Pictures of the Lord Jesus May We Use Them?
In many families Children's Bibles are used to help make the word of the Lord clear to young children. Care must be taken which Children's Bible one chooses because there are many on the market in which the author adds many things of his own imagination and are not found in the text of Scripture. Besides, these Children's Bibles often contain many pictures. The publishers probably think these pictures make it more attractive to the children and will also help them understand the stories better.
An artist picture of the temple, a cedar tree, a pomegranate, a jackal and a kite may be helpful.
However, quite often, in the New Testament section, the Lord Jesus is pictured. Today, because there is a tendency away from the verbal to the visual, one can only expect an increase in these kinds of pictures. It would be easy and tempting for these kinds of pictures to be used in preschool and primary school.
This question had come to the fore in my mind a number of years ago, I was compelled to look into it more and became more convinced that it is better not to use pictures of the Lord Jesus. Let me explain the reasons by taking a look at the second commandment and what we confess about the Books for the Laity in Lord's Day 35. First some historic background.
Distinction between the First and the Second Word
When the Heidelberg Catechism was written and still today the Roman Catholic Church divides the Ten Commandments in a different way. What we consider to be the first and second commandments, they lump together as the first one. They divide: what we know to be the ninth commandment into two parts. Thus in the Roman Catholic Church the ninth commandment is: "You shall not covet your neighbour's house" and the tenth: "You shall not covet your neighbour's wife…" During the time of the reformation, we objected to this division especially after witnessing how the second commandment was by and large neglected as an unnecessary appendix to the first one.
There is admittedly a close relation between the first and second commandment. When giving the meaning of the first commandment the Heidelberg Catechism had already spoken about idolatry. To make a graven image and worship it beside the LORD God is a breach of the first commandment. However, by this second commandment the LORD clearly addresses the many attempts to make an image of the LORD God. This was the situation when the children of Israel sought Aaron to make a golden calf for them while Moses was delayed on the mountain. It is not entirely clear what the intention of the people who sought Aaron to make a golden calf was, whether to make an idol of the LORD God or some other god, but it is very clear that Aaron thought of the LORD God. After he had made this idol, he said to the children of Israel, Exodus 32:8:
This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!
The New King James version wrongly makes the 'g' of god a lower case. This idol is meant to be a representation of the LORD, God.
The Convenience of Idols
This history of Exodus 32 helps to understand what idols are all about and why men worship them. They are very convenient. Men can make them in the way they like them to be. They can take them where they want them. Instead of men letting themselves be ruled by the LORD, they think to be able to rule Him. When Moses was delayed on the mountain the people took matters in their own hands. They doubted that the LORD was doing what He should be doing and would therefore take hold of Him and make Him do it.
That they made a calf does not mean that the children of Israel thought the LORD looked like a calf, but along with heathen thinking, they made a form which they thought best depicted the activity they expect from Him. They made a calf to depict a young energetic god. Thus heathens often used Bulls to depict their gods as being very powerful or the goddesses as females with large breasts to show fertility. Already in the making of a graven image the artisan decides for the people the kind of god they like to have.
The way the children of Israel used the Ark of the Covenant as revealed in 1 Samuel 4 is a case in point. The Ark of the Covenant was brought into the battle field much like the heathen were used to bringing their gods there and expecting victory from their presence. They had brought the ark into the battle field because the LORD had let them suffer loss on account of disobedience. Instead of showing repentance, the children of Israel tried to force their God onto the battle field. The LORD showed His displeasure by letting Israel suffer another great loss and also by losing the ark. At the same time He reinforced the fact that He alone is God by causing Dagon, the god of the Philistines, to fall down before the ark. The point now is that the children of Israel sinned greatly when they attempted to use the Ark of the Covenant just like the heathens use their idols. Contrary to some who have attempted to place the religion of Israel among the other eastern religions and suggest that Israel had the ark as an idol, we must strongly object. Yes, at one time, against God's will, they used it as an idol. However, it never was an idol and the Lord did not allow it to be used as an idol either.
Both Psalm 115 and Psalm 135 describe the vanity of idols in a very graphic way. They have mouths, but do not speak, they have ears, but do not hear, and they have eyes, but do not see. The LORD will not let Himself be controlled by man. If man tries to determine what God is like, He will not be determined in that way. Isaiah 40 stresses that there is nothing to which the LORD can be compared.
