Section navigation

Pictures Of Jesus

Category Articles
Date October 25, 2005

There abounds in many churches and in much Christian educational material pictorial representations of Jesus. These pictures of our Lord are considered by many as helpful teaching tools for children, and as devotional aids for adults. If they do serve these purposes, could they be wrong? This is a question that has risen to some degree of prominence in our denomination in recent years. To some, the issue may seem like a tempest in a teapot, as Church elders make much over something that might seem to most to be a harmless practice at worst and a helpful didactic tool at best. Yet, we should have our understanding and practice formed by the tenets of Scripture, not by the opinions or prevailing practices of men. Therefore, since this is an issue now being debated in the courts of our particular communion at least, let us consider the matter to see if the Word of God sheds light on it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this practice of pictorially representing Jesus is its being based entirely upon an impulse of men, rather than upon the teaching of Scripture. Where in all of the Word of the Lord do we find one iota of a hint that we should draw or paint pictures of Jesus? The Second Commandment explicitly forbids such visual representations of God (Ex. 20:4,5). Some say that this commandment forbids any and all visual art, or representations of false gods. Yet, the controlling context of the Second Commandment is the Preface of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1,2), as well as the First Commandment (Ex. 20:3). This context clearly establishes that the parameters of reference for the Second Commandment have to do with the one true and living God. The First Commandment tells us to worship Him alone; the Second tells us to do so not by our own devisings, but by His self-disclosure contained in Scripture. Accordingly, the Larger Catechism teaches that the Second Commandment forbids…the making any representation of God, of all or any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image . . .(L/C#’s 107-110, especially #109).

Do we find the practice of making pictures of Jesus commended or even countenanced anywhere in Scripture? Where have the prophets and apostles taught us either by precept or by their example to do such a thing? How do people account for the studious and absolute absence from Scripture of any hint as to the legitimacy of a visible representation of Jesus? The iconists cannot answer these questions, except upon the basis of purported theological inference and purported rational necessity. The theological inference is that since Jesus was a Man, the Son of God incarnate, then it is as legitimate for us to conceive of and represent Him visually as it would have been for us to behold Him with our own eyes during His earthly life. Yet, men did behold Him with their eyes, such as did the two disciples on the Emmaus road, and misconstrued who He was (Luke. 24:l3ff). It is with the eyes of our hearts that we truly apprehend the Son of God (Eph. 1:1 8ff).

The purported rational necessity is that we cannot help but form mental images of Jesus when Scripture speaks of Him in terms such as His being asleep in a boat, or riding a donkey into Jerusalem. However, in none of such accounts is anything like a physical description given of our Lord, and so, clearly, such a visual image is not the point of the passages in question. Regarding our tendency to form mental images from verbal descriptions, we are expressly forbidden mentally to form and indulge in the sinful contemplation of another woman or man. If adultery is wrong in deed, then it is wrong in depiction of any sort. Self-control, even of the mind and its contemplation of mental images, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

There appears, then, to be a very strong case against visual representations of Jesus. But why should we concern ourselves with such an apparently harmless matter? The answer is that all of us suffer, to some degree, from our having too low and erroneous conceptions of our Savior. Not one of us thinks, feels, speaks, or acts on too high and glorious a conception of the Christ, the Son of the living God. The most clear and accurate representation of our Lord is the inspired and inerrant revelation of Him that we have in the Bible. Our faith is designed to apprehend Christ as He is presented to us in the Word of God. The works of men’s hands in their attempts so to represent Him cannot do other than fail to portray the truth. In fact, such attempts ultimately serve only to obscure the saving truth of God as it is in Jesus. Therefore, this is a serious matter. Let us, then, determine to refrain from man’s attempts to improve upon the revelation of God. Let us say with the prophet Isaiah, To the Law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no light(Is. 8:20).

William Harrell williamharrell@cox.net

Pastor of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

Latest Articles

Tired and Scared? — An Easter Reflection April 9, 2020

Ol’ Man River — a song from the Kern and Hammerstein musical Show Boat — has suggested both our title and subject. Listen on YouTube to Paul Robeson singing it in the 1936 film version or to William Warfield in the 1951 re-make and enjoy the treat. It movingly expresses the hardships and struggles of […]

Habakkuk — A Book for Times of Crisis April 3, 2020

Habakkuk asked God to remove wickedness and injustice from a nation that professed to believe in the High and Holy One who inhabits eternity. He was told of God’s purpose to chastise severely this wayward people. The rod with which the Lord would correct them would be a violent invasion by a cruel and bloodthirsty […]