Images and Statues in Scripture
Many people believe that Exodus 20:1-6 prohibits the Catholic practice of using images and statues to show our devotion toward God and His saints. In the Catholic numbering Exodus 20:1-6 is the first commandment. In the Protestant numbering it is both the first and the second, making the prohibition of images a commandment of its own.
The First Commandment
“And the Lord spoke all these words: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: And shewing mercy unto thousands to them that love me, and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)
“Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them”
It’s easy to see how this verse could be interpreted to condemn all images, but what the verse is actually driving at is the prohibition of idols. This commandment cannot be a taken as a blanket condemnation of images, because there were instances when God commanded the use of graven images. In the book of Numbers, God ordered Moses to make a graven image of a serpent.
The Brazen Serpent
“And speaking against God and Moses, they said: Why didst thou bring us out of Egypt, to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, nor have we any waters: our soul now loatheth this very light food. Wherefore the Lord sent among the people fiery serpents, which bit them and killed many of them. Upon which they came to Moses, and said: We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and thee: pray that he may take away these serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.” (Numbers 21:5-9)
“Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live.”
God didn’t just command Moses to make an image, He commanded that people look upon it as a means of healing.
“Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.”
As Christians we know that the statue of the serpent was a prophetic sign of Christ. This graven image served the purpose of manifesting God’s glory. This is not the only instance of God commanding the use of graven images.
The Ark of the Covenant
God gave Moses specific instructions on how the Jewish people were to worship Him.
“And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in the midst of them: According to all the likeness of the tabernacle which I will shew thee, and of all the vessels for the service thereof: and thus you shall make it: Frame an ark of setim wood, the length whereof shall be of two cubits and a half: the breadth, a cubit and a half: the height, likewise, a cubit and a half. And thou shalt overlay it with the purest gold within and without: and over it thou shalt make a golden crown round about.” (Exodus 25:8-11)
God ordered that two graven images of angels should be part of the Ark.
“Thou shalt make also a propitiatory of the purest gold: the length thereof shall be two cubits and a half, and the breadth a cubit and a half. Thou shalt make also two cherubims of beaten gold, on the two sides of the oracle. Let one cherub be on the one side, and the other on the other. Let them cover both sides of the propitiatory, spreading their wings, and covering the oracle, and let them look one towards the other, their faces being turned towards the propitiatory wherewith the ark is to be covered. In which thou shalt put the testimony that I will give thee. Thence will I give orders, and will speak to thee over the propitiatory, and from the midst of the two cherubims, which shall be upon the ark of the testimony, all things which I will command the children of Israel by thee.” (Exodus 25:17-22)
David also prepared a dwelling place for the Lord and His Ark which included gold cherubs.
“And for the altar of incense, he gave the purest gold: and to make the likeness of the chariot of the cherubims spreading their wings, and covering the ark of the covenant of the Lord. All these things, said he, came to me written by the hand of the Lord that I might understand all the works of the pattern.” 1 Chronicles 28:18-19
“All these things, said he, came to me written by the hand of the Lord that I might understand all the works of the pattern.”
Once again, God commanded it, but for what purpose? “…that I might understand all the works of the pattern.” The Old Testament worship, of Moses and of David, was revealed by God as a pattern or a foreshadowing of the Heavenly worship which we now have access to through Christ. St. Paul explains to us;
“Now of the things which we have spoken, this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of majesty in the heavens, A minister of the holies, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord hath pitched, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is necessary that he also should have some thing to offer. If then he were on earth, he would not be a priest: seeing that there would be others to offer gifts according to the law, Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things. As it was answered to Moses, when he was to finish the tabernacle: See (saith he) that thou make all things according to the pattern which was shewn thee on the mount.” (Hebrews 8:1-5)
In the Old Testament worship graven images of angels were used to represent the angels who really are in Heaven before the throne of God. In the Eucharistic Sacrifice Christians truly take part in the Heavenly worship, but it is still through a veil. We use images of saints and angels to represent the saints and angels in Heaven who stand before the throne of God offering Him the prayers and petitions of the faithful. (Revelation 5:8, 8:2-4)
“And when he had opened the book, the four living creatures, and the four and twenty ancients fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints” (Revelation 5:8)
“And I saw seven angels standing in the presence of God; and there were given to them seven trumpets. And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.” (Revelation 8:2-4)
In conclusion, Catholics use of images and statues in our churches are reminders to us of God’s holy presence, and that of His angels and saints. Catholics do not adore or worship them as gods, nor do we believe that God or the saints are present in them as pagan idolaters did. They are simply visible reminders of God’s presence and the cloud of Heavenly witnesses that surround us. (Hebrews 12:1)