Images of God used in Worship

Do the following words have any relationship to using pictures of Jesus in churches?

Exodus 20:4-5. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image–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 nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,…”

Notice that God is concerned here with worship — namely, the use of created images and worship. Do we need statues of Jesus to improve our heavenly thoughts? Should we use pictures of Jesus to teach children who God is? Should we use pictures or statues of Jesus in worship? By the end of this article, I will argue that we should use images of God in worship, but, ironically, that does not including drawings or pictures of Jesus.

Words are How God Tells Us About Himself
Pictures of Jesus are a shift away from the way he is known to us. We know him through words (the Bible) but we can shift away from that when we seek to contemplate him through the aid of our own created images. In this shift, man-made images may inspire some; they may cause feelings of improved worship or they may induce greater contemplation. I am not denying those feelings of concentration or contemplation, I simply ask: Has God asked us to use man-made images for such activities?

If we champion the validity of using pictures or statues of Jesus, then the burden of proof is upon us. That is, we should show from Scripture where pictures of Jesus in worship are somehow pleasing to God. Such images may seem natural to us, but is that a sufficient argument? When it comes to understanding who God is, that which seems natural to us (fallen humans) is not a beginning point. We don’t start the discussion with our intuition, we start with the Bible. God has given us his Word — the sure Word. God himself has picked the medium of revelation. He is exalted and known according the dictate of his own heart. In his picking, he has selected the Bible, not drawings.

These are not the Rantings of a Picture-Hating Grump
The point of this article is not because I am grumpy about pictures of Jesus. In fact, there may be pictures of Jesus in kid’s books or videos in my own home. So please don’t misunderstand me. I am not on a personal mission to tear down pictures of Jesus; I only want to raise questions of validity. Furthermore, I am not saying that pictures of Jesus in your church or home are evidence of rebellion against God. Nor do I think you should go to church this Sunday and start purging. Rather, I simply want to explore ways in which we can improve in our thinking about God and Worship.

God is pleased for us to worship Jesus without pictures. In fact, a case from the Bible can’t be made to say that we must use pictures of Jesus. Worshiping Jesus without pictures is Biblical. Since that is true, we can ask: What do we gain by using drawings or statues of Jesus? Since worship is valid without them, why would we employ them?

“But The Bible Does Not Explicitly Prohibit Pictures of Jesus”
One counterargument to my proposal is that scriptures do not give prohibitions against using pictures of Jesus. There is some validity to that way of thinking as the argument proceeds this way: Since the Bible does not explicitly say not to use pictures or statues of Jesus in worship, we are free to do so. In fact, Israel used images of cherubim in the temple (which was central to their worship). With these counterarguments in place, would Exodus20:4-5 give us clues regarding what God might say on the matter? Is there any principle we can glean from that text? In Exodus 20, has God distanced himself from worship that involves created images of Him? Israel made images of cherubim, but they were told not to make images used for the worship of God. So my subject is narrowly confined to worshiping God with created images of God. Would Exodus 20:4 extend to not using pictures of Jesus in worship? This is a valid question as we remember that Jesus himself is the God-Man.

Statues and Pictures of Jesus are from Our Imagination
When it comes to pictures of Jesus, we simply don’t know what he looks like. So the problem is compounded by our use of images that are purely hypothetical. When we create images of God, we are not creating what has been revealed, but we are expressing what is in our own imagination.

Worse, cartoon pictures used to explain Jesus to children may impart to them a cartoon idea of our Creator. Cartoon books are not the means ordained by God for his self revelation, yet some go there so easily and without pausing to ask all these questions. Does God want us to communicate his excellencies to children with cartoon drawings? At least we should ask the question. Does it glorify Jesus to find a more preferable means of showing children who God is? Our church nurseries are filled with images of all the Bible events and Bible characters. Not only is Jesus thrown into that mix, but the end result may be that Christianity is not divorced from the media we use in discipleship. A flat picture-book version of Christianity can be implanted in the hearts of our children. What are the longterm affects of this on children? Have we really communicated who God is as we go down this drawing route? Have we unwittingly communicated that God is pleased to be known by pictures and statues? By using pictures of Jesus, are we communicating that God is rightly (and validly) known according to the imagination of the artist?

