I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and guard My commandments (Ex. 20:5-6).
The Second Word forbids acts of ceremonial veneration before manmade objects. When we see God, we will surely bow before Him, and we properly bow before other human beings, which are made by God and in His image. But we are absolutely forbidden to engage in acts of ceremonial veneration, such as bowing, kissing, burning incense and candles, etc., before any manmade object. Such manmade objects include statues, pictures, crosses, altars, bread, wine, and other things made by human hands.
Those who engage in this practice bring upon themselves the curse of God, but this is not immediately apparent. God says that this practice amounts to hating Him, but this is not immediately apparent either. If it really does amount to hating God, however, then we can understand how such a practice subtly corrupts the generations that follow its inception.
God says that He is jealous, and this is marital language. He says that a believer who bows before manmade objects, such as the bread and wine of communion, is committing spiritual adultery. Such a believer “hates” God by despising the wonderful marriage God has offered him or her.
As faith seeks understanding, we are entitled to ask why this is so. Why does God view obeisance before icons, crosses, and the like in such a negative light? How do such actions constitute fornication and adultery? These are valid questions, and I believe that there are good answers to them, but for our purposes we don’t need to go very far into them here. It is enough that God has spoken, and spoken very clearly. If we love Him, we will not involve ourselves with venerating manmade objects.
This sin wrecks our relationship with God, but because our hearts are deceitful, we may not realize what has happened. By bowing before manmade objects, we have set up another god in our hearts, a god we still call by Christian names, but a god that God Himself rejects. The only way we can be sure that our worship is acceptable, and that we are really worshipping the God who is really there, is if we worship as He Himself has taught us.
Such worship is liturgical in the sense that it is a conversation, a dialogue, and is preferably sung rather then merely spoken. Singing puts beauty, life, love, excitement into the conversation. Thus, true liturgical worship is dialogue worship, such as in Lutheranism and Protestant Episcopalianism. Worship that consists of bowing to silent objects is completely anti-liturgical. It is a curious thing that the churches which are considered “liturgical” are often very anti-liturgical. There is nothing liturgical about bowing to the cross when you cross the chancel, or elevating bread and wine and bowing to them, or kissing icons. Such essentially silent acts of homage before manmade objects not only offend God, they are also quintessentially anti-worship, anti-liturgical.
Such pseudo-worship inevitably becomes a matter of mechanics rather than a relationship with God. Even the prayerbook, valuable as it truly is, ceases to be a guide and becomes a law. It was only after the Reformation purged the churches of all thing-veneration that the fact of our having a “personal relationship with God” could come into clear focus. The great anti-liturgical churches (Rome, Orthodoxy, Anglo-Catholicism) train their clergy in the precise performance of ritual acts nowhere taught in the Bible, in the precise observance of days, and in other mechanical things; but such clergy are generally profoundly ignorant of the Bible.
Consequences Over Time
The consequences of sinning against the 2d Word are not immediately apparent. In fact, they take until the third and fourth generation to become apparent. What this means is that if you commit this sin, you will probably not live to see the consequences. You have to obey this law by faith alone. But of course, those who break this law are precisely those who demand something to gaze at, something to look at. Such people have already rejected the demand to worship by faith.
Faithfulness to God, which is here marked by a refusal to engage in the veneration of manmade objects, also has consequences for later generations. In this case, however, the promise is for thousands of generations. In the Bible we can take a look at faith’s consequences to the third and fourth generations in the book of Genesis.
Abraham, we are told, was looking for a city. That city was not yet in existence. In fact, Jerusalem would not be taken for about a thousand years, and the New Jerusalem would not become real in history for another thousand. Thus, Abraham could not live by sight. He had to live by faith in a future reality.
What are the consequences of such faith? Blessings to the third and fourth generations, and beyond. What is interesting, and in a way encouraging, is to consider what a failure Isaac turned out to be. No sooner did Isaac have two sons than he rebelled against God. He rejected the son that God had marked out, and favored Esau. He rejected the son that patiently refused to marry pagan girls, and favored the polygamous Esau, even though Esau’s pagan wives made life miserable for him and Rebekah. He rejected the son who kept the books and built up the sheikdom, and favored the “action hero” son who played in the woods hunting animals all day. And Isaac did this for seventy-seven years! It was only after Rebekah tricked him into obeying God that Isaac finally bowed the knee.
Abraham died while Isaac was in sin. From what Abraham could see, the fruit of his faithfulness was just a sorry, compromised, belly-worshipping man who claimed to serve God but had in fact rebelled against Him. Abraham died without seeing God’s promise come true. He died before seeing the wrestling faith of Jacob in action. He died without seeing Joseph elevated to rule over the whole world.
In other words, friends, if we are faithful, we probably won’t live to see the fruits of it. We must obey God by faith, knowing that He will make good His promise, though probably not in our lifetimes and not before our eyes. Of course, our children may do better than Isaac, or our children may do worse, but God’s promise goes through them all the same.
What this means, for me, is something visionary and powerful. It means that we control the future. The wicked wreck matters for themselves down to the third and fourth generation, assuming that their children do not repent. After the fourth generation, the children of the wicked cease to be historically relevant. The children of the obedient, however, grow in power and historical influence for thousands of generations.
