Pictures/Images of Christ*

Exodus 20:4-6 -- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

In this second commandment, believers are forbidden to make any graven 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. We are forbidden to bow down to them or to serve them. The question has been asked whether or not this commandment forbids the use of pictures of Christ (such as found in the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery). Naturally, the commandment forbids the bowing down before such pictures and worshiping them. There can be no question of that.

But in many evangelical churches and institutions, pictures of Christ are used either in teaching or for decoration, and in the homes of Christians, pictures of Christ are hung up to remind them, supposedly, of Christ. Is that Scriptural? Does it meet with the approval of God? Is it sinful? Is it another way of breaking the second commandment?

No doubt, if one states that the use of pictures of Christ is unscriptural: that it does not meet with the approval of God; that it is sinful; and that it is a breaking of the second commandment -- he will be considered as a fanatic, a reactionary, and perhaps not quite normal. But, if we are Christians, the Word of God will regulate our service and worship. The Bible is our infallible guide in faith and worship.

Here is a thing to consider. Nowhere in the Bible, either in the Old Testament or New Testament, is there a physical description of Christ. Isn't that strange if God wanted to use the picture of Christ in spreading the Gospel or in worship, that we are not told whether Christ was tall or short, fair or dark, light or dark hair, blue eves or brown eyes?

With all their love for the Lord, you would think that Peter or John would have given a description of Christ, unless, of course, they were forbidden. They wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely it is significant that neither they nor any other of the Scriptures gave a physical description of the Lord. Surely if God desired the use of pictures of Christ to further the cause of Christ He would have had a physical description of His Son in His Word. Why should we consider ourselves wiser than God and provide what He has deliberately left out?

The second interesting fact is that in the first four centuries of the history of the Church, no picture of Christ was used. Yet, these were the years when the Church made her most astonishing growth. It is also frequently stated that we need pictures of Christ in order to teach the Gospel. But, the apostle Peter did not need pictures of Christ to instruct the young or bring the Gospel to adults. The apostle John did not need pictures of Christ to convert pagans and instruct the Church. The apostle John did not need pictures of Christ to convert Barbarians and Greeks. They accomplished it by preaching the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit.

When pictures of Christ were first introduced they were opposed. The Church historian Eusebius, who lived in the fourth century, declared himself in the strongest manner against images of Christ in a letter to the Empress Constantia, who asked him for such an image. Amongst other things, Eusebius wrote:

"Who can therefore counterfeit by dead and insensible colors, by vain shadowing painter's art, the bright and shining glistering of such His glory? Whereas His holy disciples were not able to behold the same in the fountain; who, therefore, falling on their faces, acknowledged they were not able to behold such a sight."

Here Eusebius touches on one of the reasons why it is impossible to have a true picture of Christ. If you want a picture of Christ, do you want it as He was upon earth or as He is now in heaven? If you want a picture of Him as He was upon earth, you have quite a problem. There was no picture of Him painted. The so-called pictures of Christ that are present today are from the imaginations of the artists. That is why there are so many different pictures. Not one of them is a true picture. So every time you say this or that is a picture of Christ, you are uttering a lie. You cannot teach truth by a lie. Christ is the Truth and surely He would not want the use of a false means to point to Him. Christ abhors lies and falsehoods.

But supposing you wanted a picture of Christ as He is now in heaven. The disciples had such a vision of Him on the mount of transfiguration. We read in Matthew 17:2:  

"And his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light." 

This was the glorified Christ. No artist could give us a picture of Christ which would show the glowing of Christ's face as the sun and His raiment as white as the light. They would only rob Christ of His glory by miserably falling short of a true painting of Christ in His present glory.

But someone will state that at least we can depict the humanity of Christ as He appeared upon earth. But who are we to separate His humanity from His divinity! The apostle John states in his Gospel (1:14): 

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth." 

Notice that the apostle states that even while Christ was in the flesh, they beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father. In other words, they beheld His divinity as well as his humanity. This, one cannot paint. So one must behold His humanity as separate from His divinity. Then one falls into the ancient error of Nestorius. He stated that Christ consisted of two persons: one human and the other divine. There was, according to Nestorius, a separation between the human and the divine persons.

That was the ground on which the Council called by Constantine V. condemned paintings of Christ. This question of pictures of Christ was the subject of controversy throughout the eighth century. So Constantine called a council in 753 A.D. that concluded:

"If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed."

This Council points out the difficulty, and indeed the impossibility, of painting a portrait of Christ. Christ is more than man. He is God-man. It is impossible to depict by a painter's brush the almighty power of Christ; the glorious majesty of Christ; the infinite knowledge of Christ. You cannot localize by a painter's brush the everywhere presence of Christ. One can only succeed in degrading Christ. When one considers the deity of Christ, it is no wonder that the apostles did not attempt a physical description of their Lord and Savior.

Also, there is always the danger of worshiping the picture of Christ and attaching power to it. Even a Protestant publishing firm stated that there is power in a picture of Christ: "When one plants deeply and firmly in his mind the picture of Christ, it has a strong and powerful influence in his life." Thus, instead of attributing this influence to Christ and the Holy Spirit, they attribute it to the picture they are trying to sell. That, clearly, is a breaking of the second commandment.

But, can it not help in the saving of souls, it is asked? But how? Looking at a picture of Christ hanging upon the cross tells me nothing. It does not tell me that He hung there for sin. It does not tell me that He hung there for my sin. It does not tell me that He is the Son of God. Only the Word of God does that. And it is the Word of God that has been given us to tell the story of salvation through the blood of Christ. It is not through the foolishness of pictures that sinners are converted, but through the foolishness of preaching.

It is amazing how slowly unscriptural practices enter the Christian Church. We must at all times go back to the Scriptures. The Bible is our infallible guide. And if our practices and doctrines do not conform to the teachings of the Scriptures, then we must eliminate them. The Bible instructs the Church not to make any likeness of Christ. The present day pictures of Christ are false and no one can make a serious claim that they resemble Christ upon earth. They separate His humanity from His deity. They do not at all give us a glimpse of His present glory. The inspired apostles do not condone them.

God has ordained the foolishness of preaching to evangelize the world. He has promised to attend the preaching of the Word with the power of the Holy Spirit. The so-called pictures of Christ are a hindrance to the Biblical process, and a temptation to idolatry. Let us cleanse the Temple of God from them.


* The preceding was adapted and/or excerpted from a tract titled "Pictures of Christ," by J. Marcellus Kik, Chapel Library, Venice, Florida 33595.


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