"You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments'' (Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10).
The Second Commandment has a very different meaning to the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). However, there are many who see these two commandments as parts A and B of one commandment.
The difference between the two commandments is as follows: If someone worships anything other than God, including any image (like a statue or painting), that breaks the First Commandment. Worshipping the true God, but physically, visually or mentally portraying Him with images, breaks the Second Commandment. The First Commandment forbids false gods. The Second Commandment forbids false worship.
Most Protestant churches regard Exodus 20:2 as the preamble to the Ten Commandments, whereas Judaism regards it as the First Commandment and Exodus 20:3-6 as the Second Commandment. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church follow the teaching of Augustine and combine the first two commandments into one and divide the Tenth Commandment (against coveting) into two commandments. They teach against worshipping images, but by believing that Exodus 20:3-6 is only one commandment—forbidding the worship of idols—they feel justified in using the images and symbols in the worship of the true God. Thus they transgress the Second Commandment.
The Second Commandment is unique because every other religion makes images of their gods. God’s Word tells us how to worship God and forbids worshipping Him with non-biblical practices (Deuteronomy 12:1-4, 28-31). In addition, God demands that we not “add to” or “take away from” His Word (Deuteronomy 4:2;12:32; Revelation 22:18-19). This, however, is not a criticism of art, artists and decorating. God’s temple was decorated with designs of flowers, palms, pomegranates, lions and oxen (1 Kings 7). The artwork and images forbidden by this Commandment are those used to represent or revere God (see Exodus 20:5).
To some, the Second Commandment may seem relatively unimportant, but if you read the entire Commandment it contains the strongest warning of all the Commandments. This shows how deeply God feels about actions falsifying His identity and degrading the glory of our Almighty Creator God. There is one “image of the invisible God” and that is God’s Son (Colossians 1:15; see also 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3) and significantly God did not allow anyone to record anything about His physical appearance.
What does God mean by “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5)? It does not mean God punishes children for the sins of the parents, as God’s Word forbids that (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). However, sin often results in children and grandchildren suffering, as religious beliefs and practices (both true and false) along with their consequences, are often passed on from generation to generation.
Common “Christian” violations of the Second Commandment include, but are not limited to, using paintings and drawings to represent Jesus Christ or God the Father, the Latin cross and the crucifix, the outline of a fish or dove, any three-part design intended to represent “the Trinity,” relics supposedly related to the life or death of Jesus and halos and other circles and disks used to indicate what is sacred. The Second Commandment is also transgressed when Mary and other dead “saints” are venerated as mediators with God,
When counterfeit Christianity imitates pagan holidays and rituals it reinforces false ideas about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Bible. The good news is that one day Jesus Christ will return and then “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9) and humanity will no longer be deceived into the false worship of God.