Images of Jesus Christ and the heart of idolatry – What the Bible really says
If we were to generate a Google search for “pics of Jesus”, what would we see? We would be looking at images of man who looks relatively the same but with different traits. Some images of Jesus depict him with blond, brown or black hair and beard while others show him with blue, green or hazel colored eyes. In these “Jesus” pictures, the man has different skin tones, ranging anywhere from light, almost pale skin to a deep, dark olive color. In fact, depending on where you are in the world, the accepted look of Jesus varies and he is molded to “fit in” with perceptions of beauty and race and creed.
The truth is that there are no authentic, historically credited pictures of Jesus. People have tried to sketch him following different models or inspirations from life and imagination but without success. There are people who claim to have seen the risen Christ in visions and have tried to draw what they have seen; of the accounts that have been verified, most of these people give up trying to sketch him (or have him sketched by another) simply because they cannot capture his beauty or glory or essence with the mediums they have at their disposal.
The “Jesus” images we do have are obviously based on nothing more than imagination – even the artists admit to this – so why are they so venerated and respected? To be sure, a lot of people don’t revere these Jesus photos for worship, they simply like to have them as visual representations of their faith because it is meaningful to them. Many use Jesus Wallpapers as their screensavers on phones or computers because it becomes a conversation starter. On the other hand, there are just as many around the world who have such a deep desire to revere these photos by hanging them on their walls decorated with flowers and candles.
The Biblical View on the pictures of Jesus
The bible is careful not to give descriptions of the physical characteristics of God the Father or Jesus Christ. The most it says about the human features of Jesus is that he “had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). At his transfiguration it is said that his appearance was like lightning (Mat 28:3). When we see the risen Christ in Revelation, he is described to have hair as white as wool and eyes like a “flame of fire” (Rev 1:14). No picture on earth could do justice to a God like that!
So what does the Word of God have to say about having images of Jesus Christ? The verse that immediately comes to mind when people want to say that having such photos is wrong is Exodus 20:4:
“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.”
This is used as a blanket statement by those who are part of the “anti-image” group. Clearly, they say, God has explicitly prohibited the carving of any image, and this includes images of Jesus. They are right – partially. Let’s look at verse 5
“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God….”
This is also very clear, right? Don’t make any image, don’t worship or serve them. The correct interpretation is not to make any image of anything in heaven, earth or sea for the purpose of worshipping said image. But the blanket statement takes it a step further – don’t make any images. At all. To do so is to commit idolatry. On the surface, it seems like a valid argument thoroughly rooted in the Ten Commandments. But it’s not. Consider the following verses.
Ex. 25: 17, 18 – Make an atonement cover of pure gold – two and a half cubits long and a half cubit wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered god at the ends of the cover.
Ex. 28: 33, 34 – Make pomegranates if blue, purple and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe with gold bells between them.
Lev 7:18 – He made pomegranates in two rows encircling each network to decorate the capitals on top of the pillars.
Ex 37:20 – And on the lampstand itself were four cups made like almond blossoms, with their calyxes and flowers
1 Ki 6:29 – On the walls all around the temple, in both the inner and outer rooms, he carved cherubim, palm trees and open flowers.
Ex 40: 34 – Then the cloud covered the tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
1 Ki 7: 10, 11- When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple.
These seem like random verses, but bear with me. All of these verses refer to the construction of the tabernacle (overseen by Moses) and the temple (overseen by Solomon). Now, according to the Blanket Statement, to create any images of anything on heaven, earth or sea constitutes idolatry. But in these verses, we see that God commanded Moses to create images of Cherubim to go on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, almond blossoms to decorate the lampstand (which was the only light source in the tabernacle and was to always be lit), and pomegranates to hem the robes of the priests (which were worn while they performed their duties before the Lord).
