, God shows His mercy. From what source does this mercy flow? Not from our keeping of His commandments. It flows from His sovereign and eternal good pleasure. God is indeed a rewarder, but the reward is of grace. Do not these considerations serve as motives for us to hate image worship and to testify against it? For this commandment says not only: "You may not have an image in church;" "We may not have an image or crucifix in our homes;" "You may not bow the knee to such an image and say, 'Holy Mary, Saint Peter, pray for me;'" in other words, the commandment not only makes a demand upon our personal life, but it also requires of the government to put away the images out of our country, and to destroy that idolatry which has become almost totally heathenish. See what the pious kings of Israel did and what our forefathers did: They demolished those images, and the Lord gave His approval. Read all the Scriptures and see how the Lord lays upon the government the duty of leading the people according to His commandment. In keeping with the Scriptures, our fathers confessed this duty in the unabridged Article 36 of the Belgic Confession. The duty of the government is to remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship. Notice how this commandment is set aside. They say, "We, the government, refuse to accept that responsibility." However, will not the Lord see it and execute vengeance? Is not this nation making itself ripe for divine judgment? This commandment calls upon the government and calls upon everyone in every walk of life to fulfill the holy duty of testifying against image worship. So we see that the second commandment differs from the first. God must be served, not by means of dumb images, but as He revealed Himself in His Word and glorified Himself in Christ Jesus.
Having briefly mentioned the forbidden sins, I come now to my second main thought:
II. The spiritual keeping of the law.
May not images be tolerated in the churches, as books to the laity? The answer is no.
Rome says they may. "We hang," says Rome, "an image before your eyes, that you may the better think about your saints, and we use those images as books to instruct you as we teach children. We teach the people to form a mental image to make them think more on Christ and on the saints." We do not need such books. We do not choose such visible instruction because it is contradictory to the positive Word of God. He will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word. We must not pretend to be wiser than God. We are told emphatically that we must not worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in His Word.
We are now to consider the keeping of this commandment. Now has God revealed Himself in His Word, and how are we instructed out of His Word concerning the service of God? This brings us to the one and only foundation of the true worship of the Lord God. According to the second commandment God has revealed Himself in His Word as holy and just; as a God Who can have no fellowship either with sin or with the sinner. He is a devouring fire and everlasting burnings with whom the sinner cannot dwell. He has revealed Himself also in that Word as merciful and righteous, giving His only begotten Son in a way of sovereign compassion; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. That is the manner God speaks of in His Word by which He will be served. It must be only in Him, in Whom all His attributes were glorified perfectly. He is worshiped spiritually by His people in communion with Christ by faith, and His people find their salvation in such glorifying of God. Since the Word of God instructs us in this matter so clearly that even a child among us knows and understands, we need no other instruction.
The message of the second commandment is this: Do you want to see the image of God? Behold it then in His Word; behold it in the glass of which the apostle speaks in 2 Cor. 3:18, "with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord." There you see the attributes of God; there you see the majesty of God; there you see God's demand that His justice must be satisfied; and there you see the redemption prepared for His people in Christ Jesus. Is this not plain enough?
How does God wish to be served by His people? Are you desirous of seeing the image of God? Behold it in the incarnate Word, Who is the express image of God's person. He upholds all things by the Word of His power and in Him the divine Essence has magnified itself perfectly.
What then is the message the Lord gives us here? That our formal religion does not please Him when we are cold, unmoved, and dead under the preaching of His Word, leaving the church with the same stony heart. Is it not worthy of consideration that the Lord says, "I have revealed Myself in My Word? Therefore you shall learn to know and seek Me, because in that knowledge of God lies eternal life." The least impression of the majesty, righteousness, and holiness of God humbles man so deeply before Him, that he cries unto God out of the dust. This is the fruit of the ministration of the Holy Spirit. Every concept we form of God, every work of ours presented to Him is contrary to God's revelation in His Word. They are basically nothing but idolatry in our hearts, a slighting of His righteousness, and a depending on God's mercy and grace without His justice. All are contrary to this commandment, for they find support in our self-righteousness and in our church attendance as though with them we could stand before God. They are in conflict with the revelation in His Word.
God will not be served by our works and by our deeds, not even by the best we can produce, but God will be served in communion with Him Who gave Himself as a ransom for many and Who came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister. He was born for those who know themselves to be guilty before God, transgressors of all His commandments, lost in themselves; but who seek their salvation outside of themselves in Him, Who delivers their souls from death and saves them from eternal perdition. Not to make an image, means to resolve by regenerating grace, to reveal the image of God in us, according to which He created man in the beginning. By the renewing of the heart, God's children become partakers of the divine nature, and they are renewed according to the image of Him that created them. They obtain the true knowledge of God, of His attributes and perfections, which humbles them, but also enables their souls to find life in communion with God unto their eternal salvation. It is this keeping of the law of which the Lord speaks here. It is a spiritual endeavor that is well pleasing to God.
