Image is everything in modern culture. Take for instance the shopping mall. More than showcasing merchandise, malls resemble ancient temples or medieval cathedrals—places of worship where the spirit is lifted. Along with designer jeans and exotic coffees, you can fashion for yourself an improved image, one in which people take pride.
Concern for image sometimes reveals itself in ways that are less than subtle. Consider, for instance, the following personal ad from New York magazine:
Strikingly Beautiful: Ivy League graduate. Playful, passionate, perceptive, elegant, bright, articulate, original in mind, unique in spirit. I possess a rare balance of beauty and depth, sophistication and earthiness, seriousness and a love of fun. Professionally successful, perfectly capable of being self-sufficient and independent, but I won’t be truly content until we find each other. . . . Please reply with a substantial letter describing your background and who you are. Photo essential.
Over and against such blatant hubris, there is a concern for image that is not only acceptable, it is actually basic to our Christian identity and calling. The apostle Paul says, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). To properly understand what this means, we must consider God’s original creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden—the place where image projection started.
Created in God’s image, Adam and Eve were like angled mirrors. Positioned faithfully beneath God, a visage of holiness shone down upon them and reflected outward to the world. Unfortunately, the first couple committed treason against the Creator, and, with fruit juice on their lips, the image of Adam and Eve was shattered. In shame they were expelled from the garden, unable to convey divine holiness and as they had previously. This legacy of disgrace is our birthright.
With such a shameful heritage, the human race desperately seeks to restore its shattered image by grasping the world’s possessions. Money, leisure, sex, power, fashion, corporate promotions, and fame all promise wholeness. Like wild elephants, we charge toward these allurements. Many people reach the end of their lives surrounded by these hollow icons to find that the promise of fulfillment was a cruel sham.
Thankfully, God doesn’t leave his creation to die in deception, duped by illusory hopes. Jesus, the visible image of God’s glory, personally addressed our problem. As God’s Son projected divine beauty and holiness, he did something that virtually no one anticipated—he died. As a substitute for humanity, the love of God went to the Cross.
The work of Christ has direct bearing upon humanity’s image problem. In the resurrection, God inaugurated an end-time renewal of the world, providing liberation from the seduction of self and the worship of cultural icons. In Christ, the Church emanates divine grace and truth, which is our vocation.
We would do well to consider the kind of Christian image that we are projecting. Intentionally or not, we reveal something; does our image reflect Christ, or is it a semi-religious version of society? Are we an angled mirror postured beneath the Lord, or a vanity mirror standing at attention before the world? The former is captive to the liberating rule of Christ and mediates divine truth. The latter masquerades as freedom and flaunts the ephemeral whims of self.
We can improve our reflection of Christ by observing a four-fold routinethat entails reading, reflection, prayer, and witness. Reading is the thoughtful study of Scripture that seeks to grasp its truth. Reflection considers how society displays or lacks this truth. Prayer is turning one’s volition toward the God of Truth. Witness reflects truth into the world. You might say reading ingests the fruit; reflection chews it; prayer savors it; witness extends its nourishment to neighbors. Further still, reading pursues the sweetness; reflection understands it; prayer asks for it; witness shares it.
As we read Scripture, it is like placing a freshly picked grape into the mouth. The sweetness of divine revelation opens ours eyes to recognize our identity in Christ. Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). In the background of this text is Moses. When Moses spoke with God in the Tent of Meeting, his face was physically transformed. In time, shining face became a symbol of renewal in the faith of Israel: “The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Num. 6:25-26).
According to Paul, Israel’s awaited hope of renewal was properly fulfilled in Jesus. When we encounter Christ in his Word, the idolatry of self and the surrounding culture loses its seductive appeal.
Have you ever been surprised by how much juice is contained in a little grape? Even more surprising is the amount of flavor that is generated by slowly savoring its flavor. The longer we hold its juices on the pallet, the more flavor is produced. Conversely, the one who hastily rolls the grape across his tongue and into the throat is unfamiliar with such pleasure. He has eaten the grape but not tasted it. Reflection is concerned with savoring the truth of Scripture for all it is worth.
Opinions differ as to the hallmark of reflection. The Jewish tradition helps us appreciate memorization; others emphasize the practice of repetition and visualization. I would like to suggest that in addition to these, a crucial part of reflection involves relating Scriptural truth to what we observe in society. Borrowing the title of John Stott’s book on preaching, it is living “between two worlds,” with one eye on the ancient text and the other on the values and practices of our day. Reflection considers how the kingdoms of Christ and this world relate.
The human soul humbles itself in prayer, seeing that it is powerless to grasp the sweetness of God in its own strength. Like those who would pass through the Church of the Nativity’s so-called Door of Humility, the small rectangular entrance created in Ottoman times, a requisite posture of submission must be assumed. In doing so, God’s people are positioned to properly fulfill our calling.
After reading Scripture and considering how it speaks to society, we are compelled to pray. Prayer recognizes that we are incapable of advancing God’s kingdom without the animating movement of the Spirit, a movement that is invisible to the naked eye, but perceived in prayer.
The love and compassion of God would have us savor the sweetness of grace to our soul’s delight; however, we are never permitted to hoard it. Having read Scripture, related its truth to society, and bathed it in prayer, we are poised to serve as a witness.
Have you ever wondered why the world doesn’t recognize the beauty of Christ? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” This is the reason: blindness. Divine light shines, but the darkness doesn’t comprehend it.
On account of sin, the human heart gravitates toward idolatry over God’s image. Interestingly, the terms idol and image are cut from the same bolt of lexical fabric; that is, depending on context, the Hebrew word tselem and the Greek eikon can both be rendered either “image” or “idol.” It is probably true that this principle also applies to us. Very often, depending on our situation, we will reflect one way or the other: Christ’s beauty or selfish pride, toward salvation or damnation.
Even though society is unable to recognize God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ, and our role of reflecting it is flawed, there is still hope, for the light of salvation doesn’t emerge from darkness but rather proceeds into it. This is the essence of image reflection. Through the church’s proclamation of the gospel, truth about Christ’s kingdom radiates into society. In this way, God displays his victory over idols and provides renewal to languishing lives. Shattered men and women are transformed and eternally captivated by the beauty of the Savior.
As a Christian, I would like to submit a personal ad to New York magazine:
Strikingly Beautiful: Encountered in the Bible, desperately needed, energized with supernatural power, died for your sins, rose from the dead and eager to embrace with eternal love all who draw near to him—Jesus the Christ.
This is why Christian image is everything.