By the light of my Christmas tree, I sent an email to my children's Christian school teachers. "Please exempt my child from making or coloring pictures of Jesus, even as an infant in a manger," I wrote. This email was long overdue. For weeks, my kids had been bringing home coloring pages and art projects of nativity scenes. They'd pull them out of bulging backpacks and hand them over with sheepish looks. I know our family doesn't do this, their faces said, but the teacher told me to.
This time of year even non-Christians can scarcely ignore images of Jesus. He's the rustic wooden bundle in a neighbor's crèche. He's the plastic doll, lying on hay, at the children's Christmas pageant. He's the radiant little boy in thousands of beautiful and skillful works of art, representing the aesthetic of countless cultures and periods of human history.
But the recent controversy over what Jesus looked like (What color was his skin? His hair? His eyes?) highlights an important issue with such images of our Savior: we inevitably come to think, meditate, believe, and, yes, worship according to our mental or physical pictures.
Which is why I am compelled to avoid all images of Christ. From the statues of Jesus on people's vehicle dashboards to illustrations on covers of theological books (which I wrap in brown paper), images of Jesus are embedded in even our culture at large.
My objection to visually representing the second person of the Trinity is not a new position. Until the late 4th century, the Christian church universally condemned images of Christ. And, in the 16th century, many of the Protestant Reformers revived this practice. Fundamentally, though, the decision to reject images of Jesus begins with the words God gave to his covenant people on Sinai: "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…You shall not bow down to them or serve them…." (Ex. 20:4-5)
The 17th-century theologian Francis Turretin summarizes the command this way: "The making of images is not absolutely interdicted [God doesn't forbid all representational art], but with a twofold limitation—that images should not be made representing God, nor be employed in his worship." This is true even of Jesus. Though fully human, his humanity cannot be separated from his divine person, which means visual images of Jesus are, in fact, attempting to picture God.
What God has declared is sufficient, but I am also convinced of good reasons for the prohibition of image-making and worship by images.
If we are going to create or choose images of Jesus, we have a few options. We can try to make an accurate representation of his physical body. The Bible tells us that Zaccheaus was short, Goliath was "six cubits and a span" tall, and poor Leah was unattractive with "weak eyes", but about Jesus's appearance we have no details at all. Though the Bible repeatedly affirms Jesus' humanity—he ate, drank, bled, perspired, and experienced human emotions—any attempt at literal representation of his physical features is based on insufficient evidence.
Alternatively, we can create an image based on our personal preference—choosing a Jesus that appeals to us. Or, we can celebrate the diverse preferences of a variety of artists by, say, collecting and displaying multiple nativity sets. Choosing images based on preferences has the problem that, rather than affirming Christ's specific incarnation body, it hints that Jesus' appearance is merely many different things to many people.
But Jesus did look a certain way. In an essay on the subject, theologian John Murray writes, "Our Lord had a true body. He could have been photographed. A portrait could have been made of him and, if a good portrait, it would have reproduced his likeness." Even as a baby, Jesus was not a generic human being. He had a particular shape to his ears. He was a certain weight and height. His fingerprints were unique.
Another option for images of Jesus is not to attempt literality, but instead to symbolize or represent some particular aspect of his being: a loving Jesus or a powerful Jesus or a holy Jesus. But God is, as The Westminster Confession says, "without parts." He is all of his attributes all the time. Unlike humans who grow and change from moment to moment, God is necessarily and always fully himself. He is everything or he is nothing. And a picture that symbolizes one or two or twenty of his attributes is no true picture at all.
J.I. Packer explains the difficulty with images in Knowing God (the book's 40 years of influence were recently profiled by CT):
The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent.
In John 14:9, Jesus said, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." To gaze at Jesus is to gaze at the Trinitarian God in all His fullness—something no painting of an infant, no matter how beautiful—can possibly attempt.
This matters because, as the second commandment goes on to explain, images of God, even construction paper art projects and nativity play sets, will lead us to worship. "A picture of Christ," writes Murray, "if it serves any useful purpose, must evoke some thought or feeling respecting him and, in view of what he is, this thought or feeling will be worshipful. We cannot avoid making the picture a medium of worship."
Our images, in their frailty, diminish God. Since we are inevitably drawn to worship our God through looking at them, images of Christ keep us from worshipping "in spirit and truth" as Jesus himself commands (John 4:24).
This Christmas, my house is decorated as usual. I have wreaths and lights and stockings and gifts, but no babe in a manger. Because what I want is not less Jesus in my life, but more. By removing the brown-eyed man in my children's Bible storybooks and by declining to purchase the "Virgin and Child" stamps at the post office, I am not taking Christ out of my life. Instead, I am making room for more of him.
I want to experience all of his fullness, unrestricted by my own feeble imagination or someone else's inevitably limited artistic sensibilities. I want to receive the Lord's benediction that comes to those who "have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29). I want to freely commune with my incarnate Lord through the symbols he has given: the intensely physical bread and wine of his supper. And I want to worship him, not through frail human creativity, but by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, who alone can sculpt the true Christ in my heart.
Beyond that, I do want to lay physical eyes on my Savior's face. But my holy curiosity will be satisfied by nothing less than the truth. I am desperate to shed this dark glass through which I squint and to instead see fully and know fully. I want to see my Jesus. And I want to worship him as he is.
I can rarely sing the final verse of the old Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City" without tears, overwhelmed by my longing to look upon my Lord:
Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him, but in heaven, set at God's right hand on high.
In this sure and certain hope, I wait for his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus.
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