Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 19, May 6 to May 12, 2007

The Truth About Images of Jesus
and the Second Commandment

A Study
for the Everyday Christian

Part 4 of 5

By Justin Griffin BSW, MAgth

"The Truth About Images of Jesus and the Second Commandment" by Justin Griffin BSW, MAgth

Copyright © 2006 by Justin Griffin. All rights reserved.

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Scripture quotations marked "KJV" are taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version, Cambridge, 1769.

Scripture quotations marked "NASB"are taken from the New American Standard Bible ®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from: the King James Version.

This book is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information with regard to the subject matter covered. This information is given with the understanding that neither the author nor Tate Publishing, LLC is engaged in rendering legal, professional advice. Since the details of your situation are fact dependent, you should additionally seek the services of a competent professional.

ISBN: 1-5988655-4-4

Published by Permission at IIIM.

Published by Permission at IIIM.

The Second Commandment Throughout Scripture

The foundation of discernment is studying. Most people give some kind of attention to what they are reading. However, only a few truly study what they read for discernment. Since Scripture is God-breathed and true in all its parts, one must study and understand the unity of its teachings to reach a deeper level of discernment. Thus in furthering our understanding of whether or not images of Jesus Christ violate the Second Commandment, we turn to the Scriptures to understand:

Does God's hatred of images of God1 • appear to stay the same throughout Scripture?

• Do there appear to be any degrees of leniency for those who indulge in those images?

• Are there any passages of Scripture, in their proper context, which would indicate God's approval of people-made images of God?

Brief surveys of Biblical texts that illustrate the bearing of the Second Commandment throughout Scripture are as follows:

The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, or you will be snared by it, for it is an abomination to the LORD your God. You shall not bring an abomination into your house, and like it come under the ban; you shall utterly detest it and you shall utterly abhor it, for it is something banned. (Deuteronomy 7:25-26).

… But hast done evil above all that were before thee: for thou hast gone and made thee other gods, and molten images, to provoke me to anger, and hast cast me behind thy back (1 Kings 14:7-9) .

For [so] it was, that the children of Israel had sinned against the Lord … And the children of Israel did secretly [those] things that [were] not right … Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments [and] my statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets. Notwithstanding they would not hear, but hardened their necks, like to the neck of their fathers, that did not believe in the Lord their God. And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers … And they left all the commandments of the Lord their God, and made them molten images, [even] two calves … (2 Kings 17:7-16).

Their idols [graven images] are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speaks them through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; [so is] every one that trusteth in them. (Psalms 115:1-8).

Israel [is] an empty vine; he bringeth forth fruit unto himself: according to the multitude of his fruit he hath increased the altars; according to the goodness of his land they have made goodly images. Their heart is divided; now shall they be found faulty: he shall break down their altars, he shall spoil their images. (Hosea 10:1-2).

And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols [graven images]? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in [them]; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (2 Corinthians 6:16).

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8).

The observant readers are more likely to find something when they are looking for it, whereas the aimless readers will wander endlessly through written words, not taking in the full idea that is right before them. Every reader should be a seeker rather than a finder, looking for truth rather than hoping to stumble over it.

In this part of the study, we were actively looking for passages of Scripture that enhance our understanding of the Second Commandment throughout Scripture, and thus we found what we were looking for. The most natural and straightforward understanding from the brief survey of Scripture is that God hates people-made images of God. There is no leniency for those who indulge in them, and there are no passages of Scripture, in their proper context, that would alter this understanding.

The prophet Isaiah is very helpful on this subject when he says, "To whom then will ye liken God? Or what likeness will ye compare unto him?"(Isaiah 40:18). And,

To whom will ye liken me, and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be like? They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place shall he not remove: yea, one shall cry unto him, yet can he not answer, nor save him out of his trouble. Remember this, and shew yourselves men: bring it again to mind, O ye transgressors. Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me … (Isaiah 46:5-9).

These passages in Isaiah address the question, "How can any people-made image depict or represent God?"In following Isaiah's reasoning, one may ask, "To what people-made thing is God like, or what people-made image can accurately represent the God?"These are rhetorical questions. The obvious answer is that nothing is like God, and no people-made image can represent God. God is omnipresent; He cannot be contained in a single image. God is invisible, and people cannot make Him into a visible image. Because God is both omnipotent and omniscient, He cannot be represented by images made out of non-omnipotent and non-omniscient earthly elements such as paint, plastic, glass, wood, stone, silver, gold, or platinum. Since no people-made image can accurately represent God, His majesty, glory, splendor, dignity, and honor are defiled by those false and therefore sinful people-made images. God is God, and only God can accurately represent God.

