I just read John 18:1 – 19:16. It’s really pathetic, in these chapters, to watch Pilate try to avoid crucifying Jesus but still placate the Jewish officials.
He says to Jesus, “Don’t you realize that I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10), but in fact, Pilate doesn’t have any power at all.
The book Who Moved the Stone?makes a strong case, from hints in the text and other historical evidence, that Pilate had received an emergency visit from someone, perhaps the High Priest himself, the night before. The priests had just arrested Jesus, and the meeting went something like this: “We have this criminal whom we really need condemned. If we bring him to you tomorrow morning, before Passover, will you just quickly condemn him for us so we can get that out of the way? In exchange, of course, for our ongoing support.”
Pilate had agreed to this reasonable request. But the next morning, things started to go off. Pilate’s wife, who perhaps was there for the 11 p.m. meeting, had a nightmare about Jesus which she took as prophetic, and sent her husband a note saying, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man.” (Matt. 27:19) Also, the Jews hadn’t brought any clear charge against Jesus for which Pilate could execute him.
Pilate tried to get rid of the problem by sending Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:5 – 12), but to his dismay, the problem came right back to him. He then tried to placate the council by having Jesus flogged. He kept arguing with them, saying, “I find him not guilty.” They were shocked and dismayed that he was going back on his word of the night before (John 18:29 – 31). They started threatening that if Pilate did not condemn Jesus to death, they would turn him in as being in rebellion against Caesar (John 19:12). Things had not been going great politically for Pilate. If there were a riot, or if he were accused of being anti-Caesar, it would be the end for him. Best case scenario, he would lose his job, but more probably he would lose his life.
In short, Pilate could not avoid crucifying Jesus without losing everything. He was trapped.
Jesus, of course, was trapped too, but the difference was that He had walked into the trap. More accurately, Jesus was not trapped. He could have summoned twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53) at any moment to vindicate and free Him. He was going to His death freely. He was not trapped by His own fears and desires. Pilate, on the other hand, was trapped by his own fears and desires. His options were extremely limited because he was not willing to lose everything.
Consider, then these two men, as they stand in the palace looking at each other. One is a governor, wearing the robe of a governor, standing in his own palace, making what should be a routine decision about what to do with a prisoner. “Don’t you realize that I have the power?” he says, but in fact this man has no power or agency in this situation. This man is terrified.
The other has been up all night. He has been interrogated at least three times. He has already been beaten once by the high priest’s guards, again by Herod’s guards, and he has just been flogged by Pilate’s guards. His back is flayed. His nose may be broken. When he speaks, he cannot manage very long sentences. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” This is the man who is actually in charge of the situation. Despite appearances, this man is truly free.
In Luke 9:23 – 24, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” This sounds like a hard saying – and it is—but what Jesus was giving us here was the secret of how to be free. If Pilate had been willing to lose everything, he would have had more options. Jesus was willing to lose everything, which allowed him to do exactly what, on a deeper level, he wanted to do, which was to work the Father’s plan.
I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions.
I know that a few of you, my online friends, are musicians or at least knowledgeable about music. So perhaps I am about to embarrass myself.
I love Petra.
They are a late 80s/early 90s Christian rock band, and somehow all of the singers on the band seem to be tenors (I like that, too). I don’t know. Maybe my taste is bad, but I just love their music. I listened to it — and actually worshipped to it — a lot in high school.
In the 90s, I had the album below (Unseen Power) on cassette tape. The cover bore a picture of a white, power-generating windmill against a clear blue sky (because unseen power, get it?). The upshot was that I was listening to this song, In the Likeness of You (Psalm 17:15), back then in circumstances exactly like the ones I’m in now: in the middle of an Idaho winter, when the landscape is severe and almost monochromatic, but the distant horizons draw your eye to their ethereal beauty … not unlike the soaring harmonies of Petra. And the song has the exact same effect on me now as it did then.
So here they are, in all their shaggy-mullet glory. Enjoy.
Many years ago, when I was studying graduate linguistics/anthropology/missiology, I was approached by a friend who had grown up with Greek Orthodox roots. She was doing an anthropological research project, and she wanted me to take a look at a few pictures of icons and give her my initial reaction. (Me, the research subject, an evangelical who was unfamiliar with Greek Orthodox iconography.)
I took a look, and I was repelled. The first one, of Christ on a background of gold leaf, was so stylized that it hardly looked human to me. The eyes were huge and round, the nose very elongated and very narrow. The second, a Nativity scene, wasn’t any better. The figures seemed stiff, and all the faces were like the one on the first icon, except that the infant and Mary didn’t have beards. Their skin was a shade of yellow that looked jaundiced to me.
