As I told a friend when speaking to him concerning the subject of images and their place in Christian life and worship, I told him that I am a man of strong convictions. Upon things that I believe to be certain in life, I believe on them strongly and fight opposition to them strongly, and, upon things that are not so certain, I tend to let those things slide as matters of opinion until it is demonstrated to me otherwise. For living in such a manner, I have been called by some to a legalist, by some to be divisive, and by some to be nitpicky and overbearing. Despite this, I pray that in this particular matter at least you will see in my discourse the same love that you see in yourself when you in tears tell a beloved person of their future judgment and desserts in hell. For of the Ten Commandments, there is but one that carries with it a particular judgment, and it is a weighty judgment indeed. Therefore, for the sake of your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren, I pray that you take heed to what I write in this post, because whether or not you affirm it, your failings with regard to this commandment will surely as the Lord lives affect all of them.
By and large the subject at hand, expressly images that are supposed depictions of Jesus Christ, is relegated to the realm of opinion rather than to the realm of certainty. I am not sure why there is such lack of questioning with regards to this subject, but I suppose is greatly based upon the Catholic influence on the church, to whom images are not merely decorations but aids for worship and have been so for centuries. Also, visual depictions of Jesus Christ might very well fall into the same realm as notions such as regarding the church as a building, tithing, and taking the communion elements off a silver platter—such things have been practiced so long that no one knows differently and therefore assume that they are proper notions. I therefore challenge you in this matter, as I would in all matters, to allow a bit of doubt to creep into your religious practices and to test them with the declarations of Scripture. Do not merely say to yourself, “I do not see in the Ten Commandments a command that specifically says, ‘Do not draw pictures of Jesus Christ,’” but ask yourself, “How can I glorify God more with my practices?” “How can demonstrate the glory of God in face of Christ better to world that spits on images of him?” (cf. 2Cor. 4).
The Commandment Itself
Despite traditional certainty, in reality there has never been uniformity on the numbering of the Ten Commandments (henceforth the “Decalogue”). The Jews numbered it one way, Augustine and the Catholics another, and the Reformers yet another. The reason this is so is because there are more than ten imperatives given in Decalogue. In what we traditionally label the Second Commandment, there are actually two distinct commands:
4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6).
Again in short, the Second Commandment, is in fact two commandments, the first being, “You shall not make for yourself any likeness, etc.” and the second being, “You shall not bow down to them, etc.” This quite clearly stands against the common interpretation of this commandment being that one should not make images that are designed to be worshiped. In other words, according to this interpretations it is okay to make images of Jesus Christ as long as we do not “worship” such images, which in turn demands the question, “Is it therefore okay to make images of the Father or the Holy Spirit as long as one does not bow down to them?” Or, as is more practical to the text, “Would the Israelites not have been in the wrong if they had only made for themselves the golden calf and not have worshiped it?” I do not think any orthodox person would give a positive answer to either of the questions above and therefore negate their own interpretation of the commands.
The Tritheistic Declaration of Images of Jesus Christ
Jesus Christ is quite clear on his declarations of oneness with the Father in the New Testament. Though he was in human flesh, he made several declarations such as, “I and the Father are one,” and, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” In other words, though Christ became flesh and is presently in the flesh in Glory, he is no less one with the Father and the Spirit than he was in eternity past. The Godhead is and always has been one and will forever be one. Therefore, to say, as we said before, that it is improper to make images of the Father and the Spirit and yet it is okay to make images of Jesus Christ is tantamount to declaring a disjunction or ontological difference in the Godhead. In other words, it declares that one, the Three are in fact Three and not One, and two, there is some degree of Deity that is attributed to the Father and the Spirit in the Second Commandment that is not attributed to the Son. This must be so, for the Second Commandment, unlike us, does not give allowances as to when and at what point God can be portrayed visually. The command does not say, “You shall not make images unless I come to you in the flesh,” as he had come in the flesh to Abraham and Jacob, but it says “You shall not make images.” We are all too eager to allow exceptions where we are given none.
The Testimony of the Tabernacle
The apostle John writes, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). John picks up just as the apostle to the Hebrews does that Christ is the fulfillment of picture of the tabernacle. Jesus Christ is the tent of meeting where God has dwelt among men. Christ is the fulfillment of ritual sacrifices, of the picturing of the lamp stand, the showbread, the fine embroidery; Christ is he who went into the Holy of Holies and rent the veil that separated God from men; He is the Mediator of the New Covenant, our Once for All Sacrifice, Our High Priest, our Advocate, our Satisfaction, and the Author and Finisher of our faith. He is in all ways the fulfillment of the Shadow of the Tabernacle given to Moses.
If we think of Christ in this way, viz. the fulfillment of the shadow given by the tabernacle, we must ask ourselves, “Why was so much time and care and description given to that which was to be a shadow of Christ, and why are we so quick and careless and nondescript in our portrayals of the True Tabernacle?” Chapter after chapter is dedicated to the tabernacle and its elements in the Pentateuch, and even that was not sufficient for its construction. It was also required that the Holy Spirit come down upon certain skilled craftsman to create with perfection that which could not be described with words. If such was the case for that which was a shadow of Jesus Christ, how much more fear and trembling should encompass us when we even think about creating an image of Jesus Christ!
