Word of the Week: Transcendence

Is it sinful to create or use art images of God, Jesus, and the Dove?

Yesterday I'd posted an essay titled "Back to Basics: The Importance of Prophecy". I like to use ancient art to illustrate a point, to fire the imagination, or to break up the text so readers see something visual. The essay drew some comments, including this admonition from a commenter. It was a good admonition, and I've been studying and thinking about it ever since.
I enjoy reading your blog very much. However, the first illustration set my teeth on edge and I feel like I really must address it's usage.

The Bible is very clear about making images of God - it is forbidden.
Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below."

Matthew Henry: "The second commandment refers to the worship we are to render to the Lord our God. It is forbidden to make any image or picture of the Deity, in any form, or for any purpose; or to worship any creature, image, or picture." http://www.christnotes.org/commentary.php?b=2&c=20&com=mhc

Numbers 23:19 begins "God is not a man" and John 4:24 begins "God is spirit". If we want to illustrate God according to scriptural reference, we would have to add wings and feathers, among other things - like roving eyes!

I personally use pictures of Jesus when teaching young children because Jesus was both man and God, fully human and fully God, he lived and died and rose again here on earth and ascended back into heaven with a human body (glorified). Jesus also appeared on earth in the Old Testament several times as theophanies, in form as a human being. But I ALWAYS remind children that we do NOT know what Jesus looked like and that the pictures I use are just to help us understand the story. I've even talked to my young Grandson about John's description of Jesus in Revelation 1 which is not at all what most people think Jesus looks like.

Although I've used a dove to represent Holy Spirit, again, I always tell children it is just a representation, as described in Luke 3:22 " the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove" NIV. other translations say "as" or "in the form of" - but NEVER that Holy Spirit IS a dove - He just descended like a dove would.

I cannot do that with God the Father. God is a spirit and just as we cannot see our spirits, we cannot see God, and the Bible says we cannot see God and live! Pictures like the illustration you used just make God seem to be an angry old man, totally destroying His magnificence and "otherness".

I encourage you, humbly, to rethink your use of images of God the Father. Study it out. Art is beautiful many times, but that does not mean it is good.
I took the comment seriously. I've been researching from my favorite authoritative sources. I have not arrived a clear-cut decision but the preponderance of evidence had led me to decide on one particular way. But first, I want to go through my thought-process and ask some meandering questions. I'm thinking out loud in this one, rather than delivering my usual definitive explanation, lol.

The commenter wrote, "The Bible is very clear about making images of God - it is forbidden. Exodus 20:4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below."

Technically the Commandment does not forbid any image of God. It forbids graven images, or making an idol out of the image. There is a difference. You can read that verse in all the standard bible translations, here. I acknowledge it is splitting hairs, but I want to make note of the what the Commandment actually says in its truest form. Got Questions explains what a graven image is, and does it very well. I'll get back to this notion and explain my thinking further, in the part discussing drinking wine, below.

There is no doubt that art which illustrates the great bible scenes is moving and inspiring. I am lately finding that Annie Vallotton's simple line drawings which illustrate the Good News Bible especially moving. I also love the old Renaissance art and William Blake's watercolors. I saw Michaelangelo's David at the Gallery in Florence and deemed it the most beautiful man-made thing I'd ever seen.

God delivers to the believer the gift of the Holy Spirit. In using that gift we honor the Lord in all we do (or we should). This includes the making of hymns and songs. (Ephesians 5:19). Does this also include the making of art? According to Exodus 35:30-33, it does. Bezalel was gifted with the Spirit in order to honor the Lord by assisting the people in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Bezalel was not directed to make images of God, I am sure. However, "the God who created us, and who knows how deeply we are affected by sin, understands our desire to condense Him into a form we can see and understand", the writer at GotQuestions relates.

So where does that leave us? Let's go directly to the Word and look at the Second Commandment.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6).

