The Nativity Scene and the Second Commandment

Josh Buice

Jesus-Nativity-Manger

One of the most joyful times of the year as a family and a local church is the celebration of the grand miracle of the incarnation of Christ—when God took on human flesh and was born in the likeness of his own creation. Each evening, we gather with our family for an advent reading as we walk in the footsteps of the children of God in the old covenant anticipating the coming of the Messiah. However, as we celebrate the birth of the King of kings and the Lord of lords, we must caution ourselves against idolatry which has plagued the church for centuries. The culture is seeking to deform our worship of God and often the way we celebrate Christmas with various images of God is indicative of our need for greater reformation.

From the Cradle to the Cross

One of the most popular Christmas images in the public sphere in our culture is Santa with his most popular sled-deer—Rudolph. Perhaps coming in a close second place is the nativity scene. The nativity scene often includes the “three wise men” along with animals, a small hut-like structure, along with Mary, Joseph, and most importantly—baby Jesus. Beyond the fact that the “three wise men” were more in number than three and most likely didn’t arrive until Jesus was nearly two years of age—what’s wrong with the nativity scene?

The culture is seeking to deform our worship of God and often the way we celebrate Christmas with various images of God is indicative of our need for greater reformation.

All throughout history we find a common error plaguing God’s people. That common thorn in the side is idolatry. In the Old Testament, Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments that were given to him by God and he discovered the people of Israel engaged in vile worship practices as they were worshipping God through the image of a golden calf.

In the Ten Commandments, God provided the Second Commandment to govern against such idolatrous practices. It reads as follows:

Exodus 20:4–6 – You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. [5] You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, [6] but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Idolatry was something that continued to plague the people of God. Our God is a jealous God who demands that we devote ourselves fully and wholly to him. Yet, a simple word search of “idols” or “idolatry” in Scripture reveals how often this sin was repeated among God’s people. It also demonstrates God’s hatred for it by how he responds.

After the Philistines were defeated and David led the people to bring the Ark of the Covenant back among God’s people, he then led the people in a song of praise to the one true God (see 1 Chronicles 16:8-36). In that song, he makes the following statement:

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens (1 Chronicles 16:25–26).

Immediately after the Reformation, Christians throughout Europe rebelled against the idolatrous practices of the Roman Catholic Church by smashing the images, idols, and windows of cathedrals. They were offended by the idolatry of the Roman Catholic Church with images of God depicted as an old man in stained glass along with images of Mary and most troubling was the numerous depictions of Jesus on the cross.

Like all other cults, especially those who use the name of Jesus, the Roman Catholic Church elevates the Church (RCC) to a level of authority that provides the ultimate key of biblical interpretation. This is the same pattern with the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Therefore, it should not be a shock that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in their Catechism undermines the Scriptures in order to legitimize their ongoing practice of idolatry:

2131 Basing itself on the mystery of the incarnate Word, the seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea (787) justified against the iconoclasts the veneration of icons – of Christ, but also of the Mother of God, the angels, and all the saints. By becoming incarnate, the Son of God introduced a new “economy” of images.

2132 The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, “the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,” and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.”70 The honor paid to sacred images is a “respectful veneration,” not the adoration due to God alone:

Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. the movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is.

The final quote at the end of citation #2132 is from Thomas Aquinas and is simply a clear violation of holy Scripture. The Second Commandment prohibits any image carved, painted, or printed that would be used for the worship of God. Thomas Watson provides a solemn warning in his commentary on the Ten Commandments as he writes the following:

Go not into their chapels to see their crucifixes, or hear mass. As looking on a harlot draws to adultery, so looking on the Roman Catholic gilded picture may draw to idolatry. Some go to see their idol-worship. A vagrant who has nothing to lose, cares not to go among thieves; so such as have no goodness in them, care not to what idolatrous places they come or to what temptations they expose themselves; but you who have a treasure of good principles about you, take heed the Roman Catholic priests do not rob you of them, and defile you with their images. [1]

The statue of a crucifix in front of a Roman Catholic Church may strike a blow to your conscience and rightly so, but how many Christians among us are offended by a bloody image of Jesus on a cross while seemingly unoffended by Jesus being in a cradle?

The statue of a crucifix in front of a Roman Catholic Church may strike a blow to your conscience and rightly so, but how many Christians among us are offended by a bloody image of Jesus on a cross while seemingly unoffended by Jesus being in a cradle? If the Second Commandment reads “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above…” would that not likewise include the popular nativity images of Jesus too?

Through the years, I have become more sensitive to such images. Years ago, I would have no problem with Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” or the popular film titled “The Jesus Film” used by many missionaries around the world. Today, as I write this article I can see how the Lord has changed my position through a clear reading and understanding of Scripture.

Sufficient Scripture to Regulate and Guide

Does God need help from images or is his Scripture sufficient? When it comes to worship, the regulative principle provides us with guardrails to keep us from running off the cliff into the abyss of sin. In short, the regulative principle states that we are free to worship God in our worship service by doing only those things which have been commanded in Scripture. When it comes to our private worship of God we likewise depend upon the holy Scriptures that keep us on the right track and shine a bright light in a dark world preventing us from the many potholes of error. In this case, the ancient error of idolatry.

If we want to see a radiant picture of Christ during this Christmas season let us be content to look into the pages of holy Scripture where he’s visible from Genesis to Revelation.

Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon preached on November, 13, 1870 titled, “Iconoclast” stated the following:

The First Commandment instructs us that there is but one God, who alone is to be worshipped. And the Second Commandment teaches that no attempt is to be made to represent the Lord, neither are we to bow down before any form of sacred similitude.

The Scripture is sufficient to provide for us the image of God that is unveiled for God’s people and guides us in worship. If the Scriptures are insufficient to provide us with the proper view of God, we are then left to construct images of God in various forms including statues, paintings, and stained glass.

When it comes to worship, the regulative principle provides us with guardrails to keep us from running off the cliff into the abyss of sin.

A.W. Pink, in his Gleanings in Exodus observes:

Two is the number of witness, and in this second commandment man is forbidden to attempt any visible representation of Deity, whether furnished by the skill of the artist or the sculptor. The first commandment points out the one only object of worship; the second tells us how He is to be worshipped—in spirit and in truth, by faith and not by images which appeal to the senses. The design of this commandment to draw away from carnal conceptions of God, and to prevent His worship being profaned by superstitious rites. [2]

As you worship God during this Advent season, avoid the ditch of idolatry as you obey God through holy Scripture. May your heart be filled with the joy and excitement as we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Steven Lawson has rightly stated, “If you want to hear God speak, read the Bible out loud.” If we want to see a radiant picture of Christ during this Christmas season let us be content to look into the pages of holy Scripture where he’s visible from Genesis to Revelation.


  1. Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, electronic ed. (Escondito, CA: Ephesians Four Group, 2000), 1.
  2. Arthur W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, electronic ed. (Escondido, CA: Ephesians Four Group, 2000), 161–162.
Author Jesus-Nativity-Manger

Josh Buice

Pastor Pray's Mill Baptist Church

Josh Buice is the founder and president of G3 Ministries and serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church on the westside of Atlanta. He enjoys theology, preaching, church history, and has a firm commitment to the local church. He also enjoys many sports and the outdoors including long distance running and high country hunting. He has been writing on Delivered by Grace since he was in seminary and it has expanded with a large readership through the years.