On Images of Christ

Images of Jesus Christ are easy to find. They can be found on everything from Christmas cards to children’s bibles to screen adaptations like The Passion of the Christ, The Gospel of John, and The Chosen. We also see depictions of Christ in historical masterpieces of painting or sculpture. Some of those in Reformed churches encourage the use of images. However, the confessions of the Reformed churches are unanimous in condemning images not only of God the Father or the Holy Spirit, but also of the incarnate Christ. These provisions are often subject to debate, and in the Presbyterian Church in America, many officers declare exceptions to portions of the standards which forbid such images. Despite their current unpopularity, we should rediscover the truths and helpfulness of the confessions concerning the use of images. They are supported by many arguments from many sources, including the Scriptures, and essential teachings of Reformed Christology.

Peter’s confession of faith illustrates a strong, yet under-appreciated case. While Jesus and the disciples were near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus questioned his disciples. Then as now, the crowds called Jesus many different things, such as a prophet or a mere teacher. Then Jesus asked them directly, “But who do you say that I am” (Matt 16:15)? Peter rightly answered, calling Jesus the Christ and the Son of God.

Despite his many foibles, it should not surprise us that Peter knew the answer. He was already prominent among the disciples, traveling with Jesus from the beginning of the Galilean ministry. His failings were notable, as were his eagerness and persistence. That is why Jesus’s reply is remarkable. “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven'” (Matt 16:17). “Flesh and blood” did not teach Peter this crucial fact about the great person whom he followed! Peter, who was chief among those who learned about Jesus through flesh and blood! He saw Jesus. He walked, bivouacked, ate with Jesus, and even accepted fishing advice from Jesus. Even Before this questioning near Caesarea Philippi, he strode upon the water toward Jesus!

Nevertheless, flesh and blood did not avail. Peter’s eyes did not perceive Christ until the Father gave him eyes to see and ears to hear. The sight of the eyes does not open the eyes of the heart, only the Spirit of God. Throughout the New Testament, tangible things were means of gaining faith in Jesus. But with one exception, it was not the natural sight of Jesus that brought many to faith in him.

Nathaniel believed when Jesus spoke to him of sitting under a fig tree. (John 1:50ff) John “saw and believed,” but what he saw was Christ’s absence from the tomb. (John 20:8) The crowds at Pentecost believed because the Spirit pierced their hearts through Peter’s preaching. (Acts 2:37) Cleopas walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, yet did not know him until the breaking of the bread. Only then did they mark how their hearts had burned within them as they heard Jesus explain the Scriptures. (Luke 24:30ff) Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after the Resurrection but did not know her Teacher until he spoke her name (John 20:16). Paul encountered Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, but he only saw a bright and blinding light. The voice of Christ was what Paul perceived in the vision, and the words of that voice changed him forever. (Acts 9:3ff, 26:13ff)

It fell only to poor Thomas to believe because he saw the risen Christ. Jesus blessed him for it, only to pointedly declare, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29 NKJV) Even just within the pages of the New Testament, those who believed in Jesus without ever seeing him far outnumber those disciples who saw him in the flesh. As Paul aptly put it, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). Even during the earthly ministry of Christ, seeing was not believing. Hearing the word of God was and is the ordinary means of the Spirit calling us to faith. Those who walked with Jesus in the flesh had many advantages, but their faith had the same source as ours.

The apostles could hardly have forgotten the face of their Lord, yet their writings contain no description. They who worked hard to preserve Christ’s words were content to allow his appearance to be forgotten. It cannot have been mere practicality; if they could find scribes, they could also have employed carvers or painters.

The mere natural sight of Jesus, however dear and beloved, did not bring the grace of faith during His days on earth. So, why do we seek instruction or edification through images made centuries later? Mere reflections, however true or faithful, cannot produce a more significant effect than the original. Take all of our Christmas cards, shows, and movies, our great works of art; at their best, they can only give us a second-hand approximation of what was secondary to the apostle’s faith.

Shall we say that God has left his people no tangible, visible means to be edified in their faith? We must enliven our understanding of the sacraments and deepen our appreciation. In baptism, we are washed with water that can be felt, and seen as Christ has washed away our sins. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ feeds us by faith with his very body and blood in the seen, smelled, felt, and tasted elements. These are great gifts, indeed!

We will not always lack sight. We echo Job, who said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). We will see the face of our Lord who gave so much to ransom us. What we now have through the Word and signs, we will enjoy directly. Why settle for the imaginations of men when in so little time, we will see the real thing? So let us hold fast to the scriptures and the historic Reformed faith as we await the great day when our faith will be turned into sight.