On first read, it seems that God is prohibiting any representational art at all. Is He really saying, don't make an image of a tree or a fish or of a goat? That cannot be right because God later told Moses to make the cherubim for the ark, the serpent for the purpose of lifting up sin. Solomon was directed to make an image of palm trees and olive trees for the Temple doors. (1 Ki 6:32) and so on. So it cannot be that we are prohibited from making any representational art.

So what is the deal here, anyway? The Second Commandment prohibits worship of the above. God clearly prohibited bowing down before any image of any kind at all when the image represents someone or something the one to whom one is praying, like and Ashereh pole or a totem pole. In 1 Samuel 5:3 the people brought the man-fish idol Dagon and put it next to the Ark of the Covenant. "And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place." The next day Dagon was in much worse shape, and the people got rid of the idol, the point having been made.

Installing Dagon was a violation of both the first and second commandments. Dagon was a competing earthly, representational object which had been formed with the purpose of  receiving prayer and representing a false God. God is God and there is no other. Therefore Dagon had to go.

So it is OK to create an image of God if the purpose is not to worship it? Maybe, but likely not. I would say no, for two reasons. First because I personally believe that the 2nd Commandment is in place because becomes too easy to imbue the representation of God with spiritual qualities, pray to it, make a shrine or otherwise violate the commandment. It happens quickly and without one being aware of it, even. "The golden ephod, which Gideon had made and even the brazen serpent, became a snare to Israel, distracting them from the worship of their God, as they, “…changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 1:25), wrote pastor G.D. Buss of the Old Baptist Chapel in Chippenham.

Even though the prohibition not to become drunk is not a commandment, I liken it to the second commandment in execution. The bible doesn't say not to drink. It says not to get drunk. (1 Tim 3;3, 3;8; Titus 1:7; Ephesians 5:18). So on one particular day if I am drinking a glass of wine slowly and with food, I may not get drunk. On another day, if I drink it a bit too quickly and have no food in my stomach, two glasses of alcohol may may get me insensible- and I have sinned. If the line is THAT close, then why tempt myself to sin? I want to err on the side of caution, and NOT drink at all.

It is the same with an image of God. In my opinion we are not prohibited from making any image at all, but in making one that becomes an idol. However if it is so easy to sin in idol worship, as the bible repeatedly shows us, then why tempt myself and use a representation of God casually or spiritually disrespectfully- and thus to sin? I want to err on the side of caution and NOT make or use an image of God at all.

God is invisible. (1 Timothy 1:17, Hebrews 11:27). Another scripture says “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) therefore "Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination." (source)

Ultimately, if God is invisible, can we make Him visible? We dare not! Ultimately, if He is Creator, can man create him? We dare not! If an image can become graven so easily, should we make one? We dare not! So the commenter's wise admonition to me is well taken and I'll stop using artistic representations of God on the blog. Thank you for the correction!

That leaves us with a murkier question though, both for me and for the commenter. I'd really like all people to weigh in on this. What about artistic representations of Jesus and the Dove, which are also God? The commenter said he or she uses them with caution and gave reasons. Yet, J.I Packer said, "If paintings, drawings and statues of Jesus, the incarnate Son, were always viewed as symbols of human perfection within the culture that produced them (white–faced Anglo–Saxon, black–faced African, yellow–faced Chinese or whatever), rather than as suggesting what Jesus actually looked like, no harm would be done. But since neither children nor unsophisticated adults view them in this way we shall in my opinion be wiser to do without them."

So I would in turn ask the commenter to humbly study the use of Jesus and the Dove in imagery with children...as I will do myself.

For us adults, is representing Jesus also a violation of the Second Commandment if we understand in our maturity that it is only a symbol? Jesus is God. Whoever has seen Him has seen the Father. (John 14:9). But if Jesus is the image of God and walked the earth to be seen by men, is it now wrong to represent Him in likeness?

Maybe so. After all, the apostles were with Jesus for three and a half years, saw Him every day, and never once made mention of how He looked in the scriptural writings. If it was important for us to know, wouldn't they have said so, somewhere? As a matter of fact, the only writing we have on how He looked was that He had no likeness to commend him, no beauty or majesty. (Isaiah 52:2b).

