Updated: May 25
Brothers and Sisters,
This past Sunday, we considered God’s prohibition of image worship (Ex 20:4-6).
We had just enough time to cover one of the two big reasons why this is so important: God is the only one who gets to make an image of Himself, and He has already done so in creating us (Gen 1:26-28) and, preeminently, in sending Christ (Col 1:15).
Here’s the second: Biblical revelation is ultimately a matter of the ear and not the eye.
In the OT, the eyes are often an instrument of scrutiny or judgment. In creation, God sees what He has made and He judges it to be good. In the garden, Eve sees that the fruit was good for food. Upon eating it, her and Adam's eyes are opened to see their nakedness.
Our sight gives us a sense of command, control, and critique. We choose what we see and how we see it. We might look, for example, at a painting from every angle. In that way, we control the visual information we receive and how we receive it—that is, if we choose to receive it at all. We could always shut our eyes and reject what’s being presented to us.
We are the lords, we could say, of our vision. Nothing about that is inherently sinful, so long as we don’t let our vision lead us in sinful directions (e.g. Matt 5:29; 6:22-23; 18:9; etc.).
Our ears, on the other hand, are a different story.
The ear is a passive recipient of information; you can stick your finger in your ear, I suppose, but that only muffles your hearing. It does not stop it. You can't really “close” your ears.
In other words, we are not the lords of our hearing. Really, we are slaves of the sounds that confront our ear drums. As a father of three small children, I know this all too well…
What does all this stuff about seeing and hearing have to do with images?
Images are the province of the eye. We make them according to whatever metaphorical vision we have of the deity (based, of course, on things we’ve seen like bulls, goats, paintings, etc.).
As an object of the eye, the image is completely under our control. We choose what we see in the image, when we see it, and how. If we are the lords of our vision, then we are the lords of our images, as well.
God’s revelation, though, is of an entirely different order. It is a matter of the ear.
Even though His presence on Mt. Sinai was accompanied by truly marvelous visible phenomena (light, fire, smoke), He did not allow Himself to be seen. Consider Moses’ recollection of Sinai in Deut 4:12: “Then the LORD spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.”
God presented Himself to Israel not by showing but by telling.
Even when the elders went up on the mountain in Ex 24 to see the God of Israel, they did not see Him so much as His feet (v. 9-10). Even when Moses, the servant of the Lord with whom God spoke “face to face” (Ex 3:11), asked to see God, YHWH only allowed Him to see his back (Ex 33:18-22; 34:5-8). This is why John could say that no one has ever seen God (John 1:8).
God has not given Himself to His people as an object of the eye to be mastered and controlled according to the whims of our physical and figural eyelids. Rather, He has spoken. His words are inscribed for us in His word, and they are given to us not as an object of the eye to be controlled but as a verbal imposition upon the ear to be trusted and obeyed.* In our rebellion, we can choose not to heed those words, but we cannot fail to hear them.
This is why our faith is so word-centric, and nowhere is it more so than in the incarnation of the Word. Yes, Jesus gave Himself for a time as an object to the eye, and John’s gospel has a lot to say about our “seeing” His glory. But John was concerned with spiritual sight. Jesus’ revelation of the Father (John 1:8) was not a matter of appearances. Rather, He “showed” His people the Father by His speech and action, culminating in His death and resurrection.
Today, those with eyes to see the Lord do not do so as the apostles at the ascension, squinting our little eyes to spy Jesus amid the clouds (Acts 1:10). Nor ought we attempt to see Him by images. No, we see Him with the eyes of faith (Luke 10:23-24; 2 Cor 4:6; 5:7; Heb 11:1; etc.).
We do not see in order to believe. It is only by the faith that comes from hearing that our eyes are opened to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (Rom 10:17; Eph 1:18; 2 Cor 4:6).
We live in a visual culture dominated by images and video. I understand that some people are visual learners, but biblical revelation is still first and foremost a matter of the ear. It is not ultimately a matter of imbibing sets of facts. If that were the case, then a PowerPoint presentation probably would serve most of us better than a biblical text and a sermon.
But that’s not the case. God has spoken the world into being and told us about Himself in the Word (Jesus and the Bible). He speaks to us by way of His Word and Spirit; He presents Himself to our ears with a message to be heard. He is more like a father with his son than a professor with a Powerpoint, and He expects us to listen and respond in love, faith, and obedience.
Images abound—not just in film and television—but in the many false representations of Jesus we construct as means to ideological ends. The promise they make to the eye is one of control—a god who will ultimately conform to our image.
Yet we are the ones called to conform to God’s image. Our challenge as believers in the true Christ is to submit our vision (the body’s and the mind’s eye) to the lordship of faithful hearing. God has spoken. We see by what He’s said. Let’s not get it the other way around.
Your brother in Christ,
* Yes, I know that we see the written words of Scripture in order to hear them. But the visual symbols we call letters and words are merely human conventions meant to capture and convey the language we use to communicate with one another. In that sense, even the written word we see is still a matter of the ear more than it is the eye.