Images in the Sanctuary?

Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them.”

- Exodus 26:1

Our consideration of the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the second commandment has thus far agreed with what the catechism says about Deuteronomy 5:8–10. Indeed, we are not to make an image of the invisible God, so we should not try to capture the divine nature in painting, sculpture, or any other medium. Also, we are not to make images for the purpose of worshipping them or other gods, or as objects to venerate in our worship of the one true Lord of all. However, we part with the catechism’s teaching on images when we come to question and answer 98, which say that images are not allowed in the church, especially the sanctuary.

Several facts lead us to the conclusion that God does not forbid images in the church, not the least of which is the presence of images in the temple and tabernacle. In today’s passage, for example, we read that Moses was commanded to weave images of cherubim into the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:1). If God meant to forbid images entirely in the worship setting, He would not have told Moses to include them in Israel’s house of worship not long after revealing the second commandment (20:4–6). Also, we see that Solomon made images of cherubim, oxen, pomegranates, and other things for the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 3–4). There is no hint in the text that Solomon erred in doing this; in fact, God approved of this house that the king built, for He chose to dwell within it (7:1–3).

The incarnation also gives us warrant to believe images are not always inappropriate. The Apostle Paul tells us that Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Our Creator made Himself visible to His people when He took on a human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. True, apart from the witnesses to the transfiguration, the people of Jesus’ day did not see God’s refulgent glory when they saw our Lord; nevertheless, when they saw Jesus, they saw the Father. If the Almighty can image Himself in Christ, images in and of themselves cannot be wrong.

Again, images are a problem only when hearts are in the wrong place. If images are set up to be worshipped or venerated, we violate the second commandment. Yet, if they exist simply to beautify the sanctuary and people are not venerating them, there is little reason to think the Lord would be displeased with them.

Coram Deo

Regardless of one’s position on images in the worship sanctuary, let us all remember that this is an issue over which many good and godly Reformed believers have differed for generations. Consequently, we owe each side respect, and we should listen carefully to the arguments, pro and con, for images in our houses of worship. We should also look with charity on those with whom we disagree, for both sides are equally concerned to avoid idolatry.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 7:1–5,
25–26
1 Kings 7:13–51
Acts 17:29

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