In every prohibition lies a commandment. The Lord not only forbids sin, but He also commands that spiritual obedience to and delight in His law which His people can never accomplish, but which He in the active obedience of Christ has accomplished for them, so that in Christ they shall also be perfect in obedience, shall receive their strength from Him, and shall persevere until they receive that perfect image which God's people shall one day have in heaven. They shall be perfect before the throne of God. There God's image will shine in glory, and they will behold God in His majesty and in His glory, as Moses did in the cleft of the rock, where the Lord covered him with His hand, because no man can endure the full manifestation of God's perfections. There, mortality shall have put on immortality, and they shall know Him perfectly. It is this that comforts and strengthens the church of God. This encourages their souls and enables them, even in tribulations, to lift up their heads on high. There, some day, they will serve the Lord perfectly. They will be satisfied, when they awake, with His likeness, as we now sing from Psalter No. 33 st. 5:
"Soon I in glorious righteousnessIn this way the Lord would have us put away the images out of our land. Once Rome had dominion in this part of the world. In the Eighty Years' War our fore-fathers fought in God's strength and obtained their freedom, but not without the sacrifice of much goods, blood, and lives. They did not sacrifice merely for external liberty, nor to stage a revolution and an uproar against the king of Spain, but they sacrificed in the firm conviction that God must be served according to His Word. You have heard the history, especially in regard to the image worship, how our people were stirred by holy indignation when it destroyed the images. The same thing happened in Scotland when in a moment as it were, the people were aroused to destroy image worship. Let us notice how none less than Marnix of St. Aldegonde defended the action. No matter what the prevailing opinion may be, it would be desirable if the government would put an end to the God-provoking idolatry of Rome. Where are the protestants to whom the Lord has magnified His wonders and whom He so richly blessed, when they contended for His Name and His service? From the highest authorities to the common citizen, men bow the knee to Rome. You need not go far to find out. Inquire from members of the congregations and learn how they feel about it, how Rome sets up its idols in our land. How few there are that are filled with holy zeal to oppose it! How many shrug their shoulders when the peril of Catholicism is pointed out, and say it is all enmity against persons. When we speak of their idolatry, it is not because we hate the Roman Catholic people as if they are beneath us, but we do so in the first place because God demands it of us, and in the second place because our nation incurs God's wrath by these things. When you see the upheavals in the world since the latest world war, and observe what is going on in our nation, you will be filled with fears and ask, "How long will God still tolerate us?" On the other hand, God does not need to send war, but His judgments are so general and the burdens are so heavy upon us, we fear, will be still heavier upon future generations. We ask ourselves, "How shall we be able to bear the burden and survive?" For the support of our government, how ought our entire nation to return to the law of God, to the God of our fathers, and to His ordinances. I wish I could indoctrinate our boys and girls especially so that there would be a generation firmly rooted in God's Word, opposing the Romish idolatry with a holy conviction. Has not the Lord specifically described that image worship and said, "I will pour out My wrath upon the third and fourth generation"? Please do not say, "that is their responsibility", for this concerns God's holy law. May that conviction take deep root, so that our lives may be directed according to the commandment of Him, Who makes transgressors of His law to dwell in a dry land.
Shall see Thee as Thou art;
Thy likeness, Lord, when I awake
Shall satisfy my heart."
Has not David said, "Thy commandment is exceeding broad"? This commandment refers, not merely to the letter of the law. Think of Paul, for example, who in his former life as a Pharisee, lived a blameless and conscientious life according to the law, so conscientious that he himself said, "If any man think to glory in the flesh, I more." He even dared to challenge all the Pharisees. He had not ceased living as a Pharisee, because he no longer lived as strictly according to the law of God as formerly - by no means: "I did not know the law", says Paul, "for at that time I lived without the law." God's law has a spiritual meaning which the natural man does not perceive.
Now I return to my second main thought, the spiritual keeping of the law of God. Let us ask ourselves one by one, What is our relationship to the Word of God, that Word which instructed us from childhood? We have the privilege in our own schools where our children are instructed according to God's Word and not settled upon false grounds. Oh, that the seed of that Word might sprout early in their hearts. Do we appreciate enough the privilege of having our own schools? One thinks the distance too far, another thinks the dangers for the children are too great. I have seen Roman Catholic children go to church everyday in summer and winter, in the early and dark morning hours, to perform their religious duties. How lax we are by comparison and how little we see the necessity of good instruction for our children. May there be more zeal among us.
