The First Commandment and the Use of Images in Church

By Father Sam Vondi

Aims and objectives

  1. Give a brief background to the 1st commandment, a background that necessitated this law
  2. Give an explanation of the 1st commandment
  3. Giving some biblical texts that deal with the issue of images.
  4. To show the relevance of images
  5. Help people to know some of the images mostly used in Church and help them to use them with informed conscience and freely.
  6. Give the position of the Church with regard to the use of images


“I am the Lord your God, you shall not have other gods before me” (CCCC– Compendium Catechism of the Catholic Church, #442, p.134)

YHWH alone is God as opposed to other false gods that are man- made/idols. God claims His exclusive right. As Israelites were strictly monotheistic, there was no room for idol-worship at all. The land of Egypt believed in many gods and the inhabitants of the land in which they were about to enter (Canaan) were polytheistic (believed in many gods). The 1st commandment was given to help the Israelites to remain monotheistic against the Egyptian and Canaanite influences.

This commandment has prohibitive clauses: “you shall not have other gods before me” Exodus 20:2. This prohibits polytheism, superstition, sacrilege, divination, sorcery, spiritism, irreligion, atheism and agnosticism CCCC #445. It adds that; “you shall not make for yourself any graven image…you shall not bow down to them or serve them” Exodus 20:3-4. Thus these images are not to be objects of adoration.

Images were there before, during and after the time of Jesus. They were used in religious as well as civil circles. In the secular world were the images of emperors, lions, eagles, to give but a few. In religious circles there were images of gods/idols, saints, Jesus and his disciples, etc.  It is important to know how these images were used in the secular world as well as in the religious world and the developments that may have taken place in history. For instance, during the era of the major persecutions of the Christians images of the emperors that were meant for historical and memorial purposes were changed when the emperors were deified in efforts to fight Christianity. Images that had purely secular purposes were given religious importance. Christians, like the Maccabean brothers resisted worshipping images of the emperors to the extent that some were martyred.

Biblical texts

The bible is full of instances where images were used in idolatry and instances where images were rightfully used.

Examples of wrong use:

  1. Exodus 32:1-14 – Aaron made the golden calf and proclaimed it as the god that had liberated Israel from Egypt. This was a case of idolatry and stirred the wrath of YHWH. The Israelites offered sacrifice to this calf and called it their god
  2. Acts 14:8-18 – The natives of Lycaonia believed in many gods took Paul and Barnabas as god, as Hermes and Zeus respectively.
  3. Deuteronomy 4:19 – there were people who worshiped objects like the sun, moon and the stars.
  4. Judges 6:25-32 – Gideon’ father believed in Baal and had an altar for him and had an image of a god called Asher. Gideon was instructed to destroy them , to erect an altar for YHWH and to offer sacrifice to YHWH
  5. 2 Kings 18:1-8 – Hezekiah a righteous king fought idolatry. He destroyed altars dedicated to idols, destroyed the Asher and Nehushtan the bronze serpent that was erected by Moses (Numbers 21:8-9) which had by now considered as an object of worship. It is worth noting that the establishment of this serpent was ordered by God for a good cause but with time the people had lost the original and correct meaning.
  6. Numbers 33:52 – Israelites are ordered to destroy the painted images and the metal statues of the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land.
  7. Ezekiel 8:10 – Israelite elders worshipped images and paintings of creatures on the walls.

Examples of good use:

  1. Numbers 21:4-9 – The brazen serpent was made at the order of God for the good of the people BUT not as an object of worship. When it was made an object of worship later it was then destroyed by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:8-9).
  2. 1 Kings 6:23-30/2 Chronicles 3:10ff – in the Temple of Solomon, in the holy of holies were images of 2 winged creatures that were made at the instruction of God. They were not meant to be worshiped. 1 Kings 7:36 on the stands were engraved winged creatures, lions and palm leaves. 1 Kings 7:25,29 – the basins of the Temple of Solomon rested on the images of bulls/oxen and of lions
  3. 1 kings 10:19-20 – the throne of King Solomon rested on the images of lions and there were many more images around it.
  4. Exodus 25:18-22 – God instructed that there be images of 2 winged creatures around the mercy-seat.
  5. In the NT era according to the stations of the cross, Jesus paid back Veronica’ love and charity by giving the picture of his face to her on the cloth she had used. Can we imagine the reason why Jesus did this and where Veronica kept the picture and what she used it for!!!!!!!!!!!!

How about these texts?

1 Sam.19:11-17 – the use of an image in the plan to rescue David from King Saul.

Judges 8:22-32 – Gideon set up the ephod in town.

Judges 17:1-13 – Micah (Micayehu – meaning who is like YHWH/), the prophet sets up an ephod in his domestic shrine

1 Corinthians 8:4; Isaiah 44:9-20; 1 Kings 18:25ff – show the futility and uselessness of idols

NB – In the context of the above deliberations and citations, should the 1st commandment be regarded as an absolute and categorical prohibition of making images? The bronze serpent and those images surrounding the Temple were actually made following the instruction of God. There are images that were made and used with the divine sanctions and on the other hand some images were used as objects of worship especially in the circles of non-Israelites.


The context in which the Christian images developed has to be established and their purposes be spelt out clearly. It is said that “catacombs were the cradle of Christian art.” Images developed in the catacombs as Christians were running away from persecution by the Romans. Christians hid in the catacombs and refused to pay homage to images of emperors that were deified. Many Christians were martyred during this period for resisting emperor worship. When they made their own Christian images and paintings this was an artistic way of representing their Christian ideas, just as were have pictures of celebrities on walls and t-shirts.

In the Roman empire citizens bowed to, incensed or kissed the images of emperors, an empty throne/seat of the King to express their respect not as signs of worship (in the times before the deification of emperors). After the emperors were deified the same gestures then constituted idolatry but not before. The gestures before these images like prostration, bowing, kissing, incensing or kneeling are given meaning by those who practice them. “…all outward marks of respect are arbitrary signs and have no inherent connotations….they mean what a culture has agreed and understood that they should mean”. In the same vein, Christians’ gestures before images and paintings or pictures have the meaning assigned to them by the Christians. Christians go beyond the images to focus on the realities they represent.

Some images/paintings are symbolic. The cross is a symbol of suffering, victory and Christian blessing. The Chi-Rho monogram means Christ the high priest. The fish, in Greek is ‘IXTHUS’                      means Jesus Christ the Son of God is the Saviour. Art and symbolic language are helpful in difficult times as a means of communication that can be decoded only by intended, tutored audience. A flag for instance is symbolic. People salute and adopt attention position when raising it up or lowering it down as gestures of respect not to the piece of cloth but to what it represents/symbolize/signify. A picture of a friend is an image that reminds us of our beloved and is a way of keeping records. That is how we need to treat sacred images and sacred paintings/pictures.

St. Gregory the Great writes to an iconoclast bishop, “not without reason has antiquity allowed stories of saints to be painted in holy places. Indeed we praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant that look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they may follow.”