Since I knew this was a research project, I was very honest with my friend about how negative my reaction was to these icons. This was a mistake; I could see that her feelings were hurt. She explained to me that the faces had been “idealized as an aid to meditation.” Which just goes to show you.
About Image Making
A strong argument could be made that any visual portrayal of Jesus constitutes a violation of the Second Commandment, which forbids making images in order to worship them. This includes making images of humans or animals which purport to portray the one true God. Hence, when the Israelites made the golden calf and worshipped it, identifying it as the God that had brought them out of Egypt (!), they got dinged for disobeying the second commandment. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).
When God gave the Israelites the temple system, there was a lot of rich visual imagery, but none of it was of the kind that could be confused with an object of worship. It was all decorative. The priests had rich, purple and white clothing, and the decorations on pillars and curtains extended only to pomegranates, palm trees, and flowers, and the occasional cherub (a heavenly creature that was a throne guardian). There were no images of animals or people that might be mistaken for portrayals of God Himself. (Exodus chapters 25 – 30 and I Kings chapter 6)
In the innermost room in the temple, wherea normal Ancient Near Eastern templewould have a large statue of the god, there was … nothing. Just the ark, with no statue behind it. God would not allow Himself to be portrayed “in the likeness of a man,” though a few of the prophets did see something like this in their visions. (Genesis chapter 18, Daniel 7:13 – 14, and many others)
Jesus, according to the New Testament, is God incarnate, a man. This means that, when we read the stories of the things He did, every reader is going to get some kind of mental image. But in the providence of God, Jesus did not come to earth at a time when photography had become ubiquitous, and He was not important enough socially to have realistic statues in the Greco-Roman style (or any statues at all) made of Him. We are not given a physical description of what He looked like, except that we are assured He was ordinary-looking. For example, Isaiah 53:2 says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,/nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” In John chapter 18, when the Roman guards and the priests’ thugs come to arrest Jesus, they have no idea which of the twelve men in the dark Garden is their perp. Jesus has to tell them, “I’m the one you’re looking for.” This tells us that he looked like any other first-century Jew, including in the way he dressed.
The emphasis, in the Gospels, is always on His words and actions … and these tend to be so compelling that His personal appearance, to put it mildly, is secondary.
So, is it even permissible to portray Jesus when we are illustrating the events of the Gospels? I have seen this admirably handled by the Arch books, a series of Bible stories for children which hires many different artists. In the Arch books (at least when I was growing up), Jesus is most often shown “off camera.” If portrayed, we might see Him from a distance (as being led away to be killed in the background of a picture), from behind, or we might see an arm and a slice of the side of the face. Rarely do we see His face full-on. I think this is a good method. In some of these books (not all), Jesus is recognizable by the iconic white or off-white robe with a shoulder sash, and the shoulder-length hair. I now know that this style of dress and hairstyle were drawn from the personal appearance of the peripatetic philosophers.
So, given that Jesus wasn’t actually a peripatetic philosopher (at least not in the Greek tradition) and probably did not have the over-the-shoulder sash and the shoulder-length hair, are artistic conventions like this permissible? If someone wants to portray Jesus (even from behind), are they morally bound to make Him look as much like “He probably looked” as possible?
With all the caveats above about it being better not to portray Him at all, I say no. Here’s why.
Jesus’ whole job was to come live with human beings, as a human being. This is what we mean by His being “incarnate.” His incarnation was very complete. He wasn’t just pretending to be a local guy; He actually was a local guy. He was dedicated in the Temple, grew up in the rough town of Nazareth, learned a trade, and spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, probably some Greek, possibly some Latin too.
But the really amazing thing about Jesus’ incarnation is that He can cross any culture. When His words are translated into a new local language, He actually becomes one of those people. He comes to them, as one of them, but as God. When a people receive the Gospel, they receive Him as their Jesus, with His message and his call and His substitutionary death and His enlivening Spirit meant for them.
Usually, they then start making visual art about Him and about the other events in the Bible. And naturally, they often portray it as though these events happened just a few years ago, in their local region. This is completely appropriate. They are applying the incarnation.
Why do all the figures in religious paintings from medieval and Renaissance Europe look like German peasants, or like Italian aristocrats? To ask the question is to answer it. When you are going to paint a portrait or a figure, you go to the people around you for models. For example, Rembrandt would often go into the slums of Amsterdam to find models for his biblical paintings. Not surprisingly, the people in his paintings came out looking Dutch.
