Images of the Godhead and the Second Commandment, Part 7

One more from the “experts” on the Pictorial imagery of the Godhead then I’ll post my thoughts. Article can be found here.

Pictures of Christ

By John Murray

The question of the propriety of pictorial representations of the Saviour is one that merits examination. It must be granted that the worship of Christ is central in our holy faith, and the thought of the Saviour must in every instance be accompanied with that reverence which belongs to his worship. We cannot think of him without the apprehension of the majesty that is his. If we do not entertain the sense of his majesty, then we are guilty of impiety and we dishonor him.

It will also be granted that the only purpose that could properly be served by a pictorial representation is that it would convey to us some thought or lesson representing him, consonant with truth and promotive of worship. Hence the question is inescapable: is a pictorial representation a legitimate way of conveying truth regarding him and of contributing to the worship which this truth should evoke?

We are all aware of the influence exerted on the mind and heart by pictures. Pictures are powerful media of communication. How suggestive they are for good or for evil and all the more so when accompanied by the comment of the spoken or written word! It is futile, therefore, to deny the influence exerted upon mind and heart by a picture of Christ. And if such is legitimate, the influence exerted should be one constraining to worship and adoration. To claim any lower aim as that served by a picture of the Saviour would be contradiction of the place which he must occupy in thought, affection, and honour.

The plea for the propriety of pictures of Christ is based on the fact that he was truly man, that he had a human body, that he was visible in his human nature to the physical senses, and that a picture assists us to take in the stupendous reality of his incarnation, in a word, that he was made in the likeness of men and was found in fashion as a man.

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.

Without doubt the disciples in the days of his flesh had a vivid mental image of Jesus’ appearance and they could not but have retained that recollection to the end of their days. They could never have entertained the thought of him as he had sojourned with them without something of that mental image and they could not have entertained it without adoration and worship. The very features which they remembered would have been part and parcel of their conception of him and reminiscent of what he had been to them in his humiliation and in the glory of his resurrection appearance. Much more might be said regarding the significance for the disciples of Jesus’ physical features.

Jesus is also glorified in the body and that body is visible. It will also become visible to us at his glorious appearing “he will be seen the second time without sin by those who look for him unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).

What then are we to say of pictures of Christ? First of all, it must be said that we have no data whatsoever on the basis of which to make a pictorial representation; we have no descriptions of his physical features which would enable even the most accomplished artist to make an approximate portrait. In view of the profound influence exerted by a picture, especially on the minds of young people, we should perceive the peril involved in a portrayal for which there is no warrant, a portrayal which is the creation of pure imagination. It may help to point up the folly to ask: what would be the reaction of a disciple, who had actually seen the Lord in the days of his flesh, to a portrait which would be the work of imagination on the part of one who had never seen the Saviour? We can readily detect what his recoil would be.

No impression we have of Jesus should be created without the proper revelatory data, and every impression, every thought, should evoke worship. Hence, since we possess no revelatory data for a picture or portrait in the proper sense of the term, we are precluded from making one or using any that have been made.

Secondly, pictures of Christ are in principle a violation of the second commandment. A picture of Christ, 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. But since the materials for this medium of worship are not derived from the only revelation we possess respecting Jesus, namely, Scripture, the worship is constrained by a creation of the human mind that has no revelatory warrant. This is will worship. For the principle of the second commandment is that we are to worship God only in ways prescribed and authorized by him. It is a grievous sin to have worship constrained by a human figment, and that is what a picture of the Saviour involves.

Thirdly, the second commandment forbids bowing down to an image or likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. A picture of the Saviour purports to be a representation or likeness of him who is now in heaven or, at least, of him when he sojourned upon the earth. It is plainly forbidden, therefore, to bow down in worship before such a representation or likeness. This exposes the iniquity involved in the practice of exhibiting pictorial representations of the Saviour in places of worship. When we worship before a picture of our Lord, whether it be in the form of a mural, or on canvas, or in stained glass, we are doing what the second commandment expressly forbids. This is rendered all the more apparent when we bear in mind that the only reason why a picture of him should be exhibited in a place is the supposition that it contributes to the worship of him who is our Lord. The practice only demonstrates how insensitive we readily become to the commandments of God and to the inroads of idolatry. May the Churches of Christ be awake to the deceptive expedients by which the archenemy ever seeks to corrupt the worship of the Saviour.

In summary, what is at stake in this question is the unique place which Jesus Christ as the God-man occupies in our faith and worship and the unique place which the Scripture occupies as the only revelation, the only medium of communication, respecting him whom we worship as Lord and Saviour. The incarnate Word and the written Word are correlative. We dare not use other media of impression or of sentiment but those of his institution and prescription. Every thought and impression of him should evoke worship. We worship him with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God. To use a likeness of Christ as an aid to worship is forbidden by the second commandment as much in his case as in that of the Father and Spirit.

John Murray (1898-1975) is Former Professor of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.

What is a Name?

