The Gospel in Images: Representational Imagery and Worship

(This paper was originally written for the seminary course Biblical Theology of Worship in Spring 2009)

THE GOSPEL IN IMAGES: REPRESENTATIONAL IMAGERY AND WORSHIP

by Jacob A. Davis

Introduction

Throughout the Scriptures, it becomes quickly apparent that God constantly uses symbolism to remind his people of his covenant promises with them or of great things he has done for them. From setting his bow in the clouds in order to remind mankind of his promise to Noah (Genesis 9:12-13), God has been one of constantly employing signs and traditions as proclamation and memorial, as have his chosen people.  In establishing a continuity and discontinuity between the old and new covenant ordinances specifically established by God and noting the other symbolic elements such as art and music constantly used by his worshippers in both covenants, one reaches the conclusion that true biblical worship cannot exist apart from representational imagery.  A biblical practice of worship will thus include the use of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as the employment of other representational imagery in art, language, the liturgy, and other worship means as a whole in order to represent the covenant promise given to us in Jesus Christ and as a memorial of the gospel story.

The imagery in the Old Testament used to illustrate God’s work begins very early, most often prefiguring a practice that will exist in the New Testament, at least partially.[1] The first notable among these establishes the covenant with Abraham and another reminding the Israelites of God’s deliverance of them out of Egypt.

Baptism

We initially see a strong parallel between the old covenant practice of circumcision and the new covenant practice of baptism.  Indeed, even when examining the discontinuous elements between the two, the overall congruency holds up.  Both are symbols of entering into the covenantal community and all of the blessings pertaining to it.[2] Both are outward symbols of an inward devotion.  Yet, both must be examined and must be understood in both their continuity and discontinuity for Christians to truly understand how baptism exists in the context of our worship today.

Circumcision as a Prefigurment

 

In the book of Genesis, we see circumcision introduced as the sign of the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant that will last the length of the Old Testament and that Christ will fulfill.  God tells Abraham, “Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you… Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (17:9-11, 14).  The commentators in the ESV Study Bible explain here that “the nature of the sign suggests that it was intended to focus attention on the importance of Abraham’s offspring, the royal line through which blessing would come.”  It also clearly means “circumcision distinguished those who believed in the importance of the divine promises to Abraham from those who did not.”[3] Therefore, circumcision is a unique sign that symbolizes the promise between God and the people of Abraham and how he has set them off from the rest of the world.  Of such importance is this sign of faith in God’s promise that one will not inherit the promise without it.

Baptism in New Covenant Worship

As this prefigurement is acknowledged, the fact that these two signs are not, in fact, identical must also be likewise acknowledged.  First and foremost, because entrance into the covenant is not a birthright, it is then inappropriate to take part in baptism until one has chosen to enter into the covenant, that is, once one has placed faith in Christ.  Although the Abrahamic covenant was passed along to Isaac and Jacob, the New Covenant is not passed down through seminal means, but instead to the spiritual children of Abraham, those inheriting the promise made through Christ.  As Wellum articulates, then, there is no longer a mixed community as there were between believers and unbelievers in Israel, but God’s covenant people are solely those who are regenerate, as “under the new covenant, the covenant sign must only be applied to those who are in the covenant, namely, believers.”[4] Therefore, contrary to what paedobaptists would most often argue, baptism has no right to be administered to infants who have not professed Christ.[5] As Thomas Nettles argues, comparing Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:8-12, “Those in the new covenant do not need to be taught, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they already know him.  They have been taught of God in regeneration.  They already are seen as justified, because God has forgiven their wickedness and removed the guilt of their sins.  The positive qualifications manifest in this announcement of God’s covenant admit the application of its sign only to those who are qualified.”[6]

Baptism in the New Testament represents this coming into the covenant powerfully.  It is a symbol, and rightly so, of the spiritual truth that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  As we are plunged beneath the waters of physical baptism, it symbolizes the cleansing that has already occurred as we have been plunged into Christ’s death.  As we are raised out of the water, so is it true that we have been raised to life in Christ.

 

The Lord’s Supper

In coming into the New Covenant, we see both continuity and discontinuity between the ritual practices of God’s people.  The similarities in meaning behind symbolic traditions cannot be overlooked.  At the same time, there are stark differences that ultimately play out in a radical change in the way these ceremonies are performed and their source of inspiration.

Passover as a Prefigurement

The Passover is a different sort of symbol.  Instead of mirroring a promise made to God’s people, it serves as a memorial of God’s salvation of his people from enslavement to the Egyptians.  God tells Moses,

“This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a u statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. On the first day you shall hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day a holy assembly. No work shall be done on those days. But what everyone needs to eat, that alone may be prepared by you. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread.” (Exodus 12:14-20)

In this passage, we see some similarities to the command for circumcision.  Again there is the threat of being cut off from God’s holy people if one does not participate.   Yet striking is the dissimilarity from circumcision.  Whereas circumcision is a once-only happenstance that represents an entering into the covenant, Passover is to be repeated over and over to remind the Israelites of what Yahweh has done for them. The Jews had celebrated this in the way of remembering the grace of their freedom from Egypt, and looking forward to their future deliverance as well.  Keith Mathison informs us that “In the Passover, the Israelite families at the flesh of the sacrificial lamb, identifying themselves with the sacrifice and partaking of the benefits of it… Their participation not only looked back at God’s merciful deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but also looked ahead and anticipated a future deliverance, of which the Exodus was only a foreshadowing.” [7]

