Some commandments get more attention than others. I'm talking about the 'cool' commandments sitting at the school lunch table wearing Letterman Jackets and Poodle Skirts (voted most popular by the student body). These include keeping the Sabbath day holy, honoring our parents, and not committing adultery. Who can argue with that?
But scooted in the corner at the back of the cafeteria is a lunch table with the misfits: the awkward commandments everybody ignores because of their pimples and B.O. These include, for example, Rich (D&C 11:7), Nic (Revelation 2:15) and Raca (Matt. 5:22).
And there we find, last but not least, the Second Commandment.
No, I don't mean the commandment about loving our neighbors; I'm talking about the one Moses gave that says we shouldn't make graven images of God (sorry, Bertel Thorvaldsen).
Can you remember the last time you heard a Sunday School lesson on the Second Commandment and Iconoclasm? Me neither. Each generation reinterprets the commandments for their day. But believe me, the Second Commandment was all the rage in the 700s A.D.
Let me tell you, back then people took it seriously (Exodus 20:4). In fact, it tore the Church apart; the Byzantine emperor Leo III officially prohibited the display of images (icons) depicting God, which policy was reversed by Empress Irene ― and finally came full circle when Leo V took power and destroyed the forbidden images in 815 A.D.
But Empress Theodora had the last laugh, restoring icon veneration in 843 A.D.
When President Nelson introduced the new Church Logo in General Conference, I posted on Facebook, "The Pope called and he wants his icon back." Good times.
You might be wondering, "Tim, why is this important? How does the Second Commandment bring me closer to Christ?"
I'm glad you asked! Every post I write is intended to draw our minds and hearts to God and Christ's law; this is no different. By discussing what it means to "make an image" of Him, I hope we'll never view this commandment the same way again.
Anyway, before we get to things as-they-stand today, we need to have a digression about the Law of Moses in general.
Sinai: "Can You Hear Me Now?"
When God wrote upon the stone tablets on Mount Sinai the 10 heaven-headlining laws for the children of Israel, why did He bother with Number 2?
Thou shalt NOT make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.
Look, I know this happened 3,200 years ago; we weren't even around. Does it really matter what Moses said?
Well, oddly enough, attending Sunday School and listening to the lessons, it feels like the Law of Moses was given yesterday. I sometimes wonder if we skipped the intervening three millennia between the Golden Calf and now, as if nothing important happened during that time.
Why? Because our moralistic preaching (teaching what is right and wrong) is a throw-back to the good old days ― back when Sennacherib and Jehoshaphat were on the nightly news ― when people rode donkeys and didn't use toilet paper. You see, our faith in 2023 has barely matured beyond the walls of Old Jerusalem.
Our morals are stuck in the Bronze Age.
Someone might say, "But Tim, that's a good thing! The principles of righteousness do not change; we should be thankful God has given us a timeless law to live by."
Do we really believe that? Do we really believe the Law of Moses contains the principles of righteousness needed for salvation ― which do not change ― and if so, why are we Christians? Why are we eating pork and shrimp-fried-rice (Leviticus 11:4)? Why do we tell BYU students to shave their beards, which is a big no-no (Lev. 19:27)?
Why aren't we sporting phylacteries on our Lululemon leisure-wear at the gym (Deut. 6:8)? Shouldn't we be celebrating Passover (Lev. 23:8)?
You mean we're supposed to require a maiden who has been raped to marry her rapist (Deut. 22:29)? You're telling me we're not allowed to eat maggots (Leviticus 11:44)? (Okay, I agree with that last one.)
And don't forget the great symbol of the law of Moses: circumcision (Leviticus 12:3). Should we require members of the Church to be circumcised to remain in good standing? How will we verify compliance?
We could ask the apostle Paul (but only if you want a tongue-lashing).
My point is, there's a lot of cherry-picking going on. Christianity has a messy history with the relevance of the Old Testament. We're pretty good at clinging to the parts we like while ignoring the parts we don't, acting like Cafeteria Scriptorians, mixing our cheeses and meats while quoting Leviticus 18:7 on Facebook, trying to have it both ways.
Preaching "moral living" is not the same thing as preaching the gospel. In fact, they're often opposites (see Luke 18:9-14).
