Christianity forbids the use of idols, or objects that represent God as a form of worship. Probably the most famous place where Idolatry is forbidden is in Ten Commandments:
“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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exod 20:4–6)
God commands his people not to make images (even of the true God!) and worship them, because God is a jealous God. Probably the jealousy of God here refers to his exclusive desire to be worshipped. The simple truth here is that God prohibits idolatry because he alone ought to be worshipped, but Exodus 20 does not fill in the blanks as to why God forbids it as such.
The ideas of idolatry and image-bearing in the Bible, however, provide one helpful insight into why God forbids making images and worshipping them. By identifying how image bearing relates to idolatry, we are actually freed up to understand our life’s purpose with sharper focus.
The ultimate form of idolatry for Israel probably was when Israel’s leaders worshipped idols in the temple of God. As God shows Ezekiel the temple, the book records: “So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel” (Ezek 8:10). The place of worship where God alone was to be worshipped became infested idols.
That is one reason why God left Israel: “Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them” (Ezek 10:18-19).
Soon thereafter the glory of God once again moves: “Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city (Ezek 10:22–23).”
Why did Idolatry in the heart of the temple lead to God departing from that temple? One obvious answer is because Israel broke God’s commands. And this is true. But why does God command that his people should not make idols and why is it such an abomination for Israelites to worship idols in God’s temple?
The early chapters of Genesis draw a fuller picture of what it means to commit idolatry in God’s temple. When God created a garden in Eden, he created it to be a primordial temple, a piece of paradise on earth. The garden stood on a mountain in the midst of Eden, and rivers flowed down from it to water the land of Eden (Gen 2:10). The land surrounding the garden flourished in material wealth: gold, bdelium, and onyx, (Gen 2:11–12). The kind of jewels within the surrounding land remind us of the gilded clothing of Israel’s priests (Exod).
And into this primordial temple, God places his priests: Adam and Eve. God placed Adam into the garden “to work it and to guard it” (leavdah uleshamrah). The particular word pair (work and guard) appears elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe the priestly duties of working and guarding the tabernacle: “They will guard (veshamru) all the instruments of the tent of meeting and when they guard in trust (meshmeret) the sons of Israel to work (leavod) the work (avodat) of the tabernacle” (Num 3:8).
It seems rather clear that Moses intends for readers to pick resonances of temple language in Genesis 2. Adam and Eve were priests in this primordial temple-garden within the land of Eden. Did they, then, have the responsibility to worship God in their temple-garden? Absolutely, but it appears that they only worshipped God by fellowshipping with him but by imaging God.
In Genesis 1:26–28, we learn that God created Adam and Eve in his image. The effect of which was to commission Adam and Eve to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Genesis 2 clarifies that these image bearers fulfill their mandate, starting from the the garden-temple in Eden. To some degree, their image bearing within Eden shouted out God’s glory to the extent that any idol or pseudo-image of God would pale in comparison.
It is not the case that humans are idols or something to be worshipped. Far from it. But it is the case that they had imaged God with their primordial purity, a true and valid image of God. But as the story goes, God exiles Adam and Eve from the garden-temple because they failed to guard from the infiltration of the serpent and failed to image God by their actions as they broke their fellowship with God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
God’s image filled the original temple through Adam and Eve. When they worked and guarded the garden, their faces shown with the glory of God. And through their primordial holiness, anyone could easily see the face of God behind their obedient faithfulness to him. The Fall changed all of that. They so to speak, committed the first act of idolatry in history by their failures to guard the garden from the serpent and keep God’s temple holy by imaging God through their faithful relationship with him.
More than Adam and Eve, Jesus fully images God. To see the face of the Son is the see the Father. To the see face of the Son is to see the glory of God. And in fact, Jesus rebuilds the temple, which is his body (John 2:21). The body imagery was not simply a metaphor, but it actually represents a real temple of God. As Paul explains, the body of Christ has become the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:19). This is because by faith a person unites with Christ so closely that he becomes one with the Son, becoming part of his body (John 17:20–21).
And this temple sees the return of Ezekiel’s glory as the Spirit of God dwells among the body of Christ, the temple (John 15:26): “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor 3:16). That is to say, “the Spirit of glory” rests on the church (1 Pet 4:16).
And one of Christ’s benefits to his church is recreating them into his image, the image of God:”and [you] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10) as well as: “and [you are] to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
Idolatry, The Image of God, And The Image of Christ
God forbids idols because he deems sole worship for himself, but he also forbids idols of the true God. And I think part of the reason that this is true is because God’s people are a kingdom of priests who are meant to image God in the temple of God. Imaging God means acting and living in a way that corresponds to righteous character of God—to be like Christ. An idol or even the image of the true God distracts from our priestly service of showing God to the world, as being lights to world, enlightening the world with glory of God, the Spirit.