Christmas Series: Should You Display a Nativity Set this Christmas? Part I.
If you like the Christmas baby Jesus best, your home might be littered with Nativity sets. Is this a good or Biblical practice?
I was once preaching outside the Catedral da Sé de São Paulo in Brazil, exhorting the worshippers to forsake their graven images and believe the Gospel. I went into a nearby icon shop to buy a Virgin Mary idol to break on the front steps of the cathedral in order to get their attention, but my interpreter explained they would kill me and successfully pled with me to leave the shop. Getting into our van to leave, another missionary stopped to go into the icon shop and buy a nativity set for his wife as a souvenir. I hung my head and sighed.
Aren’t nativity sets relatively harmless? I mean sure, they’re historically inaccurate, what with the wise men and shepherds all in one place at Christ’s birth. But aside from presenting a false historical narrative, aren’t they the sweetest little things you’ve ever seen? What if I told you that for much of Christian history the idea of having an artistic or graven representation of Christ would have been considered a sin? So then, let’s look at both the Bible and history to inform our judgment.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).
The Commandment seems clear, but could use some exposition. You shall not make a carved image (or any likeness) of anything in heaven above, the earth beneath, or in the water. Does this then prohibit artistic representation of birds, flowers, fish, trees or stars? Well, the second clause clarifies it for us. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Simply put, you shall not make an image of anything that is considered God or god. Whether an idol of a false god or an image of the true God, these things ought not to be done. The second stipulation is that they are not to be worshipped, but the first stipulation is that they should not be made.
In Exodus 32:4, the people said the golden calf was a representation of the god who led them out of Egypt. In the next verse, when unveiling the idol, Aaron declared a feast to the Lord. God detests those objects created by created things (people) designed to represent him, as the Creator. God made man out of mud. It is not endearing to him that mud-creatures such as ourselves then use mud to make images of Him. In the most simple of terms, God’s law does not caution about images of Him, and God’s law does not warn about the dangers of images of Him, God’s law forbids images of Him.
Dr. Matt McMahon of A Puritan’s Mind elaborates on this a bit:
Having given a simple definition for worship, we traverse back to the verses concerning images of God even after the giving of the moral Law. Some examples help us to see the same type of structure in the commandment. Leviticus 26:1says,“Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God.” The command here begins with the creation of the image, and the reinforcement of not doing this, and then prohibits the bowing down to it. Isaiah 40:18-20depicts God’s question of creating an image when He says, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved.” Hosea 13:2 also shows the abomination of making and worshipping the molten images, “And now they sin more and more, and have made them molten images of their silver, and idols according to their own understanding, all of it the work of the craftsmen: they say of them, Let the men that sacrifice kiss the calves.” Isaiah 31:7 joins the making of the idol with sin, not the worshipping of it, thought hat inevitably leads there, “For in that day every man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which your own hands have made unto you for a sin.” (The same can be said of Isaiah 45:13, Hosea 8:4 and other passages.) Pagan idolatry was a temptation for the Israelites because they came out of a severely pagan country-Egypt. They worshipped everything from the River Nile to the Pharaoh himself. Dogs, mules, frogs, insects, fish and the sun were among their “gods.” God commands the Israelites to abstain from making anything in heaven, on the earth, or in the waters for any kind of worship because none of them can accurately represent God as He is in Himself. To attempt to make an image of God is to debase Him – this God hates. We see His hatred for this in the phrase “for I am a jealous God” in the commandment itself. Men cannot have high thoughts of God when He is debased in images of things in heaven, the earth, or in the sea. The idolatry of the second commandment, then, begins in the head, travels down to the heart and ultimately winds up in the hands (in the form of an idol).
Beyond the prohibition against images of God (and Jesus is God), is the futility of capturing Christ’s image even if it were not prohibited. Other than a few vague references to homely appearances of Christ in the Book of Isaiah, there is no physical description of the Messiah in Scripture. Even if we were allowed to make graven images of Christ we could not accurately make graven images of Christ. Have you noticed all the images of Christ seem to look the same? Historical consensus indicates that this European-looking, long-faced white Jesus came from Leonardo da Vinci, who painted his friend, Cesare Borgia, as the Messiah. Da Vinci had a weird obsession with Borgia, painted him often, and used him as a model for Christ. Cesare Borgia’s dad just happened to become Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI. When he assumed the office of the antichrist, he placed his son’s portrait in the Vatican and popularized the image of him as Jesus throughout the Western world.
Thanks, Popery. You’ve given us an Italian white guy as a likely olive-skinned Jew, and called him Jesus. We all believed it.
Actual history is slightly more complicated than that telling of it, but it’s not far off the mark. In reality, post-Byzantine artwork seemed to solidify the image of Christ as a long-faced, tall but thin-framed Jesus with a Roman nose and European eyes before Da Vinci turned the Pope’s son into “Jesus.” Interestingly, the earliest icons of Christ all depict a young man without a beard.
One thing is for sure, however, the “Jesus” that the western world has hanging on their walls is 99.99% likely not to closely resemble our Messiah. So not only are such images disallowed, they’re also really, really poorly done.
