The 2nd Commandment; Worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth

February 11, 2024 / No. 4232M

Dear radio friends,

What is God like? What kind of God do you worship? And how do you worship Him? These issues Jesus was addressing when He spake to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He was teaching her that there is only one right answer to the question–in other words, how we think of God and how we worship Him matters. The woman had told Jesus that her people worshiped God in Samaria and that the Jews thought Jerusalem was the only place in which Jehovah was to be worshiped. Jesus’ answer, as recorded in John 4:21-24, is this: “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

Like the Samaritan woman, we find ourselves in the school of God’s law, taught by Jesus Christ. Two weeks ago we had a broad overview of the law as a whole, and saw that the ten commandments are still relevant to our life today.

Last week we examined the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” We learned about Jehovah, and what kind of God He is: an all-powerful and loving God, an all-knowing God, and an always-good God. But especially He is the only God. Men make idols, whether of wood and stone or in our own minds and hearts, but they are not really God; Jehovah is the only true God. He alone must be loved and worshiped. So the first commandment forbids us to have any other god, to worship any other god, or to trust in and seek happiness in any other thing.

The first commandment regarded whom we worship; the second regards how we worship. It reads, as found in Exodus 20:4-6: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the Lord thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.”

Many Christians consider these words to be distinct from the prohibition of having other gods. Not all do; Jews, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans view the words I quoted as part of the prohibition of having other gods. Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians, Reformed, and Baptists generally consider this to be the second commandment. As I said, it is different from the first in this way: the first regards whom we worship, the second regards how. The lesson really is simple: the way in which we worship God must reflect the kind of God He is; and He is Spirit.

That God is Spirit is the central truth about God that this commandment teaches. Remember that each of the prohibitions in God’s law is rooted in the character of God Himself. As Jesus makes clear in John 4:24, this commandment teaches that God is Spirit. This means that God is not made up of atoms and molecules, of hands and arms and legs and a body like humans or animals. Of what does God consist, if not of anything created? He is Spirit. That God is Spirit does not suggest that He is not real; He is very real. But He is so different from us, and from every other creature.

One implication of God being Spirit, and one way in which He is different from every other creature, is that He is invisible. Writing to Timothy in I Timothy 1:17, Paul utters a doxology of praise: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.”

A second implication of the fact that He is Spirit is that He is everywhere present. Atoms and molecules, hands and legs can be in only one place at a time; but God is everywhere at once. For this reason Paul told the people at Athens, Acts 17:27, that God is not far from every one of us.

A third implication of God being Spirit is that He cannot be divided into parts. Of course He cannot be divided into earthly or material parts; but even more, His spiritual virtues and perfections are all united together in Him. He is a God of love, holiness, justice, mercy, truth, grace, wisdom, perfect knowledge, and other virtues; it is not possible to take one of them away. Because He is Spirit, He reveals all His virtues in harmony with each other.

Each of these points underlies the prohibition of the second commandment and the implied requirement that we worship God rightly. Because He is invisible, no image could rightly portray Him; an image must be made out of wood or stone or some other earthly object, and God is not made of such. Because He is everywhere present, no image may portray Him; an image can be in only one place at a time. If God is everywhere present at once, no image can contain His glory.

Also the fact that God’s spiritual perfections are all united in Him underlies the second commandment. The second commandment speaks of God being jealous, and visiting iniquity, and showing mercy. That He is jealous means really that He is zealous for Himself and His glory. As the only God, the most glorious being, He has a right to be. And when He sees us worshiping something that is no God, or worshiping Him in a way that does not reflect how He makes Himself known to us, He gets jealous.

That He visits iniquity means that He sees and hates our sins and will punish them. This is really His perfection of justice, or His righteousness. It is what made necessary His sending Christ into our flesh and to the death of the cross; He is just and right to destroy every sinner on account of their sins, but if He did that, no human could be His friend. So to show that He desires friendship with His people, and at the same time that He does not ignore our sins, He sent Christ into the human flesh, and Christ died on the cross to bear God’s wrath for sin.

