The Ten Commandments, Part III: Idol Worship is Bad News

According to what God has told us, upon the Ten Commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Testimonies, vol. 2, 43.) So all instruction really emanates from His Word, His Law, His character, and His love. We need to gather the principles contained in His Law and then apply them to our lives that we might not sin against Him.

The Second Commandment

“Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.” Deuteronomy 5:8–10.

The first commandment is very short and to the point. The second commandment is a bit longer, but the first and the second commandments are closely related in that they both prohibit idolatry and false worship. There are, nevertheless, very distinct differences between them. Let us take a look at some of these differences.


The first commandment deals with the question of Who is the true God. The second commandment deals with how the true God is to be worshipped. The second is not a repetition of the first, as some would have us to believe. As we look at Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican catechisms, we see that the second commandment is removed or, with very small type, is included under the first. Then the second commandment is given as, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain.” The third commandment is given as, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” And the tenth commandment is divided in half to fill the void.

The distinction between the first and second commandments is as much as that which exists between any of the other ten. The first commandment reveals the object of true worship. It tells us Who alone must be worshipped. The second tells us how He must be worshipped or how He must not be worshipped. The first prohibits the worship of false gods; the second forbids false forms of worship.

No Tinkering

Ellen White tells us, “The Lord has not placed before one individual the trade of becoming a church tinker.” Sermons and Talks, vol. 1, 40. With what should we not tinker? We should not tinker with the form of worship! Is it tinkering because we are not following a certain kind of liturgy, or is it speaking to greater principles than this? I think that it is speaking to greater principles. When we are counseled to not tinker with the form of worship, it involves the fact that the attention is not to be given to those who are directing the worship but rather to the One who is the object of the worship.

In the early years of my ministry, I attended, at my cousin’s invitation, a special musical program in a Nazarene church. During the program, I noticed one individual, a gentleman, who seemed particularly enraptured with the presentation.

The musical presentation was followed by the “Ministry of the Word,” but at the conclusion of the music, this man left. He had no interest in the preaching. He only wanted the “high,” the sensuous emotion that the music had apparently given him. He did not have any further interest in hearing the Word.

We can tinker with worship to the extent that it becomes almost a sensuous experience; we become wrapped up in all the choreography and the details of the presentation and forget Whom it is we have come to worship. Such are the kinds of things to which this commandment speaks.

The first commandment deals with our conception of God. The second commandment addresses our external acts as manifested in worship. It directs against the false worship of the true God. He must not be worshipped through idols or images—visible manifestations to represent the diety.

Negative Implies a Positive

We must not think that the Ten Commandments are wholly negative. Many of them begin with “Thou shalt not,” and there is a tendency for us to bristle just a little, because we do not like to be told what not to do. This is part of our sinful, fallen, human nature. Yet, we perceive a negative aspect to the second commandment, because it leaves more of a negative impression upon our minds than it does a positive. This is, again, a result of human nature.

There are many things that we accept being told to do, but there are very few things that we enjoy being told not to do. However, if we are told not to worship in a certain way, it is because there is a positive way in which to worship. The negative command, “You shall not,” always implies the positive command, “You shall.” Sin forbidden indicates righteousness commanded. “You shall have no other gods before Me,” implies the command, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only should you serve.” (Matthew 4:10.)

Internal Belief/External Acts

Both the internal belief and the external acts are involved in worship. These are distinguished by the first two commandments. The outward acts of worship reveal the thoughts and the intents of the heart. Outward acts are fruits; they are one of the things we can judge. We cannot judge the intents of the heart, but the intents of the heart are usually revealed in the outward actions. This is where a lot of people get into trouble. They do not want to be judged, but they present themselves before people in such a way that there is nothing else that can take place, because we are called to be fruit inspectors and to judge from that standpoint. As a man thinks in his heart, so is his conduct. (Proverbs 23:7.)

False or True

The distinction between false gods or false forms of worship needs to be recognized, because, as fallen human beings, we can very easily be caught up in worshipping idols and things along with or in place of the true God.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, He told her that “the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” John 4:23.

This is a positive aspect of the second commandment. True worship is far more than religious forms and ceremonies. This is one of the principles of this commandment that we need to consider.

True worship can become perverted and degraded by those who are occupied with the externals and substitute them for the spiritual experience. This is one of the problems with churches which apparently feel that the louder the noise and the more physical movement that occurs, the more they are worshipping God.