Jesus did not reveal Himself to the two on the Road to Emmaus visibly first, He revealed Himself by the Word first. As a matter of fact, he deliberately kept them from recognizing Him initially (Luke 24:16). He didn't say, "Hey look at Me," He said, "Hey, listen to Me." (Luke 24:27).

Therefore is it wrong to have stained glass windows at church with images of the Dove or of Jesus? Bible illustrations? Representational art of Jesus or the Dove? Is it wrong to watch movies that show Jesus, hiring actors who "look" like Jesus,  to 'be' Jesus, such as The Passion of the Christ or Jesus Christ Superstar or the Jesus Movie? Are they violations of the Commandment also?

As J.I. Packer explained, "Accordingly, we take the second commandment ­as in fact it has always been taken­ as pointing us to the principle that (to quote Charles Hodge) “idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images.” In its Christian application, this means that we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship. The commandment thus deals not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it; what it tells us is that statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping him."

Adhering to this definition would indicate that NO image of Jesus, as presented to children or any other person, and NO dove, as represented in art or any other way, would be acceptable- if it is used for worship. .

What are your thoughts on art depicting Jesus and the Spirit? If they are not used for worship?

This is all food for thought, open for discussion. What do you think?


  1. Interesting, never really thought about it. What about Nativity scenes? I think of it as a reminder of the birth of Christ but I recognize it for what it is.....man-made and inanimate. I'll need to study and pray about this.

    1. Me too. It bears careful attention. I'm glad the commenter person brought it up.

  2. I am the person who wrote the original comment about using pictures of God. You wrestled through this post with exactly the same questions I have wrestled with, even using some of the same sources.

    I teach young children and have the freedom in my situation to use whatever I want to use in teaching materials (within boundaries of approval by the elders of the church). I have chosen to use pictures of Jesus and as I explained in the original comment, ALWAYS with the reminder - every single time - that we don't know what Jesus really looked like somehow woven into the story. The culture I live in has pictures of Jesus everywhere - all Catholic and Orthodox cultures do, so the children are exposed to pictures/statues/stained glass windows/etc of Jesus, the Apostles, other Bible characters and various saints all the time already. I use as many different pictures as I can: Old Masters paintings, simple line drawings like you mentioned, charcoal drawings, and so forth - most that are available from the internet. What I DO NOT use are cartoon drawings as I am personally offended by them (and many of the recent Sunday School curriculum use them, much to my sorrow). I use all these different pictures to try to help the children NOT form a specific image in their minds as to how Jesus looked. I do stay away from blonde pictures (but those are rare), black, Asian, etc. because Jesus was NOT any of those races - he was on earth a Middle Eastern Jew of that time period who had, as you wrote: "no likeness to commend him, no beauty or majesty. (Isaiah 52:2b)". (Someone once asked me about using a Black Jesus or a Chinese Jesus to help relate to those races and all I could think of was: Jesus was a Middle Eastern male Jew and I've never had a problem with Jesus not relating to me because I'm a white female American of Scandanavian descent instead!)

    I use the dove and tongue of fire to represent Holy Spirit when the Bible actually uses those illustrations in the written word. Otherwise, I only mention him (like in the Old Testament stories where people were filled with the Holy Spirit for specific purposes) and use no illustration.

    As a Sunday School teacher it is important that I teach the Bible correctly and try, through the Holy Spirit's guidance, to help the children understand who God is and who they are and what He requires of us. I'm building the beginning foundation that others are going to build upon the rest of their lives, so it is very important that I get it right - both what I believe personally and what I teach. My responsibility is much greater than others' and I am aware of that burden every time I teach.

    Matthew 18:6 "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

    1. Thanks once again, Anonymous. You are a good "iron sharpener" today.

  3. This is very important to think about. Acts 17:29 says "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device. Verse 30 then says "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:"
    I heard a commentator say one time, that when the false christ of the one world religion appears after the rapture, that people will think he is the true messiah because he will look like all the famous paintings that have depicted what Jesus looks like.