That He shows mercy means that He has compassion on sinners in their miseries, and delivers them from them. Not only that, but He also brings us into His own friendship and covenant life.

For the moment, the point is that the commandment itself refers to His virtues and perfections and indicates that they are all found in harmony in Him. He punishes those who will sin and not turn from sin; He shows mercy to those who love Him and find salvation in Jesus Christ. He is not inconsistent; He is not arbitrary; He is God, and acts in accord with His being.

This instruction about God that is imbedded in the second commandment is not just theoretical, not just for the mind. For one thing, this God is glorious, more glorious than any other being! We desire to know Him more! For another, we praise and worship Him; this is our God, the one who delivered us from the bondage to sin, who works in us the life of Jesus Christ, and who brings us into fellowship with Him! And then there is the obvious point: all of these truths about God form the reason for the prohibition found in the second commandment, and become the incentive to keep the commandment.

From the lessons about God, then, we move to the lessons about images that the commandment gives. In this section, notice two things: first, we may not make images of God; second, we do not need any image of God.

To be clear, the second commandment is not prohibiting the making of any pictures or sculptures or paintings. Numerous Old Testament passages indicate that the temple and the king’s palace had such in them. But God forbids us to make a picture of God, or to make a picture of any other creature and call it God, or to make a picture and worship it. These are wrong, because God is Spirit; we cannot capture His glory in a painting or sculpture. The very attempt to do so degrades Him who is greater than every other being. So Israel sinned against this commandment when Aaron made a golden calf in the wilderness, and when Jeroboam set up two golden calves (one in Dan, and another in Bethel) and told Israel that these pictured Jehovah.

How might we be guilty of this sin? What must we guard against? First, because we do not know what God looks like, we might try to imagine Him in the form of one who has a head, torso, arms, and legs. But we may not; as Spirit, He does not have these. Second, while in His human nature Jesus did have head, torso, arms, and legs, His humanity is not the full expression of his personhood; in other words, His glory as the person of the Son of God also cannot be expressed in a picture. No picture of Jesus presents Him as God.

More broadly, we must guard against the sin of trying to bring God down to our level. We might do this merely to imagine what He is like; but we might also do this to portray a God who is not so different than we are. But God is not on our level; He is far more glorious than, and very different from, humans. We must look up to Him, think of Him as great, and put our trust in Him.

Not only does the commandment teach that we may not make images of God, but it reminds us that we need not. God never gives an unreasonable prohibition. When He commands not to make an image of Him, He is implicitly reminding us that everything we do need in order to know of Him He has given us. First, He has given us Scripture. While Scripture paints no graphic picture of God or Jesus, it does present Him as He truly is—Spirit. It presents Him as wise and all-knowing, as all-powerful and sovereign, as loving, merciful, righteous, gracious, compassionate, long-suffering, as the God who hates sin and punishes it with everlasting death in hell, but who also saves some sinners, by sending Jesus to the death of the cross to endure that hell for us.

Second, He has given us Jesus Himself. Jesus is the image of God; Colossians 1:15 tells us that He is the image of the invisible God, and Hebrews 1:3 that Jesus is the express image of God. In calling Jesus the image of God, the point is not that Jesus’ body in any way represented God, but that Jesus was Himself truly God, and showed in all His person and actions the perfect loveliness of God.

Imbedded in this truth that Jesus is the image of God are two gospel points. One is that you see that image of God, that depiction of what God is truly like, most clearly in Jesus’ death on the cross. God is both just and merciful. He hates sin. Were it not for Christ’s death, each of us would go to hell. But He shows His great love by sending His only-begotten Son to take on Himself the sufferings that we deserved and deliver us from them.