Human history will last for at least 100,000 years, I am confident. One thousand generations is 30,000 years, and the word is plural. Three thousand generations is 90,000 years, but why should the plural only imply three? If Jesus returns before that time, Satan can say, “Well, You said You would show Your mercy to thousands of generations, but You did not do so. You ended history after only a few hundred generations.” I don’t believe that Satan will ever say this, however, because when history is finally over, it will indeed be seen that God shows mercy to thousands of generations.
What happens to those who break the 2d Word? After the fourth generation, they cease to be relevant. Consider the Eastern Orthodox Churches and their nations. In the 700s these Churches apostatized into icon worship. I’m sure that God has His people in these churches, and eventually the churches will repent and begin to obey again. But meanwhile, what human and cultural progress has come out of Orthodox nations? None. They made progress in theology and culture for several centuries, but after the year 800–nothing.
Consider the Roman Catholic Churches and their nations. Rome is not as blatantly iconolatrous as is Orthodoxy, but there is still plenty of disobedience to the 2d Word. And since the time of the Protestant Reformation, what cultural or historical progress has been made in Catholic countries? None.
The meaning is clear: After the fourth generation, the disobedient cease to be relevant. They still exist, and their cultures continue to drift along, but without progress and with all kinds of conflict. It is only as Protestant ideas come into Catholic and Orthodox settings that any kind of contribution is made, as with the Russian and French novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively: Such writers were thinking in literary, Word-oriented categories, and thus began to break from the idolatry of their own church backgrounds.
So, what do you want for your children? Do you want to be part of history? Do you want to set in motion things that will change history for thousands of years, yea for thousands of generations? If so, then obey God, and in particular, obey the 2d Word.
Take the Long View
The fact that history has such a long stretch ahead has a couple of other implications that I’d like to call attention to. First, it means that we may as well relax about things as they are now. We advocate the Biblical reformation of the Church, of worship, and of society. We are dissatisfied and often very unhappy about how things go in the Church. I don’t need to mention anything specifically, since you know the problems in your situation better than I do.
We need to advocate reform. We need to pray for reform. We need to work for reform. But we might as well face that fact that God works over generations of time, and that there are about 100,000 years of history ahead for the human race. It may be 200 years before Christians are willing to obey God and return to chanting the psalms in worship. It may be 50 years before Christians are willing to obey God and serve wine in communion, and let all baptized persons (including children) participate. It may be 20,000 years before there is a Biblically theocratic government in the place you live. But we create that future by being faithful in the here and now, not by opting out, dropping out, starting up our own things, and the like.
So, hey! Relax. So they won’t let your children participate in communion? That’s okay. If you believe in paedo-communion, as I do, then you’ve faithfully advocated what you believe is the Biblical position. You’ve courteously challenged invited the leadership to think about it. They don’t see it yet, but that’s okay. Eventually, their descendants will see the point. And in the meantime, are your children suffering? Well, yes, but no more then you are, and no more than everyone else in today’s church is suffering because of the pervasive laxity. And, by being faithful, you’ve created the conditions that mean God will show mercy to your children, grandchildren, etc.
So you can go ahead and give a full 10% of your income to your church, even though they are going to build another building with it instead of doing what you think would be best. You can go ahead and remain in your semi-dispensational church, if it is the only really alive evangelical church in your town, instead of going out and starting some kind of perfectionistic “home church.” It is probably going to take a long time, but if we are faithful now, it will come.
(Of course, if the church goes liberal, or the pastor starts bowing down to the cross, you’d better flee.)
Future and Frontier
This is really a footnote to the essay, but a second implication is that such a long future definitely encourages me to believe in space exploration. One reason I sell the collected short stories of Cordwainer Smith is that Smith, as a devout and extremely well read Christian, had a long, slowly developing view of Christianity and culture in the future. Reading his stories, which span about 20,000 years of time, helps you acquire more of that sense of things. As a Christian I like some science fiction, not because I think the future will be like any SF writers describe it (because it won’t be), but because I like having my sense of future time enlarged. I am, as a believer, a controller of the future.
It’s too bad that our conservative politicians these days are such wimps and pansies. All they are able to do is criticize the socialistic programs of the left. If I were running for office, I’d major on space. I’d advocate using the Peace Dividend to make booster rockets available to industry. I’d be happy for “multi-national corporations” to get out there and get to work. After all, multi-national corporations form a good balance of power with nation states. But sadly, the nation states won’t let industry into space. They have throttled any such attempt. As a result, we have no frontier, no vision, and the nation turns inward toward bread and circuses.
God has created the frontier to keep His future-oriented people moving into new worlds. The frontier is necessary for cultural health. Space is, well, perhaps not the final frontier, but it is a great one for now. A great deal of national healing would take place if industry could move into space in a big way. Of course, for that to happen, the shackles would have to come off of business and industry; but it would be easier to make a case for getting the government off our backs if we had a visionary goal to set before the people.
James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared at Biblical Horizons.