Instruction from God's Word is not strange to us. We have it in our homes and we read it morning, noon, and night, or have we also become lax in that? Is it too much trouble to separate ourselves for a little while to search the Word together? Are you too busy? Boys, do you still read the Word at work? Have you a Bible in your pocket so that you can read it after eating. When you are on a journey, or travel much, do not neglect to take God's Word with you. Do you still go eagerly to God's house on Sundays, or is it too cold one Sunday and something else another Sunday? God is a jealous God and demands a zealous keeping of His commandments. The Word of God is worth the effort of reading and meditation, but also of placing ourselves under it, because it serves as a means in the hand of the Spirit to learn to know Him who is the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent, which is life eternal. Through His Word the Lord wishes to instruct us in that great mystery that we can be saved by grace. It is with this, namely, the whole service of God, that the second commandment is concerned. Then it is evident that going to church twice on Sunday is not enough. Ask yourself whether you have ever kept God's Word in a spiritual sense so that you said, "Lord let Thy Word be conducive to my eternal salvation, for it shall be as a savor of death unto death, if it is not a savor of life unto life." We are traveling to eternity and some day that Word will be remembered by us. You and I, all of us will soon stand before God. Then He will inquire of ministers whether they have instructed you in the truth correctly. I may not, and cannot do otherwise than to direct you to that one thing needful, so that I may make myself free of you. Then I shall always tell you it is insufficient to be baptized, to go to church, to sit at the Lord's Supper, perhaps even with some impression in our conscience; but we must learn to know God as He reveals Himself in His Word.
God can have no communion with us, because we have separated ourselves from Him with no intention of returning, and that breach must be healed. Do we still have impressions? Do we sometimes bow our knees to say, "Oh, that I might be reconciled with God!" Or do we go on in our habitual course and our deadly security? What if the Lord would come suddenly, as a thief in the night? Then it would be forever too late. Boys, take it to heart; take the message with you, and be not so unconcerned. Reflect for a moment: This Sunday has passed, and I have only increased my guilt. What will become of me? You older people, consider how you are approaching the grave. Your best days are past, for God converts people mostly in their younger years. But you can still come to know that God. It is not yet too late. Be earnest in using the means, so that with supplication and weeping you may seek refuge in God. Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. It is well to note that knowledge of God comes when by means of the Word, He begins to reveal Himself in the heart by the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit. It is these impressions of His perfect divine essence which He works in the soul that give the sinner to see something of God. For this he needs no image, but the knowledge of God in His eternal perfections brings the soul into such deep humility, that he falls at His feet to make supplication to His Judge. Such a person can never meet God, because an infinite breach has been made which cannot be healed. That breach cannot be healed not even with all our tears and prayers. Because God chooses to be glorified according to His Word, we can contribute nothing. On the contrary, even with our best works we rob God of His honour. God has given us His revelation in Christ, so that the sinner who has learned to know himself, shall go to God through Him.
Are there any here who are not strangers to these things? May your hearts be turned from all your image worship to know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word. What is it that so often causes your prayers to return into your own bosom? Why is it that so many prayers go no higher than our lips? Because our hearts are lukewarm and filled with the idol of self. How often do God's people condemn themselves, because there is so little zeal in their hearts to serve Him in the only way that is well-pleasing to Him. We would experience more of Christ by faith, if we were more dissatisfied with our condition. We do not come to the point of saying, "There is no hope." May God so deal with His people that they shall find peace for their souls. To that end God often uses deep ways. He deprives His people of everything they cherish. Sometimes they sink in discouragement, and sometimes they faint with grief. The Lord still deprives them of everything so that they shall come with supplication and weeping. The Lord uses means to teach His church to abhor their image-worship, for He is a jealous lover of His people. He wants the honor alone; He wants us to have no strength except in Him, and to strive for that spiritual knowledge of Him which is to know God and to follow on to know Him in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is the result of putting away all false religion? That God's children need the Spirit because by themselves they can never attain to true prayer and cleaving to God. They are as wandering sheep, and now they need that Spirit to lead them. They become dependent persons who cleave unto the Lord as a girdle cleaves to the loins of a man. What is the fruit of beholding the image of God as it is in Christ? That God's children behold Him in the eternal splendor of His mercy and grace. Then they know of a seeking for fulfillment, for the Lord will soon bring them to perfection, and take them up in His glory. That causes their reins to be consumed within them. There they will see God perfectly, the one and only triune God of their salvation. There they will dwell eternally in blessed communion with Him, and there they will see the Lamb who purchased them with His blood, and Who as the Mediator, is the express image of God's Person.
The Lord grant us to feel our need of the leadings of His dear Spirit, to hate what He hates, and in the keeping of His commandments, to have those spiritual exercises by which we shall find more and more that our obedience is in Him, Who kept also this commandment perfectly. During His sojourn on earth He humbled Himself under the Law, not only to deliver His people from the curse of the law eternally, but also to cause them to walk in His commandments by His power, to the glory and praise of God's thrice holy Name. Amen.