For those who attempt to represent God by images, the scriptures declare,

… cursed2 be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen. (Deuteronomy 27:15).

The New Testament is not without its reasoner. The Apostle Paul, in Acts 17:29, reasons in the same way that the Prophet Isaiah does when he writes, "Forasmuch, then, as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the [Godhead] is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, [made] by art and man's device."Therefore, it is obvious from the Old and New Testament that whatever means people use to try to depict God, whether pagan statues, pictures of false gods, or images of God, etc., are completely displeasing to God. Such images are all are lies and insults to Him. Furthermore, there is no place in the Scripture that indicates people-made images of God glorify God.

From the Old and New Testament, it is quite clear God hates people-made images of God. There is no leniency for those who persist in violating His Commandment and indulging in those images. Finally, there are no passages of Scripture, in their proper context, which would alter or augment this understanding.

At this point, someone might declare this part of the study flawed because of something called "proof-texting."Proof-texting is seeking only those passages of Scripture that validate one's belief. However, proof-texting is not wrong when one begins with a proper foundation and does not remove those passages from their clear, contextual understanding.

Unsound proof-texting begins with a flawed foundation and/or requires one to utilize Scripture verses out of their proper context. For example, someone could declare, "The Bible teaches that all true Christians should have their ears pierced as a sign of their true servanthood to Christ. The person could quote, Deuteronomy 15:15-17 "… therefore I command you this today … you shall take an awl and pierce it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your servant forever …"as the text that proved the belief. This argument would be an example of unsound proof-texting both because the core foundation is flawed and because one had to take a verse out of Biblical context to validate the foundation.

The foundation in Exodus 20:4 is sound, and the scriptural understanding of "no people-made images of God"does not change throughout Scripture. Furthermore, thorough searches of the entire Bible reveal no passages of Scripture which, in their proper context, would alter the foundation set forth in Exodus 20:4.


Scripture teaches that God hates people-made images of God. There is no leniency for those who indulge in them, and there are no passages of Scripture which, in their proper context, would alter, augment, or change this understanding.

In addition, it is evident from the Old and New Testament that God's hatred of people-made images of God has not changed. Subsequently, God's condemnation of those who violate His Commandment has not changed either. Therefore, those who continue to violate the Second Commandment are cursed as adulterous haters of God.

Review Questions

1. Does God's hatred of images of God appear to stay the same throughout Scripture?

2. Do there appear to be any degrees of leniency for those who indulge in those images?

3. Are there any passages of Scripture which, in their proper context, would indicate God's approval of people-made images of God?

4. Exodus 20: 5 declares that those who violate the Second Commandment are the adulterous haters of God. Has this condemnation been done away with anywhere in Scripture?

Church History and Images of Christ

In examining whether or not images of Jesus Christ violate the Second Commandment, it is important to review any historical accounts that have dealt with this subject. In this section of the study, we will examine church history to try to determine where images of Christ originated. We will also observe if the church universally accepted these images or if there was any opposition. Finally, we will seek to discover if church history surrounding these images impacts the Protestant Evangelical perception of images of Christ today. 3

Christianity and Images of Jesus: 60AD—500AD

Our examination of church history concerning the origin of images of Christ begins with early Christian art. Early Christian art does not show us what Jesus actually looked like. None of the Biblical Gospels or any of the Apostles give a detailed description of Him. According to Isaiah 53:2, 4 Jesus was of such an average appearance that one could not pick him out of a crowd. As a matter of fact, the Old and New Testament give no specific information regarding Jesus' personal appearance. The texts give no clue in reference to His height, the complexion of His skin, His physical build, the shape of His chin, the color of His eyes, the size of His foot, or the length and style of His hair. In addition, no credible sources report Christ sitting for a portrait, sketch, or sculpture. Furthermore, during the first three centuries, Christians, like their Jewish counterparts, resisted making depictions of God. The norm was to consider images of God the Son as a violation of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4). Concerning early Christian depictions of Jesus, Schaff writes, "The early church followed the Ten Commandments, and was engaged in deadly conflict with heathen idolatry."5 For the most part, the early Christians considered image making of one's God a pagan practice forbidden by God in Exodus 20:4.

