One of the central arguments used by Protestants and Muslims against the Orthodox teaching on iconography is the second commandment:
“You shall not make for yourself an image 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 parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me (Exodus 20:4-5)
As is clear, the second commandment prohibited the children of Israel from creating graven images of anything “in heaven above, on earth beneath, or in the waters below” (the waters symbolizing the pit of death “below” the earth). When discerning what exactly this means, it’s important to recognize that the ten commandments themselves are based on the creation account given in Genesis 1. Although God created the world in six days, He did so in a series of ten creative acts. As such, each of the ten commandments corresponds to its respective creation speech, with the second commandment against the creation of images in the form of anything “above” or “below” corresponding to God’s second speech of Genesis 1, wherein He created the “firmament of the heavens” that divided the “waters above” from the “waters below.” The firmament itself refers not to some kind of hard dome around the earth, but rather to what we today call “outer-space” (see here and here for a detailed proof of that), and so the water that is “above” the firmament is water that exists at the boundary between the material heavens and the heaven of heavens (God’s throne-room). Likewise, the water that is “below” the firmament refers to all of the water we see in the material world, most especially the water that is “under the earth” (oceans and lakes) that is frequently used as an image of death throughout Scripture (see here).
Once this correspondence is understood, the meaning of the second commandment comes into focus: the children of Israel were forbidden from making and bowing to images of anything created, whether it is in heaven, on earth, or below the earth. In the context of Exodus, this makes perfect sense: God had just got done showing Himself superior to “the gods of Egypt,” against whom the Lord waged war during the ten plagues, and so now the Israelites are forbidden from making idolatrous images of the gods whom the Lord defeated.
But did God intend this commandment to be an absolute ban on any and all images of created things? If so, this makes the book of Exodus itself a little problematic because, just five chapters after God got done telling the Israelites not to make images of anything “in heaven above,” He commands them to make two statues of cherubim and place them in the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18-22)! We know from Ezekiel 1 that the cherubim are a rank of angel that exist “below the firmament,” holding God up on His throne in the heaven of heavens, thus these are indeed creatures “in heaven above,” so how did God command the Israelites to make these images without violating the commandment He had just given? This is explained in Deuteronomy 4, when God goes into more detail about the second commandment:
“Therefore take good heed to yourselves. 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, the likeness of male or female…” (Deuteronomy 4:15-17)
Notice the reason why God says the Israelites weren’t allowed to make graven images “in the form of any figure,” it’s because they “saw no form” when God appeared to them. How does this explain why Moses was told to create images of cherubim? It’s because when God appeared to him on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24, God revealed His divine glory to Moses, showing him the heavenly liturgy itself, in order that he might copy it over to the Israelites’ worship (Hebrews 8:5). This is why Exodus 25 begins and ends with God telling Moses to make everything in the sanctuary “according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain.” Moses saw the cherubim worshipping God in heaven, and this is why he was told to make images of these cherubim, in order to reflect the pattern of worship that was revealed to him, in Israel’s own system of worship.
The basic principle being established here is this: we are only allowed to iconographically depict that which God has “shown” to us, i.e. the form we depict is the form that God reveals, because God only permits us to worship Him insofar as He has chosen to reveal Himself. Thus, because God revealed the forms of heaven to Moses on Mt. Sinai, this is why he was commanded to make images of created things in heaven above like the cherubim: because he saw them. This principle also explains why God commanded Moses to make a statue of a serpent in Numbers 21, to which the Israelites looked for healing (Jesus even compares His own crucifixion to this serpent statue in John 3:14). This is because, as I’ve argued at length before (see here and here), serpents are angelic creatures, whom God not only revealed to Moses during the ten plagues when He turned Moses and Aaron’s rod into a serpent, but they were also most likely revealed along with the cherubim when Moses beheld the heavenly liturgy on Mt. Sinai (a point supported by the fact that there are “seraphim” who surround God in His throne-room per Isaiah 6:1-4, and “seraph” as a noun means “serpent”).
If there’s any doubt about this point, consider the last place in the Old Testament that we hear about holy images being created:
On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms, [King Solomon] carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers. And on the two olive-wood doors he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers, and overlaid the cherubim and palm trees with hammered gold. He also made two doors out of juniper wood, each having two leaves that turned in sockets. He carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers on them and overlaid them with gold hammered evenly over the carvings. (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34-35)
When creating the Lord’s Temple, we’re told that King Solomon made carvings of “cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.” Interestingly, these three images correspond one-to-one to the things God seems to have forbidden depicting in the second commandment: cherubim represent “heaven above” because of their presence in the throne-room, palm trees represent “the earth beneath” because that’s where they grow, and flowers represent “the waters below” because, as I mentioned above, this is a symbol of the pit of death which is “below the earth,” and flowers are consistently used as images of death throughout Scripture (see Psalm 103:15-16, Isaiah 40:8, Job 14:2, Matthew 6:28-30). So why is it that King Solomon was allowed to create images of the very things God supposedly said not to? I believe the answer lies just a few chapters before this happens.
