Chapter Twelve: “But They Are Just Symbols!”

A common defense of using pictures to represent Christ is that “they are just symbols” (as in “We need symbols to be able to communicate.”)

Does this justify pictures to represent Christ? The simple answer is “No.” The basic reasons are given in this book.

1. The Bible gives adequate symbolism to represent Christ when the Bible gives the Law and its typology and then shows how Christ fulfilled that Law. When God gives the typology that represents Christ, the symbolism is appropriate—because God knows what Christ is really like, and because God is the one who reveals who Christ really is.

2. God has the right to control the symbolism by which Christ is known and by which this knowledge is communicated. God knows which symbols are correct and which symbols are incorrect.

The Law strictly controls the symbols by which God is to be known. God’s people were not to use any other symbols to represent Him. When Israel went into the promised land they were to destroy every vestige of the images, worship forms, and places of worship that other people used. Israel was to worship God using only the lawfully given symbols, in the lawfully given ways, at the lawfully given places. Any deviation from the law (any other symbolism) was punishable by death.

3. Christ fulfilled the Law. He fulfilled the symbols of the Law. These symbols picture Jesus of Nazareth—and no other person. We know that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Christ by the fact that He fulfilled what the Law symbolism pictured.

Therefore, if we create new symbolic forms for Christ we set ourselves against the lawful revelation of Christ:

1. The new symbols (e.g., our pictures) must match the lawful symbols. Otherwise either the Law was in error or the new symbols are. The Law cannot be in error: if it is, the christological picture is erroneous—and Jesus fulfilled an erroneous picture. The Law does forbid our pictures (our “symbols”), so it becomes our symbols versus His symbols, our symbols in rejection of the symbols He gave us in the Law. Obviously, our pictures to represent Christ (that we call “just symbols”) are in error because they are contrary to the Law.

2. It is obviously a return to pagan idolatry to use the kind of symbolism that the Law was given to destroy. To reject the God-given Law symbols (pictures) of Christ—on the basis that Christians are no longer under the law—and go to the pagan system of using symbolic pictures that the Law forbade is to leap-frog back over the Law and splash-down into a pagan system of symbolizing our concepts of God.


A different matter are non-pictorial symbols where no likeness is seen between the symbol and the object symbolized. Written language—the word—comes in this category. This kind of symbolism is not forbidden, so long as it does not break the lawfully given revelation of who Jesus is. And it may be true that pictures might be used in a non-pictorial way as symbols. But who wants to risk the danger? To use a picture as a non-pictorial symbol of Jesus is naive at best.

We may also note how patiently God deals with idolaters. In Acts 17 the apostle Paul observes that God has long “winked at” (closed his eyes to) the times of the ignorance of making pictures to represent divine persons, but the apostle also warns that God now commands all people to repent of this idolatry.