Q. Is It Wrong To Have Pictures Of Jesus?
Idolatry And Pictures Of Jesus
Idolatry In The Old Testament
I believe that this text in the Book of Deuteronomy is the key to the answer:
“Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, ‘Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ 11 “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the very heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom. 12 “Then the LORD spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice. 13 “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. 14 “The LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it. 15 “So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, 16 so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. 19 “And beware not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (Deut. 4:10-19 NAU)
God forbade the making of idols (and worshipping them!) because as yet no one had ever seen God (only manifestations of Him, such as we see in Exodus 24:9-11). How can you make an image of someone no one has seen?
Now, of course, there was the matter of worshipping a forbidden idol, and often that worship involved immorality, among other things.
Idolatry In The New Testament1
Consistent with the biblical process of progressive revelation, the New Testament sheds additional light on the matter of idols.
It probably is worthy to note that Jesus never said anything about idolatry in the Gospels. I’m not seeking to make anything of this, but merely to point something out. A further observation was that while no one saw God in the Old Testament, Jesus now claims to be God, and thus to see Him is to see God:
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (Jn. 1:18 NAU)
No one has ever seen God. The one and only1 Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side-- he has revealed him. (Jn. 1:18 CSB17)
“If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” 8 Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father ‘? 10 “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. 11 “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. (Jn. 14:7-11 NAU; see also Philippians 2:5-11)
Jesus’ claim to be God was a great and unpardonable sin to those who rejected Him:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 “I and the Father are one.” 31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” 33 The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.” 34 Jesus answered them, “Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS ‘? 35 “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), 36 do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God ‘? 37 “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38 but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” 39 Therefore they were seeking again to seize Him, and He eluded their grasp. (Jn. 10:27-39 NAU)
It should not surprise us to read that Jesus was worshipped by men who received Him as God:
“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matt. 2:2 NAU)
After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt. 2:11 NAU)
And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (Matt. 14:33 NAU)
And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. (Matt. 28:8-9 NAU)
And he said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Him. (Jn. 9:38 NAU)
So, does the incarnation of our Lord Jesus, God coming to earth as a man, a perfect God-man, not impact in some way the prohibition we read in Deuteronomy 4? Is it not right to say that God has revealed Himself to men as a man, the God-man Jesus Christ? Is it not right to worship Jesus as God?
Some would brush this aside, and persist to contend that a picture of Jesus is not appropriate. I would respond to this contention from two different directions.
First, I would say that while it is possible that some image of Jesus might be wrongly venerated, and even worshipped, that is seldom the case. Indeed, I have never observed or heard of any instance of this within Evangelical Protestant Christianity. If it were so, this would be wrong, but I don’t think that would justify the condemnation of any and every graphic representation of Jesus
But now, I wish to approach the issue from the opposite direction. Is it possible that the prohibition of graphic representations can actually be counter-productive? Because of the Jesus film which has been shown globally, many have come to faith in Jesus and are now worshippers of Him (not the movie or the character who played Jesus). Would we wish to conclude that this graphic representation of Jesus was evil? Wouldn’t the prohibition of pictures of Jesus hinder the gospel?
Here is another sobering thought. If one were to take away every picture of Jesus in children’s Bibles and Sunday School curriculum, would this produce the kind of results that would please God? There are a number of heresies which have cropped up in an effort to reject or modify the biblical doctrine of our Lord’s incarnation – that the Son of God came to earth as the one and only perfect God-man. Jesus had a physical body. One can hardly avoid this conclusion as you read the Gospels. But there are those who embrace a heresy known as Docetism, the theory that Jesus only appeared to have a body, but in reality, He did not.
I cannot think of any picture of Jesus that I have seen that did not portray Jesus as a man, a man with a human body. Children don’t think in abstract terms, but in concrete terms. When they see pictures of Jesus they see Him as a man, and that is what He was. Jesus appeared as a man, and was accepted as such without debate. What men found more difficult was that this “man” was also God. Our Lord’s deity became evident by means of His words and deeds. To take away all pictures of Jesus as a man tends to diminish His deity, and actually inclines children toward Docetism.
My point in all this is that pictures of Jesus don’t normally result in idolatry, while the removal of all pictures of Jesus may actually misrepresent His nature, and hinder the proclamation of the Gospel.
A Word About Application
So what if an individual continues to be convinced that pictures of Jesus are a form of idolatry? Given the fact that very highly respected evangelical scholars and theologians differ on the acceptability of picture of Jesus, should we not conclude that this is a matter of personal conviction, rather than a strongly held fundamental of the faith, historically embraced within Christianity? And if it is a matter of conviction, should we not act in accordance with Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 and 15? If so, we should not seek to impose our views on others, or debate in a way that divides us.
I’m reminded of the issue of divorce and remarriage which was dealt with by Bethlehem Baptist Church some years ago. John Piper held to a very strict view regarding divorce and remarriage: no divorce or remarriage after divorce.2 The church, after a lengthy time of study and discussion, reached a less restrictive policy.3 As I understood this from a distance, John Piper was free to teach his position on divorce and remarriage, and he was free to practice his convictions as he saw fit. But the position of the church was different, and that was what guided the staff and individual members as the church’s policy.
In any case where an individual (especially a visible leader) held strongly to a position that the model set forth at Bethlehem Baptist Church be followed. The individual is free to hold his position, and even to teach it (though not to beat this horse repeatedly), but the position of the church would be distinguished. I believe in Piper’s case that he actually communicated both his position and that of the church.
I do not believe it wise to make this matter of pictures of Jesus a fundamental of the faith, or to allow it to divide the body of Christ. In my opinion it is similar to matters like the celebration of Christmas or Easter, which had pagan associations in earlier days.
1 One could make the point from the New Testament that it is not merely images which can serve as idols, but other things as well, although it is my opinion that in our day too many things have been labeled as “idols.”
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