In part one of this article, we examined the rationale for the prohibition of cultic images in the old covenant. Here, we will consider whether the incarnation of Christ has any effect on the second commandment’s prohibition of cultic images. Our thesis is that the rationale for the prohibition of cultic images in the Law still applies to the church on this side of the incarnation. The incarnation, therefore, does not sanction iconic worship.

The Revelation of God in Jesus Christ

In the prologue of his Gospel, the Apostle John heralds the eternal Word who was with God in the beginning, who is of the same substance as the Father yet personally distinct from the Father, and who, with the Father, created all things (John 1:1–3). The prologue reaches a climax when John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). In the incarnation of the eternal Son of God, the disciples beheld the glory of God. Moses longed to see the consummative revelation of God’s glory that will be manifested at the end of the age. The disciples experienced a foretaste of that consummation-glory. Even though God spoke to Moses face to face and allowed him to behold the form of the Lord and catch a glimpse of the glory of the Lord, the revelation of God that Moses had, as glorious as it was, was inferior to the revelation of God in the incarnate Word.[1] John’s prologue concludes by contrasting the revelation of God through Moses and the revelation of God in Christ. “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:17–18).

This teaching stands behind the words of Jesus to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When the disciples saw Jesus, they saw the image or icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), and they worshiped God in and through that image—not a dead image created by human hands but the true and living image, indeed, the eternal and uncreated image of God visibly and tangibly present with them in the incarnate Christ. Christ is the living icon of God that we are not only permitted to worship, we are commanded to worship. And in worshiping Christ, the image of the invisible God, we become like him; we are transformed from glory into glory, into the image of Christ himself, the eschatological Adam in whom the creaturely image of God has reached its state of consummate perfection.

There is an inseparable connection between the second commandment and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “The fulfillment of the second commandment is the birth of Jesus Christ,” says Edmund Clowney.[2] Clowney adds, “The Father has offered us a true image to worship, and his jealousy is aroused if we choose anything but the incarnate Lord Jesus as the focus of our worship. Jesus is the true and only object of worship” (Clowney, 34). Greg Reynolds echoes this thought:

The image of God in Christ is the ultimate challenge to the worship of created images. All idols are counterfeit mediators. But now the true Mediator has invaded history. The Creator-Son has made Himself visible in history to draw sinners from among all nations away from idols.[3]

For the disciples, the ultimate revelation of God’s glory was when they saw the risen and glorified Christ. After his resurrection, Christ did not appear to everyone but only to a select few whom he had chosen to be eyewitnesses of his resurrection. That brings into view the unique role of the apostles in the foundational era of the church because one of the prerequisites for apostleship was seeing the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21–22; 1 Cor. 9:1; Eph. 2:20). Seeing the risen Christ was not a privilege given to everyone in the New Testament church. In fact, there is a clear distinction in the New Testament between those who saw him and those who did not see him.

In the context of the revelation of Christ at the end of the age, Peter says to his readers “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). The apostle John, who more than any other New Testament author emphasizes the visible manifestation of God in the incarnate Son, frequently makes a distinction between those who saw Christ and those who did not see him and who will not see him until his return. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Jesus was looking forward to the time when he would no longer be bodily present with his disciples, which is the present state of affairs, one that will continue until his return. Only then will we see the face of Christ (Rev. 22:4; 1 John 3:2). According to David VanDrunen:

This present age is an age of not seeing Jesus; the eschatological age to come is the age in which the Christian will see Jesus. For now, the believer possesses only the eschatological hope of the “beatific vision”—seeing the glorified Jesus in the age to come. This present age is an age of Christ’s invisible presence in the Spirit, to be followed by an age of his visible presence which will commence when he reappears in glory (John 16:16). Furthermore, this present age is an age of walking by faith and not by sight (Rom. 8:24–25; 2 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:8). … We do not attempt to make Christ seen in the present because the present is not the time for seeing Christ.[4]

Indeed, the time is coming when we will see the face of Christ. That is the blessed hope of every believer (Heb. 9:28). The believer should long to see Christ and expect to see him at the consummation, but until that day, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). The desire to see Christ with our eyes is appropriate. In fact, Christ prayed that we would see his glory (John 17:24). We refer to this vision of the glory of Christ as the beatific vision. The beatific vision is the consummate revelation of God’s glory in the person of the ascended Christ, the image of the invisible God, who is presently unseen. The apostle John tells us that we shall see Christ “as he is” in his state of perfected glory, and that vision of Christ will transform us into his image (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 15:49). That transformation will happen at the end of the age when Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:52–53). Perhaps, no one has expressed this teaching better than Jonathan Edwards:

