One of the beautiful truths for Christians is how Jesus lives in the midst of his people by his Holy Spirit. The indwelling Spirit guides and changes believers directly, not from a distance.
No intercessor is required, not even a priest. Christians are invited to confess their sins to God, to accept forgiveness from him, and to dialogue with the Father as they would with any human parent or friend.
What, then, is the purpose or profit of a statue? Is it alright to own a statue of Jesus, and if so, how should it be treated?
The Real Jesus
The most famous picture of Jesus in North America was produced in the 1940s by Warner E. Sallman. His white Jesus has inspired similar artistic imagery, including statues of a slender, blonde Savior.
Although this depiction “had been inspired by a long tradition of European artists” such as Rembrandt and Holman Hunt, against “the backdrop of U.S. history, of European Christians colonizing indigenous lands with the blessing of the Doctrine of Discovery and enslaving African people, [...] a universal image of a white Jesus became problematic.”
No one knows what Christ looked like, but we know that the typical statuary of Jesus does not represent him realistically. Very early images of a dark-skinned Christ have been usurped by the works of Sallman and others before him.
In recent years, however, scientists have imagined Christ’s likely features based on historical and scientific evidence derived from the Bible and external sources. “Matthew’s description of the events in Gethsemane offers an obvious clue to the face of Jesus. It is clear that his features were typical of Galilean Semites of his era.”
Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the U.K., reconstructed the face of Christ using evidence from “three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus.” Neave’s reconstruction portrays Jesus with dark skin and broad, heavy features.
Scriptural References to Idolatry
But even if artists’ renderings came closer to reality, Exodus 20:4 states, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above.” Jews were not supposed to make such items and were certainly forbidden from worshiping them.
God made no distinction between imagery representing Baal or himself: Neither was to be creatively represented in the form of statuary. “Do not make idols or set up carved images, or sacred pillars, or sculptured stones in your land so you may worship them. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 26:1). Once more, God spoke against all idols, no matter whom they represented, although he was particularly concerned not to promote the worship of false gods.
In the Old Testament, one approached the throne of God via a holy priest, one appointed to the role, not through statues, which “have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see [....] ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk” (Psalm 115:5-7).
God does not wish for his people to worship these idols because “those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” (Psalm 115:8) Worshiping something lifeless makes one lifeless also.
In 1 Samuel 4, Israel was at war with their enemies, the Philistines. Hard-pressed and fearing defeat, “the elders rightly sensed they needed God’s help to win the battle. But they were wrong in the way they sought help,” which was to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefield in an act of “superstitious trust.” “Instead of humbly repenting and seeking God, they turned to methods that God never approved. They only cared if it worked.”
This was another form of idolatry and God’s response was decisive. “The Philistines fought with the courage of desperate men,” while the Israelites “felt the battle would be easy with the Ark of the Covenant there and did not try as hard.” Finally, the Lord “did not bless Israel’s superstitious belief in the power of the ark instead of the power of God.”
The New Testament reinforces God’s commandment against idolatry. “Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29).
Comprehending the reality of God in us, with us, near us, is difficult, but we must not objectify him. Even precious stones are unable to equal “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). He is alive and personal.
Why Is This So Important?
God did not speak against artistry per se; he encourages us to use our gifts and talents for his glory. Yet, he is concerned when we use these talents to create images of worship: Why?
1. We must not put our faith in objects. There is the temptation to put faith in something rather than someone when tough times arise. If an inanimate object (statue, rosary, cross) gains power in the individual’s mind, it replaces the real, living Christ:
As it turned out, God did not feel obligated to bless the Israelites just because they took the ark into battle. He wouldn’t allow His arm to be twisted by the superstitions of the Israelites. God is a Person, not a genie to be summoned at the will of man.
2. Jesus spoke against religion. Usually, statuary is associated with religious observance and superstition. A routine is established in which one says certain things in a certain order at a particular time in order to satisfy God.
Christ preached, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13-14). He does not want mere observance from us; he wants our love, our trust, and our humility.
3. When we pray to statues, we want God to do something. If we think we can get what we want by doing the right things, we seek to manipulate God. But what if God does not answer our prayers the way we like?
Do we throw out our statue and our faith with it? There is a very real danger of imagining that statues of Jesus contain the power of Jesus and that when they fail us, God is not real or loving.
4. Jesus came for us all. Unfortunately, each culture wants to claim him as their own. This is not only the case for Europeans, and not restricted to race. Some groups have tried to depict Jesus as a woman. Scripture makes a point of saying very little about Christ’s appearance, but a great deal about his love, kindness, truthfulness, justice, and mercy.
We learn about the power and person of our resurrected Savior without ever knowing how tall he was or reading about the shape of his nose. Emphasis on appearance distracts from the spiritual reality of Christ, which is also our spiritual reality as believers.
5. The truth is better than we imagine. 1 Timothy 2:5 declares “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Christ is present and personal.
We do not need to address God through the intercession of a priest or a statue, whether it resembles the real Christ or not. Both of them are powerless. The resurrected Christ, however, has already defeated our greatest enemy: Sin.
What about Statues as Ornaments?
Maybe a statue said to resemble Christ is just an ornament. The individual in whose house it sits does not believe for a moment that Jesus looked like an Italian model. Maybe the peacefulness of his posture is pleasing, or the item is an heirloom.
What about a cross worn or around one’s neck or a Jesus t-shirt? Do these offend God, even when they do not represent spiritual belief? Such items are often gifts, or they have been inherited from deceased relatives.
They make a fashion statement, or perhaps something about Jesus fits with one’s belief in good vibes and world peace. Among some non-Christians, one will detect a desire to hedge one’s bets as though to appease God if he is there.
Some Christians see the use of Christian symbols in home decor and fashion as an “example of cultural appropriation, and one which deadens the true impact of the cross.” Could it be that “the empty cross, emblazoned with cheap crystals [...] could potentially cause us to forget that this is a symbol of intense agony and eternal love[?]”
Martin Saunders muses in “The Cross in fashion: Appropriation or opportunity?” that this “large scale piece of cultural appropriation” resembles what Paul did by using Greek symbolism to explain the gospel at Athens. Since God can use everything for his purposes, including items meant to mock his Son, a bold Christian can easily seize any opportunity to ask, “What do you believe?”
The Real Focus
Not everyone agrees that graven images are harmless, but one cannot argue about their powerlessness and also say they possess a negative power. In themselves, statues of Christ along with other Christian symbols are meaningless. They represent the one we worship but should not inspire fear or hope in their own right.
The relevant image of Jesus is not visual but spiritual. For those who love him, every example of art supposedly depicting the Messiah provides another opportunity to challenge distortion with truth.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/topf52
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
Thumbnail courtesy of Canva.com Stock footage courtesy of soundstripe.com