Worship God “in Spirit”

“To whom could you liken God? What image could you contrive of him?”​—ISAIAH 40:18, “THE JERUSALEM BIBLE”

PERHAPS you are sincerely convinced that using icons is acceptable in worshiping God. You may feel that this draws you closer to the Hearer of prayer, who is invisible and may seem impersonal and abstract.

But are we totally free to choose our own method of approach to God? Should not God himself be the final authority on what is acceptable and what is not? Jesus explained God’s view of the matter when he said: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) * Those words alone preclude the use of icons or any other sacred objects.

Yes, there is a specific kind of worship that Jehovah God accepts. And what is that? On another occasion, Jesus explained: “The hour will come​—in fact it is here already—​when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”​—John 4:23, 24.

Can God, who “is spirit,” be represented by a material image? No. Regardless of how imposing an icon may be, it can never match the glory of God. So an image of God could never be a truthful representation of him. (Romans 1:22, 23) Would a person be ‘worshiping in truth’ if he approached God through some man-made icon?

 A Clear Bible Teaching

God’s Law forbade making images as objects of worship. The second of the Ten Commandments decreed: “You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4, 5) The inspired Christian Scriptures also command: “You must keep clear of idolatry.”​—1 Corinthians 10:14.

True, many insist that their use of images in worship is not idolatry. Orthodox Christians, for example, often deny that they actually worship the icons before which they bow, kneel, and pray. An Orthodox priest wrote: “We pay respect to them because they are holy objects, and because we reverence what the Icons depict.”

Still, the question remains: Does God approve the use of icons for the purpose of even so-called indirect veneration? Nowhere does the Bible authorize such a practice. When the Israelites set up an image of a calf, allegedly for the purpose of venerating Jehovah, he expressed his strong disapproval, saying that they had apostatized.​—Exodus 32:4-7.

The Hidden Danger

Using tangible objects in worship is a dangerous practice. It can easily tempt people to worship the object rather than the God the object is supposed to represent. In other words, the icon becomes a focus for idolatry.

 That happened with a number of objects in the days of the Israelites. During their trek in the wilderness, for example, Moses made a copper snake. Originally, the representation of the snake on a pole served as a means of healing. Those punished with a snakebite could look at the copper snake and receive God’s help. But after the people settled in the Promised Land, they seem to have turned this standard into an idol, as if the copper snake itself had the power to heal. They burned incense to it and even gave it a name, Nehushtan.​—Numbers 21:8, 9; 2 Kings 18:4.

The Israelites also tried to use the ark of the covenant as a charm against their enemies, with disastrous results. (1 Samuel 4:3, 4; 5:11) And in Jeremiah’s day, the citizens of Jerusalem cared more about the temple than they did about the God worshiped there.​—Jeremiah 7:12-15.

The tendency to worship things in place of God is still very much alive. Researcher Vitalij Ivanovich Petrenko said: “The icon . . . becomes the object of worship and in danger of idolatry . . . One must admit that this is an essentially pagan idea brought into icon-worship through the popular beliefs.” Similarly, Greek Orthodox priest Demetrios Constantelos says in his book Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church: “It is possible for a Christian to make an icon the object of worship.”

The claim that icons are only aids to relative worship is highly questionable. Why? Well, is it not true that certain icons of Mary or of “saints” may be  considered to be worthy of greater devotion and to be more efficacious than other icons representing the same long-deceased individual? For example, a certain icon representing Mary at Tínos, Greece, has its own devout Orthodox following, as opposed to the equally faithful devotees of an icon representing Mary in Soumela, northern Greece. Both groups believe that their own icon is superior, performing more impressive miracles than the other one, even though both represent the same long-deceased individual. Thus, in practice, people attribute real powers to certain icons and worship them.

Approaching the “Saints” or Mary?

What, though, about the veneration of individuals, such as Mary or “saints”? Jesus, responding to a temptation from Satan, referred to Deuteronomy 6:13 and said: “You must worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.” (Matthew 4:10) He later said that true worshipers would worship “the Father,” no one else. (John 4:23) Realizing this, an angel reprimanded the apostle John for attempting to worship him, saying: “Don’t do that . . . It is God that you must worship.”​—Revelation 22:9.

Is it proper to pray to Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary, or to particular “saints,” asking them to intercede with God in one’s behalf? The Bible’s direct answer is: “There is only one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus.”​—1 Timothy 2:5.

Safeguard Your Relationship With God

The use of icons in worship, being against the clear teaching of the Bible, cannot help people to win God’s approval and gain salvation. On the contrary, Jesus said that everlasting life depends upon our taking in knowledge of the only true God, becoming acquainted with his matchless personality as well as with his purposes and dealings with humans. (John 17:3) Icons that do not see, feel, or speak do not help one to know God and to worship him acceptably. (Psalm 115:4-8) That most important education is available only through a study of God’s Word, the Bible.

Besides affording no benefit, icon worship may be spiritually dangerous. How so? First and foremost, it can cause a breach in one’s relationship with Jehovah. Regarding Israel, who “angered him with abominable idols,” God foretold: “I will hide my face from them.” (Deuteronomy 32:16, 20, The New American Bible) Rebuilding their relationship with God meant their ‘spurning sinful idols.’​—Isaiah 31:6, 7, NAB.

How appropriate, therefore, the Scriptural counsel: “My little children, be on your guard against idols”!​—1 John 5:21, NAB.


^ par. 4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Catholic Jerusalem Bible.

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Helped to Worship “in Spirit”

Olivera was a devout member of the Orthodox Church in Albania. When the country outlawed religion in 1967, Olivera secretly continued her religious practices. She used most of her meager pension to purchase gold and silver icons, incense, and candles. She kept these hidden in her bed and often slept in a nearby chair for fear that they might be seen or stolen. When visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early 1990’s, Olivera recognized the ring of Bible truth in their message. She saw what the Bible says about true worship being “in spirit,” and she learned how God feels about the use of icons. (John 4:24, The Jerusalem Bible) The Witness who studied the Bible with her noticed that there were fewer icons around each time she visited Olivera’s home. Finally, there were none. After her baptism, Olivera commented: “Today, instead of useless icons, I have Jehovah’s holy spirit. I am so thankful that his spirit does not need icons to reach me.”

Athena, from the island of Lesbos in Greece, was an extremely active member of the Orthodox Church. She was a member of the choir and scrupulously followed religious tradition, including the use of icons. Jehovah’s Witnesses helped Athena to realize that not everything she had been taught was in agreement with the Bible. This included the use of icons and crosses in worship. Athena insisted on conducting her own research regarding the origin of these religious objects. After digging deep into various reference works, she was convinced that the roots of those objects were not Christian. Her desire to worship God “in spirit” led her to get rid of her icons, despite their monetary value. Athena, however, was happy to take any loss in order to worship God in a spiritually clean and acceptable way.​—Acts 19:19.

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Icons as Art?

In recent years, Orthodox icons have been collected around the world. Collectors usually regard the icon, not as a sacred religious object, but as a work of art reflecting Byzantine culture. It is not unusual to find many such religious icons decorating the home or the office of someone who claims to be an atheist.

Sincere Christians, however, do not forget the primary purpose of the icon. It is an object of worship. While Christians do not challenge the right of others to own icons, personally they do not have icons in their possession, even as collector’s items. This in harmony with the principle found at Deuteronomy 7:26, The Jerusalem Bible: “You must not bring any detestable thing [images used in worship] into your house or you, like it, will come under the ban too. You must regard them as unclean and loathsome.”

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God did not tolerate the use of images in worship

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Knowledge from the Bible helps us to worship God in spirit