Pictures and Statues of Jesus Miss God’s Godness and Redemptive Qualities
Fred Wheeler recently made the plain observation that drawings and paintings of Jesus don’t communicate his redemptive qualities and divine attributes. What God is like is not shown in a picture. The essence of God is not revealed in man-made images. What he is really like can thus be exchanged for having him the way we find more natural (pictures). Pictures are all around us. They are how we think of media and news. Pictures are everywhere a part of our world. When we use them to portray Jesus, something may happen. Pictures exchange his attributes for his appearance. And since we don’t know what he looked like when he appeared, we really exchange the attributes of deity and redemption for appearances that come from the heart of his fallen creatures. The exchange is a trade, and it comes at a cost.

Pictures and Statues Can be Surrogate Sermons
Perhaps we want to see Jesus with artistic images because we are not seeing him in the preaching of the Word? Perhaps there is a craving to meet God where he has not asked to be found because we don’t meet him on Sunday mornings? Perhaps we don’t encounter God in the preaching of the Word because ministers of the word are giving out trivial knowledge about Jesus packed with uninsightful religious stories followed by loads of life applications. Pastors who do not expound deeply about Christ may be starving people with trite sayings and uninspiring or obvious religious observations. Or, worse, maybe they themselves are promoting other words or other images. In these cases, it is no wonder that worshipers turn to man-made images of Jesus.

Perhaps Holywood images of Jesus satisfy a craving that people have because Jesus is not profoundly or powerfully known in their church worship? Perhaps some feel that they are worshiping Jesus when they see him drawn large precisely because they don’t feel his presence in the ministry and preaching of the word? If Christ is not preached, then people will replace that with cartoon pictures, moving images or various other substitutes. The cartoon pictures for kids, or the appetite for Jesus in high quality production, may reveal something about the inadequacy of the food being served to congregations. God is pleased to be known through the foolishness of the preaching of Christ, but if he is not found there, people may look elsewhere.

If you find yourself weeping before a powerful image of Jesus (at a theater, in front of your T.V. or in front of a statue), then ask yourself if you are emotionally engaging God there because you do not find him relevant in the preaching of your church. If you have profound, deeply meaningful or life-changing experiences of Christ through movies or statues, then search for reasons. If God is to be found in the high-budget artistic versions of Jesus, then should we ordain the artists or defrock the pastors? God wants to be found. Does he want you to find him according to your instincts, or as per his dictate?

God has ordained the means and the place where he is to be worshiped. He has instituted the church and the ministry of the word (see Ephesians 4:11-12), so why would we seek him elsewhere? Perhaps, we seek him elsewhere because we discover that he is not found where he said he would be found. Maybe we go to church and we don’t hear deep discourse about Christ, so we go to the movies or the artist. That is, I believe some people may flock to artistic productions and images of Jesus because they are not hearing anything profound about Jesus at church.

We Should Use Images of God in Worship
Negatively, I have suggested that pictures of Jesus may be detrimental to true worship and discipleship. But positively, we can look for the right way to employ the image of God in worship. Namely, we should worship God as his living images. God’s images are employed in the worship of God when the images themselves worship Christ. Be the image of God. You do it. If people want to know what God is like, then minister to the ones that Jesus ministered to. Spread his message with your words. Be Christ in the world, and when they see your deeds and hear your words, they will praise our Father who is in Heaven. Do you want to draw close to Jesus in Worship? Then go and minister. Let your life be a living sacrifice of worship. Jesus said, “As much as you do it the least of my brothers, you have done it unto me.” Observe the body of Christ. Behold the church. Look there, and go and minister to the least of His brothers, and there you will be doing it unto him. This includes gathering for regular worship with God’s people (Hebrews 10:24-25). Unite with the church and let your praise be united with the saints as one single body given over to the worship of God (Romans 12:1-2).