It is the glorious sighting of Christ … radiating from his glorified body that effects a remarkable transformation of both the living and the dead saints. The living shall be immediately transformed, both body and soul, when they first see Christ as he is (1 John 3:2). All remnants of sin shall be eradicated in their souls and their natural bodies shall be transformed into spiritual bodies. Jesus Christ as the “light of life” shines on the dead, raising them to life in resurrection bodies by the means of his visible glory.[5]

The beatific vision is when we behold God in the person of the glorified Christ in the eschaton. With our physical eyes we will behold the glory of God in the glorified human nature of Christ, and we ourselves will become mirror reflections of that glory. We will not only behold the image of God but bear the image of God, not merely in the protological sense like Adam prior to the fall but in the eschatological sense like Christ after his resurrection. As perfected, eschatological image-bearers, we will experience for all eternity unceasing, consummative communion and fellowship with the Triune God.

That is what we have to look forward to in the age to come. But what about now? Are we currently cut off from communion and fellowship with Christ because he is no longer bodily present with us? Is the glory of the incarnate Word completely hidden from us? Must we await Christ’s return before we can behold his glory? Thankfully, although Christ is presently hidden from our eyes, God has not left us without a means of beholding his glory on this side of the eschaton. He has not left us without a means of communion with him. Even now, we behold the glory of Christ by faith when we look at the mirror of the gospel.

Beholding God in a Mirror

In 1 Corinthians 13:8–12, the apostle Paul employs the mirror metaphor to describe the present way the believer sees God.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. … For now we see in a mirror dimly,[6] but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Paul refers to various modes of revelation: prophecy, tongues and knowledge (i.e., the spiritual gift of “the utterance of knowledge” listed in 1 Cor. 12:8). Paul contrasts the partial, incomplete knowledge of God that we currently have by means of these temporary modes of revelation with the future knowledge of God that we will have in the age to come.

The phrase, “when the perfect comes” (v. 10), refers to the perfect state of affairs ushered in at the consummation with the return of Christ.[7] At the consummation, our partial, fragmentary knowledge of God will be replaced by a complete knowledge of God.[8] Paul says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12). The contrast is between our knowledge of God in the present age and our knowledge of him in the age to come. But the contrast is also between two different ways of seeing God. Alluding to Numbers 12:8, Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul uses the same rare term ainigma (αἴνιγμα) that is used in Numbers 12:8 (LXX), where it is translated “riddles” and refers to the nature of the modes of revelation by which God spoke to the prophets of Israel in contrast to the manner in which he spoke to Moses (i.e., clearly, face to face, directly). The contrast in Numbers 12 is between two groups of people (Moses and the prophets), but in 1 Corinthians 13, it is between two ages, this age and the age to come.

According to Paul, a direct, face-to-face vision of God will not occur until the consummation “when the perfect comes” (1 Cor. 13:10). Until that day, we cannot behold God directly, face to face, but only indirectly as if we were looking at his reflection in a mirror. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (12). The face-to-face vision of God in view here is the direct, unmediated sight of God’s glory that shines in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ in the beatific vision. That direct vision of God’s glory awaits the return of Christ, but even now, we see the reflection of that glory in a mirror.

In 1 Corinthians 13 (just as in Numbers 12), the mirror refers to modes of revelation: visions, dreams, tongues, and prophecy. These were modes of revelation given by the Holy Spirit to the apostolic church on the Day of Pentecost when the ascended Christ poured out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17–18). In the absence of a direct, face-to-face, revelation of God in the incarnate Christ (which the church no longer has because Christ has ascended), Christ gave these prophetic modes of revelation to the church to function like a mirror in which the saints beheld his reflection.

In order to draw a conclusion from this teaching regarding images of Christ, we need to look once again at the grounds of the prohibition of images stated in Deuteronomy. Since you heard my voice but saw no form, do not make an image, said the Lord (Deut. 4:15–16). Using the mirror metaphor, we can state the grounds of the prohibition as follows: Since you did not see me face to face but only saw my reflection in the mirror of my Word (voice), do not make an image of me. After the ascension of Jesus and until his return, the church is like Israel at Mount Sinai. We cannot see Christ directly, face to face, but only indirectly beholding his reflection as in a mirror, namely, the mirror of his Word. And therefore, the rationale of the prohibition of images still applies today on this side of the incarnation. The incarnation of Christ does not render the grounds of the prohibition obsolete because, like the Israelites at Sinai, we do not see Christ. We only hear his voice. We only see him indirectly as if beholding his reflection in a mirror. In the age of the apostles, that mirror included various prophetic modes of revelation such as dreams, visions, tongues and prophecy. And although special revelation has come to an end—visions, tongues, and prophecy have ceased—there, nevertheless, remains a mirror in which we have an indirect vision of God, namely, the mirror of the gospel. Believers behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in the mirror of the gospel preached.