In 1 Kings 4, we’re told that “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.” And one of the very first topics that Solomon speaks on when exercising his divinely-given wisdom is “plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls.” Something to take note of is that “the cedar of Lebanon” imagery is reflected in Psalm 92:12, where we’re told that “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon.” Likewise, throughout Scripture, “hyssop” is a flower-like plant associated with ritual purity (“cedar wood” and “hyssop” are actually used together for the purification of lepers in Leviticus 14:1-7). So what we gather from this is that God revealed divine wisdom to King Solomon about plants such as palm trees and flowers (the latter of which grew “out of the walls”), after which point Solomon creates images of palm trees and flowers all over the Temple walls. This confirms the pattern that I described above: once God reveals Himself in some aspect of the created order, this enables us to iconographically depict that which has been shown to us. This is because, as Seraphim Hamilton points out (in agreement with what I’ve explained above), “the [second commandment] is about worshiping God in line with God’s self-disclosure.” We are to worship God according to the mode in which He reveals Himself, and so the more He reveals Himself through covenantal history, the more His people are able to depict Him in worship. This is the progression from Abraham who had no depictions of the heavenly realm in his worship, to Moses who depicted the heavenly pattern in the Tabernacle, to Solomon who added earthly images to these heavenly depictions in the sanctuary.
With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the New Testament. St. John begins His Gospel by telling us that “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father,” after which point John writes “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” The theme of “seeing God” is a consistent one throughout John’s Gospel, and we see it picked up in John 5 when Jesus is disputing with His Jewish interlocuters. During their discussion, the Lord alludes to Deuteronomy 4 by telling the Jews that they “have never heard God’s voice nor seen His form.” This statement tells us that wicked Israel at the time of Jesus wasn’t to be considered part of the Sinai generation, the ones who, while not beholding God’s form, nevertheless still heard His voice. Now, Jesus says, the wicked Jews who reject Him neither see nor hear God. After this, in John 6, Jesus brings this idea up again by saying that “no one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only He has seen the Father.” This is said right after Jesus got done telling the Apostles that no one comes to the Father except those who listen to and see the Son. Finally, this theme finds its culmination in the famous dialogue between Philip and Jesus:
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. (John 14:8-10)
In Exodus 33 Moses was told that he could only see God’s back, “but [His] face shall not be seen.” And so Philip, now standing face to face with God’s own Son, says to Him “alright, the Father didn’t show Himself to Moses, but now you can show us the Father, so do it!” But haven’t the Apostles been paying attention? Do they not see what’s been staring at them this whole time? “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… [for] I am in the Father and the Father is in me” replies the Lord Jesus. This means that Jesus is the most perfect revelation of God to man that has ever happened in the history of the universe, because in Him we have truly “seen the Father,” because the Son has “made Him known.”
The implications of this are further explained by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, where he writes that Israel in the flesh heard the voice of God “written on stone tablets,” and they could only behold the divine glory when it was veiled on Moses’ face. But now, Israel in the Spirit (the Church) has the Word written on our hearts, “and we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory.” The glory of God has been revealed to us in the Person of the Incarnate Son, who is “the express image of the Father” (Colossians 1:15), whom we behold face-to-face, in order that we might be transformed into His image. Truly, through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we have seen God.
If we tie all of this back to everything that was said above, namely that we are to worship God according to the manner in which He has revealed Himself, this makes perfect sense of not only why we are allowed to make iconographic depictions of Jesus, but indeed why we must do this. Whenever God reveals a heavenly form to His people, they are to depict this form and use it in worship, as both Moses and Solomon did. And so now that God has revealed His own form in the Person of His Son, we are to depict that which we have seen, and indeed if we do not do this, it is a denial of the fact that God has revealed Himself in this way. This is why it’s no surprise that religions that so vigorously deny the Incarnation, such as Islam and Judaism, are also incredibly iconoclastic: they forbid making images of God because they don’t believe we have ever seen Him, but as Christians we know this is a lie, we have seen God because His only Son has shown Him to us, and this is why we make images of Him. This is why St. John of Damascus famously wrote:
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. (St. John of Damascus, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images)
Moreover, the reason we make images of not only Jesus, but also His saints, is for a similar reason that Moses made statues of cherubim, and Solomon carved images of these cherubim together with palm trees. In the Tabernacle, the cherubim that stood beside the Ark of the Covenant were there in order to represent the Divine Council of angelic beings that surrounds God in His throne-room (Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, Job 1-2, 1 Kings 22). And so, as Seraphim Hamilton has shown at length, because the coming of Jesus Christ has allowed for human beings to become members of the Divine Council through participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (what Revelation 20 refers to as “the first resurrection” of the saints, after which they “reign with Christ” during the millennium, which is the Church Age), this is why we are able to depict them as well: Just as the Divine Councilors of the Old Covenant were revealed to and subsequently depicted by Moses in the Tabernacle, so also does the Church have the ability to reveal the Divine Councilors of the New Covenant (i.e. the saints) through her infallible canonization process, after which point we can canonically depict these holy men and women in our worship. King Solomon himself foresaw this when he depicted “palm trees” alongside the cherubim in the Temple, because throughout Scripture, palm trees (and just trees generally) are images of holy and righteous human beings (Psalm 92 cf. Psalm 1), and so their depiction together in the Temple appears to foreshadow the day in which humans and angels would reign together on the Council, a day that has been realized since the coming of Christ. And so this is why we not only iconographically depict angels, as was done in the Old Covenant, but we also depict the saints, thereby recognizing that the New Covenant has brought about their integration together on the Divine Council.