Thus in vss. 18-20 we read: "To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him? The workman moulds an image, the goldsmith overspreads it with gold, and the silversmith casts silver chains. Whoever is too impoverished for such a contribution chooses a tree that will not rot; He seeks for himself a skilful workman to prepare a carved image that will not totter."
The LORD God is too great for the creature to compare Him to anything in all creation. Any attempt to do so would be doing grave injustice to the LORD. It is deceitful because it is not like Him.
The Books for the Laity
The books for the laity (i.e. common people) originate from the middle ages when there was little literacy among the common people. Instead of teaching these people to read, the church thought it much easier to convey the history of Scripture through pictures. With time, every part of the cathedrals was used for this purpose. The ceiling, the windows and walls were all covered with scenes of various parts of redemptive history including representations of God and Christ Jesus. Eventually three dimensional statues were also introduced.
It was only one small step from making these pictures to worshipping or venerating them. We can well image how the congregation after having been told about the Lord Jesus and perhaps His image pointed out in the stained glass window or the three dimensional form and then pray with this picture still in their minds. The line between worshipping the image or the One whom the picture represents becomes very thin. Instead of discouraging this kind of identification, Rome had encouraged it. In fact, they teach that it would be irreverent not to show due veneration to these images. They compare it to how one would handle a picture of a loved one. One would not abuse such a picture, but take good care of it and an insult to the picture implies an insult to the person that is pictured. Thus, today Rome continues the practice of showing honour to these pictures by bowing the heads when walking by them.
Matters did not help when the Reformers started to voice their objection to the worship of these "images.” In reaction, Rome accented the distinction between clergy and laity which it had already made insisting that only the educated clergy can understand and interpret the reading of scripture, but not the uneducated laity. For this reason the translation of the Bible into the language of the common people was discouraged. It was through the Reformers that the Bible was translated and made available to the common people. Rome considered this to be part of the trouble of that day, the people, according to them, miss-interpreting the scripture to their own liking and rebelling against the institution of God, the church and its hierarchy. The scripture, however, directed Moses, the prophets and the apostles to address the common people. In Romans 10 it is emphasized that faith is received by the hearing of the Word. The apostles, and later the office of teaching elder were given this emphasis. Timothy and Titus are urged to preach.
Should We Use Pictures of the Lord Jesus?
This history must make us careful with how pictures are used to teach, for example in kindergarten. A teacher who gives the students a picture of the Lord Jesus to colour and at the close of the day wants to pray, the students will still have the picture in mind. Even if the teacher says that they will not pray to the picture, it is hard to get it out of the students' minds. An added problem has become that in some places teachers suggest that the students colour the Lord Jesus as they please; white, black, yellow, red… This is teaching them idolatry! It is to make the Lord Jesus according to one's own preference. With today's inclusive language translations, we can also expect Sunday school material to appear where the Lord Jesus is neither male nor female, but the students may depict Him in the sex they prefer.
Much art has been produced over the centuries with pictures of the Lord Jesus and other Scriptural characters. Anyone who studies this history soon finds that the composition shows the time in which they were made. Jane Dillenberger1 exposes it in a particularly clear way. By way of photographs of art pieces from different historic ages, she shows how with changing times the portrayals of Biblical figures have changed. Like the title of her book suggests, the artists use religious themes, for the example, the crucifix, to convey a secular message. Pictures and works of art are not as innocent as they may sometimes appear. At times humanistic messages are portrayed under the guise of what is godly. In a striking way she also shows how the pictures of the Lord Jesus have changed along with the changing thinking of man. Do not underestimate what kind of influence such depictions of the Lord Jesus may have on young minds.
In view of all the above, it would be better to put the pictures of the Lord Jesus aside. There are some who counter-argue by saying; "When the Lord Jesus was on earth He was a real man. If someone had a camera, a picture could have been taken of Him." It is true, the Lord Jesus was a real man, but some argued, that is the whole Lord Jesus for He is also true God. Perhaps we may also look back and say that it was the wisdom of the Lord that cameras were not invented until after the Lord Jesus ascended. Any photograph of Him would have been worshipped. A picture of the Lord Jesus is a human interpretation of him and, like we confess in Lord's Day 35:
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.
Let us therefore continue to teach our children to read the Bible and listen to the preached Word on Sundays.