  4. Let us not forget, while we are on the topic of images and idols, that the "church" is full of them. From variations of the cross to translations of the bible to stained glass windows and the sort.
    The images time and again brought trouble to Israel, not that they (the images themselves) have power but because of the unnatural value that was placed on them gave a place for the enemy.
    Even the buildings themselves have been given in our time too much value. I know so many people who would be very careful about what they would say in a church building or in front of someone who was religious but will say and do almost anything otherwise, without any regard for God himself.
    And as far as "getting after" someone for violating what we may regard as something very important, need to remember that first of all we are at different levels of understanding and the Holy Spirit needs to be the one who corrects in grace and mercy.
    Some matters should be handled privately when possible.
    I thank God for your willingness to be corrected Elizabeth, may it please our Father in heaven to give you wisdom and understanding.

  5. Quick, when you think of Moses who do you think of? Charlton Heston in the 10 commandments right? I think it's natural for people to think or even assign physical attributes to those depicted in the bible. Noah, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, and of course Jesus...Is it wrong for us to imagine what these individuals may have looked like or for an artist to create a visual rendition? I hope not. When I pray I don't happen to think about what God or Jesus looks like, I think about Exodus 3:14, John 14:6, or Job chapter 40 and Revelation 19:11-16. However, I think the issue often becomes what Romans 1 v 25 explains....They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. And
    Verse 23 of the same chapter speaks about exchanging the immortal God for mortal images made to look like humans, birds, animals, ect.
    I too grew up in a Sunday school that used the typical images of Christ.......even though it wasn't explained to me that this is not what Jesus actually looks like, I knew to worship the Creator and not the created.

    1. I believe the assignment of physical attributes of the bible people is OK. David was small, Moses was a stutterer, Paul was small, bowlegged and strongly built. It is about when we do the same with God.

      I agree completely about the Romans verses and exchanging the creator for the creation. I think idolatry is exactly that. We get so many warnings in the bible about idolatry, don't we? I think that is an indicator of how easy it is to make the substitution...

      I'm glad you had the innate understanding of Who to worship!!!

    2. Not sure it was exactly innate, my father was a pastor:)
      On a side note I just realized you are a woman, not that it matters I was just under the impression that you were a man. I guess I thought that due to previous mentions of boat living. Sorry I sterotyped you.

    3. LOL, no worries. Yes, I'm a woman. I lived on the boat with my husband. I know I write more analytically and less emotionally, which men tend to do more than women; and the absence of mention of having children also contributes to the tone of the blog as more masculine.

  6. A few years ago, I had a crucifix hanging on the wall. It had an 'image' of Jesus displayed on it. After reading Isaiah 40:18~ With whom, then, will you compare God?
    To what image will you liken him?
    I promptly removed it. I was a new Christian at the time, and people asked why I removed it, I simply told them because God told me to. Now, that may sound simplistic to me now, but sometimes, we must just trust what the Holy spirit reveals to us and obey. I have never got a check in my spirit about pictures in books, especially while teaching Sunday school, or my own children. Perhaps it was the placement of the crucifix, up on the wall...dipicting an object that may generate worship?
    But then,(regarding pictures).. my daughter had a problem with the famous 'face of Jesus' on a jewelry box I had...she was apalled when I sat a candle on top of it...I had to remind her that it was only an image...not Jesus, as Jesus is in Heaven sitting at the right hand of God the Father...not on a cedar jewelry box! I have since put it away...as I can see how easily it is for a Christian to err. (As you've discovered in your research) God knew this when He warned us in the commandment!