One of the reasons many Seventh-day Adventists are worshipping independently of the organized church is because of the inroads the celebration movement has made into Adventism. This is one of the reasons I am no longer employed by the organized conference.

A Stand for True Worship

I had preached a sermon about the celebration movement and the inroads it was making into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Shortly thereafter, the local conference academy wished to sponsor a rock radio station on its campus. Some of the church members, who knew my stand on the matter, asked if I would accompany them to talk with the conference leadership concerning this station.

We prepared a packet of materials that outlined Christian standards of music and sent a copy to each member of the Conference Committee 30 days before the scheduled meeting. They laughed us to scorn in the meeting.

The church members decided they were going to see to it that this issue was put on the agenda for the constituency meeting, which was to be held in three months. At the appointed time, I was the only pastor who stood before the assembled constituents and spoke against the music that would be played on the campus of the academy by this proposed radio station.

In the three months following this meeting, the little conference of 6,000 members missed its budget by $150,000. The leadership sent out a letter, inquiring whether any of the pastors knew why the giving had diminished so drastically. Upon receipt of that letter, my wife and I drove to the conference office and said, “You have asked a question; we have an answer.” We told them what we felt the answer was, and they again laughed us to scorn and declared, “It could not possibly be.”

A few months later, the conference president called me to his office and told me he would like to discuss my new responsibilities. I had been in my current church district for seven years, and I knew it was getting close to the time to move to another district. We did not think we would be moved clear out, but we were. The conference president said, “We have four positions which must be cut because of the finances. One pastor has taken a call to another conference; one has retired; one has gone back to Andrews University. This leaves one more position, and that is yours.” If I was in trouble, it was because I stood for principle on issues, not because I was involved in moral problems or other personality difficulties.

As far as I was concerned, this change was fine. God had called me to ministry, so my wife and I started an independent ministry. We have continued in the Lord’s work ever since.

Forbidden Images

The second commandment, as given to the Israelites, forbids the making of images or any likenesses of any created object in heaven or earth for the purpose of worship. There are people who believe that this commandment forbids photographs—pictures of Jesus or relatives or anything of that nature. They say that such pictures are graven images. They do not believe we should display these things in our homes, because the commandment forbids it. Well, the commandment does not forbid this kind of thing. If indeed such was the case, then Moses, when commanded by the Lord, shortly after this commandment was given, to embroider figures of angels, to be placed in the Sanctuary to beautify it, was under divine injunction to transgress this commandment!

The principle of this commandment centers on worship. If you have created a shrine, where you bow down and worship, and the shrine includes a photograph of someone you adore and worship, then yes, this is wrong, and the second commandment addresses that. Memory’s hall, where we have photographs and pictures of loved ones, has nothing whatsoever to do with this principle.

Anything in the Heavens

Many people interpret “Thou shalt not make . . . any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above” as not making a picture of Jesus. After all, He is in heaven above. But let me just ask you a question: Are we to worship Jesus? Absolutely! This commandment is not forbidding the worship of Jesus. (Although, as presented previously, it does forbid worshipping a graven image of Jesus.) He certainly is worthy to be worshipped.

This commandment is referring to the planets in the heavens above us, to which people have attributed the status of gods. People have bowed down and worshipped Venus, Mars, and the sun. The Lord tells us that we should not worship these heavenly bodies or make any graven images of them. Neither should we worship angels, which are in heaven. They are not worthy of worship. (See Revelation 22:8, 9.)

Dead gods are not worthy of worship. Let us be honest; there are dead gods. They were known and called such, but they were believed to have immortal souls. We are forbidden to make graven images for the worship of these gods.

The second commandment is a prohibition against the worship of the work of our hands.

In Place of God

An idol is any creature or created thing put in the place of God. Idolatry is creature worship rather than Creator worship. Of all the forms of idolatry, the most degraded and senseless is the worship of the mere image of the genuine.

Think about this for a moment. Man is always superior to that which he makes, and in worshipping the works of his own hands, he is worshipping that which is inferior to himself. If you fashion a little doll or an image—perhaps a statue of the Virgin Mary—it is something crafted by your hands. It has no life or energy. It cannot help you. It is actually beneath you. It would be one thing to worship a living human being who is on your same level, but it is altogether different to worship something which is beneath you.

Image worship is even worse than the worship of what God has made, because what God has made has at least come from His hand. Image worship is the worship of something from the hand of man.

