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Author:Rev. Mendel Retief
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 Free Reformed Churches of Australia - FRCA
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
 Kelmscott, Western Australia
Title:True and false worship
Text:LD 35 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic: 2nd Commandment (No images)

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Old Book of Praise (2004)

Ps. 135: 1, 2, 6

Ps. 97: 6

Ps. 40: 2, 3, 4, 5, 7

Ps. 115: 2, 4, 5

Ps. 103: 1, 6, 7


Scripture reading:       Ex. 32: 1 – 6; Lev. 10: 1 – 3; 1 Sam. 15: 13 – 23

Text:                          LD 35

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

LD 35 – True and False Worship

Old Book of Praise (2004):

Ps. 135: 1, 2, 6

Ps. 97: 6

Ps. 40: 2, 3, 4, 5, 7

Ps. 115: 2, 4, 5

Ps. 103: 1, 6, 7


Scripture reading:       Ex. 32: 1 – 6; Lev. 10: 1 – 3; 1 Sam. 15: 13 – 23

Text:                         LD 35


Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,


The prophet Samuel accuses King Saul of image worship.   He says to him:

“…Has the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.   For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry…” – 1 Sam. 15: 22, 23

There, in that text, the Hebrew word that is translated “idolatry” refers specifically to image worship.   And the Hebrew text does not say that stubbornness is as image worship; it says: stubbornness, or self-will, is image worship.


Self-willed religion – to serve the Lord your own way as you see fit – is image worship.


When we are invited to sit at the Lord’s Table we first read the Form for celebrating the Lord’s Supper.   And there, in the Form, we read a short explanation of the Ten Commandments.   Those who transgress the second commandment are described as those who serve the Lord “in their own manner”.   Those who serve the Lord in their own manner are not allowed at the Lord’s Table.


Here in Lord’s Day 35 we confess that God requires of us in the second commandment that we shall not worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.

If we worship the Lord in any way that deviates from His Word, we are busy with image worship; the transgression of the second commandment.


So then, image worship is to serve the Lord according to your own will, as you see fit, and not according to His Word.  

I proclaim God’s Word to you with the theme:


Self-willed worship is image worship


We will note…

  1. The idolatry of self-willed religion
  2. The living preaching of God’s Word over against dumb images

In the first place we note…

The idolatry of self-willed religion


            “What does God require in the second commandment?”

“We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word.” (LD 35, Q&A 96)


It is obvious that the second commandment forbids us to make any visual image of God, and that it forbids us to worship Him by means of such images.  

But how do we come to this understanding of the second commandment as worded in Lord’s Day 35, that God, in this commandment, forbids us to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word?  

And how can the Lord’s Supper Form summarise the transgression of this commandment as serving the Lord in your own manner?


The first passage that we read this afternoon was from Exodus chapter 32.   There we read that Aaron made a carved image.   He made a golden calf, a moulded image, and said:


            “…This is your God, o Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”


In our translation the word “God” is with a small letter: “This is your god, O Israel…” – god with a small letter.

However, the Hebrew alphabet does not distinguish between capital letters and small letters.   It depends entirely on the context whether it should be translated God, capital letter; or god, small letter.

What then was the case in Exodus 32?   Did they want to serve other gods?

No, they wanted to serve the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.

They did not want to exchange God for another god.   They wanted to serve their Redeemer, Jahve, who delivered them from Egypt.   They wanted to serve Him by means of this moulded image.


This is stated even clearer, when Aaron says in verse 5:


            “…Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD.”


Our translation has the word, LORD, four capital letters – the Hebrew word is Jahve, the God who made His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the “I AM WHO I AM”.


Tomorrow is a feast to Jahve: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who delivered us from Egypt.


Their intention was clearly to serve the LORD.


We have to distinguish, therefore, between the transgression of the first and the second commandment.  

The first commandment commands us to serve the one true God only.  

The second commandment deals with the way in which we should serve Him.

This will become abundantly clear as we proceed with the explanation of this commandment.

For now we have to note that image worship among God’s covenant people had good intentions:  Let us have a feast to the LORD!   Let us serve Him by means of this image which we have made of Him!