When the tabernacle was completed, God himself placed his seal of approval on the construction and decorations and declared it holy when his glory filled it. While God did not command Solomon to build the Temple in a specific manner, we see that Solomon engraved Cherubim in both the inner and outer courts of the temple and decorated the place with pomegranates and flowers in a manner reminiscent of the tabernacle. And, just like he approved of the Tabernacle, God visibly approved of the temple that was built for him.
The point is this: in both places of worship God commanded and/or approved carved images of things in heaven above and the earth beneath. This seems to be a contradiction of the commandment, right? It’s not. It’s only a contradiction if one believes the Blanket Statement. What God expressly prohibited was the worship of such images, not the use or decoration of images.
Defining idolatrous worship
So what constitutes idolatry and worship? Both concepts go hand in hand with each other. Idolatry is defined as the “worship of idols or excessive devotion to or reverence for some person or thing”. Worship is “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration” or “extreme respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem”.
We commit idolatry when we place anything above the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth. It’s not just gods like the Hindus have that are idols. Idols can be pictures and statues or it can be things like family and friends, our work, our church, or even Netflix or Hulu, Twitter or Facebook. Anything that takes the place of God or attention away from God can be an idol in our lives. If Facebook or our work is what we make time for and give priority to above God, then this is an idol.
Church can be an idol too – we can get so wrapped up and involved in serving our church or serving the body of Christ that we place God himself second to the Church. In line with that, Legalism is another form of idolatry. It’s not satisfied with the work of Christ on the cross or the fact that Grace is a free gift of God and that Salvation cannot be earned. Legalism is a self-centered gospel that focuses on and rests in the merits of its own works, its own righteousness, and its own holiness apart from God. Just like all of these things, the images of Jesus Christ can be an idol when it becomes the thing that we revere or cherish more than the invisible Christ.
So where do we stand, biblically, when it comes to the pictures that depict Jesus? Does it immediately constitute idolatry? If we say yes, then we must say that having statues of Cherubim on the very Mercy Seat of God is also idolatry – even though God himself commissioned it. But if we say no, where do we draw the line? God drew the line at worship when he sad “You must not bow down to them or serve them”.
God’s response to idolatry is clear even to the casual reader of the bible: he abhors it. Absolutely detests it. It is completely distasteful to him. In fact, he has the same reaction to it someone would have when they find out their spouse has been cheating on them: betrayal (Jer 3:9; 5:7), anger (Eze 23:37), sorrow (Hos 2:2), jealousy (Ex 34:14); overwhelming grief (Jer 2:2-7) and bewilderment (Is. 40:19-20; Hab 2:18).
No matter how much we know God hates it, though, we still tend to follow after other gods. Whether intentionally or not, idolatry is idolatry and there is something in the heart of mankind that is not satisfied with God. We want something else, something different; or we want to be god and only please ourselves. One way or another, we are not satisfied with God and we seek other things that delight us or fulfill us and put it in his place.
Showing our Christian faith by putting up images of Jesus on our walls or using Jesus Wallpapers on our devices is no more idolatrous than wearing a cross necklace or using a bible with the crown of thorns engraved in the cover. But when such images and things become more in our hearts and minds, when we start to fixate on them and feel like we can’t connect to God properly without them, then they start to become idols. Hanging up a cross or a painting of Christ in a prayer room is not idolatrous if it just serves as a reminder of whom we are worshipping but when they become crutches that we can’t worship without or if we feel uncomfortable or unable to come to Christ without them then we are in dangerous waters.
A little bit of history
The first century church – and indeed the Jews as a whole – were very much aware of the dangers that such images and things could bring to the heart of worship. They were very zealous in making sure that there were absolutely no relics in the church or the synagogues or tabernacles that were being worshipped by the people. The apostles repeatedly warned the believers in their letters to flee from idolatry (1 Co 10:14; Col 3:5, 1Co 5:11, Eph 5:5) and live a life of pure devotion to God.