With all of that said, I hope it’s now clear why the Orthodox Church does not consider iconography a violation of the second commandment. However, you may still be wondering: even if it’s permissible to create icons of Jesus and His saints, what allows us to venerate these images? Isn’t that idolatry? To this question, the Orthodox Church strongly answers in the negative, but why? To understand this, we have to establish three principles.
First, there is a distinction between the worship we pay to God alone and the veneration we pay to created things. This really isn’t that difficult to establish as it’s obvious that the Bible speaks of worship that is due to God alone, hence the first commandment’s prohibition of idolatry, but it also speaks of “worship” (more commonly called “veneration”) and honor that we can pay to the created order. For example, Abraham “bowed down” before the Hittites in order to show respect (Genesis 23:7), likewise Jacob “bowed down seven times” before Esau in order to honor him (Genesis 33:3), Joseph’s brothers “threw themselves down before him” to honor their brother, Bathsheba bowed to her husband King David (1 Kings. 1:16), Solomon bowed to his queen-mother Bathsheba (1 Kings. 2:19), King Nebuchadnezzar literally made offerings and burned incense before Prophet Daniel (Daniel 2:46-47), and no where in any of these texts is it indicated that these people were committing idolatry. Also, as I mentioned above, when God commanded Moses to build a statue of a serpent in Numbers 21, the Israelites were told to “look to” this statue for healing, an act that obviously gives certain honor to something created.
Second, St. Paul actually commands us to show the kind of veneration mentioned above to our fellow Christians. Throughout his Epistles, Paul consistently commands Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26), and why? It’s because, as Paul makes clear, all Christians are holy, and holy things are worthy of respect and honor (Matthew 7:6). This is why one of Paul’s favorite ways to refer to his fellow Christians is as “saints,” which literally means “holy ones” (Colossians 1:2, Philippians 1:1, Ephesians 3:18, and so on). This point is then confirmed by our Lord Jesus Himself who, in Revelation 3:9, says that He will make all of the unbelieving Jews “come and fall down at your [Christians’] feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.” So clearly Jesus believes that His people are due some kind of veneration by virtue of their holiness as members of His Body.
The third and final principle we have to establish is the biblical idea that honor paid to the images of something transfers over to the prototype. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the fifth commandment, which tells us to “honor thy father and mother.” As St. Paul makes clear in Ephesians 3:14-15, earthly fathers are established as images of our heavenly Father, meaning that when we honor our earthly fathers, that honor is then transferred over to the prototype, who is God. This is why, in Malachi 1:6 and 2:10, the Lord applies the fifth commandment to Himself. This is also why Psalm 138:2 speaks of “bowing down toward the Lord’s holy temple,” because the Temple was an image of God Himself, and by bowing to the image, that honor would pass over to its heavenly prototype. And perhaps most obviously, when God created human beings “in His own image” in Genesis 1, this was Him adorning the Temple of His creation with images of Himself, in order to bring glory to Himself through the glorification of His images (see here for a detailed explanation of that). This is why “love the Lord thy God” and “love thy neighbor as thyself” are the two greatest commandments: we can only love God if we also love His images. This is also testified to by the fact that, through becoming incarnate, Jesus has identified Himself with the lowly and downtrodden, hence the word of the Lord in Matthew 25:40, “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me“: if we care for the least of Christ’s brethren, we are caring for Christ Himself, because the honor shown to the image passes over to the prototype.
And so, with these three principles established, it’s time to bring them together: it’s permissible to pay honor to created things, and indeed even commanded to pay honor to that which is holy, such as the Temple of old and the New Temples of the Holy Spirit, i.e. our fellow Christians. Moreover, if we pay honor to the image of something, that honor is then passed over to its prototype (the one being depicted). Thus, it is not only permissible to pay honor to images of Jesus and our fellow Christians, but it is necessary because we are always supposed to honor them and “greet one another with a holy kiss.” Jesus and His saints are not at all removed from the Church, but indeed through their exaltation to the heavenly throne-room, they are more present and active in the life of the world than even we are here and now (see here for more on that), and so if we are to pay veneration and honor to one another, how much more do we pay this to Jesus and His saints, through their images? Thanks for reading!
This article is based very heavily off of Seraphim Hamilton’s work on iconography, which I highly recommend reading!