The transgression of the second commandment is therefore not only among heathens who serve other gods.   Image worship is also found among God’s covenant people, church members, who reckon that they are serving God, the One who made His covenant with them.   They don’t listen to the Lord, they don’t do as He tells us in His Word, but they do reckon that they are serving the Lord…their own way, according to the images of their own heart and mind, which they have moulded!

They don’t perceive God the way He has revealed Himself in His Word, but as they fancy Him to be.  

Yes, in their hearts and minds they make their own image of God, and serve Him accordingly, as they see fit.


We read a second passage from Leviticus chapter 10.   There we read that Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, “each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them”.  


Some translations translate: “unauthorised fire”.   The Hebrew literally says: “strange fire” - fire which was not according to God’s prescriptions. 

It is described as something which the LORD has not commanded them.


Then fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

The LORD was not pleased with their worship.   They wanted to worship the LORD, but not according to His prescriptions.   They wanted to be inventive, and use their own imagination, and bring the Lord a new sacrifice which they invented.   They were probably very excited about this sacrifice which they invented for the Lord.   Let us show Him our religious zeal and bring Him this fancy sacrifice!

Yes, image worshippers have lots of religious zeal!   Lots of fire and sacrifice – but not according to God’s prescriptions.


The LORD was not pleased.   In fact, the LORD was enraged with the sons of Aaron and devoured them.


We also read a third passage from 1 Samuel chapter 15.    Saul fought against the Amalekites, and when he came back from his mission, he said to Samuel:


            “…I have performed the commandment of the LORD” – verse 13


I have done as the LORD has told me.   But Samuel points out to him that he has not done exactly as the LORD has commanded.   He spared the king of Amalek and he spared some of the best cattle.


“Why did you not obey the voice of the LORD?...” – verse 19


And then Saul again says to Samuel:


“…But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which He sent me…” – verse 20.


I utterly destroyed Amalek; I only saved their king.   And I did destroy their cattle; I only saved some of the best to offer it to the LORD!

What’s wrong with that?   I want to sacrifice these to the LORD!


But Samuel said to him:


“…Has the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.   For rebellion is the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is iniquity and image worship…” (15: 22, 23 – own translation)

The Lord does not want your sacrifices, if you don’t listen to His Word.

Your worship is not acceptable to Him, if you don’t obey what He commands.


Saul wanted to serve the LORD; but his own way as he saw fit.

Yes, he did go on the mission the LORD sent him, and he did do more or less the things the Lord commanded, but not exactly, not carefully, precisely as the LORD commanded. 

And twice Saul defends himself by saying: but I did obey the voice of the LORD.   I only deviated a little bit, but the intention was to serve the LORD, and to sacrifice to Him!

But the LORD says: No, you have rejected My Word, therefore I reject you.   I don’t want your worship, if it is not in obedience to what I commanded you.


And then Samuel says to Saul: Self-willed worship is image worship.


As we said before, the Hebrew word which is translated “idolatry” in verse 23, is a word that specifically refers to image worship.   Samuel says to Saul that stubbornness, or self-will, is image worship.


Now, while we are able to distinguish between the first and the second commandment, they are also inseparably linked to each other.   Image worship is also idolatry.   Because: when you make your own image of God, as you perceive Him to be, not as He reveals Himself to you in His Word, then your own image of God is in fact a different god, a self-made idol.

If you don’t serve God according to His Word, you are no longer serving Him.   Then you are serving your self-made image of God.


We confess here in Lord’s Day 35 that this is the meaning of the second commandment: God forbids not only that we make any physical image of Him, but also forbids any worship that deviates from His Word.   We are to worship Him in no other manner than He has commanded in His Word.


True worship, then, is directed to the one true God as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word.   True worship is in obedience to His Word, without adding or taking away from what He has commanded.


One church member creates for himself an image of a god who is only love; a god who will punish no one.  He calls this god Jesus, and he serves him with great zeal.  But it is not the God of the Scriptures.   It is an image moulded in his own heart and mind.


Another church member likes to tell dirty jokes.   He is a very religious member and active in the church.   But he has made for himself an image of God.   “God is holy, but surely He can also appreciate a little joke like that, can’t He?”   

And so everyone makes for himself an image of God that suits him, and then eagerly serves his own image of God.

Some members make for themselves an image of a cool and casual god, with pony tails and earrings.   But it is not the God of the Scriptures.   Their image worship is idolatry.


