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Pictures of Jesus?

June 2020 | by Stephen Rees

I’ve been searching the internet. I wanted to buy a present for some Christian friends. They live in an Eastern European country, have been married five years, and have two small children. I was looking for a book they could use to introduce their children to the Bible: a children’s Bible, or at least a book of Bible stories. I thought that if I could find the right book, it would help them settle into a pattern of daily family worship.

Happily, there’s no shortage of Christian resources in their language. I was soon able to find a website that listed attractive looking Bibles and Bible storybooks. Altogether I had half a dozen to choose from. But I quickly realised I had a problem. The website allowed me to see sample pages from the books. And every book on offer included pictures of the Lord Jesus.

No, no, no. I will not give a child a picture of the Lord Jesus. For that matter, I won’t invite a grown-up to view a video in which an actor plays the role of the Lord Jesus. I’m glad that when I was seeking the Lord, I was never offered the opportunity to watch dramatisations of Jesus’s life. I wish that as a child, I had never been given pictures of him. And I won’t inflict them on anyone else, young or old.

The problem with pictures

The fact is, we don’t know what Jesus looked like. And that’s no accident. God didn’t want us to know. We have in the Bible four accounts of the life of Jesus, written by eyewitnesses, or at least based on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Yet not one of them included one sentence describing the Saviour. Was he tall? Was he bearded? Was he balding? Did he have regular features? Did he have big feet? They never say.

Apparently it never occurred to them that Christians would want to know what he looked like. Or if it did occur to them, they decided that Christians were better off not knowing. Either way, if we believe that God inspired the gospel writers to write exactly what they wrote, we have to say that God did not want us to have any impression of Jesus’s appearance.

Why not? Well, here’s one answer. If you speak of the Lord Jesus as someone to be worshipped and then give a child — or anyone else — a picture of the Lord Jesus, he will be tempted to worship the figure he sees in the picture. More than that, he will be tempted to worship the distinctive physical characteristics that the artist has attributed to that figure. After all, those are the only things that the picture tells him about Jesus.

Why is that so serious? Let me give you two reasons.

1. It’s idolatry

What is idolatry? Paul tells us in Romans 1:22-25. It is worshipping ‘the creature — anything that is created — rather than the Creator’. But Jesus’s physical body, with all its distinctive features, is part of the creation. Even if we did know what Jesus looked like, we would be forbidden to worship his human appearance.

Let’s imagine that one of the gospel writers had given us a description of Jesus. He was handsome; five foot, eleven inches tall; he weighed thirteen and a half stone; he had dark eyes and shaggy eyebrows… Is there anything about being five foot eleven that is worthy of worship? Is there anything holy about having dark eyes? Would we be right to admire those physical attributes? Would we be right to love him for being handsome? Would we be right to worship his physical appearance? God forbid.

When the gospel writers gave us their picture of Jesus, they showed us the things that really should move us to worship him. We should be worshipping him for his infinite power, goodness, purity, wisdom, grace, truth — God’s attributes perfectly displayed in a human life. We honour Jesus for those attributes. We are best not having any picture in our minds of what he looked like physically to distract us from the things that really matter.

2. It’s illusion

If we admire and love the Jesus we see in a picture, our love and admiration are being given to an imaginary person.

Many of us have been shocked when we’ve met someone for the first time and found them utterly different from all we had imagined. You have a favourite author — a poet or a novelist — and as you’ve read his work, a picture has begun to form in your mind. You know his intellectual, clean-cut features, his well-groomed style. You write a letter to him, telling him how much you appreciate his writing. Who are you writing to? You’re writing to the man you’ve seen in your mind’s eye. And when you get a letter back, it’s that man who’s written to you! And then you have the opportunity to meet him face to face. To your consternation you find you’re talking with a burly, red-faced fellow, built like a prop forward and dressed like a tramp. You’re forced to realise that all along you’ve been relating to an imaginary person.

If we show people pictures of Jesus or encourage them to watch films in which he’s portrayed, we’re inviting them to worship an imaginary figure. And he’s not even a figure they’ve dreamed up for themselves. He’s a figure we’ve imposed on them.

Worshipping the real Jesus

Jesus doesn’t want us to know anything about what he looks like. He wants us to trust him because of his character without ever asking, what does he look like? He wants us to love him for his works of grace, not for whatever we imagine to be the colour of his eyes. Simon Peter (who had seen Jesus) told his readers, ‘Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and are filled with joy that is inexpressible and full of glory…’ (1 Peter 1:8). Our love, our trust, our joy must be stirred not by Jesus’s imagined physical appearance, but by all that God has revealed about him in the Bible.