The other gospel point is that Jesus is raised from the dead and works His new life in us. As He is the image of God, He makes those in whom He lives to be image-bearers also. He restores us to the image of God in which Adam was created, and which Adam lost in the fall. “For whom He did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son,” we read in Romans 8:29. So, while we cannot behold Jesus in the body, we can behold Him as He makes Himself known in Scripture, and as He lives in us, His children.

What a great incentive to live a godly, holy life, to be like God! We will never be God; we must not desire to be God; but we can be like God in a little way.

And when we understand how great God is, and how small we are, and that even our being like God is just in a small way, we worship Him!

In the school of God’s law today, we have learned both about God and about why images of God are wrong. The last main lesson regards worship. The second commandment regards how we worship God, and how we must not worship God. And the main principle for New Testament believers regarding how we worship, Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, is this: we must worship Him in spirit and in truth.

This kind of worship accords with who God is. If God were physical, and not spirit, then to worship Him in an image would not, could not, be wrong. But He is Spirit. So Jesus is saying that we must worship Him in spirit. This means first that we must draw nigh to God in and through the Holy Spirit. It means also that our worship must be spiritual. We will use our hands, heart, mouth, and other body parts in worshiping God, but above all we must worship Him in a spiritual way. Our worship cannot and may not be a matter simply of saying that for an hour we were in a house of worship, and during that hour we gave offerings and sang songs and participated in worship activities. To worship in spirit is to have our soul and spirit participate in worship.

And we must worship in truth. That is, our worship must be regulated by a true understanding of who God is, and by an understanding of what He commands in Scripture. We may not worship a false God; we may not worship in a false way; we must worship rightly. To worship Him in spirit and in truth is to worship Him as He commanded in Scripture.

This applies, first, to the nature of worship. What, really, is worship? Is it praising God? Well, it certainly is that; but, what is even more fundamental to the nature of worship is that it is fellowship with God. Worship is the most intimate form of friendship with Jehovah God. In worship, He speaks to us in His Word and by His Spirit, and we speak to Him in song and in prayer. In worship, the church as a body and community hear God and speak to God.

In other words, just as Israel needed to go to the temple to worship, so we need to go to church to worship. Some suggest that worshiping God in church and with the church is optional; we can worship Him as easily while we are alone, perhaps while we are walking on a lovely nature trail or contemplating the beauty of creation somewhere else. Of course, in such settings we can glorify Him and stand in awe of Him. But that these substitute for our worship in church is not true. Worship is a conversation and fellowship between God and His redeemed, and the deepest experience of worship happens when the redeemed gather as a group to worship the way He commands in Scripture.

Worshiping God in spirit and in truth, as He commanded in Scripture, applies also to the elements of worship. Scripture indicates that in public worship we read and explain Scripture, and hear the preaching of the gospel; it instructs us that the congregation join in singing, and that there be prayers and taking of offerings. Scripture requires that the sacraments be administered as part of worship. In other words, because God is great, glorious, exalted, sovereign, He determines what we do in worship.

Many today have the idea that we may do anything in worship, so long as what we do is motivated by love for Him. That idea is not true. God is not pleased with just any offering, but He requires what kind of offerings to bring Him, and how. The Spirit works through the Word as read, preached, and depicted in the sacraments, and works in us the fruit of praying to and singing to Him. Again, notice that those aspects of worship which we bring to God—prayer, singing—are those in which the church joins collectively.

Finally, worshiping God in spirit and truth also applies to our personal participation in worship. Did you go to church today, or will you? Why did you go? What did you expect to receive when you went to church? Entertainment? What did you intend to give? As little as possible, of your soul and heart? We do, sometimes, think that is what worship is about. But it is not. We bring an empty soul, acknowledging our sin; and as we worship in spirit and in truth, God fills that empty soul with His grace, by His Word, and then we praise Him, for being a great and glorious God! That is the keeping of the second commandment on earth. That was Christ’s keeping of the second commandment while He lived on earth. That is the kind of worship that Christ enables us to give God. And in heaven, that is the kind of worship that we will give perfectly!