However, by the time the second century rolled around “Jesus” pictures started cropping up in tombs and roads in the forms of pictograms like ichthys (the fish) to show believers where they might find an underground church or even other believers who would give them food and shelter if they were on a journey. After Constantine took over, actual vivid Jesus images started appearing everywhere – often as a beardless young man. Some made him look like a normal man who was average in appearance while others depicted him as very handsome. Still for the most part, these images were treated just as images. Everyone understood that they did not portray the real Jesus since no eye-witness could verify his appearance – they were all dead by then.
It was not until the mid to late Medieval Times that worship of these images became common practice when the Church sanctioned “relics” that had been touched by anyone from Jesus and the apostles to those who were named saints of the early church. This led to the rise of frauds and charlatans who tried to sell copies to the unsuspecting and superstitious masses. As the sale of so-called relics grew, so too did a market for images of Jesus Christ and various other commonly accepted saints like the apostles. These images and trinkets came to be worshipped and venerated just as much as sacraments like the Lord’s Supper and observing the worship of them was seen as a mark of holy living.
During (and after) the Renaissance period, paintings of Jesus began to become more cohesive in form. It was also at this time that images of Mary and Baby Jesus or Mary with the body of the crucified Christ, or even Mary by herself, began to gain popularity. Artists like Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo and da Vinci represented Jesus, Mary and the Apostles through the lens of what was the accepted beauty standards of the day – voluptuous, fair women, tall, bearded men, etc. With the increase in religious arts and the patronage of the church came an increase in the worship of the subjects which were portrayed – through the image. In other words, the image of Christ itself was worshipped and prayers were offered to the image rather than the real Christ.
After the Bible was made available to regular lay-people through the efforts of men like John Wycliffe, a shift occurred in history. Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin and other Christians began to question the validity of the worship of images (and other practices) in light of Scripture during the period of the reformation. They realized that worship of anything or anyone other than God himself was a gross offense and began to teach others that the veneration of the images of Jesus Christ (and others) was indeed nothing less than idolatry. As more and more people came to accept this truth, many of the art which was sanctioned by the church were destroyed. Even today, Protestants despise the worship of images of Jesus Christ and teach against it while Non-protestants still uphold the tradition.
The heart of idolatry
Why is idolatry such a big deal though? Why, after centuries of acceptance and integration into worship, did the Reformers dare to challenge the Roman Catholic Church on a belief that was central to its teachings? Prior to the Bible becoming available to the general public, the script was all in Latin so believers were wholly dependent on the interpretations given to them by clergy to understand the Word of God. When scripture was finally made available in the everyday language, it was shocking and eye-opening. Things that were once unquestioningly accepted as biblical were suddenly questioned. The truth of Scripture could not be denied. The realization that the worship of images and prayers offered to people other than God was idolatry was the understanding of one of the fundamental principles of scripture.
The heart of idolatry is pride – lifting up the self. It was this that caused Lucifer to lose his place of honor, it was this that caused the disobedience in the Garden and led to the fall of all of mankind. We know what God has said: “You shall have no other gods before me” yet we still seek to put our own pleasure and our own desires above God. We want to be god rather than submit to him.
He is a Jealous God though (Ex 34:14) and he will not share his glory with his creation – much less the creation of his creation. He explicitly warns, “My name you shall not profane with your gifts and your idols” (Ez 20:39). Our redeemer is God alone, he is called the God of the whole earth (Is. 54:5). God testifies that there is absolutely no one who is greater than him (Heb 6:13). When we dare to offer our hearts, minds, even our time, in worship of someone or something else we are saying that it is far more important and far greater than this God.
Worship rightly belongs to God alone and we should not, we must not, give that honor to another – even ourselves. Jesus, when asked to bow down to Satan, strictly told him, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mat 4:10). Those who worship God must do so in Spirit and in truth (John 4: 24). Remember that worship is “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration” or “extreme respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem”. The act of worship is one of the greatest ways we can show love to someone. How horrible is it to take that reverence, adoration, admiration and devotion away from the God who is Lord of Heaven and of Earth, who does not need anything at all from man and yet who still gives breath and life to all things (Acts 17:24-25) and give it to ourselves or something that we created?
