Destroying Images of Christ in the Old Testament

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;  And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 KJV)

There can be confusion resulting from the Second Commandment in regards to what is actually prohibited. Is it saying we can’t have any images at all? Should we get rid of any paintings we have or delete any pictures we have on our phones? I think the purpose of the commandment is to not make any images for the purpose of worship, not a generic prohibition against all images. The main reason I believe this is that God commands images to be made, although never has them to be bowed down to or served. For example, just a few chapters after the giving of the commandment, God commands two Cherubim of gold to be made and placed on the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18). However, the example I really want to focus on is the command to make the bronze serpent:

Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and against you; intercede with the Lord, that He will remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and put it on a flag pole; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, and looks at it, will live.”  So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on the flag pole; and it came about, that if a serpent bit someone, and he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9 KJV)

So again God commands the Israelites to make an image, thus implying making images is not inherently sinful. This bronze serpent made is actually an image of Christ (spiritually speaking) as Jesus later tells us.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15)

The serpent parallels Christ in many ways and thus can rightly be said to be a picture of Him. Both are lifted up, the serpent on the pole and Christ on the cross. Both are for healing, the serpent for the healing of the poison, and Christ for the healing of the poison of sin and the restoration of our relationship to the Father. By looking to Christ in faith we are saved, just like looking on the serpent saved the Israelites. The serpent itself represents sin, and Christ became sin for us on the cross that we might be made righteous in Him (1 Corinthians 5:21).

However, this image of Christ in type and shadow and authorized by God later became an issue and had to be destroyed:

Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign.  Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah.  And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, according to all that David his father did.  He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.  He trusted in the Lord God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.  For he clave to the Lord, and departed not from following him, but kept his commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses. (2 Kings 18:1-6)

Why was it now good to destroy the image that God Himself authorized? Because now it was being worshiped. It was fine for the Israelites to possess before, but it had become an offense to God. It was the worship of the image that was reprehensible, not the image itself.

This has some additional implications for us. When Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and even some Protestants bow down to images of Jesus they are engaging in idolatry. If an image is going to be worshipped, God has prohibited it and it would be better that it was destroyed. At least with the serpent, God had explicitly commanded that to be made. However, these images were never anywhere commanded in God’s word and are made specifically that they would be bowed down to and served. It doesn’t matter that it may be an attempt at making an image of the true God (and in fact God specifically says that making an image of Him is wrong and will lead to further corruption, see Deuteronomy 4:12-19). Let us have a biblical view of images, not a hyper iconoclasm that desires to destroy all images, but one that seeks to remove any images that are being used in an idolatrous way.

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