Since God forbade “graven images” in the Old Testament, is it wrong to have a cross with Jesus’ body on it?
God commanded Israel, “You shall not make for yourself an image [i.e. graven image] in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). We cannot know for certain all of the purposes behind each law that God gave. Exodus 34:26 prohibits one from cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk. This was perhaps a Canaanite pagan ritual that God wanted his people to avoid so as not to be lumped in with unbelievers. However, we do not need to know God’s purposes to be obedient. We follow because he commands it and we believe and trust his grace.
The command in the Old Testament
God is clear about the overall purpose of his Old Testament law. God wanted to set his people apart from the nations so others would say, “What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:8). To make a graven image would make Israel like all the other nations instead of distinct from them.
God gives another reason for this specific command. “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol” (Deuteronomy 4:15,16). God commands no graven image because he has no visible form and cannot be represented in such a way.
Finally, Exodus 20:4 is an application of 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before me.” God wanted to assure that Israel would not worship creation instead of the Creator (cf. Deuteronomy 4:15-19).
The command today
This command was part of the Old Testament law that foreshadowed Christ. Jesus fulfilled the whole law for us by his perfect life and death (see Colossians 2:16,17). Therefore, we are no longer bound to the law as it is recorded in the Old Testament. The New Testament repeats God’s moral law—including the prohibition against idolatry—but does not include the prohibition against graven images that depict the true God.
We are free to have crucifixes or crosses to serve our worship, helping to focus our attention on what God has done for us. The empty cross is not meant to safeguard the Old Testament prohibition against graven images. For some, the empty cross reminds them of Jesus’ victorious resurrection, the lynchpin of the Christian faith. For others, the crucifix with the body of Jesus emphasizes his sacrificial payment for sin, the needed ransom for our salvation. Both remind us of beautiful truths! Both are meant to point to what the one true God has done.
The use of symbols such as the fish, the stole, the seashell, etc., has been the practice of the church from early on. God now has taken on visible form in the person of Jesus and can be depicted. Therefore, Paul’s words are fitting for those who choose to make use of a cross or crucifix: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4,5).
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Author: David Scharf
Volume 109, Number 01
Issue: January 2022