What Is a Graven Image?

Though it may not be the gods of wood or stone common in the Old Testament, Christians must be careful not to make their jobs, money, families, reputations, or anything else the center of their affections. For there is only One God.

Dave Jenkins
A Mayan statue

The phrase graven image comes from the King James Version in the Bible and is found in Exodus 20:4 in the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word translated graven image means idol.

A graven image is an image carved out of metal, stone, or wood. An idol could be an animal, person, relief, or statue.

The Background of Idolatry

Pagan idolatry started with the acknowledgment of a power that controls natural forces. The presence of such a force is thought to indwell an object such as a stone, place, or location.

The people would then alter a naturally occurring object like a standing stone, a planted tree, or a pole and ask the force to indwell it.

When an idolatrous culture had the time to contemplate a god’s personality, they then would make physical images such as a statue that looked like a woman. They would even make a relief carving that looked like an animal.

People started with wanting something — often children or good crops. Then they would observe the circumstances and create gods. Places would then be set aside to commune with these false gods.

Before long, the people worshiping these idols were ensnared and gave homage to these false gods instead of the biblical God.

The Seriousness of Idolatry

Idolatry is a serious business in the eyes of the Lord, who demands absolute allegiance from the people of God. After all, there is no other true God, so it is foolish to trust in deities (gods) who cannot save (Isaiah 43:11; 44:6).

To refuse to worship the Lord God is idolatry — a grave sin, condemned throughout the Bible (Leviticus 19:1-4; Psalm 31:6; 96:5; Ezekiel 6; 1 Corinthians 10:1-22; Revelation 21:8).

Throughout biblical history, most of the Prophets spoke against the idolatry was the serving of pagan deities — beings that people worshipped specifically as gods.

Those who worshiped pagan gods built graven images of these false gods and constructed altars at high places — sites where they were worshipped within the land of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-23; Isaiah 44:9-20).

Idolatry today exists within Hinduism, tribal religions, and where professing Christian churches gloss over people’s animalistic and polytheistic traditions.

The Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 95 defines idolatry as “having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed Himself in the Word.”

Idolatry can also be seen in the major monotheistic religions such as Islam, whose practitioners worship the Allah of the Qur’an, and modern Jews, who worship a unitary deity, defined more by rabbinic tradition than by the Old Testament.

Both of these religions are guilty of idolatry because they do not worship the triune God of Scripture.

Idolatrous attitudes and practices do not need to be religious, in the sense of being directed toward a defined “god,” or need to occur within an organized religious setting. Anything that we love more than the Lord Himself is an idol.

Jesus makes this particular point in Matthew 10:37-39 when He rejects any who love their family members more than Him. In Philippians 3:19, Paul identifies some individuals in that congregation whose god was “their belly,” meaning that their physical appetites were so consuming that Paul viewed them as worshipping their stomachs.

Every fallen culture has idols, so Christians must be sensitive to what the world is calling us to worship in place of the one true God. Neither sex, nor power, nor fame, nor anything else deserves the place of supremacy in our lives.

Only the transcendent, which is identified as the Lord and Creator of all, is deserving of our ultimate worship.

In John 5:20, the Apostle John says, “the Son of God has come,” which refers to the Lord Jesus’ Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the divine Son has come into the world in human flesh. Only those with faith and assurance in the Lord Jesus can embrace the Incarnation without reservation.

John also explains (1 John 5:20) that the Lord has “given us understanding.” John’s phrasing is interesting since the idea of salvation by right knowledge was essential to those countering the apostle’s teaching.

Knowledge of biblical Christianity is critical, for we cannot know God without a revelation from the Son (Matthew 11:27), therefore, knowledge is vital for salvation.

Unlike the false teaching of John’s opponents, knowledge leading to salvation is knowledge of the Incarnate Christ — a Person. Such knowledge involves belief in facts and personal trust in Him as Savior and Lord.

John’s point now becomes apparent — knowing “him who is true,” God the Father is inseparable from being in union with God the Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 5:20). To know the biblical God and have eternal life is to be in the Son — Jesus. Only those who belong to Jesus, who are His disciples, have everlasting salvation.

The Lord demands our allegiance, but He also expects His people to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21). Since there is only one God, Christians must never set up anything else in His place (Exodus 20:3).

Though it may not be the gods of wood or stone common in the Old Testament, Christians must be careful not to make their jobs, money, families, reputations, or anything else the center of their affections.

John Calvin is right when he says, “The vivifying light of the Gospel ought to scatter and dissipate, not only darkness but also all mists, from the minds of the godly.”

The Christian and the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments provide a roadmap for how Christians ought to live. During Jesus’ ministry, He repeatedly talked about the Ten Commandments and their importance for ethical living.

In Mark 10:17-22, Jesus repeated the second table of the law to the rich young man. Other examples include the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:8-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

In Romans 7:12, Paul taught that the commandments, even under the New Covenant, are holy, righteous, and good. Jesus also taught that He is the fulfillment of all of Scripture (Matthew 5:17-20; Luke 24).

Living in light of the Ten Commandments requires seeing that the whole Bible is about the person and work of Jesus. Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 53, and other texts indicate that Jesus came and died in the place of sinners and for their sins.

Jesus is coming again to rule and reign over a New Heaven and a New Earth from King David's throne. In the Old Testament, the people disobeyed God and treated His commandments as if they were just another perfunctory religious activity.

Second, through the Holy Spirit, Christians are empowered to live by the truth of the Word of God. Jesus, the God-Man, not only lived a sinless life by dying in the place of sinners and for their sins but also perfectly obeyed the Law, performed miracles and gave His people the power to obey Him through the Holy Spirit.

Through Him, Christians can resist sin and put it to death by understanding how He resisted sin in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:1) and prayed in the power of the Spirit (Luke 10:21). The Holy Spirit convicts God’s people of their sin and points them to the finished work of Jesus.

Jesus is now our High Priest and Intercessor before the Father. In this role, He functions as our Advocate (1 John 2:1-2) while praying for us to stand strong in His grace.

Finally, seeing Jesus in all of the scriptures helps us understand the nature of the law and its purpose or design. The Holy Spirit empowers God’s people to proclaim the sinfulness of man (Romans 1-3) so that they might make known to sinners how they can be declared not guilty through Jesus.

He transfers sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus. Through Jesus’ finished work, He makes a people who were once not His people, His people by giving them a new identity (Romans 6) through which they can fight indwelling sin (Romans 7) by realizing they will ultimately one day, as they grow in Him, become like Him (Romans 8).

The only way believers can live in obedience to the Ten Commandments is because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection since He is the fulfillment, goal, and end of the law.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/underworld111


Dave Jenkins is the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, and the Host of the Equipping You in Grace Podcast and Warriors of Grace Podcast. He received his MAR and M.Div. through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @davejjenkins, find him on Facebook at Dave Jenkins SOGInstagram, read more of his writing at Servants of Grace, or sign to receive his newsletter. When Dave isn’t busy with ministry, he loves spending time with his wife, Sarah, reading the latest from Christian publishers, the Reformers, and the Puritans, playing golf, watching movies, sports, and spending time with his family.


Originally published November 25, 2020.