Another element that affected Christian art, particularly by the third century, was the persecution of Christians. Christians up to this time period could count on discrimination, harassment, social ostracism, and possibly torture or death. Because of this persecution, Christian art was principally restricted to the decoration of the walls of catacombs. These tomb murals match the style of pagan Roman wall painting, but, for the most part, use Biblical themes and characters like Jonah, Daniel, the good Shepherd, etc. However, a number of these wall paintings syncretize Roman gods, pagan concepts, and Christian themes.

For example, one such wall painting merges images of Jesus and Apollo. Apollo was known as a god of light, and he was identified with Helios, the sun god. One of Apollo's principal tasks was to drive the sun across the sky each day with his four horses and chariot. The tomb of the Julii in the necropolis under St. Peter's church contains a syncretized Christian and pagan image in the form of a wall painting representing Christ as a sun god. This image of Christ, like the image of Apollo, has rays shooting from his head and is pulled aloft in a chariot by two rearing horses. Jesus said He was the light of the world in John 8:12, and Apollo was called a god of light. For those that did not understand that there is no such god as Apollo, the interpretation of teachings in John 8:12 could lead some to syncretize Apollo and Jesus as the same god of light.

Another example of pagan images syncretized with Christian themes is a picture of Orpheus on the cemetery ceiling in Domitilla. This 3rd century picture depicts the pagan god playing on the lyre, enchanting animals. Around the pagan figure are several Biblical scenes like Moses striking the rock and the raising of Lazarus. This tomb painting presents Orpheus as Christ, the link between the Old and New Testament and the soother of wild beasts, nature, and tribulation. For those who did not fully adhere to orthodox Christian teaching, the use of pagan images to depict Christ would seem harmless. Schaff writes, "As the oldest pictures of Christ, so far as we know, originated not among the orthodox Christians, but among the heretical and half heathenish Gnostics."6

The turning point for all Christian art, including pictures of Jesus, occurred around 313 AD when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians with the Edict of Milan, and Christianity became the dominant religion. Emperor Constantine officially accepted and supported Christianity in the Roman Empire. With imperial support, Christian art came out of the catacombs and ascended to the center of Roman culture and life. As Christian art began to spread across Rome, Constantine played a vital role in its rise and development. He brought artists together from many places within the Roman Empire to create Christian paintings, sculptures, and depictions. 7

By the mid-4th century, some began to use images of Jesus in public settings. However, their use was sometimes met with disapproval. One of the earlier protests against images of Jesus happened at the Spanish Council of Elvira in 306 AD. Bishops and priests, primarily from southern Spain, assembled with the goal of restoring discipline in the church. This council passed 81 canons, or laws, to reform the church. In general, the 81 laws were severe and imposed strong discipline for various sins. For example, no reconciliation with the church was allowed for the sin of idolatry.

Christianity and images of Jesus: 500AD—700AD

As Christianity became firmly established as the state religion, Christian architecture and art flourished. Some works used subjects similar to those found in the catacombs. Others depicted apocryphal scenes from the life of Jesus or showed the enthroned Christ receiving homage. Ivory carvers decorated book covers and caskets or larger structures with various and sundry images of Jesus. A notable occurrence during this time was the modification of the crucifix. During the early to middle 6th century, the crucifix gained in popularity. However, this crucifix had the symbol of a lamb rather than the image of Jesus upon it. This changed late in the 8th century when new laws required that the figure of a man they called Jesus should take the place of a lamb on the crucifix.

Christianity and images of Jesus: 700AD—900AD

During this time period the iconoclastic8 controversy led to increasing disagreement in the Church. Not all Christians freely accepted or welcomed Christian art, and some especially questioned depictions of Christ. It is difficult, however, to gain an entire and reliable account of events and writings of the controversy, since many of the writings of the iconoclasts were destroyed by the Roman Catholic Church. 9 Because the original iconoclastic arguments were destroyed, these arguments are derived from the Catholic Church's responses to them.

The First Iconoclastic Period: 730 AD—787 AD

Sometime between 726 AD and 730 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Leo ordered the removal of an image of Jesus from the palace gate of Constantinople. A gang of those who loved images of Jesus murdered those assigned to the task. Leo described image veneration as "a craft of idolatry."He apparently forbade the worship of religious images in a 730 AD edict."10 Leo saw image veneration as a violation of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4) and subsequently forbade images of Jesus.