If we look at this logically, we're in a difficult position because either we are God-bound to live of the Law of Moses (in 2023) like Orthodox Rabbis, or we can safely ignore it.
All of it. One way or the other.
But what we can't do (if we want to retain our integrity) is pick-and-choose, halting between two opinions, as a mashup of lukewarm Levites and casual Christians.
So before someone tries to prove something to me from the Bible, by using the law Moses gave 3000 years ago, they'll have to do better than that. Why? Because Jesus said:
The law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me. Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me.
(3 Nephi 15:8-15)
The Lord seems pretty clear on the subject:
- We have no law but His (the law of Christ). Not Moses's.
- We have no light to guide us but His (the light of Christ). Whose disciples are we?
"Look" Jesus said, "unto me."
So why are we acting as if He said, "Look unto [Leviticus]"?
I can picture us clutching our Leviticuses at the Pearly Gates. Will that earn us any brownie-points from St. Peter? I'm afraid not; after all, he was the one who taught us:
What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
End of discussion? Not quite . . . .
How Many Commandments Are There?
There aren't ten commandments; there aren't a hundred or a thousand. There is only one.
To love (see Galatians 5:14).
"Sure, Tim," someone might say, "I agree those 613 commandments in Leviticus are outdated, and Christ taught the true meaning of the Law of Moses; but don't throw out the Ten Commandments ― those withstand the test of time!"
Really? Do they, though? Are they an exception to the law having an end in Christ?
The Ten Commandments came out swinging. Normally when we make a list, we put the most important things first. So what is the first commandment of the Decalogue? It must be something big, like Thou Shalt Not Murder or Thou Shalt Not Drink the Caffeine of the Cola Gods. Let's look:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
That seems reasonable enough ― but then things go downhill fast:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.
What's up with the Second Commandment? We've barely begun and we've hit a major speed bump, because our homes and churches are packed with portraits and sculptures of God. Sure, that stuff about "thou shalt not bear false witness" is fine-and-good, but should we forget about everything it says about graven images?
Are we in trouble?
I mean, President Nelson made the Christus statue the Church's great icon (er, logo).
What if the Second Commandment is an extension of the First? It talks about not creating "images" and "likenesses" of God. Could this refer to something other than wood-carved idols?
In the Hebrew, the word used for "image" and "likeness" is תְּמוּנָה (temunah); it occurs 10 times in the Bible.
The translators translate "temunah" several ways, including:
1. Image (Job 4:16) 2. Likeness (Deut. 4:23) 3. Similitude (Number 12:8) 4. Form (Deut. 4:6, INT Version)
I think you may have an idea of where I am going with this. What do all these words remind us of? That's right: the creation.
In the beginning, "the earth was without form (temunah), and void" (Moses 2:2).
Moses was told, "My son, thou art in the similitude(temunah) of mine Only Begotten" (Moses 1:6).
We have a description of the creation of Adam and an Eve:
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
(Moses 2:26) How does the Second Commandment's injunction against making "images" and likenesses of God relate to God's creation of us?
"In the image of God"
In Hebrew, it says God created man in His בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ (tselem), which means "resemblance, a representative figure."
So God created man in his own image, in the image (tselem) of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Jesus quoted this text in Matthew 19:4 when responding to a question about divorce. I think that is telling us something profound. Let me suggest that the "image" of God is not so much about our body parts, but our relationships ― specifically marriage.
Sure enough, this same word crops up in Ezekiel in the context of matrimony (or, in this case, harlotry). Ezekiel accuses Jerusalem of playing a prostitute in mockery of what God intended for the marriage bed (this is where it gets interesting):
Thou didst trust in thine own beauty and playedst the harlot . . . and madest to thyself images (tselem) of men, and didst commit whoredoms with them.
(Ezekiel 16:15, 17)
Practice Pointer: while we can take a literal reading of the Second Commandment to refer to wood and stone, the deeper meaning is not about physical "idols" but the corruption of our relationship with God through failed systems of religion. It is about where we place our trust and confidence; this is talking about spiritual fidelity, a faithful love vs. splitting our hearts with man-made commandments and the works of the flesh.
We see, then, why the Lord was frequently unhappy with ancient Israel; they were looking for salvation in all the wrong places: in their rites and rituals, in their high priests and religious observances, rather than in the True God. (And no, these things don't have to be mutually exclusive, but history shows they generally are.)
