The Bible’s Viewpoint
Should Icons Be Used in Worship?
EVERY August 15, a great religious celebration takes place on the Greek island of Tínos. Thousands gather in veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus and of her icon, which is believed to possess miraculous powers.* A Greek Orthodox reference work explains: “With special faith and devoutness we honour the Most Holy Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord, and we ask her protection and her speedy overshadowing and aid. We recourse to the wonder-working Saints—Holy men and women—for our spiritual and bodily needs . . . With deep piety we kiss and venerate their holy relics and sacred icons.”
Many other professed Christians belong to denominations that engage in similar acts of worship. But is the use of icons in worship supported by Bible teachings?
The Early Christians
Consider what happened about the year 50 C.E. when the apostle Paul visited Athens, a city in which much emphasis was placed on the use of images in worship. Paul explained to the Athenians that God “does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed anything . . . Therefore, . . . we ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.”—Acts 17:24, 25, 29.
Actually, such warnings regarding the use of idols are common in the Christian Greek Scriptures, also called the New Testament. For example, the apostle John admonished Christians: “Guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21) Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “What agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:16) Many early Christians had formerly used religious images in worship. Paul reminded Christians in Thessalonica of this when he wrote: “You turned to God from your idols to slave for a living and true God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) Clearly, those Christians would have had the same view of icons as John and Paul did.
Adoption of Icons by “Christians”
The Encyclopædia Britannica says that “during the first three centuries of the Christian Church, . . . there was no Christian art, and the church generally resisted it with all its might. Clement of Alexandria, for example, criticized religious (pagan) art in that it encouraged people to worship that which is created rather than the Creator.”
How, then, did the use of icons become so popular? The Britannica continues: “About the mid-3rd century an incipient pictorial art began to be used and accepted in the Christian Church but not without fervent opposition in some congregations. Only when the Christian Church became the Roman imperial church under Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century were pictures used in the churches, and they then began to strike roots in Christian popular religiosity.”
A common practice among the stream of pagans who now began to declare themselves Christians was the worship of portraits of the emperor. “In accordance with the cult of the emperor,” explains John Taylor in his book Icon Painting, “people worshipped his portrait painted on canvas or wood, and from thence to the veneration of icons was a small step.” Thus pagan worship of pictures was replaced by the veneration of pictures of Jesus, Mary, angels, and “saints.” These pictures that started to be used in the churches gradually found their way into the homes of millions of people, being venerated there as well.
Worshiping “With Spirit and Truth”
Jesus told his listeners that God’s servants must worship “with spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) So when a sincere person seeks to know the truth about the use of icons in worship, he has to turn to God’s Word for enlightenment on the subject.
For instance, the Bible contains Jesus’ statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Paul declared that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, a man, Christ Jesus,” and that “Christ . . . pleads for us.” (1 Timothy 2:5; Romans 8:34) This takes on added meaning when we read that Christ is able to “save completely those who are approaching God through him, because he is always alive to plead for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) It is in the name of Jesus Christ that we should approach God. No other person, and certainly no lifeless icon, can substitute for him. Such knowledge from God’s Word can help anyone seeking the truth to find the way to worship “the Father with spirit and truth” and experience the blessings of this superior way of worship. Indeed, as Jesus said, “the Father is looking for suchlike ones to worship him.”—John 4:23.
Generally, a religious icon is a representation or symbol venerated by members of a particular religion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, some are representations of Christ; others represent the Trinity, “saints,” angels or, as in the case mentioned above, Mary the mother of Jesus. Millions of people have a reverence for icons that resembles the attitude that many have toward images used in worship. Certain religions that do not claim to be Christian hold similar beliefs and feelings toward icons and images of their deities.
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