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An Image that Lies

An excerpt from Jen Wilkin’s Ten Words to Live By.

Published on:
April 1, 2021
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5 min.
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Photoshop Is Not New 

God’s approach to image management is quite different from that of earthly rulers. Whereas earthly rulers may be compelled to wear a mask to guard their power, our heavenly ruler rejects all distortions of his image as impediments to being rightly worshiped. In order to preserve the reality of his perfections, God decrees that no human-contrived image of him shall be made, as any such image would only serve to cloud or diminish our understanding of what he is truly like. Because he is infinite and invisible, any finite and visible rendering of him in wood, paint, or plaster can only dim our understanding of his true nature. God’s version of image management is that there are to be no images of him conceived by human minds and created by human hands, in order to preserve the reality of his perfections. 

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Worshiping a Lie 

The first word prohibits worship of anything other than God, but the second prohibits worship of any version of God less than God, specifically through images. We are given an object lesson in the dangerous foolishness of “less-than-God God-worship” even before the second word is set in stone. 

Shockingly, in between God’s announcement of the Ten Commandments and the time Moses descends from Sinai with them engraved on tablets of stone, Israel decides to break the second commandment. How? By making a golden calf and bowing down to it. We find the story in Exodus 32. 

Moses is called to the top of Sinai by God, but when his time there grows lengthy, the people grow restless waiting for his return. Supposing their leader has been swallowed by Sinai’s thunder and smoke, they demand that Aaron make them gods to “go before” them (Ex. 32:1). Aaron obliges by collecting the gold jewelry they have presumably just lifted from the Egyptians—gold that God intended to be used in constructing his tabernacle—and embarking on a little sculpting project:[1] 

And [Aaron] received the gold from [the people’s] hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to [Yahweh].” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (Ex. 32:4–6) 

Interestingly, Aaron seems to conceive of the golden calf as an image of Yahweh, not as a lesser or different deity.[2] This is evident in the way he describes and executes the feast day. Israel feasts and sacrifices before an image purported to be of the one true God. But the calf can’t be that. The image lies about who God truly is. Think about the enormity of the lie the golden calf tells: 

It is small, but God is immense.
It is inanimate, but God is Spirit.
It is location-bound, but God is everywhere fully present.
It is created, but God is uncreated.
It is new, but God is eternal.
It is impotent, but God is omnipotent.
It is destructible, but God is indestructible.
It is of minor value, but God is of infinite value.
It is blind and deaf and mute, but God sees, hears, and speaks. 

Any time we take the attributes of the gods the world around us worships and apply them to God to make him more palatable and less threatening, more accommodating and less thunderous, we produce a graven image.

This image is no Yahweh. This is a lie. But it’s a particularly pernicious kind of lie, or perhaps it is the most common kind of all. Have you ever wondered why Aaron chooses the image of a calf instead of some other animal, like a bird or a lion? Remember that Israel is in the in-between space, fresh from Egypt and heading to Canaan. One of the principal deities of Egypt was the bull god Apis, and the supreme head of the Canaanite pantheon was the bull god El. Bull-worship was all the rage in the region. But it is a knobby-kneed calf, not a raging bull, that Aaron manufactures. When Aaron conceives of a Yahweh-of-his-own-imagining, he produces a nonthreatening, approachable version of the principal gods of the surrounding pagans. 

And so do we. 

Any time we take the attributes of the gods the world around us worships and apply them to God to make him more palatable and less threatening, more accommodating and less thunderous, we produce a graven image. We whittle down his transcendence, we paint over his sovereignty, we chisel away his omnipotence until he is a pet-like version of the terrible pagan god we would never be so foolish as to bow down to. 

Take, for example, the God of the prosperity gospel. Who among us would worship wealth when the Bible speaks so clearly of that dangerous idol, and when we see our unbelieving neighbors spend their lives chasing the almighty dollar, never to be satisfied by it? “Let us avoid that path, Lord,” we pray. But instead, we go right ahead and fashion Yahweh into a benign, benevolent form of Mammon. When our finances are tight, we ask, “What lack of faith has withheld God’s bounty from me?” When our bank accounts are full, we think, “It is because my faith has pleased the Lord.” 

Or perhaps we have rejected wholeheartedly the works-based salvation of other religions. The Muslim or the Hindu may seek to earn God’s favor through moral behavior, striving all their lives to obligate God to accept them. “Let us avoid that path, Lord,” we pray. But instead, we go right ahead and fashion Yahweh into a god who is obligated to reward our wise choices with blessing, who answers our properly worded “in Jesus’s name” prayers as we have commanded him to. When our circumstances are grim, we ask, “Why, Lord? What did I do to deserve this?” And when they are sunny, we think, “It is because my obedience has pleased the Lord.” 

A golden calf is a false teacher: it reveals to us only God-diminished— with a twist of phrase, a clouded lens, or a misplaced emphasis.

Or perhaps we simply take the God of the Bible and treat him according to our preferences, by placing emphasis on one of his (more palatable) attributes to the neglect of others. We speak incessantly of his love, but we grow silent about his wrath. We meditate on his grace, but we avoid contemplation of his justice. Or we trumpet his justice selectively, to suit our personal or political agendas. Perhaps we diminish his triune nature, choosing one member of the Trinity as our favorite in our prayers, our thoughts, our preaching, and our song, and forgetting the other two. We turn him into a mascot for our own ends. 

Exposing the Golden Calf 

A golden calf is a false teacher: it reveals to us only God-diminished— with a twist of phrase, a clouded lens, or a misplaced emphasis. The antidote to a false teaching is a true one. If you were to tell me that the Grand Canyon was only three miles wide, I would know you were wrong because I have stood at its edge and seen the expanse. If you were to tell me that the moon was made of cheese, I would know you were wrong because NASA has gone to great lengths to confirm otherwise. We may be just like Israel, willing to worship an image of God that can never truly show him to us. But we are not without resources to obey the second command. We are only easily lured into wrong belief about God when we are unschooled in right belief about him. We can spot a false teaching when we know the truth. 

God has chosen to reveal himself through the Scriptures and through Christ. We know the truth about who God is by becoming acquainted with this revelation, by learning the Bible, and by measuring all teaching against his word. And we know the truth about who God is through Christ, the spiritually undiminished image bearer. False teaching has been the shipwreck of the faith of many. But truth remembered is the way of life. We must cling to the rock of divine revelation like our lives depend upon it, because they do. 

Jen Wilkin
Jen Wilkin is an author and Bible teacher from Dallas, Texas. She has organized and led studies for women in home, church, and parachurch contexts. Her passion is to see women become articulate and committed followers of Christ, with a clear understanding of why they believe what they believe, grounded in the Word of God. She is the author of “Women of the Word” and “None Like Him.” You can find her at JenWilkin.net.

[1] Ex. 3:22; 12:35–36 

[2] R. C. Sproul Jr. “You Shall Not Make for Yourselves a Carved Image,” Tabletalk, June 19, 2018, https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/you-shall-not-make-yourselves -carved-image/. 

[3] Content taken from Ten Words to Live By by Jen Wilkin, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.

[4] Cover image by Łukasz Rawa.

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