Leo died in 740 AD, but his son, Constantine V 741-775 AD strictly continued his icon prohibition. During his reign, a Council was convened at Constantinople in 754 AD. The goal of this Council was to prohibit the manufacturing and veneration of images of Jesus. Because those who wanted to forbid images of Jesus were defeated, the remaining accounts of their arguments are found only in the writings of those who loved images of Jesus. Therefore, to understand the iconoclastic arguments, one must reconstruct them from the image lovers' responses. The reconstructed arguments have been broken down and paraphrased here to the best of the author's understanding11

1. If any image of Christ is to be made, the image must be an exact likeness of the original [of the same substance spiritually and physically]. For if the same substance is not used, then it does not accurately portray Christ. [Art mediums such as] wood, stone, and paint are empty of spirit and life and therefore cannot accurately portray Christ, [in spirit and life as God the Son].

2. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature [which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed] and His human nature [which is also impossible since no known accurate representation exists]. If an image of Jesus does not represent both His human and divine natures [at the same time], then it does not represent Christ.

3. By making an image of Jesus [that does not represent both of His natures at the same time], one is either separating his human and divine natures [or confusing the two natures together as though they were one]. Dividing the natures is considered Nestorianism. 12 Confusing the human and divine natures is considered Monophysitism. 13 [Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism have been condemned as heresy]. 14

4. Image use for religious purposes was a church innovation, a demonic confusing of Christians to return to pagan practices. [The pagans made images of their gods and worshiped their gods utilizing images].

Thus for iconoclasts, the only true and permitted representation of Jesus was the Eucharist, which Jesus Himself had instituted and commanded in Luke 22:19. Therefore, the 754 AD Council's conclusion condemned the making and veneration of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) intended to represent Jesus. However, this Council's conclusion was not the end of the matter. Many Catholic monasteries were dedicated to image making and veneration. To protect their images, an underground network of image devotees began amongst the monks. Constantine's son, Leo IV 775 - 780AD, was less rigorous, trying to make peace between destroyers of images and lovers of images until near the end of his life. His wife, Irene, took power as regent. With Irene's ascension as regent, the first Iconoclastic period ended.

Irene initiated a council ultimately called the Council of Nicea. This Council first met in Constantinople in 786 AD but was disrupted by armed forces faithful to the legacy of Constantine V. It convened again at Nicea in 787 AD when it rejected the decrees of the previous council and became known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. 15 While the first Council supported the forbidding of images of Jesus, the second supported the making and veneration of images of Jesus. One of the outcomes of the second Council was the destruction of the writings and arguments of the first Council.

The Second Iconoclastic Period: 814AD—842AD

Emperor Leo V, who reigned from 813 AD—820 AD, tried to institute a second period of icon prohibition. Michael II who followed Leo V wrote a letter to Louis the Pious expressing grief over image reverence in the church. He also reconfirmed the decrees of the first Council of 754 AD. His son died leaving his wife Theodora regent. Like Irene before her, she mobilized the lovers of images of Christ and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843 AD.

The Protestant Reformation to Modern Christianity: 1517 AD—2006 AD

16 Controversy over image making and veneration re-surfaced in the 16th century. The Protestant reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, for example, understood the Second Commandment to forbid images of Jesus. They insisted that they were idolatrous objects and encouraged Protestants to destroy their images of Jesus. The Protestants destroyed statues, stained-glass windows, paintings, and other such image paraphernalia when adapting Catholic churches for Protestant worship and use. Over the next few centuries, some Protestant groups had occasional movements of icon resistance, but nothing that affected God's children as a whole.

There is a very large historical disconnect between these Protestant reformers and today's Protestant Evangelicals. Today's Protestant Evangelicals appear to be much more liberal in their acceptance of images of Jesus than their historical counterparts. In fact, most modern Protestant Evangelicals have little understanding of the theological and historical background of images of Jesus Christ.

It appears that some of God's children today accept images of Christ under the justification Ignoratio elenchi, which means "ignoring what is proved."Ignoring what is proved occurs when, even though evidence supports one particular conclusion, a different and usually opposite conclusion is drawn. This occurs when someone deliberately ignores the facts. In this instance, people accept images of Christ as images of the true Christ, even though historical evidence leads to the conclusion that these images of Christ are not images of the true Christ. This conclusion is based on the following historical facts:

1. The Bible contains no specific physical description of Jesus, and there is no credible evidence that He ever sat for a portrait, sketch, or sculpture. Without an accurate model image, no one could ever make an accurate re-creation.

2. During the first three centuries, true followers of Christ opposed images of God the Son. Images of the assumed Christ did not appear until nearly the 3rd century after Christ's death and resurrection. It is safe to say that these images could not be based on eyewitness recollections, since they came on the scene almost 2½ centuries later.