Each one creates an image of God for himself according to his own image and his own desires.   Everyone creates an image that suits him.   And then everyone worships his own image with great religious zeal. 


Those images must be destroyed!


Our self made images of God are only destroyed when we humbly bow before the image of God as He has revealed Himself, and has revealed His will to us, in Scripture.

All deviation from God’s Word is image worship.


Saul’s religion is an example of this.  

Saul still wants to defend himself.   Twice he says: but I did obey the voice of the LORD.  

Samuel says to him: Be quiet!  You did not obey the word of the LORD.  You want to sacrifice to Him, but His delight is rather that you obey His voice.   He does not want your self-willed sacrifices.   Saul, your stubborn rejection of the LORD’s word is image worship!


If you don’t listen to the word of the LORD, your worship is idolatry.


Even our songs of praise and our prayers become an abomination to the LORD when we do not heed His word.   As Proverbs 28:9 says:


“One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination”


If someone does not listen to God’s law, even his prayer is an abomination.


The LORD does not want people who serve Him their own way, and He does not want to hear their prayers.


Dear congregation, the second commandment is still very relevant for the time in which we are living.   We live in a time where church members, and even many churches, turn their ears away from God’s Word, or adjust God’s Word, and reinterpret God’s Word to suit our own time and culture.   God’s Word is being adjusted to suite the desires of man, especially by means of a new hermeneutics.   But while God’s Word is being rejected, the sacrifices increase!   Man is still very religious!   But is has become a self-willed religion where God’s Word has to be adjusted to suite the culture of this world.   Everyone may now serve the Lord according to his own opinion as seems good in his own eyes.   That is the transgression of the second commandment.   It is the image worship of king Saul.   It is Israel bowing before the golden calf, saying: it is a feast to the LORD!

Yes, there is a lot of fire and sacrifice, but it is strange fire, profane fire, unauthorised fire, which the Lord has not commanded.

Yes, God’s Word is more and more rejected, but the sacrifices increase!


The same people, who question the authority and clarity of Scripture, are busy with praises and worship.   They sing God’s praises in lively worship services with great noise, with many hymns of their own choice, while God’s word is being pushed to the side.   


Image worship is also present where man ascribes his own will and his own desires to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.   This happens when men separate God’s Spirit from His Word.

Then church members ascribe their own ideas, dreams, experiences and feeling to the work of the Spirit, without testing it to the Scriptures.

Or they simply explain the Scriptures according to their own feeling, and calls it the guidance of the Spirit.  

Brothers and sisters, as soon as the Bible is no longer our only measurement for right and wrong, our worship becomes idolatry, serving our own self-made images of God.


What then does this commandment require of us?  That we be restored into God’s image; and not He into our image.   God’s image, as we know Him in our Lord Jesus, as we know Him in both the gospel and in the law, as we know Him in both His salvation and in His demands, in both the Old and the New Testament – that image of God – should mould our hearts and minds to conform to His holiness.


It simply means that we shall know God as He revealed Himself to us, so that His image shall be reflected in all that we do.  It means that we shall not mould Him into our image in order that our will may be done, but that we shall be renewed to His image so that His will be done – His will according to His Word.


Brothers and sisters, we cannot free ourselves from the slavery of idolatry.   We will even try to use Scripture to justify our self-willed image worship, and say: “It’s a feast to the LORD!”


Only God can open our hearts and ears to listen to His Word, and open our eyes to see His glory, and sanctify our hearts to be transformed to His image.

He does this by the working of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of His Word.  Through the preaching of His Word we see Christ, and in Christ we see the Father: His glory and majesty, His eternal power and His goodness, His mercy and His righteousness, His holiness.   He is the image of God.   We shall worship no other image.   God has revealed Himself to us in His Word; we shall add nothing, and take nothing away.


Dear congregation, when we hear this law, we receive it as people who have been set free from the bondage of idolatry.

We receive this law with joy because we know our Mediator in whom the perfection of this law belongs to us through faith – not that we have this perfection in ourselves, but in Christ.   He also wants us to be confirmed and established in this grace.   Through faith in Him we press forward to the goal of perfection, until that glorious day when He will come on the clouds of heaven in great power and glory.   Then we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is – 1 John 3:2.