Images of Christ are Possible because Christ became Flesh
It is a common thought that since Christ became a human being that it is now permissible to create images of Christ. This common thought exists in spite of it not being condoned by Scripture or ever encouraged in any conceivable way. For, unlike the tabernacle which was designed to be a visual representation of Christ to the Jews, there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates what Christ looked like or should be portrayed like. This, rather than encouraging creating images of Christ, should discourage it, for, since we do not know what he, who is the perfect of Image of the Father, looks like, we should not be so quick in our desire to portray him! Our quickness to create images of Jesus Christ says two things about us: one, it says of us that we think Christ was wrong when he said, “If you have seen me (in the flesh), you have seen the Father,” and two, we think little of honoring God as he honored himself in the Son and thereby defile him, whether we do it in ignorance or not.
Whoever Causes One of These Little Ones Who Believe in Me to Sin…
A common argument for pictures of Jesus is, “It’s for the children.” We, for some reason, believe that children require pictures of Jesus, or they will never know him at all. Yet these same children who for some reason desperately need pictures of Jesus to understand who he is are the same children who could (if we taught them) learn foreign languages a thousand times more quickly and effectively than we could as adults. Children not only have the capacity for understanding Jesus through words, but they would know Jesus better and rightly apart from pictures.
I hesitate to share this, but it is a very pertinent example. A poor child, who was mistreated and abandoned, was taken in by some well meaning Christians who taught her about Jesus with picture books and with normal “Christian” teaching methods. This young child came to love the Jesus whom she had been taught about and shown in books and was one time taken to an Easter play of sorts where a man was dressed up as the children book Jesus. When this little girl saw the man who was dressed as the Jesus she saw in her book—the Jesus whom she loved, she ran down the aisle there, yelling, “Jesus, Jesus!” and hugged the man up on stage. While I am sure many who saw this sight were quite touched by it, when I heard of it my heart dropped with disgust, because this little girl who knew not differently, worshipped a man at an idolatrous drama. Allow me to repeat myself in case you missed it: she worshipped the man! This, dear brothers and sisters, is not a trivial matter, for Christ said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk. 9:42). This poor child, because of what had been shown to her in picture books, worshiped a man in an ill-advised drama rather than the man Jesus Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father.
I doubt that God had children’s picture books in mind when he wrote with his finger the curse that followed these imperatives, but those who are concerned about their children should consider the curse when they place pictures of Jesus before their children’s eyes, for if the commandment does rightly apply to Jesus Christ as it does to the Father and the Spirit, then children will not only have been subjected to idolatry and will thereby be more prone to stumbling, but to those who break the command (parents in this instance), their following generations will be cursed because of it. The Lord writes concerning those who break his command, “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6, 7). If we take this curse seriously in conjunction with disobedience to the preceding commandments, I believe if we genuinely loved our children, we would be wise not to tread so closely to the boundaries of disobedience.
A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words
The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is indeed a true saying. Whether it is intended or not, pictures by there very nature say more than words ever can. If it is picture of a person, what the pictured person is wearing can speak volumes about that person. The same can be said about the person’s facial expression, the scene in which person is portrayed, and countless other things. Therefore, whether it is meant to or not, every picture that intends to portray Jesus Christ says a thousand words about him that were never said about him. Allow me to say that again: Every picture of Jesus Christ says a thousand words about him that were never said about him. And everyone who has grown up around supposed pictures of Jesus have been affected by them in one way or another. If you are like me, you may have difficulty not imagining Jesus as a peace-mongering hippy, who sat on the sides of grassy hills with long-flowing hair blowing in the breeze. Others, because of such portraits would have difficulty imaging a Jesus that would storm into a temple with a whip and drive out two-ton oxen without seeming to care whom they stampeded over. Others, moreover, would have difficulty imaging a Christ calling down woes upon the Pharisees as he does in Matthew 23. All of this because we were shown a Jesus in a picture who smiled all the time and who always had lambs and children walking beside him. We have no place in our minds for a Christ is will return in Terror and Righteous Judgment slaying thousands and vindicating his holy name.
To this day, I have yet to hear a decent argument or even a truly pragmatic reason as to why we should ever even think about creating images of Jesus Christ. The benefits for even possibly breaking a commandment of God that bears such horrible consequences that has no real benefit seems to be utterly foolish to me. And still, people will continue make there movies, wear their t-shirts, buy their children’s books. Why? Because it seems okay to us. Because mama read to us out of the same picture books. Because we love to display our nativities at Christmas. Because we have always had an Easter play. And yet none of the reasons have any hint of honoring God in Christ as he prescribes. We are so hung up in our traditions and our pragmatism that we are more than willing to defile the name of Jesus Christ for them. Woe be to us!