“You Shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is the water under the earth; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God….” (Ex 20:3-5).
Many Protestant Christians will accuse Catholic Christians of making idols and quote the above text. What they fail to do is understand the above text in its context. Throughout the history of God’s people, there is always a tendency to fall away from the worship of the One, True God and adopt the pagan practice of worshipping false idols. In modern times those idols are: money, sex, status, etc. When the Jews were under the bondage of the Egyptians there was a temptation to worship the animal like gods of the Egyptians. Many of the Egyptian gods were made in the images of jackals, birds and other animals. In the above text God is making an direct condemnation of this practice when he says do not make a graven image of anything in heaven, the earth, under the earth and in the water.
God is not condemning the making of all images, just images that one would worship as a false god. Just 5 chapters later in Exodus 25: 17-22 God actually commands Moses to make graven images of two cherub (angels) to be part of the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.
“And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and on cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out its wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim.”
Is God contradicting himself? No, God condemns the practice of making false idols to be worshiped as gods as in the case of the golden calf, not images that are used to aid in the worship of God as in the case of the cherub on the Ark of the Covenant. In Exodus 32:1 the people said to Aaron “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” The above text is what God is condemning in Exodus 20, making images or statues and proclaiming them to be gods. Another good reference to God commanding man to make graven images is in Numbers 24:8-9 with the bronze serpent.
“And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
God is working his life saving grace through a graven image. Our God is a God of materials; always working his grace through things and people he has created (prophets, priest, angels, water, mud, a bronze snake, Moses’ staff, wine, bread, oil, etc). Twice here we have shown from scripture that God commanded the creation of graven images. If a graven image is made with the intentions to worship as a false god, then this is idolatry, but if the image is made to aid in the worship of God and not be worshiped itself as in the case of the Cherub and the Bronze serpent it is actually beneficial to the Christian people.
Another place in the Bible where graven images are mention is in Ezekiel 14: 17-26. The following verses depict how the inner walls and doors of the Temple in Jerusalem had graven images of cherub, palm trees, man’s faces and lion’s faces:
“…..on every wall on every side in both the inner and outer rooms were carved the figures of cherubim and palmtrees: a palmtree between every two cherubim. Each cherub had two faces: a man’s face looking at a palmtree on one side, and a lion’s face looking at a palmtree on the other; thus they were figured on every side throughout the whole temple. From the ground to the lintel of the door the cherubim and palmtrees were carved on the walls…………Each door had two movable leaves; two leaves were on one doorjamb and two on the other. Carved upon them (on the doors of the nave) were cherubim and palmtrees, like those carved on the walls. Before the vestibule outside was a wooden lattice. There were splayed windows (and palmtrees) on both side walls of the vestibule, and the side chambers of the temple……”
The graven images mentioned in the text above were made in the likeness of things that are in “heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath” (Ex 20:4). If taken out of context this also would look like God is directly contradicting himself. God isn’t contradicting himself because he condemned the creation of graven images that were made for the purpose of idolatry, not graven images that were used, like in this case, to aid in the worship of God and adorn the Holiest place in the Jewish world.
Justification for the use of icons and statues even transcends scripture. The use of icons and images were supported by the Early Church and formally approved at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787AD. The council dealt with the veneration (or honor) and use of religions icons. Over 300 bishops of the Church overwhelmingly supported the use of images; they argued their point by using the Bible as well as the writings of the Early Church Fathers (the Christian leaders who were taught by Jesus and the Apostles).
Another point is to look at is the modern day usage of statues and images. In secular society people make statues and images of great leaders in order to honor and remember them for the great things they have done. How many statues in the United States are there of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and many other famous political and military figures? Is the American public worshipping these people by making these statues? No, they are made to honor these people because of the great things that they have done for our country. How much greater are the holy Christian men and women that have done so much for kingdom of God on Earth. How much greater is the Mother of God who brought Jesus Christ into the world?
One last objection that Protestant Christians bring up is how Catholics kneel before a statue or image of Mary or one of the Saints; that this is a form of idolatry. Again in the context of Exodus 20 this applies to bowing down before a false idol in order to worship it. In Catholic Churches (as well as Orthodox Churches and some older Protestant groups) there are shrines to honor Mary and other Saints where Christians would light a candle and pray to God or ask the Saints intercession. Many times when Christians pray they kneel; just because they are in front of an image or statue doesn’t mean they are praying to the statue or worshipping it, this is the farthest thing from the truth. The statue is a representation of that particular Saint. Catholics sometimes even kiss the statue to represent their love and respect for the living Saint that statue represents in Heaven. This practice transcends Catholicism and is seen in many cultures. Many people keep pictures of family members in their homes and wallets.
When a person dies, friends and family kneel before the body in the coffin and say a prayer, are they worshipping that dead person? Of course not; again scripture and practices of people have to be looked at in their context, if not then one doesn’t really understand what they are reading or witnessing and will have a distorted understanding of the Bible and Christianity all together.