The Mirror of the Gospel

In 2 Corinthians 3:17–4:6, the apostle Paul explains that believers see the glory of God when they hear the gospel proclaimed. The key term is in 3:18, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord.”[9] The point in using the mirror metaphor is that we do not have a direct, face-to-face, vision of the glory of God but only an indirect vision as if we were seeing it in a mirror. The mirror that Paul has in mind is the preaching of the gospel.

If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. (2 Cor. 4:3–5a)

Unbelievers, whose minds are blinded, do not see the light of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God when they hear the gospel proclaimed. Believers do. By faith, we see it when we hear his Word. The gospel is the mirror that reflects his glory.

Notice also that Paul says when we behold the glory of the Lord we are changed into the same image (icon) from glory into glory (3:18).[10] Remarkably, our future glorification by means of seeing Christ in the beatific vision is something that has already begun. When we behold Christ’s glory in the gospel, we are transformed into his image. We are transformed into what we behold. We become like what we worship. Even now, prior to the beatific vision, we are being transformed in the inner man (2 Cor. 4:16) from glory into glory when we behold the image of Christ in the mirror of the gospel. Although Christ is not bodily present with the saints on earth, we are not cut off from communion and fellowship with him. Through the preaching of the gospel, we already experience by the power of his Spirit a foretaste of what we will experience at the consummation. By faith, we behold Christ in his Word. As Calvin says, Christ, “the living image of God, is evidently set before our eyes in the mirror of the gospel!”[11] Calvin adds,

The ministry of the word, I say, is like a looking-glass. For the angels have no need of preaching, or other inferior helps, nor of sacraments, for they enjoy a vision of God of another kind; and God does not give them a view of his face merely in a mirror, but openly manifests himself as present with them. We, who have not as yet reached that great height, behold the image of God as it is presented before us in the word, in the sacraments, and … in the whole of the service of the Church … we walk by faith, not by sight. Our faith, therefore, at present beholds God as absent. How so? Because it sees not his face, but rests satisfied with the image in the mirror.[12]

That is the present state of affairs, which will continue until the return of Christ. Until then, we walk by faith not by sight, and our faith at present beholds him as absent because we see his true image in the mirror of his gospel.

We conclude, then, that the rationale for the prohibition of cultic images in the Law still applies in the church on this side of the incarnation. The incarnation of Christ does not sanction iconic worship. If Israel was forbidden from making images of Yahweh because they heard his voice but saw no form, then why would that prohibition not equally apply to us given that God’s chosen mode of revealing himself to the church has not changed? It is through the administration of the Word of God written that we behold the glory of the Lord as in a mirror (2 Cor. 3:18). It is through the preaching of his gospel that we have true, Spiritual communion and fellowship with the triune God. That’s true worship, which cannot be obtained by means of cultic images.


[1] Cf. Geerhardus Vos, The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), 68–87.

[2] Edmund Clowney, How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 28.

[3] Gregory Edward Reynolds, The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 25.

[4] David VanDrunen, “Iconoclasm, Incarnation and Eschatology: Toward a Catholic Understanding of the Reformed Doctrine of the ‘Second’ Commandment,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 6, no. 2 (April 2004): 144–45.

[5] The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Miscellanies, 833–1152, ed. by Amy Pauw (Yale University Press, 2002), 461–62.

[6] “Dimly” translates ainigma (αἴνιγμα), which occurs only here in the New Testament and echoes Numbers 12:8 (LXX), “not in riddles.” Ainigma means “indirectly” or “in a riddle,” or perhaps both ideas are intended. See Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 658–60; David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 623–25; and Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1067–71.

[7] See Richard Gaffin Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 109–12.

[8] This should not be interpreted as a comprehensive knowledge because even in a state of glory, we remain finite while God is infinite.

[9] “Beholding as in a mirror” translates the word katoptrizo (κατοπτρίζω), which only occurs here in the New Testament. The term means to see indirectly or by reflection as in a mirror. This is another allusion to Numbers 12:8 (LXX); Moses “beheld the glory of the LORD.” See A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, ed. by Frederick Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 535.

[10] The terms “glory” and “image” are used interchangeably. We see the same thing in 2 Cor. 4:4, “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” See Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. by John De Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 70.

[11] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 202. Calvin is commenting on Genesis 32:30, Jacob’s vision of God.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 429–30. Calvin is commenting on 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Glen J. Clary is associate pastor of Providence Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Pflugerville, Texas. Ordained Servant Online, February 2020. See also Part 1 of this article.

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