Heathen Gods

When the law was given to the children of Israel at Sinai, they had just been delivered from a country where some of the worst forms of idolatry had been practiced. They were on their way to a land that was equally corrupt. The chief gods, which the Egyptians worshipped, were the likenesses of Osiris and his wife, Isis. Osiris was known as the god of the dead. All heathen gods were men and women who, after their deaths, were deified and worshipped. In many places, they are still worshipped.

In Egypt, along with the worship of human forms, the people also worshipped the ox, heifer, stork, crane, hawk, crocodile, serpent, frog, and fish of the Nile. Every living thing was a god, and a god was in everything. This was a form of pantheism.

As far back as can be traced, the worship of all pagan deities originated with the worship of dead men and dead women. The Bible speaks very plainly concerning the worship of the dead and the familiar spirits of the dead. Do not seek after those that peep and mutter, the Bible says. (Isaiah 8:19.) (See also Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10–12.)

All graven images of worship usually represent dead heroes, ancestors, or, as we find in modern forms of this idolatrous worship, the saints and the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, in the Catholic structure, a person does not become a saint until he or she is dead.

Immortality of the Soul

This commandment forbids the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. If it were understood correctly, there would never be the concept of the immortality of the soul.

Can you see why, on the Ten Commandments hang all the law and the prophets? Immortality is not spoken of in the Ten Commandments, yet the foundation of it is found there. This is why it is never to be entertained as a doctrine, because the second commandment forbids the consideration of the immortality of the soul. Only God is immortal. To represent God, an image must represent someone who is immortal as well.

In the book, The Origin of Pagan Idolatry (A. J. Halry, London, 1816), the author, George S. Faber, states that the gods were holy men and the sun, moon, and stars were regarded as intelligences, because they were the abode of deified men. The gods were the souls of men who were afterwards worshipped by their posterity on account of their extraordinary virtues.

Since the dead are unconscious and know not anything and have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that is done under the sun, pretended spirits of the dead are really the spirits of devils or evil angels impersonating the dead for the purpose of deception. (Ecclesiastes 9:5) The worship of idols constitutes demon worship and is so designated in the Scriptures.

The Great Apostasy

Idol worship denigrates the idea of worshipping God to the level of worshipping goats and devils. What an abomination to our Creator!

Idolatry is Satan’s effort to substantiate the lie to Adam and to Eve when he said, “You shall not surely die. For God knows that in the day that you eat of this tree, then your eyes will be opened, and you will be as gods.” (Genesis 3:4, 5.)

The great apostasy, or falling away, which was mentioned by the apostle Paul during the early Christian centuries, was a return to heathen idolatry under the disguise of a Christian exterior. The apostles were scarcely dead before the early Christians began to make images of them to venerate the relics of apostolic days. The apostasy ripened into its full fruitage between the fourth and the eighth centuries.

Edward Gibbon, in his book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (reprinted by Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1994), wrote that the sublime and simple theology of primitive Christians was gradually corrupted and the monarchy of heaven, already clouded by metaphysical subtleties, was degraded by the introduction of a popular mythology which tended to restore the reign of polytheism, the worship of many gods.

At the first, the experiment was made with caution. As the church leadership began to bring this practice in, they did it very carefully at first, because they did not know what the reaction of the people was going to be. The venerable pictures of saints and martyrs were discretely allowed, and before the end of the sixth century, these images were the object of worship and the instruments of miracles. By the beginning of the eighth century, the more timorous Greeks were awakened by an apprehension that, under the mask of Christianity, they had restored the religion of their fathers.

Temporal or Eternal

It is so much easier to be carnal than spiritual! This explains the general demand for ritualism on the part of unspiritual people. They seem to feel that a great outward show of religion makes up for the lack of an inward experience. This is one of the things commanding the attention of human beings today, especially in the area of fashion. The less spiritual experience a person has, the more they are drawn into the field of fashion. They do not seem to realize that these “things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen [are] eternal.” 11 Corinthians 4:18. This is why, “The just shall live by faith,” not by sight. Galatians 3:11. (See also 11 Corinthians 5:7.)

The most lasting and valuable things of life are invisible. Love, joy, peace, righteousness, and character cannot be seen, yet they are more precious and eternal than all the things that are visible to the naked eye.

To be continued . . .

Pastor Mike Baugher is Associate Speaker for Steps to Life. He may be contacted by e-mail at:, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.