What does this mean practically for our daily life?   To follow Christ is first of all to give heed to His Word.   The second commandment teaches us to test everything to God’s Word, and to shun all deviation from it, lest we start to serve our own self-made images of God.


Imagine for yourself a Rembrandt painting, and a modern artist who repaints it according to his own taste.  What a shame!  What a loss!  

All the dark shadows of trials and longsuffering which the Master’s hand has painted in Scripture, we want to repaint with the glossy colours of prosperity theology.   And where Scripture portrays to us a holy God who hates and punishes sin, there we want to change His rebukes into flattery.   And when we are finish with the painting adopting it to the spirit of our time and the desires of our sinful heart, very little is left from the original painting.


Dear brothers and sisters, when you walk into a Christian bookshop and look at the literature on the shelves, then it is so often this distorted image staring at us from every page – a god whom man has invented for himself.   Another god, although they still call Him Lord and Jesus.


Dear congregation, we have the Word, we have the original painting in which God has revealed Himself to us abundantly clear.   We may know Him, and we may know His salvation and also His will for our lives.  Let us then not sacrifice to Him the self-willed sacrifices of our own imagination and desires, but serve Him according to His word.


Let us, each day anew, return to the God of the Scriptures.  Let our whole life be a holy sacrifice to Him, not according to the spirit of our time, also not according to human traditions, but carefully according to His word.


In the second place we note…

The living preaching of God’s Word over against dumb images


If it was not for the grace of God our church building would be filled this morning with candles, with paintings and with images.  

If it was not for the grace of God we would sit this morning in a cathedral filled with gold and ivory, beautiful choir music, very little preaching, and the mass administered in Latin. 

Yes, if it was not for the grace of God, our worship service would be an impressive show of colours and choirs and music, altars and incense, robes and art and splendour, with hardly any preaching, or no preaching.


Instead of such carnal worship, the Lord has given us great riches.   He gave us His Word.   He gave us the fullness of the gospel.   It was the grace of God in Christ that has replaced cathedrals with sober buildings in which the pulpit stands central: the proclamation of God’s Word.   After the Dark Middle Ages, in which God’s Word was almost buried and forgotten, the great Reformation of the 16th century was a return to God and His Word.   It was then, when the riches of Christ were rediscovered, that the candles and the paintings and the images and the altars were thrown out, and replaced with the pulpit.  


It was the rediscovery of the gospel during the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century that removed all the splendour of carnal man and all his own inventions and superstitions which men have added to their worship.   The image worship of man’s own imagination was replaced with the splendour of Christ.  


Brothers and sisters, the second commandment teaches us to see God’s glory and majesty not through our eyes or with the help of manmade worship, but through the living preaching of His Word.

In Christ we see both the image and the glory of God; not through our eyes but through our ears when we listen to the preaching of His Word.


Through Christ we enter into the splendour and glory of God’s presence.   And we behold His image not through the things which our eyes of flesh perceive, but through our ears when hear, and believe, the gospel preached to us.


The Catechism asks the question:

            “But may images not be tolerated in the churches as ‘books of the laity’?” – Q 98

The answer is:

“No, for we should not be wiser than God.   He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.”

So, the question is: can images and pictures in the church not maybe help us to understand the gospel?   Can’t it be a teaching tool for children, or for the ignorant?  

The answer is: No!

We cannot understand the incarnation of Christ by looking at an image of Mary with the child Jesus on her lap.  

We cannot learn the gospel of Jesus Christ by watching a Jesus-film.  

We cannot see our salvation in Christ by looking at a crucifix.  

We cannot see the glory of God by staring at a painting or an image.


But, can such images and pictures not maybe be used as instruments to instruct small children, or to teach the ignorant?

The Catechism answers with a definite: “No!”.


“No, for we should not be wiser than God.   He wants His people to be taught not by dump images but by the living preaching of His Word”


Dear congregation, we became so used to images of Christ in the children’s Bible, haven’t we?   We see Him with long golden hair and a trimmed beard.  It is not hard to recall such image, for it is well known.    And how many people say that when they pray to God, that image, of the so called children’s Bible, remains with them in their mind when they pray to God!  

