In the fourth century AD, Emperor Leo III ordered the abolition of icons (revered images or sculptures) of Jesus, Mary, angels, and saints. This sparked the great Iconoclastic Controversy, so called because those who supported the eradication of icons, often on the grounds that they violated the second commandment’s prohibition of “graven images,” were known as iconoclasts or “image breakers.” The controversy sparked in the fourth century persists to this very day. Do images of Jesus really violate the second commandment? First, if the second commandment condemns images of Jesus, then it condemns making images of anything at all. And if that were the case, God would have been guilty of contradicting Himself because He commanded the Israelites to adorn the ark of the covenant with the images of cherubim (Exodus 25:18–20). In context, the commandment is not an injunction against making “graven images,” but an injunction against worshipping them. As such, God warns, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4–5). Finally, if viewing an image necessarily leads to idolatry, then the incarnation of Christ was the greatest temptation of all. Yet Jesus thought it appropriate for people to look on Him and worship Him as God (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:52). That worship, however, was to be directed to His Person, not His appearance. Indeed, idolatry lies not in the making of images but in the worship of man-made images in place of the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
For further related reading, see John of Damascus and His Defense of Icons by Nathan A. Jacobs.
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