The debate over whether pictures of Jesus are allowed, suitable, etc., usually revolves around the interpretation of the second commandment. I want to look at the debate from a slightly different angle, namely: the beatific vision.
There are only two ways that we are able to see Christ: either by faith or by sight. In this present age, we live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). But the immediate object of our faith and of our sight is always the Lord Jesus. While Jesus desires that we should all see (by sight) his glory (Jn. 17:24), he also desires that we live by faith in this world (Jn. 20:29).
In this life we have no unmediated access to Jesus Christ, except through the Scriptures, which have to be believed by faith. They are the “face” of Jesus Christ. As we come to know and understand the Scriptures more and more – for they speak of him (Lk. 24:44) – we come to know Jesus more and more.
This knowledge is utterly transforming. Paul speaks about how Christians, “with unveiled face,” behold the glory of Christ and are as a result “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). As we are transformed in the inner man, our “transfiguration” (i.e., being conformed to the image of Christ) takes place by the power of Christ’s Spirit.
Those who wish to see Christ, face-to-face, in the life to come must in this world see him by faith. We believe what we do not (yet) see. But we must believe otherwise we shall never see. For, as John Owen solemnly wrote, “no man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter, who does not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world” (Works, 1:288).
Just as grace prepares us for glory, faith prepares us for sight.
The sight we shall have of Christ in heaven will be immediate. In other words, there shall be nothing between us and Christ, except the Spirit enlivening our bodies and souls in order to behold Christ’s glory. Our vision will also direct. Christ will, in his glory, appear before us; we will see him as he really is (1 Jn. 3:2).
Our sight of Christ will not merely be visible; nor will it be merely intellectual. Rather, it will be a sight that is both visible and intellectual. We shall behold him in his glory with an understanding of his person that is suitable to our own glorified state. This vision of Christ is, however, completely unsuitable for us who live on earth (see Lk. 9:30-33; Rev. 1:17; Acts 9). We could not endure such a sight in our present condition. Such a sight of the glorious one would be “too high, illustrious, and marvellous for us” who live on earth with indwelling sin (Owen, Works, 1:290)
If the glorified Lord appeared to his people on earth it would not be at all helpful to us, unless it were to immediately transform us into his same image. “For we are not able, by the power of any light or grace that we have received, or can receive, to bear the immediate appearance and representation [of Christ]” (Owen, Works, 1:380).
Just as we are transformed into Christ’s image in this life by faith, so we will be transformed into Christ’s image in the life to come by sight. As John makes clear: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). John shows that we will be like Jesus because we shall see him. Therefore, the sight of Christ is transforming for God’s people, both by faith and by sight.
This is a hope that we are unable to fully grasp right now. The powerful sense of spiritual sight will enable God’s people to see a glory in Christ’s person “a thousand times above what here we can conceive” (Owen, Works, 1:379). This sight is what all of God’s people on earth do “breathe and pant after” (Owen, Works, 1:379).
Pictures of Jesus
Christ’s appearance seems to have changed quite dramatically at his resurrection (Lk. 24:31). The beatific vision calls into question the suitability of pictures of Christ. All of God’s people should desire to see the risen Christ. But, we must ask the question: Can we ever capture the glory of the exalted God-man in a picture? After all, his glory must necessarily transcend a picture because his personal glory – which cannot be severed from his glorified humanity – is both immaterial and transforming.
There is the added problem that if the picture represents Christ, as it purports to do, then why do we not worship the picture? The vision of Christ at the consummation will certainly cause us to fall down and worship him. If we do not worship the picture because it is not really Christ, then what is the point? Some might respond that Jesus was seen by his disciples and thousands of other people during his life. But we must remember that they actually saw, even if it was not with the eyes of faith, the true Christ, not a representation of him. Worshipping him in that context would have been entirely appropriate.
Owen seemed to think that a proper understanding of the beatific vision should keep God’s people from using pictures of Christ. He points out that Christ’s real glory cannot be captured in a picture, and thus diverts our thoughts from faith to a pretended sight. The Word of God alone stirs up our affections for the Christ represented to us. As Luther said, “the Bible is the cradle where Christ is laid.”
As a divine person, a representation of Christ is still a representation of God. And any representation of Christ that does not truly reflect the person of Christ is a false representation. Christ has a true human nature, but that human nature has always subsisted in union with the person of the Son. There is something natural for all of God’s children to desire to see his face in the person of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6); but we must be patient and wait for the true representation of Christ, which is infinitely better than anything our own minds can conjure up on earth. We do not yet live by sight, but by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal. 2:20).
I should add that age-appropriate children’s books with pictures of Jesus may have one major short-coming. Significantly and pastorally, these pictures deprive our children of the blessing of the “seeing” that belongs to the eyes of faith. Parents must not rob their children of this wonderful and joyful privilege (Jn. 20:29; 1 Pet 1:8). Fathers, mothers, and preachers must present him so that he may truly known (1 Jn. 1:3).
For Christians, the closest (and best) picture we have of Christ while pilgrims on earth are the elements of bread and wine given to us in the Lord’s Supper – elements that we view by sight, but are ultimately only any use to us if received by faith. The joy of communing with our risen Savior in the sacrament does not require pictures, but careful, joyful obedience.