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Occasional Letters - Whom having not seen, ye love

D Newell, Glasgow

I still have the illustrated Bible my grandmother gave me back in 1957, inscribed to "my sunshine" (no one else ever called me that), and decorated with E S Hardy’s colourful paintings which quickly imprinted themselves on my youthful mind. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, don’t they? And historically informed pictures of Old Testament stories can certainly help bring Scripture to life. The trouble comes with the New Testament. To put it bluntly, is it right to attempt visual representations of the Lord Jesus, the Word made flesh?

What I have to say may fly in the face of 21st century practice, but nevertheless I want to offer three reasons for caution. First, there is an Old Testament flat prohibition. Israel’s initial two commandments were designed to preserve the exclusive, ineffable majesty of Jehovah:

"I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 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 beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" (Ex 20.2-5).

While the first regulation prohibited the worship of false gods, the second slapped a ban even on pictorial representations of the true God of Israel. Surrounding nations aided their ignorant worshippers with statues, images and objects on which to focus the attention. But not Israel. Even on the Ark of the Covenant, God’s official throne amidst His people, there was nothing to be seen between the cherubim. During 400 years in Egypt the Israelites had been influenced by a polytheistic culture in which a multiplicity of deities were figured by animals, heavenly bodies, and humans. The god Ptah, for example, was represented by the sacred Apis bull, while Hathor the goddess of love was pictured by a cow. It is therefore not altogether surprising that when Moses disappeared from view to commune with Jehovah on Sinai the people demanded something they could see. Disastrously, Aaron gave way to their importunity and made a molten calf, of which they said, "These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord" (Ex 32.4-5). The golden calf was not another god; rather, it was meant to visualize Jehovah Himself. Keil & Delitzsch sum up the tragedy: "The making of the calf, and the sacrificial meals and other ceremonies performed before it, were a shameful apostasy from Jehovah, a practical denial of the inimitable glory of the true God, and a culpable breach of the second commandment".

Forty years later, on the edge of Canaan, Moses gave a new generation a commentary on that second commandment: "the Lord spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice…Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire" (Deut 4.12-15). Note carefully – because Jehovah had chosen to reveal Himself by words His people were forbidden the use of images or pictures in worship. The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 warns that "we must not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His word". That most helpful of puritans, Thomas Watson, agrees: "God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye". The danger of the visual is that it reduces the all-glorious God to the level of sin-damaged human imagination and artistry. And anyone who attempts to restrict this command to Old Testament times must face up to Paul’s words at Athens: "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device" (Acts 17.29). Again the language forbids images of Jehovah, for, as the Lord Jesus taught, "God is a Spirit" (Jn 4.24). You just can’t picture God.

One immediate response may well be this: what about the incarnation? Isn’t the Lord Jesus God manifest in the flesh? Hasn’t He made the invisible God known in genuine manhood, visible, audible and tangible (1 Jn 1.1)? Can we not therefore legitimately try to visualise Him as the perfect man? After all, the Old Testament gives us a notion of how men like Esau, Saul, and David looked (Gen 25.25; 1 Sam 10.23-24; 16.12), although they are minor figures compared with the centrality of Christ. We’re back with my grandmother’s Bible and its lovely E S Hardy illustrations of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus.

In answer I would adduce my second point: the consistent practice of New Testament writers and preachers. Take the evangelists. Their carefully selected narratives of the Lord Jesus are completely free from any attempt at physical description. Yes, He is presented as a Jewish male (Jn 4.9; 8.40), but that is as far as it goes. When, in the light of His soon departure, the Saviour urged on the disciples the duty of remembrance it was always His words which were in view: "the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you" (Jn 14.26). Another thing – is it not remarkable how austere, restrained and purely factual are the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion? There is little in the way of colourful description or emotive language to manipulate our feelings. I remember once hearing such a graphic account of a Roman execution that one of the audience had to be taken out in a faint. But this is not what the Bible does. Not only are the Gospels strikingly barren of such gratuitous detail, the preaching in the Acts is similarly matter of fact. The apostles’ specific mandate was to "Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life" (Acts 5.20). Note that verb: the disciples were to "speak" – not dance, sing, act, mime, or paint pictures. Nor were they to play by skilful oratory on the emotions of their listeners. A competent actor can do that, but it is not the task of the evangelist or the teacher. Read through all the messages recorded in the Acts and see how innocent they are of the affectedly poignant or the sentimental. What we get instead are dignified, cogent accounts of the doctrinal meaning of the cross (Acts 2.22-23,36; 13.28-30). Weeping over Calvary must not be confused with conversion, for God’s gospel aims at the conscience and the will. Back in 1784 the hymn-writer John Newton made this point in a series of sermons on Handel’s Messiah: "a representation of the Redeemer’s sufferings, capable of exciting tears and moving the passions, may be made by the powers of oratory; and similar emotions have often been produced by a romance or a tragedy, though the subject is known before-hand to be entirely a fiction. But light in the understanding is necessary to convince and influence the heart. Unless the mind be deeply penetrated with the causes which rendered Messiah’s death necessary, the most pathetic description of the fact will leave the will and affections unchanged".

This brings me to my third point, a fundamental principle: the Bible is a word book, not a picture book. Cornelius was instructed to "call for Simon…Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved" (Acts 11.13-14), while Paul insisted that "we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth" (1 Cor 2.13). God’s propositional truth is communicated through accurate language. Even Biblical imagery is primarily conceptual rather than visual. When the Lord Jesus is called the Lamb of God we are meant to think not of woolly animals frisking in the fields but of Exodus 12 and its Passover instructions. In other words, Scripture provides the key to interpret its own metaphors and similes. From this principle it follows that we should not try to visualise the person of Christ, if only because all such efforts will inevitably be fraudulent and futile. Instead, we should rejoice in a special blessing denied disciples like Thomas: "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (Jn 20.29); "though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Pet 1.8).

True faith rests in God’s Word. Not only are pictures of the Lord Jesus in evangelism or teaching unnecessary, they are positively improper because they demean His immeasurable excellence. The Christian’s commission is to proclaim the Word to young and old alike in the assurance that God will honour it, as He has always done, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom 10.17). Only when Christ comes again shall we truly "see him as he is" (1 Jn 3.2).

To be continued.


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