By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Is it a violation of Acts 17.29 to use pictures that depict Jesus in teaching children’s classes or to use other graphic art in bulletins or on transparencies that portray events in the life of Jesus?
Reply: When Paul came to Athens on his second preaching tour, he saw a city full of idols (Acts 17:22,23). He was standing in the stronghold of Greek mythology, and this was the occasion for his sermon on the one true and living God.
Paul introduced his discourse by showing that God is the creator of all things and that he does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor is he served with men’s hands (vv. 24,25). He proceeded to show that God is the creator of mankind and that all should seek God, “for in him we live, and move, and have our being” – man is the offspring of God (vv. 26-28). He concluded his speech by saying: “Being the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and device of man” (v. 29).
The context of Acts 17:29 is a contrast of idolatry with the one and only one true God. The phrase, “keep the text in context,” is appropriate here. Objects of gold, silver or stone are not to be worshiped. Athens was the intellectual and artistic capital of the world, as well as the center of Greek mythology. It is no wonder then, that in this idolatrous city would be found objects “graven by art and device of man.”
As to the use of pictures, cut-outs, sand tables, film strips for teaching, motive is the important consideration. Are the illustrations of Bible characters and events as depicted by pictures, cut-outs, sand tables and film strips objects of worship? We cannot believe that any of our brethren would use them in a classroom for this purpose. There is a difference in using such aids as objects of instruction about dress and customs, and using them as objects of bowing, adoration and homage. There is really no comparison of these lesson aids and the use of images in a Catholic church building. God prohibited the making of graven images when he gave the ten commandments to Israel, but he also gave the reason for which they were not to be made. The second commandment is: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4,5, my emphasis). This is the idea.
Those who object to the use of sand tables, film strips etc. as aids in Bible teaching will refer to this verse as an argument against their use. But, as is true so often, what proves too much proves nothing. We observe that any likeness of anything that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth is prohibited, in addition to the prohibition to make any likeness of anything that is in heaven above. If it is objected that it is wrong to make any image per se, then it is wrong for a teacher of children to show her pupils a picture of a camel (a mode of transportation in Bible times) or a net of fishes (Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen). Images were not to be made for objects of worship.
Perhaps the best commentary on this prohibition is found in Leviticus 26:1. It reads: “Ye shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down to it. for I am Jehovah your God” (my emphasis). The worship of illustrated Bible characters and events would violate Exodus 20:4,5; Leviticus 26:1; Acts 17:29 and all other Scriptures which forbid idolatry. Please consider this thought before we leave this point. While the prohibition of images for worship was in effect, the walls of the temple were figured with cherubim, palm trees and open flowers, within and without (1 Kgs. 6:29). God would not have sanctioned what was sinful within itself. Artistic figures within themselves do not fall in the realm of idols.
That certain things are right, provided they are used properly, is illustrated by instrumental music. Instrumental music is permissible, provided the proper use is made of it. Its use in a concert or at home for entertainment purposes, with no connection with worship to God is right, but sinful if used in the worship of God.
Bible teachers should be selected who are grounded in the faith and who are capable of making proper distinctions. Teachers of children should make it clear that the number of wise men who visited Jesus is unknown, and that we do not know what Jesus looked like while he was here on earth. But lesson aids which illustrate the mode of travel in those days, how people dressed and how they ate may be used effectively by knowledgeable teachers. Should the objection be made that such teaching aids should not be used if they have to be explained, we reply that we explain other things which are right within themselves. We must explain that the church building is not the church. People compose the church, thus it is not the building where Christians assemble. We also explain the proper use of the church building, but because we make these explanations is no valid objection to the church building being right within itself. The Scriptures authorize whatever visual aids may illustrate the truth (overhead projectors, canvas charts, chalk boards, work books, etc.). These violate no Scripture, provided they are properly used, illustrating the Bible truths the hearer needs to learn.
Abuses of pictures, images, etc. can certainly be made, and we readily acknowledge it. So-called pictures of Jesus are seen hanging on the walls of homes and in a prominent place, and it appears that these pictures are venerated. And, in most instances the so-called portrait of Jesus shows the person with long hair, a violation of 1 Corinthians 11:14. When such pictures are venerated, used for homage or worship, there is no difference in this and the use made by the Catholics with religious pictures and images in their homes. But mere making of the likeness of men or women in Bible times is not wrong. Sand boxes and other tools used by Bible teachers should not be abused by making play boxes out of them. Aids should be right within themselves first, and should also be properly used and not abused.
No effort is made by faithful Bible teachers to depict the deity of Jesus by the use of graphic art, film strips and overheads, but rather to illustrate him only as a human being, as men dressed and appeared in his time. Clearly, it should be impressed upon the mind of all that we do not know what our Lord looked like as to his face, his height, his weight, etc. The Bible has not revealed his physical features to us. Qualified teachers will make it clear to their pupils that a picture of some man dressed according to the custom of the time in which he lived is not an actual picture of Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus or any other Bible character. It is purely and simply an illustration of a person, any person who would have looked this way in the time that he lived.
All of us should desire to do only what is authorized by the word of God and to teach the truth in the most simple and effective manner, but in our effort to do this we should also try to keep every Scripture in context.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 3, pp. 69-70
February 4, 1988