O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the
earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens! From the mouth of
infants and nursing babes You have established strength Because of Your
adversaries, To make the enemy and the revengeful cease. When I consider Your
heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have
ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You
care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him
with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You
have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of
the field, The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes
through the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in
all the earth! — Psalm 8

One of the pleasures and responsibilities of being a parent is the power given to us to name your children. My wife and I have spent hours in the past 6 months pilfering the baby name books, family trees, various web sites and other materials seeking for that perfect name for our unborn child. We have a special situation in our house since I am the last male left in the Glaser line however, because if our child is a boy we have to find a name that will not show preference to any side of the family. It must be a name in which all can find solace and none can find prejudice. You see names still mean something in my family and I am quite sure that is true for many of you. Not only can it can go a long way in endearing yourself to a rich uncle or an overbearing Grandmother, if you see it possible to slip in a Margaret or a Michael, but it can have lifelong effects on the child, you try not to give your child a name that can lead to easy teasing or can hinder their progress later in life. How many of you when you meet a Doctor for the first time and he has the name of let say Billy Bob wince a little? Names can mean quite a bit. The question before us today is if the mere naming of a child can be taken with such care and significance, how much more so should it matter how we address our God, our Creator?

We can without even thinking too hard name any number of instances where we see God’s name in our society being used superficially and with great offense. Whether it be politicians or music stars or athletes or ourselves it is not uncommon to hear the name of God nearly constantly being used in a derogatory and mocking manner. We live in an age today where we have become flippant about how we use God’s name and have placed humanity’s will and comfort above what God has commanded and demonstrated for us in his Word concerning his Holy name.
David in the Psalm we read this afternoon begins and ends his Psalm by using the proper name of God, the Trinitarian head of our Faith in a way that only someone who truly knows God can speak. It is vital we understand why it is that David does this and why it is important that we treasure the ability given to us by being children of God to use the name given by God to his people and do so with reverence and with awe. David writes in verse 1, “O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth…” We can hear David’s love and relationship in that one sentence, David is not saying, “Hey that God? Great Guy.” No David is confessing the splendor and the immeasurable greatness of our God. He goes on in Psalm 8 to lay out all the things that make our God not only the God of creation but the God who cares for the all that he has fashioned and seeks to empower the glory of his creation, humanity, though smaller and seemingly insignificant in its stature to the great universe above, though now fallen because of the sin of Adam, yet is still pre-eminent in the eyes of God so much so that David here speaks forth to the son of man, who is Jesus Christ, that will come and bring the glory and power of God to all the world. In knowing all this how do we ever come to the point where we take God’s name not only for granted but in vain?

The Third Commandment forbids us from taking the name of our Lord God in vain. Deuteronomy 5:11 says, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave them unpunished who takes His name in vain.” Moses here uses the same word that David uses in Psalm 8. The unspeakable name of God that the scribes were so afraid of using that they substituted the word adonai or Lord for it. I cannot press enough the point that the Jewish scribes and priests were rightly so afraid of misusing God’s name in vain that they would not even write it down in the Hebrew, instead using another word to signify its presence for the reader. We can recall in Judges 11: 31 the story of the General named Jephthah and his vow to the Lord that if he came back victorious from the battle he was waging that he would sacrifice the first thing which came running out of his house. And if you remember that story the first thing that came out of his house to greet him was, his daughter. Jephthah remembering his vow to God fell down in pain and anguish knowing what he had promised the Lord and did as he had promised because of the fear of breaking God’s Law. Yet we have become so careless with the way we come to God in prayer, in worship, and in our daily life. God has become just another epithet, meaning nothing more than any other word that we cry out so as to fit in with a Godless culture. Not only that but we have completely dismissed the last part of the Third commandment, do any of us really believe anymore that God punishes anyone? Have we become so blasé about God that we doubt his power and his right to do that which he has promised to do? Or do we go as far as to say that well since we are in a New Testament period that must mean that we no longer have to worry about all those outdated and silly claims made by the Mosaic Law that they no longer apply to us? Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-18 that, “I have come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Why do we then think we have a special dispensation to do otherwise? Why do we continue to take the Lord’s name in vain at nearly every opportunity? There is a great power to this name as David shows us in Psalm 8. We would be wise to use it as God has commanded us to.

Jesus gets himself in great trouble whenever he claims for himself the proper name of God to describe himself, and rightly so. If Jesus was not who he claimed to be then he was committing blasphemy by using the Lord’s name in vain, violating the very commandment that we have read today. For if Jesus is not God, if Jesus is not the Second person of the Trinity than he has committed a grievous sin and his death is pointless. We must recognize even this that Christ gave great care and trouble to making sure that the people of Palestine knew who he was and that he was God and is God incarnate and he did so by invoking the very name that David has given us in our Scripture lesson for this morning. As Jesus tells the elders, scribes, and Pharisees in Mark 14:62, “I am He.”

In closing, given these examples and God’s command to his people in His Word how should we come before our Holy and Almighty God but with reverence and awe with the power and the authority and the responsibility of using God’s proper name with care and foresight in our lives? The Scriptures give us stark examples of what happens to those who forsake and abandon the accountability they have been given as children of God. We would be wise today to remember the words of David.