Are Images of Jesus a Violation of the Commandments?

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Different groups within Christianity disagree as to whether Jesus should be depicted in icons, crucifixes, paintings, or other visual media. In this article, Chad Bird approaches the question from the angle of both the commandments and the incarnation.

I was recently asked on my Facebook page if images of Jesus (e.g., on a crucifix or icon or painting) are a violation of the Second Commandment. Because I thought others might be interested in this question as well, I will post my response here.

Question: Are images of Jesus a violation of the Second Commandment?

First, some historical perspective. This general question has been debated since the early centuries of the church. It was the subject of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787, and has been an ongoing point of disagreement between various leaders of the Reformation and their theological heirs.

Lutherans, for instance, teach that Christians and churches are free to have icons, crucifixes, paintings, and other visual media of Christ. Many traditional Reformed communions teach otherwise. They hold that it is a violation of the command in Exodus 20:4-5 regarding the making of images or likenesses of God.

One preliminary clarification: we cannot simply say “the Second Commandment” without defining which commandment we’re talking about. There are at least three different numbering systems of the commandments (Jewish, Lutheran/Roman Catholic, and Orthodox/Reformed). In the question above, the “Second Commandment” refers to the prohibition of images (which, for Lutherans and Roman Catholics, is included within the First Commandment).

Now, let’s try to answer the original question.

The Old Testament

Let’s first ask why the commandment was given. Deuteronomy 4:15-16 gives us the answer: “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure….” It goes on to list what some of these images might be. A couple of verses before uses similar language: “Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (4:12).

What is God saying? He showed the Israelites no “form” or “likeness,” the Hebrew word of which is temunah תְּמוּנָה. This is the same word used in both Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 for the prohibition of making a divine “likeness.” Because God gave his people no form or likeness of himself; because they only “heard the sound of words, but saw no form”; they were therefore forbidden from making a form or likeness of God.

What their eyes had not seen, their hands must not fashion.

Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, under the Sinai covenant, the people of Israel were strictly forbidden not only from making images of false gods (of course), but also from making images of the true God, Yahweh. The tabernacle and temple were replete with iconography of cherubim, flowers, and a variety of animals, but there was no image of the Lord.

The New Testament

At the incarnation of the Son of God, there was finally something new under the sun. Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). To the church in Corinth, Paul writes that Christ “is the image of God” (2. Cor. 4:4). To Colossae, he virtually repeats himself, saying, “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God,” (Col. 1:15). Jesus is God made visible, tangible, a true flesh-and-blood man, fully divine and fully human in one person.

In other words, unlike at Sinai, when the Israelites only heard the sound of the Lord speaking, but did not see his form or likeness, in the incarnation, God gives himself to be seen and touched. In Jesus “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Therefore, to touch the body of Jesus, to see the body of Jesus, and indeed to paint or carve or sculpt the body of Jesus, is to touch and see and artistically portray God himself.

If any and every visual depiction of God were forbidden, for all time, in every circumstance, then in the incarnation of the Son, the Father would be violating his own commandment, for he gives us his image, his likeness, his form in Jesus Christ—and not in a painting but a real man.

Visual Sermons

For this reason, Christians of various traditions, including my own, not only have no hesitancy to display or create images of Jesus, but joyfully and boldly do so as a confession of the incarnation.

These “visual sermons” proclaim that the Son of God became one of us. They say:

-See the face of Jesus in that icon? That is God’s face, made man for you.

-See the hands of Jesus on that crucifix? Those are God’s hands, pierced for you.

-See the scars of Jesus in that picture of the resurrection? Those are God’s scars, which are for your healing.

From this perspective, when I read Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5, I see a subtle prophecy of the incarnation. Under the old covenant, when God gave his “ten words” to Israel, one of which prohibited them from making images of God, we see a word that one day would come to its true fulfillment, when the Father’s Son would take on human form, a human likeness, and become one with us, even as he remained one with his Father.

To read through the commandments is already, therefore, to hear in the far-off future, angels taking a deep breath to sing “Glory to God in the highest” as the Lord is made seeable and touchable in Mary’s arms.

Images of Jesus, in short, are not a violation of the commandments but the very celebration of their fulfillment in Jesus, the icon of the Father.