Yes, they know that they should not pray to God or to Christ with such an image in their mind, and yet they find it hard to get rid of that image.   Every time they lift up their eyes to heaven, that image comes to mind and it stays with them in their prayers.


Now, it is true that Christ is also fully man with a human body.   There sits a Man at the right hand of God, a Man with a visible human body.  Yet, the second commandment does not apply only to the Father; it also applies to the Son.   If we confess here in LD 35 that in our worship no image may be used as “books for the laity” to instruct the ignorant, and when we confess such books for the ignorant to be image worship, why then shall it be useful to instruct covenant children with such images?  


The apostle Paul writes to the congregation in Corinth saying:


“…from now on we regard no one according to the flesh.   Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” – 2 Cor. 5:16


The apostles knew Christ according to the flesh when He was with them on earth.   Yet they themselves confess that after His ascension into heaven they no longer know Him according to the flesh.   That does not mean that He has laid aside His human body and became a spirit.   No, He is still fully man with a human body.  Yet, we know Him in no other way than through divine revelation and the working of His Spirit.  That was the confession even of the apostles who saw Him. 

We know that He still has a body of flesh, but we know Him in no fleshly manner.

Why would images of Christ not be allowed in our church buildings to instruct the ignorant, but be suitable to instruct covenant children? 

Let us not raise our children with image worship.


When the apostle John sees Christ in His glory, he falls down like a dead man, overwhelmed by His majesty and glory!   Is that how you know the Lord Jesus?  

Do we still fall down before His majesty?

Or has He maybe become to you a sweet looking face with golden hair?  

That is not the image which Scripture portrays to us.   That is not how we should know Him.   Let His image enlighten your whole life, that image which is portrayed to us through the living preaching of God’s Word.


The same applies to the Jesus-films.  These films are Roman Catholic in nature, and are only modern versions of image worship.


But, brothers and sisters, there is also another way of image worship that comes much closer to us.  

What image of God do you portray to your children when you have family devotions?  

Is the fear of the Lord present when you open His word?  

Do you see His glory and majesty when you pray to Him?  


And what image do you have of our Lord Jesus?  

Has He maybe become to you a Jesus soft and mild, serving you according to your desires?  

A Jesus desperate to get your attention, and happy with everything you offer Him?


That is not the Christ of the Scriptures.

There are many such images of God and of Jesus in our day – conceptions of God, ideas about Jesus, which is nothing but image worship; man-made religion.


When this commandment continues to speak of God as a jealous God, His holy jealousy includes His jealousy for the honour of His name.   We may not transfer His glory to any creature or image, but we may also not wipe out His glory by our own imaginations and perceptions of God.


How then will we know God and honour Him?  

Not through dumb images, nor through manmade worship.   Over against man’s own will and own ideas, stands the Word of God.   It is only through the living preaching of His Word that we can know Him, and see His glory.  


“…it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” – 1 Cor. 1:21.


And again:


            “…faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” – Rom. 10:17.


The apostle Peter says the same.   We are born again through the word of God; the word of the gospel which has been preached to us – 1 Peter 1: 23 – 25.

And by that word preached to us we also continue to grow in the knowledge of God – 1 Peter 2: 2


Over against dumb images stands the living preaching of God’s Word; living and powerful to renew our whole life to the glory of God.


Dear congregation, we see Christ by hearing His word.   And in Christ we see the glory of God, not through visible pictures or paintings or images, but through the eyes of faith when we heed His word.


Brothers and sisters, when Christ died on the cross the veil of the tabernacle was torn and removed so that we may enter the holiest of holies.   Through Christ we may enter into the splendour and glory of God’s presence.  

And we do enter this glory, not through the things which our eyes of flesh perceive, but through our ears when hear and believe the message preached.


The Lord has shown His mercy to our fathers and to us.   He has revealed Himself.   As we listen to Christ proclaimed to us, this humble building changes for us into a lofty cathedral.  No, even much more!   By hearing and believing the gospel we enter into the very presence of God, and behold His glory.  


Let us receive also this commandment from the hand of our Redeemer.

Let us rejoice in our liberation from image worship.  

Let us worship our covenant God, not according to our own fancy or imagination, or with man-made inventions in the church, but according to His Word only.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mendel Retief, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. Mendel Retief

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