In Exodus 20:4, God did not say he rejects images of God. He said he did not want man-made images. He wants his image in the world, and he wants it in flesh. To that end, he has wrought a body, the church, to extend his image. He has made you, dear Christian, to carry his image as a member of his body.

We can abandon drawings and statues of Jesus because we ourselves are the image of God used in worship. Worship God with your whole life and with your congregational praises (Hebrews 13:15). Become like Christ and wash the feet of the saints. Love what Jesus loves. To worship God with idols means not letting your body be the image of God used in worship. Therefore use your life — your very existence — to physically tend to the widows and orphans and keep yourself unstained from idolatry (James 1:27), and therein use your opportunities to speak and advance the message of the gospel. Christ has shown us what God is like and who he is. Jesus is the image of God. Now you too.

This article was published under Bible, Christlike-God, Exodus, Jesus, Media, Worship.

2 Responses to Images of God used in Worship

  1. Bob Haight says:

    Steve, as one who grew up Catholic I am quite familiar with images of Christ. I don’t disagree with your points, but would add that as a teacher yourself, you are surely aware that different people learn in different ways; for some, seeing words or numbers on a blackboard are sufficient, for others physically handling objects or participating in a play are more effective ways to learn.
    In the same manner, some people’s ministry is through the spoken word, while for others it is through writing, others through attending the sick or the poor. And for some, their gift is expression through music or art. When I hear Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire” I am convinced of the hand of a higher Power, just as to stand in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a painting by Caravaggio or the stained glass windows of Chartres can elevate one to contemplate God.

    To say that their works are idolatrous is to remove most music, literature and art from the period before the Renaissance. Until that time, most of the creative works we now find inspired were not secular but created “Soli Deo Gloria.”

    To me the proof is in the effect upon the reader, listener or viewer, not the work itself. What humans create is not divine, but it can evoke the awe of the Divine if it is inspired. Unlike Mormons, we do not claim that God physically wrote the very words of Scripture, but that it was created by humans under divine inspiration. I find it hard to believe that God was not at work through the hands and pens of many, even to our present time…

  2. Bob, sorry for the 7 month delay in reply. You say you don’t disagree with my points, but then you argues 100% against the very essence of my points. I did not say that art is idolatrous, I said that its theological use is forbidden by the covenant with Israel!

    Your basic argument seems to be that many people are inspired by art and images (in some mystical way, they are spying the God who made them through the inspiration of the art made by his creatures). You add to that, “Proof is in the effect upon the reader, listener or viewer, not the work itself.”

    The contrast between your point and mine is that you are rooting your case in that is which inside people — i.e., what they experience. But I am saying nearly the opposite: To find the truth of the matter ‘Does God want images to be used in worship?’, we don’t turn to ourselves (our experiences or the effect we get from art), we turn to the Bible.

    God made a covenant, and in it guarded how he is to be known. The essence of this discussion is how God can be known. And art is the one thing he forbade! And it is the same exact thing you are protecting as valid for ongoing revelation. God did not forbid art, he forbade its use in worship. That means that any historical arguments about the Renaissance (or centuries of artwork flowing from churches) is to be judged as equally problematic, for the Word of God is the Bible, not the collective happenings of the Renaissance, nor the impact of art on the soul or psyche.

    So there is a clear contrast here. And I think it is nearly the same as the contrast between Reformation theology and Catholic theology. To that end, what I articulated in this article is that God has spoken in his Word, and that Scripture Alone is the basis for us discovering the mind of God in these matters.

    God articulates his will in his Word, the Bible. We humans articulate the antithetical, “yeah, but…” God says, “No images used in the worship of me!” And we say, “But images help us.”

    If someone wants to argue that images are good for worship or good for coming into contact with God, then it should be shown from the Bible — God’s word must shed light on the matter. Mormonism (which you mention) is a good test case in this. For, just like Mormonism, you are open to more writings. Where you say you differ from Mormons, you seem most like them, for it is the idea of ongoing revelation that is core to their religion. New books. New prophets. New writings from God. More than just the Bible. One man’s art is another man’s book of Mormon.