The Danger of Portraying a Soft Jesus

I have been reflecting on how we portray Jesus in art. I did a quick google search using the words “paintings Jesus.” The results were about what I expected, but it still astonished me. It seems we are very comfortable with Jesus as the gentle teacher, compassionate healer and the good shepherd. We also seem to be oddly comfortable with the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Jesus. Of course those are all true, but what about Jesus the Lion of Judah, the courageous man with calloused hands, cleanser of the temple, judge of the nations, the one who is coming back wielding a sword and sceptre, wearing a robe dipped in blood? I even googled “lion of judah paintings” which primarily displayed cute gentle pet-able lions. I tried various terms related to the second coming and came up with a preponderance of soft gentle images. How ironic since Revelations chapter 19 juxtaposes the wedding of the Lamb and the rider of the white horse who will strike down the nations. We don’t get one with out the other.

I guess this bias should not surprise me. We all like the idea of a loving merciful Jesus. I certainly do. We are, however, less comfortable talking about Jesus the King of the armies of heaven coming in judgment. Please  understand that I am not suggesting we ditch the gentle and compassionate depictions of Jesus, but i think that we are choosing to miss something. The good news of the Gospel is only good news because there is a judgment. The wonder of the mercy and grace of Jesus finds substance because he is also the King of Kings and Lord or Lords who will judge the nations. Grace and mercy are only needed in the face of judgment and condemnation.

The fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus only has meaning if there is condemnation for those who are not. There is nothing politically correct about that statement. I will seem harsh, even arrogant to others. Understand that I don’t like it either, but as I accept grace of Jesus as taught in the Bible, so I must also accept the judgement it teaches. As unlikely as it might seem to some, this is also the reason the Church must act as the hands and feet of Jesus spreading His grace and mercy through the gospel. This should drive Christians to love – radical love offering radical grace in the face of judgment.

Below are some of the few paintings that depict Jesus as the courageous warrior Lord.

Rembrant, Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galiliee

File:Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.jpg


Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple

File:Mei, Bernardino - Christ Cleansing the Temple - c. 1655.jpg


Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

File:Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale 02.jpg

When Words Lose Their Meaning

I have been thinking about words lately. Specifically the words that make up our typical Christian parlance. Words like “worship”, “saved” or phrases like “personal relationship” (isn’t “personal relationship” something of an oxymoron?). We use these words freely in Christian settings, but do we really know what they mean?

I have this growing unease that we have become far more familiar with these terms than we have with the Biblical concepts behind them.

For instance, does our common use of the word “worship” reflect the Biblical concepts of worship? Does singing music that stirs a pleasant reverent emotional state equal Biblical worship? Jesus spoke of worshipping “in spirit and in truth.” Is there a connection between pleasant feelings and worshipping in spirit and in truth? The picture gets even fuzzier when we consider OT worship. (I am foregoing an excursus into the original languages here even though if adds fuel to my unease, but  this post is on “words” not the specifics of the theological implications of the “words.”) The bottom line is this, can the majority of Christians offer a definition of worship that would stand up to the test of being Biblical?

(I concede here that even the term “Biblical” is problematic.)

How about “saved”. Saved from what? Saved for what? It seems that saved has become a coded way of saying things like justified, reconciled and redeemed. That is fine if we understand what is behind the short fomr term “saved,” but again, how well is it understood?

The latest one to trouble me is the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I have been a Christian long enough to know what this means…at least what it means to me.  Is it strictly speaking Biblical, or is it a derivative concept?  The Pharisees had a relationship with Jesus, albeit rather acrimonious.  So what does “relationship” mean?

Those of you who know me reasonably well will understand that I am not simply stirring the pot or questioning the basics of the Christian faith. I am also not implying a lack of intellect on the part of Christians, far from it. If anything, it is academia that is responsible for pumping out a steady stream of words and phrases that mean something to someone. All I am doing here is stepping back and asking foundational questions.

When words or phrases become overly familiar, we risk teaching the terms rather than the foundational concepts that stand behind the terms. What is worse is that we risk unintentionally creating a Christianity that is divorced from what Jesus taught and the Apostles provided a witness to.

The real and present danger is that of idolatry. If our common knowledge and faith is divorced from its foundations, we have a religion of our own making. Words do matter. What they mean matters even more. If postmodernity has taught us anything, it is that we ought not to presume the meaning of words, especially those with eternal consequences. 

Reflections on Worship

I woke up this morning thinking about worship. Not a bad way to wake up. Unfortunately my thoughts were largely on the un-Biblical way Christians are inclined to use the term. To be fair I can only speak from what could be broadly called a North American Evangelical framework. This may not be your experience. I hope it isn’t.

Simply stated we abuse the term worship. How often have you heard singing a few songs referred to as worship? How about the worship team, maybe a guitar or two, piano and a few singers. Occasionally the offering is brought under the umbrella of worship, and sometimes even the sermon.

From time to time I find myself drawn to more formal worship rituals as practiced by other Christian traditions. The symbolic wealth found in the divergent Christian traditions has its own appeal. But, is it worship?

Consider these verses.

Romans 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Colossians 1:22-23 22 [Christ]  has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…

To be blunt, worship is not a song. Worship is your life, a living 24/7 sacrifice…holy and blameless and above reproach.

I am not suggesting that we should not sing or have any sort of ritual. The Scriptures are loaded with exhortations and examples of thanksgiving, praise, and lament through song and prayer. The Apostle Paul instructed the use of music for teaching (Col. 3:16).

With the Psalmist we ought to cry out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). Then we will worship in “Spirit and in Truth” (Jn. 4:23).