“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” Exodus 20:4–5
Our elders have recently been thinking through how the second commandment applies in the life of our church. This has been particularly beneficial for me because, to my shame, I’ve never given much thought to the second commandment. I know that Christ has fulfilled the Mosaic Law on my behalf, and that I am now under the New Covenant. I’ve also never been one to make or bow down to graven images, so I’ve tended to skim over this prohibition.
But upon further review, I believe the Law is still instructive for believer’s lives today, including the second commandment. At the end of the article I’ll give you a few links for your own personal study.
This study has been good for my soul, but it has also proven to be timely. Mark Burnett’s Son of God movie is coming out and I am considering whether or not I’ll watch it. In years past I’ve watched and even shown in church The Passion of the Christ. I’ve also used The JESUS Film as an evangelistic tool in the Amazon jungle; and didn’t give any of that a second thought.
But with my recent consideration of the second commandment, I’m approaching this movie watching decision with more caution. I realize that many movies about Jesus are made with the intent of helping people think well about Jesus. But to portray an image of the Son of God does affect the way we think about Jesus, which I think the second commandment was put in place to guard. In light of this, we must “keep watch over our hearts with all diligence” (Proverbs 4:23).
Now for some of you, this question may seem ridiculous. To be honest, when we first began the discussion I was a bit irritated and thought that we were wading into Pharisaical waters of prohibiting artistic expressions of the beauty of the incarnate Son of God. But the more I’ve prayed and processed and considered, the more convinced I’ve become that all believers should at least wrestle with this question: Does making or watching a movie that portrays an image of Jesus violate the Second Commandment?
I do realize that all films reflect truths about God and humanity that we need to wrestle with. In light of that, we should research and prayerfully discern whether or not we should watch them. But for the sake of this article, let’s consider a few questions about movies that portray images of Jesus.
1. Why do you want to go see this movie about Jesus?
Here are some answers that would be concerning.
#1 – I just want to go see it and I’m free in Christ, so I plan to go.
First, I wouldn’t just assume that because you are free in Christ, that there aren’t important applications for you from God’s Law. This is an important study and one that every Christian should consider.
But as we do seek to live out our New Covenant freedom, we must remember that just because we’re free to do something doesn’t mean we should do it. Paul said “all things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23). To want to do something isn’t good a enough reason to make a decision. We live to please The Lord (2 Corinthians 5:15) and build up other believers (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The “I just want to and am free to” response could reveal pride and immaturity. Everything we do should be for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). We grow in maturity by practicing discernment (Hebrews 5:14). This means we should look to Him in all our ways (Proverbs 3:5-6) realizing that there are some things that seem right but aren’t (Prov. 14:12).
#2 – I think the movie will help me better worship and understand God.
To want to worship God more deeply is a wonderful desire. But to think that a movie could give you something that the Word cannot is very dangerous. Christians are a people of God’s Word. We grow, not by seeing visual depictions of Jesus, but by seeing Jesus with the eyes of our heart (revealed by the Spirit of God) through the written Word.
If you walk away from a movie about Jesus and say “I never thought of Jesus like that” or “now I understand what the Bible says” it may be evidence of God’s grace, or it may be a dangerous delusion. The Bible tells us “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn about God through general revelation or that we can’t be edified by Christian art. It does mean however that there must be no substitute for the Word, and any supplement that we take in must be done cautiously, especially when it paints images in our head of things God has given directly to us.
If we aren’t careful, we can begin to undermine the sufficiency of Scripture when it comes to learning about who Jesus really is. This is a common trend in our day, one that Kathy Keller’s review of Jesus Calling captures wonderfully. God’s Word is sufficient to teach us everything we need to know about Jesus. Portraying Jesus on the big screen or in paintings has the potential to tempt us to look somewhere besides God’s Word to learn about who Jesus really is.
2. Are you more excited about this movie than reading what the bible says about Jesus?
The question behind this question is, what stirs your affections for God? If it’s something more than God’s specific revelation of Himself through His Son by the Spirit in the Word—then we are in dangerous waters. Sunsets, movies, and all other things that can help us delight in God must be seen through the lens of Scripture.
God’s Word is able to do what even the world’s most talented artist can not do: portray Jesus for who He really is. For instance, no matter how gruesome one portrays the crucifixion and death of Jesus, no one can capture the unfathomable horror of the Father turning away from the Son when He poured out His wrath at the cross.
Only God’s Word, as illumined by God’s Spirit in the hearts of God’s people can paint the true picture of Christ. Doesn’t that make you want to open your Bible? Praise God for His Word! If we’re getting more amped up to see people’s guesses of what Jesus was like than who He really is, as revealed in His Word, we should reevaluate our hearts.
3. What potential spiritual good can come from watching the movie?
I trust there are spiritually edifying things that can come from the movie. For instance, one of my friends shared with me how The Passion of the Christ reinforced that the stories given to us in the Scripture were not lived out by westerners speaking English. He said the movie helped to connect him more to the 1st century Jewish culture than he had ever been before.
Another potential benefit would be the opportunity to go see it with a friend who might never go to church with you but who would go to a theater and then discuss it afterwards.