Some claim that the first representations of Christ’s image we have are from the later third century, meaning that no one who saw Christ put his image to paper, tablet, or stone. It’s important to note that these images are assumed to have been of Jesus, but because they virtually all portray him as a shepherd, it’s more likely that those images are from Greek iconography that symbolizes philanthropy. In other words, it’s probable they’re not images of Jesus at all. They’re not labeled “Jesus,” in other words, and have been found in completely pagan and non-Christian contexts. Paul Johnson, in History of Christianity, argues that it wasn’t until after Constantine (which culminates with Christianity being thoroughly polluted by pagan influence) that making images of Christ became acceptable. (pages 102-103)
One of the struggles of the church of that period was strong arguments between paganized Christians and formerly pagan Christians, the former accepting iconography and the latter rejecting it. Images of Christ with long hair began to develop (Jesus did not have long hair, because he kept the Ceremonial Law, which forbade it except in the case of the Nazarites, of which Jesus was not one; furthermore, it simply was not the style of the day). The struggle was that the Greek gods were all portrayed with long hair as a “mark of divinity,” and so it was ascribed to Christ. Clearly, some Christians took great exception to fashioning an image of Jesus after Zeus or some other false god. In fact, the earliest images of Christ where we are sure they were meant to represent Christ are almost spitting images of Apollos (we’d show those pictures, but we don’t believe in displaying images of Jesus). For more detailed information, this is a good resource.
Of this, McMahon cites Schaff:
Phillip Schaff explains quite well how all this historically occurred. “The first representations of Christ are of heretical and pagan origin. The Gnostic sect of the Carpocratians worshipped crowned pictures of Christ, together with images of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and other sages, and asserted that Pilate had caused a portrait of Christ to be made. In the same spirit of pantheistic hero-worship the emperor Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–235) set up in his domestic chapel for his adoration the images of Abraham, Orpheus, Apollonius, and Christ. The iconoclastic Synod of 754 denounced image-worship as a relapse into heathen idolatry, which the devil had smuggled into the church in the place of the worship of God alone in spirit and in truth.
McMahon continues to helpfully cite the historic sources:
It is without a doubt that history proves the use of images and pictures of Jesus Christ for any purpose was of pagan origins and then later approved by the Roman Catholic Church. If Christians today desire to use these pictures and images of Jesus Christ for any purpose, they are aligning themselves with the Roman Church, and the seventh Ecumenical Council, as well as breaking fellowship with the foundations of Reformation theology. Historically speaking, generational children beginning with the early church through Augustine, and then from the Reformation to the Puritans, to colonial America with Edwards and Whitefield later on, never at any time utilized images or pictures of Christ. As a matter of fact, they vehemently opposed their use.
The following is a very brief and limited group of quotes (provided by McMahon):
Augustine of Hippo (4th c.)
“Thus, they erred, who sought Christ and his apostles not in the sacred writings, but on painted walls.”
Council of Elibertine
“Pictures ought not to be in churches, nor any object of adoration or praise be painted on the walls.”
John Calvin (16th c.)
“As soon as anyone has devised an image of God, they have instituted false worship. The object of Moses is to restrain the rashness of men, lest they should travesty God’s glory by their imaginations.”
The church in the beginning tolerated these abuses, as a temporary evil, but was afterwards unable to remove them; and they became so strong, particularly during the prevailing ignorance of the middle ages, that the church ended by legalizing, through her decrees, that at which she did nothing but wink at first. I shall endeavor to give my readers a rapid sketch of the rise, progress, and final establishment of the Pagan practices which not only continue to prevail in the Western as well as in the Eastern church, but have been of late, notwithstanding the boasted progress of intellect in our days, manifested in as bold as successful a manner. (Page 8)
Works of Owen, Volume 8, Sermon 15
“This, therefore, is evident, that the introduction of this abomination, in principle and practice destructive unto the souls of men, took its rise from the loss of an experience of the representation of Christ in the gospel, and the transforming power in the minds of men which it is accompanied with, in them that believe.” (Page 649) (cf. Owen, Volume 1, Page 244)
Thomas Watson (17th c.)
“Nor the likeness of any thing” means, “All ideas, portraits, shapes, images of God, whether by effigies or pictures, is hereby forbidden to be made.” God is to be adored in the heart, not painted to the eye. To set up an image to represent God is to debase him. Idolatry is devil worship.”
Francis Turretin (17th c.)
“Any religious worship should not be paid to images; thinking piously before an image is forbidden. We condemn here the treatment of sacred or religious images that are supposed to contribute something to the excitement of religious feeling. God forbids the making of them and the worship of them.”
Matthew Henry (17th c.)
“Our religious worship must be governed by the power of faith, not by the power of imagination. Idolatry is spiritual adultery.”
John Gill (18th c.)
“No image of God was to be made at all, since no similitude was ever seen of Him, or any likeness could be conceived; and it must be a piece of gross ignorance, madness and impudence to pretend to make one; and great impiety to worship it.”
Is it possible that as a part of your celebration of Christ’s birth that you engage in a practice that he finds insulting? If he detests it, does it really matter if you find the nativity scenes enjoyable? Does your nativity set make any more sense than the 8lb baby Jesus in gold-fleeced diapers prayed to by Ricky Bobby? Does the extent of your argument for having icons in your home amount to your preference and personal taste? If so, you’re not far from what you saw in the clip above.
And if you say that Grandma’s prized family heirloom nativity set is not an idol, just break it. See what happens.
[Editor’s Note: We do not recommend that you watch the whole movie. You can read more on this topic in Part II, the Opinion of Eusebius]