I walked into one of my pastor-friends churches and saw the creepiest painting of Jesus ever – it totally freaked me out. I think about the hilariousness of 21 Jump Street and Korean Jesus not having time for the white people’s problems because he was busy with Korean problems. I watch Talladega Nights and think about Jesus singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And then I hear Megyn Kelly announcing that we all know that Jesus was white.
Megyn Kelly brought to light recently the issue of what Jesus looked like, and a recent Christianity Today article took the opportunity to propose the idea of even eliminating pictures of Jesus from Nativity scenes.
Truth is, Jesus wasn’t white or black or Sioux or Korean – he was Jewish. How tall was he? I haven’t the slightest idea. I guess we could do some archaeological digs and find the median height of males in the first century Middle East, but what if he was taller or shorter than the average guy? We could depict him with curly sideburns, but what if he cut his off?
My point in all of these questions is that we do not know what Jesus looked like, and any attempt to depict him is going to go wrong somewhere. But what if we did know what he looked like – if we could know for certain exactly what color skin tone and precisely what kind of facial structure he had? I still think we’re off base trying to depict God.
We could depict him as a little baby, but is he? We could put him on the cross, but is he still there?
Every time we depict Jesus, we are selling him far short. When we make him a little baby in the Nativity scene, we can carry him around the house and put little baby Jesus in the manger and maybe even drop him on the floor. If you have an inside dog, you might run the risk of something awful happening to Jesus. Isn’t that why the story of Dagon is so funny and informative? (1 Sam. 5:1-4) The simple truth that we can all recognize is that that little baby Jesus isn’t Jesus at all. But what do the kids say? Or for that matter, what do the parents say? “Bring little baby Jesus in here and put him next to Mary and Joseph.” So if we’re going to talk about him that way in real life, it’s hard for me to say that he’s not a little idol.
I’m fine with making statues of the rest of the Nativity scene or art that depicts whatever other Christian figure. I don’t mind having two white magi and one black one. Because I don’t care if we get that wrong. They’re not God, and making mistakes about them is fine. But selling God short is wrong.
And we will always sell God short when we make art or figurines out of him. That helpless baby in the manger cast out demons as a grown man. That sad, sullen man on the cross rose again three days later – he’s not suffering there anymore, he’s reigning in heaven, ready to come back soon.
One of my friends said that we should think of Jesus as a baby during this Christmas season. I don’t totally disagree, but I disagree with the wording. We shouldn’t think of him as a baby, we should think of him as having been a baby. We shouldn’t think of Jesus as being on the cross, we should think of him as having been on the cross. If we think of him as a baby right now, if we think of him as being on the cross right now, we think about him incorrectly. He’s neither of those. Jesus was born as a baby, Jesus was on the cross, but he’s neither of those now – He’s reigning in heaven.
Another issue I have is something that I have encountered here in Latin America. Latinos talk about “Diosito” (Little God or God in the diminutive) and ask for things from “niño Dios.” They’re not just talking about that time long ago when Jesus was a baby – they’re talking about Jesus now as if he were still in diapers. As if he were some sweet little helpless babe throwing up on Mary. I’m not saying he didn’t do those things, I’m saying that he’s not doing them now. We need to read and hear the stories in their gory detail for sure, but we do not need to turn Jesus into a cuddly little baby that we can carry around the house. The Nativity scene and the crucifix only play into this idea even more.
This all comes back to the commandment though. I doubt I would have ever even considered this idea if I hadn’t read the 10 commandments and what happened in the story of the golden calf. We are commanded not to make or worship any image or idol to worship on things in heaven or earth. I think that includes both God the Father as a spirit and Jesus as the man on earth. And when did Israel disobey? In Exodus 32, Aaron made a golden calf for the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” He didn’t make a calf and ask the people to worship the God of another nation, he made a wrong image of the God who is real. That calf didn’t lead them out of Egypt, the God of heaven who is spirit did that.
Not only is the issue about what we are commanded not to do, there is also the example of the whole Bible. I have seen no positive examples of images of God in the Bible but only stories of the sin of false idols. Even Gideon’s ephod turned into sin for the people.
With clear prohibitions against making idols and no positive examples of images of God, I simply cannot see any reason why we should incorporate them into our worship or even our decoration. Sure, there may be plenty of philosophical reasons why it would be helpful, but are there any biblical justifications for depicting God? Until I see more than human reasons why we need to see him, I’m going to keep trusting in the Jesus I read about in the Word.