How Can Christians Follow the Second Commandment Today?

Contributing Writer
How Can Christians Follow the Second Commandment Today?

The foundation of following the second commandment lies in knowing and living out of one’s identity in Christ. When the Israelites were given the Ten Commandments (and the other 603 laws), they were not being offered a means of salvation. They were being shown what it looked like to be what they already were: God’s chosen ones. When we, as Christians, truly understand what it means to be a child of God, we can begin to live like it and thus fulfill the second commandment.

So, how do we start? Let’s look at what the second commandment says and how it should inform our everyday lives.

Where Do We Find the Second Commandment in the Bible?

The second commandment can be found within the Ten Commandments, first given in Exodus 20 after the Israelites fled Egypt and were camped at Mount Sinai. The giving of the law lies within a larger narrative in which the Israelites entered a covenant partnership with God. The commandments can be found again in Deuteronomy 5, wherein Moses reminds the next generation of Israelites what it means to live as the people of Yahweh.

It is worth noting that the Ten Commandments and the other 613 were given at a specific time to a specific people group under the old covenant. Because we are under a new covenant and are thus no longer bound to those laws (I have yet to sacrifice an animal at an altar), there is often confusion surrounding how we apply the Ten Commandments as new covenant believers. Some swing so far as to adopt an almost antinomian approach, justifying any actions by saying God’s free grace means that they are no longer obligated to live in a certain way. Others take a legalism and argue that we must fulfill the law to be saved, which misunderstands the law’s purpose for ancient Israel.

However, neither extreme fits a biblical understanding of the Christ follower’s relationship to the law. If anyone is a child of God, they are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17), transformed from the heart by the Holy Spirit. They are no longer bound to the flesh but free to live holy to the Lord (a phrase you will see come up again). As Romans 8:4 says, “The requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

In the wilderness, between Israel leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, God transformed them into people after His own heart. The Law acted as a means of meeting that goal. Now, instead of being bound to the Mosaic Law, God’s Spirit transforms us from the heart so we can be people of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).

What Is the Second Commandment in Some High Church Traditions?

Some high church traditions (namely Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches) follow an ordering of the Ten Commandments that Augustine of Hippo proposed.

This rendering combines the first two commandments into one and separates the tenth into two separate commandments. Thus, the second commandment becomes: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

What Is the Second Commandment in Protestant Tradition?

All Protestant traditions adhere to the version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Thus, the second commandment in the Protestant traditions is:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them nor serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, inflicting the punishment of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing favor to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:4-6).

How Do We Follow the Commandment Not to Take God’s Name in Vain?

Nasa” the Hebrew word used here for “to take,” is more accurately expressed by phrases like “to lift up” or “to bear.” These translations can be confusing without any cultural context. Luckily, Scripture helps us understand what it would have meant to the Israelites “to bear” God’s name.

In Exodus 28, God is describing a priest’s proper outfit. In this case, the priest is Aaron. Aaron here represents the Israelites who, just a few chapters earlier were called “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Most applicable to our discussion is the description of the engraved gold plate which Aaron was to wear on his forehead that read “Holy, belonging to Yahweh” (Ex. 20:36). That inscription on Aaron’s turban acted as a means of making known the God that he belonged to, of declaring to the world whose he was.

Later, in the book of Numbers, Aaron is told how he is to bless God’s people and how, in doing so, he is “putting [God’s] name on the Israelites” (Num. 6:27). Essentially, the priest bearing God’s name on his forehead acts as a representation for the whole nation of Israel, the “kingdom of priests,” who also bear God’s name. Other nations were meant to see their love, know who they belonged to, and desire a relationship with their God, Yahweh. In this context, “bearing God’s name in vain” referred to an inability to make God’s love known to others due to unholy living.

So, what does this have to do with us? Peter is here to explain. 1 Peter 2:9 is addressed to those who have put their faith in Christ: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” Sound familiar? It should bring you back to Moses’s words to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The Christian church now bears God’s name, the people who have “holy, belonging to Yahweh” written on our foreheads. If we fail to live in a way that makes God’s glory known (see Ex. 34:6), we wear His name to no effect. We do so in vain. If we forget who we belong to, we live as if the name of the god of money, beauty, or power is the name we wear, the one tells us how to live. But if we live as though we truly belong to God, loving others as He loved us, we will fulfill the second commandment.

How Do We Follow the Commandment Not to Commit Idolatry?

When Moses commanded the Israelites not to commit idolatry, the Hebrew word he used for “idol” was tselem. This word refers specifically to a three-dimensional statue like his listeners would see in the temples of pagan gods, each god representing that people group’s deity. For example, Babylon would have had temples with statues of Marduk, and Canaan would have had statues of Baal.

These statues were not meant to be gods themselves, just representations. But Yahweh cannot be represented by lifeless statues. Rather, in Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in Our image [tselem], according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.” The world is His temple, and every human on Earth is His image bearer. Only living, breathing, and loving creatures could image Yahweh.

To follow the commandment not to commit idolatry is to truly believe that we (in fact, every other person one meets) is an image bearer of God. An image bearer of God is not meant to be worshiped as though we are God, but to be treated with the dignity of one made in God’s image. When the Israelites crafted an idol at the foot of Mount Sinai, they were not only disparaging their God but degrading themselves, as if they were lowlier than the creatures to which they were bowing down. “They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20).

When we take a created thing and prop it up as that which will deliver us, we declare it more powerful than Yahweh. We put ourselves under its jurisdiction. We are exchanging the glory that is ours as God’s image bearers for “the work of human hands,” surrendering our lives to idols that “have mouths, but they do not speak. They have eyes, but they do not see. They have ears, but they do not hear, nor is there any breath at all in their mouths” (Psalm 135:15-17).

Scripture warns us that those who make and trust in manufactured idols will become like them (Psalm 135:18). Instead of being fully alive, living in the love of our Creator, we become like the subordinate beings we were tasked with “ruling over.”

Because of our propensity to forget who we are, and whose we are, we have all bowed down to impotent idols. Only Christ has lived perfectly as an image bearer. Thankfully, for those of us who have repented and turned to Him as Lord and Savior, we can “put on the new self,” which renews us, gives us the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10). As we continually grow in our likeness to Christ, surrendered to Him alone and therefore more perfectly live out our calling as image bearers, we will better fulfill the commandment not to commit idolatry.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/allanswart 

Meghan TrappMeghan Trapp earned her Masters of Arts in Applied Theology from Heartland School in Ministry in Kansas City in 2021, and is now joyfully staying home to raise her daughter. When she is not reading children’s books or having tea parties, Meghan is volunteering with a local anti-trafficking organization, riding bikes with her family, writing or reading (most likely Amy Carmichael or C.S. Lewis). Her deepest passion is to share the heart of Christ with teenagers and young adults.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy-to-read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. We hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in your life today.