When we worship anything but the Creator (even a picture of him) we are only destroying ourselves. He is the only one worthy to be praised and worshipping a tangible image of him is not the same as worshipping the invisible God. He chose to be invisible to us – who are we to say that that’s not enough? We have no excuse, we can’t say that we don’t know God because everything that can be known about God has been made plain to us.
His divine nature and his power have been clearly shown to everyone since the dawn of creation (Ro 1:19-20). But when we refuse to honor God as God, refuse to acknowledge him for who he is, our “thinking becomes futile and [our] hearts are darkened” (v 21). This is when idolatry makes its presence known because we “exchange the glory of God for [imitations]” (v 23). As a result God gives us up to the passions of our hearts and minds and rather than being filled with the things of God and transformed into his image, we are corrupted by the lusts and tendencies of the flesh (v 24-32).
There is only one remedy for idolatry – we must remove every hint of it, whether in actual images or statues or in mental thought or in pride- from the pedestal of our hearts and replace it with God. Weeding out idolatry from our lives is only possible if we submit to the Lord and allow his Spirit to show us the areas that we have given over to the idols. Remember that idols can be even the seemingly innocent habits of daily life, like work and family. It can be anything at all that takes time away from or makes us want to give less importance to God.
This process of weeding out idolatry from our lives is not an easy process, it means self-denial. We give up what we want to do in favor of what pleases God. Worship of God is not confined to Sunday morning Church or daily “quiet times”, it is something that we must do with every breath we breathe. Remember that worship is an expression of love. The greatest commandment is to love God with all of our hearts, souls and minds. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The only way to love God in such a way is to worship him every moment of every day with our actions and our thoughts. This means that we must rethink the things we spend our time on and the people we spend our time with. That is not to say you have to spend every minute in prayer and you are not allowed to do anything but read the bible or spend time with believers. It does mean that we re-think the things we enjoy and the time we spend in pursuit of that in the light of “Does this please God”.
Reborn to a purpose
When we are born again, we become new creatures (2 Co 5:17). As new creatures, set free from the bonds of sin and who have been raised to new life, we have one duty. We “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Ro 13:14)”. This enables us to be renewed in spirit of our minds so that we can, when we “put on” the Lord, live in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24).
This might sound like over-kill but it’s not; this is the reality of making your Lord and Savior your Lord and Savior. To now, you have been saying that Jesus is Lord but you have made yourself the lord, pursuing what you want when and where you want. It seems like a radical role reversal to think about making God the actual God of your life and putting yourself after him, but that’s exactly what we are called to do. Anything less is to make yourself god and put the actual God second to an idol. This is not an overnight process, it is gradual and a very long, very slow journey. This is what it means to be transformed into the image of Christ.
With the help of the Holy Spirit you are renewing your heart and your mind and your body. You are weeding out and ripping up by the roots anything that is in you that is ungodly. Every. Single. Thing. Your behaviors, your attitudes, your mindset, the way you see the world, how you react to something or someone, the things that are important to you, the way you interact with the people around you, the things you spend your money on, the things you spend your time on. Everything. It’s all re-evaluated and put under the submission and the authority of Christ and Christ alone. Not your authority.
Righteousness and holiness are not just adjectives that describe God – they have to describe us too. “The righteous shall live by faith (Ro 1:17)” This is a life-style where we offer our bodies to God as instruments for righteousness (Ro 6:13) and continually cleanse ourselves from any kind of defilement, living in holiness in the fear of God (2 Co 7:1). To put God in place of ourselves and our idols means not that God is “number one” but that God is everything. Conversely, when we make ourselves god then we are that everything. God calls us to a life of worship that is centered on and founded upon him because he alone really is the only God and he alone really is the only one worthy of our praise and adoration.