First, from the production notes from Our Life in Christ, October 3, 2004 - Icons in the Orthodox Faith Part 2:
I. The Image or Icon of God
a. While man was forbidden to create an image of the invisible God for worship, we must remember that Man was created in the image of God - Adam and Eve are together clearly the Icon of God. As a matter of fact, the Church teaches that all human beings are the icon of God
i. "Then God said, let us make man in our image (icon), after our likeness…so God created man in his own image." (Icon) (Genesis 1:26 and 27)
ii. The Icon of God has been marred however, in that Adam and Eve sinned. Fallen, sinful Man is still in the image of God, but tragically, it is not the original image. In the OT, God is dealing with sinful man prior to the "Fullness of Time" - but when the time comes - Christmas!
iii. The Incarnation – The eternal Mystery of God is realized when God himself makes Himself into a human being, in order to show us the original image and save us so that we can become what we were intended to be. Nearly everything the Church does and says flows from this fact: Christ IS the image of the Father. He is the perfect Icon of God. And God is Human.
1. Christ is the icon of God: "He is the image (icon) of the unseen God." (Col. 1:15)
2. "He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature." (Hebrews 1:3).
3. "Philip said, ‘Lord, let see us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’ To have seen me is to have seen the Father, so how can you say, let us see the Father." (John 14:8-11)
iv. Affirming the Incarnation – affirming that the God-Man Jesus Christ is the perfect icon of God the Father, is perhaps the primary litmus test of Orthodox Christianity.
1. John 4:2,3 - By this you know the Spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God - this is the spirit of Antichrist…
v. In the Orthodox Church, the Icon is the celebration of the Incarnation and a witness against the Antichrist. In short, to the same degree that God, in the second commandment, emphatically prohibited the Jews from any futile attempt to create a material or visual likeness of Himself, the Orthodox Church, by the Holy Spirit, now encourages the creation, presence and veneration of icons as a celebration and testimony to God's incarnation as material man.
b. This honor is also extended to include the commemoration of His image and likeness in the heroic men and women of the Church, the Saints, the prototypes of His sanctification and holiness unto salvation. St John of Damascus wrote: "If you make an image of Christ, and not of the saints, it is evident that you do not forbid images, but refuse to honour the saints. You are not waging war against images but against the saints themselves." (The Defence of Icons)
-------------- And now for the article from the Orthodox Study Bible:
Many people have been taught that the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits icons. However, if correct, all artistic representations of anything would be forbidden. The Lord Himself in the same book of Exodus commanded Moses to make two gold cherubim (angels) "of hammered work," and to place them at each end of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant (Ex 25:17-21). The Lord also stipulated that the ten curtains of the tabernacle be woven with images of cherubim on them (Ex 26:1), and likewise the veil (Ex 26:31).
When King Solomon built the temple, the huge basin, or "sea," was set upon twelve statues of oxen (3Kg 7:13, 30). And upon the ten bases of the sea were cast or engraved "lions, oxen, and cherubim" (3Kg 7:16), as well as palm trees (3Kg 7:22). The Lord bestowed His blessing upon all these artistic representations first by filling the new temple with His Glory (3Kg 8:10, 11), and then by declaring to Solomon, "I have consecrated this house which you have built to put My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually" (3Kg 9:3).
Perhaps a most striking example of an image made at God's command in the Old Testament is the bronze serpent that God ordered Moses to make and put on a pole in order to protect the Hebrews bitten by the deadly serpents (Nm 21:4-9; see Jn 3:14, 15). Hundreds of years later, when the Israelites were offering incense to this same bronze serpent in a kind of idol worship, King Hezekiah, who "did what was right in the sight of the Lord," had the serpent smashed into pieces (4Kg 18:3, 4).
So it is not the image itself which is faulty or prohibited, but rather its improper use. The prohibition in Exodus 20:4 is not against all artistic representations. Rather, it is against images, whether in human form or not, which would be worshipped as gods and goddesses - "gods of silver, and gods of gold" (Ex 20:23). For the Lord knew that such images would tempt the Hebrews to depart from worshipping Him, the One true God (Ex 20:3-5).
Certainly, before the invisible and limitless Lord God of Israel became incarnate, it was impossible to make an image of Him. However, after God the Son assumed the visible and tangible human body, it was natural and beneficial for the Church to create artistic representations of Him - and of His holy Mother and of the saints and angels - from the earliest times. According to tradition, St. Luke the Evangelist made at least three icons of Christ and His Mother.
Every image, or icon, of Christ has significant theological content. For it proclaims anew the Incarnation of God, who "became flesh" for our salvation (Jn 1:14). Recognized icons of our Savior, prayerfully made, provide us with inspired, trustworthy representations of Him.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in AD 787, condemned the heresy of iconoclasm (the rejection, and even destruction, of icons). These Holy Fathers articulated the critical distinction between the worship reserved for God alone, and the veneration/honor/reverence given to the icons. In addition, this Council declared that "the honor given to the image passes on to that which the image represents."
Through icons, Orthodox Christians are drawn closer to Christ. A hymn sung the first Sunday of Great Lent, which commemorates the restoration of icons in AD 843, declares: "the icons that depict Thy flesh lead us to the desire and love of Thee."
And just as a note to the above article, when they talk of veneration, honor, reverence given to the icons, it reminds me of the flag. We honor the American flag, or the British, or whatever nation's flag we happen to live in. However, we are, really, intending that honor, that respect, for the nation that the flag represents, not the cloth and colors of the flag itself. *However* drop an American flag to the ground. Unless you're surrounded by anarchists, somebody is going to get pissed and dive for that flag. Pick it up and respect it. Why? It's just cloth or plastic or what-have-you. It's the disrespect to what it stands for that they're insulted by.
And one more quote, this from The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware, pg. 271 - 272:
The icons which fill the church serve as a point of meeting between heaven and earth. As each local congregation prays Sunday by Sunday, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the angels, and the saints, these visible images remind the faithful unceasingly of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and they are helped to realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The multitudinous icons express visibly the sense of 'heaven on earth'.