But surely, you say, when people see pictures or films of Jesus, they must know perfectly well that it’s only an artist’s or a film-director’s imagination? Just because artists picture Jesus with golden hair, or blue eyes, we don’t actually imagine he looked like that, do we?

You may be right. Some folk may be able to keep a clear line between the picture and the reality. But why create even the slightest risk of idolatry or illusion? Why plant any picture of Jesus into children’s minds? Once a picture has been created, it’s very difficult to erase. Many years ago, I watched the film Chariots of Fire, the inspiring story of Eric Liddell, Christian athlete and missionary to China. Liddell — horse-faced and bald — was played by a good-looking, charming, debonair actor called Ian Charleson. And now, when I read anything about Eric Liddell’s life, it’s Charleson’s face I see. Likewise friends who have watched Shadowlands tell me that for them C. S. Lewis has Anthony Hopkins’s face; Joy Davidman has been transformed into Debra Winger.

Well it may not matter too much if my picture of Eric Liddell is based on an illusion. Or if somehow Margaret Thatcher’s been repainted with Meryl Streep’s features. But surely it matters a great deal if my impression of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has been mixed up with a figure created by an artist’s imagination. Do we want our children to have a true view of Jesus printed on their hearts by the Holy Spirit? Or an illusion of Jesus printed on their imagination by a commercial artist or by Hollywood?

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
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Seeing Jesus

I want my children and the people I preach to week by week to have an impression of Jesus on their hearts. But that doesn’t mean having an imaginary picture of him in their minds. It means knowing in their hearts what he’s really like. I want them to be overwhelmed by Him: by his awesome holiness; his terrifying purity; his infinite love. Paul wrote to the Galatians: ‘It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified…’ (Gal. 3:1).

Had Paul held up a painting of the crucifixion in front of them? Had he shown them a video? No, he had simply told them the story of the cross, just as we have it in the gospels, devoid of any description of Jesus’s appearance. And the Holy Spirit had done the rest. Paul’s hearers knew what Jesus was like — not what he looked like but who he truly was, and what he had done for sinners. And they were broken, drawn, saved, by what they saw. Isn’t that what we want for ourselves and for our children?

Amy Carmichael
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Amy Carmichael, missionary first to Japan, and then India, saw the issues clearly. Other missionaries took it for granted that pictures of Jesus would help people (especially children) believe. She herself as a child had been impressed by a very beautiful picture of Christ which hung in her home. But one day, Amy heard a little Japanese girl talking about the magic lantern pictures the missionaries planned to show that night:

‘“They will show their God”, she said. I had just enough Japanese to understand those words and they startled me… here, in this pagan land, where a child could say, “They will show their God tonight” — was this the place to use such pictures? And my heart answered, “No, I cannot use them.”’

Later, she realised that it was not just in Japan that pictures of Jesus were unhelpful: ‘When converts were given, we found that unless they were taught to do so, they did not want pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ And she explained to the girls under her care why she never showed them such pictures:

‘You who have been brought up without them, know when you do happen to see them, how much less beautiful such pictures are than the one the Holy Spirit has shown you. I shall never forget the disappointment of one of you when someone sent a little picture of our Lord as a child in the Temple. I remember the tears of disappointment when the string was untied, and the wrappings taken off, and the picture taken out of its box – “I thought He was far more beautiful than that”. We may safely leave the blessed Spirit to show to the people to whom we speak, something “far more beautiful than that”.

‘You will see, I think, how much more this casts us upon the Lord, the Spirit, when, for example, we are telling of the Crucifixion. A picture would greatly help to make it clear. But I know as we trust the Spirit He does not fail us. I have told that awful story to many a woman and to many a child who have never heard it before. And I have seen what He can do, and what He does. O blessed Holy Spirit, forgive us if we have ever doubted Thy power to take of the things of our Lord Jesus Christ and shew them to us, and unto all.’

She’s right. We put aside the pictures. But then we start to pray. We pray for the Holy Spirit to take up the old, old story and make it new and powerful to the hearts of all who listen.

Are you involved in ministry to children? Settle it in your mind that you will never use material which includes pictures of Jesus. But don’t stop there. Pray that the Holy Spirit will show Jesus to the children as he really is. Do you long for people young and old to be drawn to Jesus as your pastor preaches week by week? Then pray that the Holy Spirit will give us them a vision of Jesus’s majesty. If we throw away the idols, how vital that we pray for him to show us the reality.

All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.

Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport This article first appeared in the monthly magazine and on the website of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. www.gbcstockport.org.uk