What's tragic is that Israel ― instead of cruising along with their God-given faith and freedom ― wanted a king; they wanted religious leaders to govern them rather than God. (Is it different today?)
And so in His wrath, God gave them what they asked for; He gave them a lesser-law that was NOT a model of celestial religion, but something inferior, something to condemn them of the hardness of their hearts like a School Marm (Jacob 1:7 and D&C 84:27 and Galatians 3:24).
Over and over, things went sideways as our ancestors replaced the tselem of God with the tselem of man-made religion, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. Will we be the first generation to stop venerating the tselem of our own "beauty" (authority)?
And Jehoiada made a covenant . . . that they should be the Lord’s people.
Then all the people went to the house of Baal, and brake it down, and brake his altars and his images (tselem) in pieces, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars.
(2 Chronicles 2:16-17)
I quipped earlier that we're breaking the Second Commandment with our heavy use of iconography; but actually, the issue is far worse.
Why? Because like our forefathers, have we trusted in our temple altars over a living faith; in the tselem of our leaders over the living God?
The Anti-Christ is someone who has something very similar to the "image" of God (who "resembles" Him), but is in reality opposed to God.
This is one of the clearest applications of the Second Commandment we see Christ make, in His warning to not worship (or follow) the temunah of those who seem "Christ-like" (which the scriptures describe as "false Christs").
They aren't "false" because they look different than Christ, but because they look the same. But aren't.
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; [not actually, but sent in His name, with his authority] and shall deceive many.
For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, . . . insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
(Matt. 24:5, 24)
Moses learned this is the way Satan tries to trick us.
Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me.
There will always be people who want us to follow them, who claim to be (or have special access to) the Only Begotten.
But Moses was wise to the deception. Why? Because he knew HE (Moses) WAS "after the similitude (temunah) of the Only Begotten" (Moses 1:16). Once we've discovered His image, why would we go looking for salvation anywhere else, through anyone else?
If I may, the reason God doesn't want us to follow (worship) the temunah of another is because, by doing so, we deny His temunah in us.
In other words, the Anti-Christ doesn't lead us astray by wearing a red suit and devil's horns, carrying a pitchfork, getting us to gamble, drink and fornicate; no, the Anti-Christ is far too clever for that: he deceives us by getting us amped up on his authority (carnal security), getting us to outsource our innate divine connection to God in exchange for his (the Anti-Christ's) intermediation. In this way, we cede our power to him.
Wasn't this what Nephi warned us about?
And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; [how?] and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, [who?] and hear ye our precept; for behold . . . the Lord . . . hath given his power unto men.
(2 Nephi 28:5)
I try to avoid using the term "idolatry" because nobody thinks it applies to them. Myself included. But when I step back and look into my heart dispassionately, the signs are there. I want the carnal security of being a kept-man; of someone telling me, "Tim, if you do this and that, you'll be saved; if you receive this and that, you'll be exalted. Just do as I tell you and I'll make sure none are lost." Wasn't that Lucifer's sales pitch?
And we wonder why one-third part of the hosts of heaven followed him, when here on earth we're doing practically the same thing, which is, entrusting our eternal souls into the hands of someone, or something, other than the Living God ― whether we're following Master Mahan, Prophet, President, or Pope, what does it matter?
I wrote a poem which expresses the danger we're in, hopefully in a way that is memorable.
How simple, how quaint were they in olden times: pagans praying in primitive ghettos to wind and sea and fire, calling from candleside beds to angry gods for good crops and rain to fall on their flat e a r t h
How sophisticated are we with Hubble-focused-faith peering not into the limitless space and perplexity of godhood but at the terra firma of zucchettos, eyes telescoped towards mitered-heads reassuring us all is well in our round
h l e l l l l l l
"Have Ye Received His IMAGE In Your Countenances?"
Have we connected Alma's intriguing question about "receiving God's image" with the creation account?
I ask of you, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances?
I want to ask: how do we "receive" His image? Pause and reflect on that. What does it mean?
Alma connects "receiving" God's image to being spiritually born of God. Alma said, "Have ye spiritually been born of God?" and follows it with the natural consequence of rebirth, i.e., receiving His image.