3. Pseudo-Christians mixed pagan and Christian beliefs to create the syncretized 3rd century images of Christ. It is also highly probable that the pagan artisans that Roman Emperor Constantine employed to create Christian art used Roman gods like Apollo and Orpheus as their source models instead of non-existent images of Jesus Christ.

Consequently, the images of Christ that we have today are not images of God the Son. Since they do not represent what He looked like or who He is, they cannot accurately be deemed images of Jesus Christ.

However, some of God's children today operate from a very different conclusion from that supported by historical proofs. Many Protestant Evangelicals ignore the historical facts and accept the false images of Christ as representing the true Christ. This is evidenced by the fact that the phony historical images of Christ are rampant in Protestant Evangelical culture.

Most Protestant Evangelical bookstores offer a wide variety of those false images of Jesus. One can find pictures, postcards, picture books, coffee mugs, T-shirts, bookmarks, bumper stickers, and other image paraphernalia with an icon of Jesus. Jesus paraphernalia available on the Internet includes Jesus bottle-head dolls, Jesus action figures, Jesus inflatable dolls, Jesus jewelry, Jesus Halloween costumes and much more.

In many Protestant Evangelical churches, those false images of Jesus often are shown off in stained-glass windows and paintings of various shapes and sizes. Sunday school, Bible study, and children's Christian coloring books often contain some representation of Christ. The justifications for these images seem to be mostly humanistic and not Scripturally or historically based. Some Evangelical Protestants will reason that the images are good teaching tools or help some to focus on loving Christ. The rationalization seems to depend on personal experience or preference rather than God's approval or historical accuracy.


In examining church history concerning the origin of images of Christ, it is evident that they did not originate from any credible source. The church did not universally accept or permit them. In fact, some Protestant Christians declared them unacceptable and forbade them as idolatrous images that violated the Second Commandment. In spite of this history, many of today's Protestant Evangelicals seem unaffected by the reformers' understandings of images of Jesus Christ since they appear to accept the false images of Jesus without question.

Review Questions

1. Are there any historical accounts that have dealt with this subject before?

2. When did images of Jesus come on the historical scene, and from what source did those images originate?

3. Did the images of Jesus have universal acceptance by the church?

4. What is an iconoclast?

5. How does church history surrounding these images affect Protestant Evangelical perception and use of images of Christ?

6. During what century did depictions of Jesus start being made with a beard and mustache?

7. What pagan deities were most likely the original source models for images of Jesus?


1. There are no other gods but God. All false gods, idols, are people's sinful attempts at trying to depict and reach God. Therefore, any attempt at depicting false gods is, in essence, an attempt at trying to depict God.

2. Cursed can mean - to be unloved, to be afflicted, to be tormented.

3. This part of the study is a survey of church history as it pertains to images of Christ. It is not an exhaustive account of all of Christianity's historical events. Furthermore, while this section was summarily comprised utilizing and checked against the Online Catholic Encyclopedia, unless otherwise noted. Finally, this section does not reflect a traditional Catholic historical understanding. Rather, this section is historically understood from a Protestant Evangelical perspective.

4. Isaiah 53:2 "… He [Jesus] has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him."

5. History of the Christian Church (vol. 2 ["Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325"]; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1963). (page 267) This was originally written in the 1880s, and this is a reprint.

6. History of the Christian Church (page 273).

7. It is the author's belief that there is a high probability that the artisans that Emperor Constantine employed were of pagan origin and more apt to syncretize Roman-pagan iconography and Christian beliefs, rather than Christians, who believed such syncretism was a sin.

8. Iconoclastic means those who break images.

9. During the 7th to 8th century, the first images of Jesus with a beard and mustache appeared. All images of Jesus before the 7th century were without a beard or mustache.

10. (Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, 1997).

11. The paraphrased arguments have been parsed and edited for better comprehension with the words in brackets being supplied by the author to help further the understanding of the arguments. Sahas, Daniel J. Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth-Century Iconoclasm: An Annotated Translation of The Sixth Session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, 787), containing the definition of the Council of Constantinople (754) and its Refutation, and the Definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986.

12. The belief that "divine and human persons remained separate in the incarnate Christ"(Webster, 780).

13. The belief that "Christ's nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its cycle of birth, life, and death"(Webster, 753).

14. A heresy is a doctrinal error that violates the fundamental teachings of Scripture.

15. To read the Council of Nicea 787 AD's conclusion, see appendix B.

16. There is modest record of any significant iconoclastic activity from the mid-ninth century until the 16th century.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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