This does not happen only in Europe. I was once able to see an artistic representation of one of the events of the Gospels done by an Australian aborigine. There were no human figures in this work of art. All of the action was shown with footprints in the sand. When the characters walked somewhere, there would be a trail of footprints. When they sat down for a meal or teaching, there would be a circle of u-shaped butt prints. I couldn’t understand this drawing without someone explaining it to me, but it made sense to the artist and presumably to his audience. And that’s kind of important in art, isn’t it? You don’t want to portray something that is so alien that your viewers have no idea what they’re looking at, however historically accurate it may be.
Showing Him in Specifics
So, given that we are portraying Jesus at all (which as I said above is a question open for debate), I am completely in favor of White Jesus. There. I said it. I am also in favor of: Javanese Jesus, Sundanese Jesus, Aboriginal Jesus, Ethiopian Jesus, Nigerian Jesus, Navajo Jesus, Latino Jesus, and Greek Orthodox Jesus, provided that these arise naturally in communities that have received Jesus’ word for themselves and become His followers, and now rightly think of Him as their big brother.
I am not in favor of them as theological statements that Jesus looked this way or that, or that His appearance was of any importance (except, of course, near the end of the Bible where He appears looking like white-hot metal with a sword coming out of His mouth).
I am also not in favor of an industry that produces lots of commercialized, sentimental religious art. That is definitely breaking the Second Commandment, whether or not Rembrandt was.
But leaving aside that odious industry, when most Christians make devotional art they are not arguing that Jesus’ personal appearance was of paramount importance. Anyone who thinks they aremaking such a statement does not understand Christian doctrine very well. All of the emphasis in the Bible is on Jesus’ words and actions. The Apostle’s Creed, and the Nicene Creed, emphasize that He was made human, but that’s it. All of us know that whatever our mental image of Jesus, it is certainly not accurate in its particulars. That doesn’t matter, because it’s not a mental image we are worshipping. It’s the reality.
“God from God, light from light” *(these are direct objects, so the subject and verb are coming up)
Gestant puellae viscera
“A girls’ innards carry” (the subject and verb, and by far my favorite line)
“True God” (and still the direct object)
genitum non factum
“Begotten, not made”
Refrain: Venite adoremus, Dominum “O come, let us adore/The Lord”
Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum
“Sing it now, chorus of angels”
Cantet nunc aula caelestium
“Sing now, heavenly court”
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo
“Glory, glory to God in the highest”
Refrain: “O come, let us adore/The Lord”
Ergo qui natus die hodierna
“Therefore, who is born on the day of today”
Jesu, tibi sit gloria
“Jesus, to you be glory”
Patris aeterni Verbum caro factum
“Word of the eternal Father made flesh”
See how the Latin is actually more direct/efficient than the English? Kind of shockingly so?
I think because the original Latin version had so many syllables, to translate the lines into English, additional words had to be added, and sometimes even new ideas such as “Yea, Lord, we greet thee,” which is how the fourth verse begins in English and is one of my favorite lines in that version.
“But you are eagerly desiring the greater gifts.” (Yes! Yes we are! We want to be initiated into the spiritual mysteries!)
“And now I will show you the most excellent way.” (Oh goody! He is going to let us in on the esoteric secret that only the initiates get to know.)
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (Do you mean that neither secret knowledge nor the ability to work miracles is the most excellent way?) “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (And neither is asceticism or heroic feats of denying the body?)
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (This is actually harder than secret knowledge would be. The leaders of esoteric mystery religions do tend to be impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, and proud.) “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (You mean that there is such a thing as truth? And that evil is not a necessary part of spiritual enlightenment?) “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (It will??? Do you mean that humans are not perfectible through learning? That knowledge is not the path to salvation?) “For we know in part and we prophesy in part,” (We are not gods. We are limited.)
“… but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.” (So all our enlightenment now will disappear as unnecessary when Christ comes.) “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (Perhaps the idea that we can be given secret knowledge that will make us better than everyone else is a child’s way of thinking.) “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (The ultimate revelation is knowing Christ as one person knows another.) “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (The important thing right now is not that we know all the secrets of the universe, but that our Shepherd knows us and calls us his own.)
“And now these three remain: faith” (in the one who calls us) “hope” (in his promise to save us) “and love. Follow the way of love [as you] eagerly desire spiritual gifts.”
(What follows is a discussion about how to engage in prophecy and speaking in tongues in a way that doesn’t show off, create chaos, or confuse or exclude anyone from the worship service.)
“In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”
taken from I Corinthians 12:31 – 14:1, 19 – 20, NIV