When we talk about countenances, are we speaking about our physical facial features? The Church's Guide to Scriptures defines "countenance" as "the general appearance of a person's face, which often reflects spiritual attitude and state of mind."
Umm, if that's correct, I'm sunk. Because looking in the mirror, all I can see are these crows' feet and droopy eyelids and sagging chin. "How can I be alive in Christ with my face looking like a hamburger patty left over at a family picnic on a hot summer afternoon?"
This is why I reject the notion that a person's physical appearance is indicative of their spiritual health (sorry, Brad Wilcox).
We're told in Matthew that the angel who appeared to Mary at the tomb had a "countenance" like "lightning" (Matt. 28:3). The Greek word is εἰδέα (eidea), which means "appearance."
Jesus's countenance is described as shining "above the brightness of the sun" (D&C 110:3).
But is your face a burning star? A lightning bolt? None of us have physical features like that. So it must be describing a spiritual light that is not discernable by the natural eye (unless, perhaps, you're looking at one of the Three Nephites):
And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them . . . and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold, they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus.
(3 Nephi 19:25)
Maybe I'm in the minority to believe that our countenance refers to a spiritual light that reflects Christ's image, which most people are oblivious to.
For some reason, there is a strong impulse among Christians to judge those who are overweight or sick as signs of indolence and sin. But can we equate a person's attractiveness with their righteousness?
Suffice it to say, if any of you stumbled upon me as I woke from an afternoon Sunday nap, with stinky breath and eyebrows as disheveled as a camel's, you might think I was the spawn of Satan himself.
So please, let's not judge on the outward appearance.
Now that I've given my body-positivity rant ("You are beautiful!"), let's return to Adam and Eve. If we receive God's image as a sign of spiritual rebirth, what is the creation account referring to when it speaks about the the man and the woman receiving the image and likeness of God?
God created man, in the likeness of God made he him
Okay, so it looks like God creates Adam in his likeness, a male son. But keep watching:
In the image of his own body
Are we talking about God's body, or Adam's?
male and female, created he them
Well, this is curious: the male man was formed "in the likeness" of God; but "the image of God" is neither male nor female, but both. It gets weirder:
and blessed them, and called their name Adam
Who is "their" referring to? Why is the female's name Adam, too? in the day when they were created
Having a temporal body and a name given means they became:
and became living souls.
Hold on: whose name, exactly, was given them? Was it the name Adam, the title given to all first-men? (Moses 1:34). So remember, Adam is a proper title; but to become a "living" soul requires the name of Christ.
How, then, was God's name breathed into our nostrils?
Then we come to Seth. Look at what it says:
And Adam lived 130 years and begat a son in his own likeness [so here Seth is "in" Adam's "likeness"], after his own image. [here Seth is "after" Adam's "image"].
May I ask: is there a difference between having the "likeness" of God vs. receiving His "image"?
Now we stumble upon something curious. We don't find the term "likeness" used again after Seth; during the whole long discussion of Adam's genealogy, we have to wait until the end of the chapter to find another occurrence of "likeness."
And behold, all things have their likeness
Is the antecedent for their "all things" or does it relate back to the beginning of the chapter, where it discussed the creation of man, meaning Them? All things have Their likeness?
and all things Notice this is the second time we read "all things"
are created and made Why? To eat Skittles and go kayaking? To reproduce? Why were we created?
to bear record of me
Ah, now we come to it at last: the purpose of life. How do we "bear" record of, in, God's likeness, after His image? By bearing our testimonies? No, no. Our existence, our being, is witness of Him; it is read in our countenance.
both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual.
If that last bit was confusing, we're lucky to find an explanation in the Doctrine and Covenants:
That which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal
Doesn't this seem backwards? Why is our spirit (and the spiritual creation) "in the likeness of that which is temporal"? It seems like we've been taught that the physical creation follows the spiritual creation, but here we see it reversed.
and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual
This is the part we're familiar with. So we've come full circle. Which comes first, the spiritual or physical creation? The chicken or the egg?
the spirit of man in the likeness of his person.
Wait, what? Fiddlesticks; just when I thought I was beginning to understand the "eternal round," it says our physical bodies provide the likeness of our spirit.