That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth [Philippians 2:10]
Also See Are Pictures of Christ Unbiblical? and Mary Worship
One of the issues that have divided Catholics and Protestants concerns the use of images in worship, termed in Catholic circles as the veneration of images. To Protestants, this is plain and simple idolatry which is condemned by God in Scripture, notably by the second item of the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that such veneration is part of a new economy of images that is now permitted by God in view of the truth of the Incarnation of Christ. According to Catholic theology, icons of Christ (as well as of Mary, the angels, and all the Saints) do not violate the intent of the first commandment.
A Question of Numbers
The reader might have noticed that Catholics and Protestants number the ten items of the Decalogue differently. To Catholics, Exodus 20:4-6 is part of the first commandment and is basically an expansion of its meaning. To complete the ten commandments, Exodus 20:17 is split into two: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house." [IX] and "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife." [X] In contrast, Protestants have traditionally understood Exodus 20: 4-6 as the second commandment and the prohibition of covetousness as the tenth commandment. There is no need to discuss the merits of either approach here, except to mention that in Catholic summaries of the Decalogue, Exodus 20:4-6 very often is missing. [See Luther & the Altering of the Ten Commandments On THIS Page]
In this article, I employ the traditional Protestant method of numbering the Ten Commandments. Having made this clarification, let us now look at the first two commandments.
SCRIPTURE AND IDOLATRY
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20:3)
"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex. 20:4-6)
What is the intent of the second commandment? I believe that the Catechism of the Catholic Church has accurately captured the meaning of the prohibition:
2129 The divine injunction included the prohibition of every representation of God by the hand of man. Deuteronomy explains: "Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a graven image for yourselves, in the form of any figure . . ." It is the absolutely transcendent God who revealed himself to Israel. "He is the all," but at the same time "he is greater than all his works." He is "the author of beauty."
In other words, while the first commandment prohibits the worship of other gods (false gods), the second command prohibits the worship of the true God by images. No visual representations of God should be utilized when people worship. To do so is to engage in idolatry. The reason for the prohibition stems from the nature of God as Spirit and thus without material form.  In is significant to note that the prohibition included human forms - both male and female. Here is the relevant passage from the New International Version (NIV):
"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, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below." (Deut. 4:15-18)
The wisdom of this prohibition becomes obvious when we look at yet another text that deals with idolatry:
"Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing. To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple. Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. 'To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?' says the Holy One." (Isaiah 40:17-25)
A careful examination of Isaiah's declarations above shows how inappropriate it is to compare the Living and Powerful Creator with lifeless articles fashioned by weak humans. Images portray the opposite of God's nature. Thus images do not glorify God, rather, they are an affront to his Majestic glory. This is confirmed by the following passage:
"Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them." (Psalm 115:3)
CATHOLIC TEACHING ON VENERATION OF IMAGES
Protestants can agree wholeheartedly with Article 2129 of the Catechism. However, disagreement sets in when Catholicism goes on to make certain provisions for image veneration. Consider the following:
2130 "Nevertheless already in the Old Testament, God ordained or permitted the making of images that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the Incarnate Word: so it was with the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim"
2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word the seventh ecumenical council of Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons - of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new 'economy' of images.
2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the First Commandment which poscribes idols. Indeed, 'the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,' and 'whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.' The honor paid to a sacred image is a 'respectful veneration,' not the adoration due to God alone: 'Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.'
A PROTESTANT DEFENSE
There are two critical issues in the Catholic view that need to be addressed. First, the Catechism implies that God in the OT permitted certain exceptions to his own prohibition. To this I shall argue that the bronze snake, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim were not exceptions because these were God's idea and they were used in very restricted circumstances.
The second issue concerns the Incarnation. Catholicism teaches that because God has become human in Christ, there is a new economy of images in the NT. To this I shall argue that Christ in person is indeed the exact image of the invisible God. Yet in the NT the Father remains to be the focus of worship. Additionally, God did not leave behind a pattern for making images of his Son.
OT Symbols of God's Presence
The first article mentioned is the bronze serpent. The account is set forth in Numbers 21. Because the Israelites had grumbled, God became angry and sent poisonous snakes among the people. A great number of them died and the others had started to cry to Moses for help. In view of Moses' intercession, God provided a remedy:
"The LORD said to Moses, 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived." (Num. 21:8-9)
This event seems to be very odd without Jesus' own explanation of its significance in John 3:14-15:
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
The context of the command for Moses to make the snake must be emphasized. God was judging the Israelites for their rebellion. Perhaps the bronze snake symbolized to them their own deserved punishment (death) and at the same time God's own mysterious provision for their atonement. Based on Jesus' teaching, the bronze snake was obviously a foreshadowing of the substitutionary death of Christ in behalf of sinners; however, in their original situation the Israelites could hardly have thought of the bronze snake as a visual representation of God. Veneration would have been impossible in this instance. Viewed in this manner, the bronze snake was not a exception that somehow opened the way for a new economy of images in the New Testament.
It is very instructive for us that in later history, a righteous king destroyed the bronze snake because already the Israelites had idolized it. The story is recorded for us in 2 Kings 18:1-4:
"In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it (It was called Nehushtan)."
