The Jewish culture of Jesus in the early first century was built on the Law of Moses first, the rest of the Old Testament second and finally Jewish history during the Persian, Greek and Roman periods. Rabbis emphasized memorizing the Torah first and it was a very effective system. The first culture Christians witnessed to outside the Jewish culture were Gentiles who honored, respected and understood the Old Testament, but had not converted to Judaism.
Despite some of the best education the world has ever known, both cultures had illiterates. Though even well-educated people love and learn from art, the illiterate need artwork. It is their only means to an education. Both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles understood the same symbols. The Olive Tree and the Vine symbolized Israel. A lamb, a goat or an ox symbolized the need for a sacrifice for sin. A Menorah symbolized the true temple of God in Jerusalem, because pagan temples also used altars.
Christians then reached out to slaves and cultures with no possible background in the Law and little or no education. Also, Christianity introduced new symbols not found in the Law, such as an empty cross or the two intersecting curves representing a fish. With such great possibility for confusion, standards had to be introduced and somehow enforced.
The first standards were the commandments to not make any graven image and not worship idols. Whatever was made in the way of educational art must never be misused as idolatry or misunderstood to be an idol. Another clear standard found in the Law is that all art must glorify God. Through the centuries another clear standard developed; that of using common, easy to understand symbols. A sword pointing upward means life. A sword pointing down means death. A human skull represents man’s mortality.
These clear symbols in art allow objects of art to become aids in worship. A picture of God the Father with His hands outstretched over an orb can help a worshipper to concentrate on God as creator, sustainer, upholding the universe by the word of His power, among other things. It can help us love and adore a Being far surpassing anything we can make with human hands.
But the power of Art is the very real danger of Art. Who has never heard of the sin of loving “art for art’s sake?” This is nothing more than worshipping the created thing more than the creator. It is the sin of idolatry.
One way of avoiding this sin is to put limits on the realism of the artwork. Icons are made this way. Though Icons can be quite beautiful in and of themselves, they always point to the worship of the God of our salvation.
Another method is to use a medium which intrinsically points us to God. The high vaulted ceilings of Gothic architecture or stained glass windows are two well-known examples.
Another method is to make everyday working objects Glorify God. Candlesticks, lamps, tables and chairs are all some form of art. It is up to the artist to choose to glorify God this way. Amish and Mennonite furniture are famous for being well made, simple and glorifying God.
But the most important point is that all art either glorifies God or detracts from the glory of God. Television, movies, concerts, songs, pleasure reading, personal music are all just as much art as paintings, along with operas, sculpture and fashion.
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31