Now, I have a good friend who came to trust in Christ after watching the Passion of the Christ and one of our church members was reminded of the Gospel message she’d heard from her brother while seeing Aslan slain in The Chronicles of Narnia. God can and does use all kinds of things to bring His children to Himself. Praise Him for that!
At the same time, I do think we should humbly realize that this, or any movie, isn’t the ultimate answer. For a good article by Tim Challies on this idea click here. God’s Word proclaimed in His church and through loving relationships is always the primary way God saves people. The Gospel shared in a loving way is hard to beat. Could this movie be a helpful supplement? Maybe so, but we need to consider the next question.
4. What potential spiritual harm can come from watching the movie?
Let me lay out three potential dangers I’ve been wrestling with, all that center around the second commandment issues.
#1 – This movie could put images of Jesus in my mind that will affect my prayer and reading of the Bible later.
To this day some of our elders have images from The Passion of the Christ that come to mind when they pray or read about Jesus’ final hours. Why does this matter? There is something wonderful about the mystery of faith that can be potentially be stifled by having limiting and inaccurate images in our mind. This is at least worthy of consideration.
#2 – This movie could speak where God was intentionally silent.
I suspect any Christian who has read the Bible has longed for more stories and words of our Lord. But the fact is that God doesn’t tell us everything we want to know, He tells us what we need to know. Curiosity killed the cat they say, and I suspect that it could harm our soul as well.
With that in mind, we should be careful when watching scenes about Jesus that God has intentionally remained silent on. Why? Because it could cause us to think wrongly about Him based on what a film producer has taught us through the film.
What if a movie shows scenes from Jesus’ life that aren’t in the Scriptures, or what if the person who plays Jesus has lines that aren’t part of the revealed canon? Could that affect me? What about my non-Christian friend I took to see it?
Do you doubt that’s possible? Once after preaching through a passage in Exodus I was approached by a grown evangelical man who tried to correct me on a point because he’d seen it differently in a movie. Are you above that? Maybe. Or maybe not.
#3 – These images of Jesus could lead me to think wrongly of Jesus.
This is the heart of the issue as I see it. As with all things, there is no neutral ground with visual depictions of Jesus. The most well-intended artists will have to take artistic liberty that will knowingly fall short of presenting Jesus accurately. And the more realistic a portrayal of Jesus becomes, the more potentially dangerous the threat becomes that someone might receive what that Jesus does or says as being true.
I realize we are all likely to imagine what Jesus said or how he said it as we read the bible, but when God gave the second command He specifically spoke against the making of images of Him for a reason. Our natural sinful nature tends to make God into our own imaginative image. But as J.I. Packer said in Keeping the Ten Commandments “I like to think of God as…” should never be trusted. An imagined God will always be an imaginary God.”
My children have all asked if the Jesus in The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Action Bible are what Jesus really looked like. We want to know what He looks like. This is the longing of our hearts.
1 Peter 1:8-9 says “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory…” Peter, who had seen Jesus, didn’t tell them what He looked like. Instead he pointed them to the day when they would see Him and see the Father face to face (Revelation 22:4).
Between now and then what must shape our thoughts about what God is like are the Scriptures. These are the only trustworthy guide to what Jesus really looks like.
Our original question was does making or watching a movie that portrays an image of Jesus violate the Second Commandment?
The Scriptures are clear that God’s people must not attempt to worship God through any types of images (Ex 20:4-5). To do this is certainly a sin. This echoes the Westminster Shorter Catechism which says “the second commandment forbids the worshiping of God by images (Deut. 4:15-19; Rom. 1:22-23), or any other way not appointed in his Word (Lev. 10:1-2; Jer. 19:4-5; Col. 2:18-23).”
It is less clear however if the use of certain depictions of Jesus as a man violates this command. Some images are clearly not intended to draw our hearts and minds to worship as an idol (e.g., picture Bible images of Jesus). These images may not necessarily violate the second commandment.
At the same time, I think it is wise for spiritual discernment and heart-searching to be put to use in order to avoid being led into breaking the second commandment. The more lifelike the depiction of Jesus, the more likely it is that images could become impressed on our minds during worship, which could result in violating God’s command by replacing God’s revealed Word with an artist’s rendition of Jesus.
If we do see movies with images of Jesus in them, we must be careful to be like Bereans (Acts 17:11) and judge the movies, and what they communicate about Jesus according to what He has told us about Himself through His Word. May God give us wisdom as we seek to honor and obey Him in all we say, do, and view.
For further study on how the second commandment applies today check out:
This Ligonier article, this Tim Keller audio clip about the heart behind the 2nd commandment, this excellent Mark Dever Sermon where he preaches on the 2nd commandment in Dubai (the last 10 minutes deal with images of Jesus), this John Murray article entitled The Second Commandment and Images of Christ, the Westminster Shorter Catechism – Question #51 and the Larger Catechism – Question #109.
For a few other good resources on the 10 Commandments check out these:
How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments – Edmund P. Clowney
The Law and the Gospel – Ernest C. Reisinger
Keeping the Ten Commandments – J.I. Packer
His Loving Law, Our Lasting Legacy – Jani Ortlund (for teaching children)