Pictures of Christ

In a previous post, I mentioned that I would be open to receiving and answering questions from the web community. The following is one from a reader of our blog:

How is the image of God in Jesus Christ, the man, different than the image of God in mankind? So that imaging Jesus (as a historical person) is viewed as a violation of the 2nd commandment while imaging other historical persons (also created in the image of God) is not viewed as such?


I should note, first of all, that I am firmly committed to the Reformed understanding of the 2nd commandment which has, historically, prohibited the creation or use of pictures of Christ in any form. The Heidelberg Catechism, expositing the second commandment,   states that “we are not to make an image of God in any way” (Q&A 96). And since the Christian faith affirms that Jesus is God then the issue seems fairly clear: 1) do not make images of God 2) Jesus is God 3) do not make images of Jesus.

However your question complicates the matter doesn’t it? Jesus is not only God but human (and fully human I might add). As the Apostle’s Creed puts it, He was “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” All those who looked upon our Lord saw a man: not a man unlike them, or one who appeared in a ghostly fashion, but one who ate, drank, slept, and lived as any other. We, after all, confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3).

So what then is at stake if we make a picture of Christ? Are we not simply affirming the cardinal truth of His humanity? The answer is no. For as much as we believe our Lord is a type of Adam, He is also greater than him who is our first father in the flesh  (1 Corinthians 15:45-49). For even well intentioned people who wish to affirm Jesus’ humanity in a picture are in danger of robbing Him of His divinity. Whenever we think of Christ we ought to think of Him as being the Son of Man and simultaneously the Son of God. He is not either or, nor is He one more than the other. Of course some have attempted to portray His dual natures in images by pasting a halo around His head, or by making Him out to be a glowing being that radiates a gentle light (holiness?). But the irony is that this not only compromises His divinity (for how can God who is “dwelling in unapproachable light” 1 Timothy 6:16 have such an inviting countenance?) but it also compromises His humanity. Is this really how the gospels portray Jesus for much of His earthly ministry? And when our Lord did shine with great glory, was is not much more glorious? (Mark 9:2-6).

Furthermore, I believe that any picture of Christ ultimately misrepresents Him since He is NOW clothed in glory and honor at the Father’s right hand (Revelation 1). Though Christ retained His humanity even as He ascended into heaven, the Jesus of the New Testament is not as He once was on earth. As Paul says: “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16). If this is true for those who saw our Lord in the flesh, how much more is it true for us who have never gazed upon Him? Indeed, as Matthew Henry comments:

Those who make images of Christ, and use them in their worship, do not take the way that God has appointed for strengthening their faith and quickening their affections; for it is the will of God that we should not know Christ any more after the flesh.

What all of this demonstrates to us is that the human imagination is a powerful influence and one that easily corrupts what scripture teaches about Christ. Is this not confirmed in the history of Israel? Who would have thought that the formation of idols would lead to blatant denial of God Himself? And yet this is what happened time and time again.

This also was the conclusion of our Reformed forefathers. Having reformed the church at a time when idolatry was rampant, they held high the standard of God’s Word over man’s thoughts or attempts to worship Him. In particular the Heidelberg Catechism asks:

98. Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity”?

A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants His people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of His Word.

What is wrong with a picture of Christ since it teaches us, like a book, about His humanity? Simple: God has always taught us by His Word, that is His declared (not pictured) Word. Even when He commanded the tabernacle to be built with many images, these were a picture of the heavenly reality which has now come to its fruition in Christ (Hebrews 8&9). For since He is the full revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-2) we no longer need to rely upon dumb images.

Indeed we, as Protestants, believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word.  If “whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (BC, Article 7), images are  not needed to effectively communicate the gospel. Otherwise Paul would be wrong to rely solely upon the preaching of the Word to convert sinners. (Romans 10:14-15; 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.). Indeed if the word of God is sufficient, why are such images needed? Do not the gospels portray in their descriptions and words sufficient evidence of our Lord’s humanity? What else do we need to know about Him than what has been given? For we possess no pictures of Christ nor are we commanded ever to portray Him. Surely if this was needed God could have provided it. Instead He gave us His word that we might know the truth about our Lord (John 20:30-31)

But we are weak, aren’t we? We want to see, we want to have evidence of God’s presence and kindness. So we ask to see God or to find our fleece dry or wet in the morning. And God is mindful of our frailties (Psalm 103:14ff.). That is why, as others have noted, that God has already appointed an authorized ‘pictorial form’ of Christ to His Church: the sacraments of baptism & the Lord’s Supper. In baptism we see the cleansing blood of Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord’s Supper we remember the atoning work of Jesus in His once for all offering for sinners and His continued presence to strengthen His people with His crucified body and blood. We simply need to be satisfied with the spoken and visible word that God has appointed.


2 thoughts on “Pictures of Christ

  1. I need your advice about the 2nd commandment. I asked God for a sign and that evening I dreamt of His Son returning with flames of fire. As He drew nearer to the earth the flames consumed those who were not ready. They were screaming from the pain. I want to share that dream with as many souls as I can. I feel it was given to me for some great purpose. Their are many who are not aware of that terrible event. Perhaps if they had a illustrated picture of Christ Angels and the burning of the disobedient souls on fire. Maybe the picture of Christ on the clouds would convert many sinners. Is it against the 2nd commandment if I were to warn the masses and paint the image of Jesus with flames of fire in the heavens as he returns? It’s a shame that great events like this are stored away in books. The whole world will need to see them.

    • Hello Wade. Thank you for visiting our site and interacting with my post on the second commandment.

      Since I don’t know you, it would presumptuous for me to imply any motivation on your part as to why you asked for a sign. But I curious about it: why did you feel the need to ask God to give you a sign?

      I ask this because the return of Christ and the judgment that He brings is clearly taught in scripture. I wonder what need there is for a picture about something that is true and explained (often in explicit detail) in such a fashion as to leave no doubt about what the day of Jesus’ return will be like.

      So I would conclude that your dream is not necessary to convince people of the reality of hell. In fact we see from scripture, that when the rich man wanted to warn his brothers about what he was facing when he had died, he was told “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'” And though he insisted that if one who was dead came to them they would repent, Abraham said: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27-31).

      And if you are convinced that pictures of Jesus are a violation of the second commandment, then certainly you should not paint of a picture of Him. God would never have us disobey Him just so we can do something that we think is right (see 1 Samuel 13:12-13).

      So I would counsel you to witness to others using scripture and warn them to flee from the wrath that is to come by running to Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Let us be satisfied that God has chosen to bless His Word, as I noted in the original post.

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