The second OT image was the ark of the covenant. Again it is important to go to the Biblical text itself:
"Make an atonement cover of pure gold--two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites." (Exodus 25:17-22)
Notice that the cherubim were not representations of God. Rather, God decided to meet with Moses there "between the two cherubim that are over the ark." This was a special privilege that God gave to Moses, and through him to the Israelites. But it was a private affair not shared with the common people. As the OT records make abundantly clear, the ark of the covenant was a symbol of the utter holiness of God. Consequently, the ark was kept away from the people. It was normally hidden from view within the Holy of Holies. During transport, it was covered by a shielding curtain (Num 4:4-5) and the people followed it from a distance of a thousand yards (Joshua 3:3-4). No one was allowed to touch it. There is no record of the Israelites bowing down to the cherubim (as many Catholics have done before their images).
Just like in the case of the bronze snake, the Israelites also later misinterpreted the significance of the ark of the covenant. Instead of faith and obedience to God, the Israelites trusted in the ark. The result was defeat for the Israelite army:
"Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek. The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield. When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, "Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies."
So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. When the ark of the LORD's covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook. Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, "What's all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?" When they learned that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. "A god has come into the camp," they said. "We're in trouble! Nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the desert. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!"
So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died." (1 Samuel 4:1-11).
This data from Scripture shows that indeed God did specify certain "visual aids" to teach people certain lessons about his character. These were done under His own careful instructions; they did not originate from man. In substance, they were not visual representations of God before which people "worshipped" or "bowed". Neither of these two visual aids were exceptions to the second commandment. God has always prohibited the use of images in worship.
A New Economy of Images?
Catholics point to the Incarnation of Christ as the key that unlocks a "new economy of images" not just of the Son of God, but also of Mary, the angels, and all the saints . Is this consistent with Biblical teaching? The answer to this question must be derived from the teaching of Christ and his apostles.
In the first place, worship in the New Testament is given primarily to the Father who is Spirit. Jesus declared:
"Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.... Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:21,23-24).
One may ask, "What visual representation is appropriate for a spirit?" The answer of course is obvious.
The Apostle Paul teaching about worship consistently applies the force of the second commandment in the following passage:
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." (Acts 17:24-25).
To use images as aids in worship in fact tends to confine God to human temples. As in the OT, images portray creatureliness in all its limitations. This does not promote the glory of God but rather demeans it.
The New testament is not lacking in prohibiting idolatry (which should be understood according to the OT background of imageless worship). Nowhere is it even hinted that images of Christ would now be appropriate.
Christ - Image of the Invisible God
The NT is clear that Christ is the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15ff) and the "exact representation of his being" (Heb 1:3-4). In both of these passages, Scripture stresses that Christ is the Creator who is also the Savior of the Church. He is not a man-made representation of God!
This truth must be understood in view of the fact that God's chief visual aid in the OT (the tabernacle and its furnishings) was only a "copy and shadow of what is in heaven." In view of this, "Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: 'See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain'" (Heb. 8:5; cf. Ex. 25:40).
How then are we to understand Christ as the exact image of the Father? The apostles were emphatic about their being eyewitnesses of Christ. John could say:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us." (1 John 1:1-2)
Likewise, Peter has this to say:
"We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain." (2 Pet 1:16-18)
Despite their eyewitness accounts none of the Apostles left us with any physical description of Jesus. What we do have is a record of Christ's life and teaching, his character, his works and his claims.
Surely, if there is a new economy of images and if God is to be consistent with his clear OT instructions pertaining to idolatry, then He must have given us exact descriptions of the appearance of Jesus so that we in turn could reproduce the image according to God's pattern. The absence of this physical description therefore means that the force of the second commandment remains. There is no new economy of images.
That the physical appearance of Jesus was not of importance in directing people's faith to the Savior can also be seen in Christ's plan for taking care of His Church after he returned to the Father in Heaven:
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever -- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live." (John 14:16-19)
The ministry of the Holy Spirit was seen by Christ as a "better" ministry that his own since the ministry of the Holy Spirit would not be curtailed by the physical limitations imposed by Jesus' body. Furthermore, when speaking to those who did not see Jesus, Peter was content to say:
"Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls." (1 Peter 1:8-9)
This is also consistent with Jesus' own statement to doubting Thomas: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).
I have argued above that the second commandment prohibits any visual representation of God by the hand of man. This is essential to the definition of idolatry. The visual aids in the OT (notably the Tabernacle and its furnishings) originated from God and they were strictly temporary shadows which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. While God did not allow man to make images to be used in worship, God himself did give us His own Son as the exact representation of Himself. This image has come down to us not in material form (since God did not leave us a pattern ) but in the NT record that describes the life, teaching, and work of Christ. Only as we look at Christ in Scripture are we able to behold the beauty of His glory and so worship him acceptably. The second commandment that prohibited the use of images in worshipping God in the OT remains in force in the NT. God would not have other gods beside Himself. Neither would he give his glory to lifeless images.
"I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols." (Isaiah 42:8)