    Now, I live in a place where there are several Amish, and they have some pretty different views on this subject...they perhaps take it way too far though, as they forbid displaying ANY image of anything in their homes...except for birds. (reason unknown)
    When it comes to images of god's creation...I think it is important to remember the second command...Not to bow thyself down to worship any graven image. If you have a nic-nac of a dog on your table...don't bow thyself down and worship it...but, what would be your response to that item being dropped, and broken? If you would be devestated, well then, perhaps you have adored (worshipped) it without realizing it?..
    Food for thought (and prayer).
    ~God bless~ Lisa

  7. When I was a little girl whenever I went to my grandmother's home, there was always this picture about a white Jesus with long blonde hair, green eyes, white soft skin. At that I was sure that that was Christ Jesus. But since I've become a "Big Girl" whenever I imagine seeing the Father God or Jesus Christ I still see myself as a little girl and I'm holding onto God's leg and I'm smiling and looking up to him and He's smiling looking down on me. There is no clear image of His face but I know that He's my father and we are in sync with each other. And most of all, I feel the "Love" and it's warm and strong and I know that this my "Father" who's image I resemble. So whenever I see "Good" people, "Bad" people, disabled people, older people, younger people, dark skinned people, white people and etc. I'm sure that I am looking at God because I feel that same strong love and I know that no one or no thing can separate me from His love.

  8. New American Standard Bible
    It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.We as mature Christians may be called to account for causing a weaker brother or sister to stumble and go into idolatory by the thoughtless use of images etc.

  9. Why does it really matter what Yeshua the Messiah looked like? He is God the Son and one with the Father and the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit). Instead of being so concerned with his physical appearance, we should be more concerned with what he did for us at Golgotha and what he’s doing for us now by interceding on our behalf with the Father. The early believers didn’t care what he looked like and neither did their children. Sure, the pagan had difficulty accepting a deity that wasn’t represented by a carved image, but the Holy Spirit eventually took care of that. The Gospel accounts never discuss his physical appearance. So all we truly know about the Messiah what those of the 1st century knew:
    He was born in Beit-Lechem (Bethlehem), he lived and grew up in the Gallil in a town called Nazaret, and he walked this streets of Isra’el as a Jew (Tribe of Y’hudah). He’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, according to his cousin, Yochanan the Immerser (John the Baptist). And he will return to earth to establish his Kingdom. So what he looked like is of extremely little importance in the Grand Scheme of Things, at least according to the ancient Hebrew mindset.

    Shalom aleikehm!

    Jerry the Messianic Jew

    1. Jerry the Messianic Jew, O how easily you dismiss the second commandment. don't "care what he looked like." I care about obeying His commands

  10. In the early church, there was actually a council that considered this question. With the rise of the influence of Islam, Christians began to destroy all images in churches This was called the iconoclast movement. Artists were actually crippled so they couldn't paint. After some years of disagreement, representatives of what was then the entire Christian church met and decided that, as Christians, we should not depict God the Father, but since Jesus was born and lived as a person here on earth, He could be depicted in that life. The Holy Spirit could be depicted as a dove (symbolically) just as you mentioned, because it is mentioned in the bible, also. As to prophets, etc, they too could be depicted. Not to worship, but as a remembrance, just like any of us might keep a photo as a keepsake of someone we admire. So, we are all still discussing this, but it is not a new controversy, and has been considered in depth around 1500 years ago.

  11. I don't understand that response Elizabeth. I think Jerry summed it up quite well, and I can't at all see where his post contradicts the second commandment.

  12. I've been in the church my whole life. Recently..my lord Adonai has been awakening me to the deception EVERYWHERE around us! The church and most homes are FULL of graven images! The church and bookstores even sell them and make fortunes!! I'm 48...I have not heard ONE pastor teach on purging these items and walking in obedience...aka LOVE..to Yahshua! Yet...it's the 2nd commandment!!!! Yahweh often instructed his people to destroy entire groups of people and take nothing with them...due to the evil it would bring to their owe homes!! Maybe he knows the power of these items!?? The tiniest amount of leaven affects the whole batch! Please step away from man made teachings and study HIS perfect word. From page one forward. The "NEW" covenant is found in Jeremiah 31! His set apart day Saturday!! Wake up and TEST everything!!!


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