The First Commandment comes to us from Exodus 20:1-6. Some Christians have issues with the use of liturgical art (especially statuary, including images depicting Jesus or crucifixes) based upon these verses of Scripture.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“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. Exodus 20:1-6 (ESV)
The First Commandment reminds us that we have no source other than God. Should we take the path of the ancients, such as the Israelites did in making golden calves to worship rather than the One True God, we engage in idolatry.
Idolatry can take many other forms besides praying to or ascribing the attributes of God to a statue or a work of visual art. Anything that we put in the place of God- even good things such as relationships with our families, work or our friends can become idols. As we study the First Commandment, the question we should ask in regard to our life and worship is, “Are we putting God in His proper place?
That is: Thou shalt have [and worship] Me alone as thy God. What is the force of this, and how is it to be understood? What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the [whole] heart; as I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust be right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust be false and wrong, then you have not the true God; for these two belong together, faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.- Martin Luther, from the explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism
If we hold God in the proper perspective and know that He is not confined to a physical place or an object, we can also put the world around us in perspective. We can appreciate the beauty of nature. We can appreciate the gifts of other people and of their vocations. We do not worship them, but we do thank God for them.
There are many ways in which to tell the Gospel story. As we learn in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing. We hear the Word proclaimed aloud and explained in the sermon in worship. We sing God’s praise and further underscore His story in songs and hymns through the gift of music. We also learn God’s story as we study the written Scriptures.
The visual arts are yet another powerful means to write the story of God on our hearts and strengthen our faith. When we see a crucifix we are reminded of Jesus’ suffering in a graphic, visual manner. We learn of Jesus, the Suffering Servant, as we read Isaiah 53, Psalm 22, and John 19. As we look at the crucifix we see with our own eyes the crown of thorns so crudely embedded in Jesus’ head, and the nails driven through His pierced hands and feet. We realize it was there where He suffered, died, and made the declaration, “It is finished.” It was there on Calvary’s cross that once and for all time, He had paid the outrageously high price to save us from our sins.
When we see the empty cross we are reminded that is not where Jesus stayed. We know that the cross could not contain Jesus, that the cross was not the end.
God gave us our senses and our vocations to praise Him and to continue to tell His story. Traditionally visual art has been used for catechesis- to help people learn the story of God whether they are able to read the written word or to come and hear the Word preached or not.
As with all other of God’s good gifts, statuary or any of the visual arts can be used in a wrong matter. It is one thing to be brought to remember the price Jesus paid for our sins when we look upon a crucifix, and quite another to worship the crucifix itself. It can be quite beneficial for us to think upon and be reminded of His suffering when we see a crucifix. In this life we share in Jesus’ suffering and death and it is good to be reminded of that as well. Likewise, we do not worship a cross when we see one, but instead we are reminded that he cross is not the end and that we share in Jesus’ resurrection.
We also know that in our depictions of Jesus or of departed saints of the church that we tend to interject our own cultural biases. Jesus was of middle eastern descent and would have been dark haired, dark eyed and dark skinned. Yet each ethnic group tends to portray Jesus as being like them. Many of us grew up viewing portraits of Jesus where He looks oddly blue eyed and northern European. Jesus has been portrayed in art as being African or Oriental or Hispanic as well. While these depictions aren’t historically accurate, they can be helpful for people to know that Jesus really is “someone like me-” human in every way except for sin.