The Lord’s Supper in the New Covenant

 

When we come to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, Christ has fulfilled the Passover sacrifice by his death on the cross (1 Cor. 5:7).  Thomas Schreiner, referencing this, also points out that, in this discontinuity, the command to remove leaven from houses is not mandatory for believers.[8]

In regards to the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Eucharist or Communion), it should be established that we must look upon the meal as a memorial of Christ.  Its institution at the celebration of the Passover and Christ’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19 esv) instantly connect it to the memorial symbolism used in the Passover of the Old Testament.  However, like the Passover, it is a meal that points both backward and forward.  It points back toward our redemption through Christ’s death and forward to the consummating of his Kingdom.  It is a participation in participation in the sign of a covenant; it is not merely a reminder of what has occurred, but is a sign of participation in the occurrence and in that covenant.[9]

As in Passover, The Lord’s Supper also looks forward.  The Supper is an eschatological meal.  As we take it, we not only point back to the crucifixion, we point to the kingdom of Christ, whose initiation of Christ’s first coming will be consummated at his return, with the great “Marriage Supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:6-9). This is the deliverance brought about by Jesus Christ, and this is the kingdom where the curse of the fall is finally reversed.  As Russell Moore points out,

The coming of Jesus promises the onset of this new reality.  Jesus changes water to wine at a wedding feast, pointing to a greater feast to come (John 2:1-11).  He feeds thousands by multiplying food with a word (John 6:1-13).  He identifies himself and his people with the vine of God (John 15:1-8), an image previously given to the nation of Israel (Isa. 5:1-7; Jer. 2:21), identifying himself as the fulfillment of the promise that the vine would one day yield fruit (Isa. 27:6; Gal. 5:22-23).  In Christ, this new age is a reality, although a veiled reality seen only to those who have the eyes of faith.  The meal Jesus feeds us then is a sign of an eschatological banquet, with the church acknowledging the “already” and pining for the “not yet.[10]

Therefore, we see in the Lord’s Supper an eschatological symbol.  It is a sign of the new kingdom, of the covenant brought to us in Jesus Christ.  It is a kingdom of a curse lifted.  It is a kingdom of abundance.  It is a kingdom that has been initiated, but will be consummated one day in the future, at a great supper, when “the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7 esv). As we take the bread and wine, we remember both that the Kingdom has come through Jesus Christ, and that the Kingdom is coming.

 

Other Representational Imagery in Worship

 

Aside from the holy, ordained observances that have been mentioned, one cannot ignore the fact that imagery exists throughout Christianity and Old Covenant Judaism.

Liturgy

It is highly important to know that the order of worship itself, not just in the practice of the ordinances, has been highly representational in and of itself in relating the truths of Scripture.  As D.A. Carson informs us in his chapter from Worship By The Book, the Old Covenant practice of synagogue worship was duplicated in the early days of the church.  The typical synagogue liturgy contained a call to worship, a cycle of prayers, a recitation of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and several other texts serving as confession of faith and benediction (Deuteronomy 11:13-21, Numbers 15:37-41), a second cycle of prayers, scripture reading and brief exposition, and benediction.[11] These all served to remind the Jewish people of the promises of God.  This model was replicated by the early church to a large extent with many of the same stages being adopted such as the call to worship, creedal affirmation, prayer, reading and exposition of Scripture, etc.[12] The traditional Reformed layout of worship services (used in modified forms in Presbyterian and some Baptist churches) mirrored very much those of the early church in terms of liturgical element and symbolic proclamation.[13] Especially in the liturgy established by John Calvin, “each service reenacted the reception of the gospel.”[14] From the Isaianic cycle, where sin is acknowledged and repented of, to the Mosaic cycle, where congregants pray for God to speak through his read Word, to the Emmaus cycle, where Christ becomes known to us through the breaking of bread, the entire service is centered around a symbolic portrayal of the gospel.[15]

Visual Arts

While God was clear that no graven image be worshipped (Exodus 20:4-6), visual imagery has constantly existed in worshipful use ordained use by God.  Just a few short chapters after God’s commandment to not worship images comes the creation of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant used to worship him, which we see described in precise detail. On the Ark of the Covenant, God tells Moses to make two cherubim of gold that “shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat… their faces one to another” (Exodus 25:18-20 esv).  When the Temple is built, once again the Lord commands the Israelites to use imagery.  The Temple contains images of open flowers (1 Kgs. 6:18, 29, 32, 35), lily blossoms (1 Kgs. 7:19, 22, 26; 2 Chron. 4:5), pomegranates (1 Kgs. 7:18, 20), gourds (1 Kgs. 6:18), palm trees (1 Kgs. 6:29, 32, 35; 7:36; 2 Chron. 3:5), cherubim (1 Kgs. 6:23-28, 29, 32, 35; 7:29, 36; 2 Chron. 3:7, 10, 14), oxen (1 Kgs. 7:25, 29; 2 Chron. 4:3, 4), and lions (1 Kgs. 7:29, 36).[16] Thus, the Old Testament testifies to many instances of visual art being used as a form of worship.

It is not surprising, based on this, that the arts quickly became part of Christian worship.  After all, the precedent was set in the old covenant.  The New Testament had also prepared the way by offering lush, often vivid descriptions of events (such as in the highly detailed Gospel of Mark) or heavenly or prophetic visions (such as those in Revelation).  Thus, between the first and third centuries, during the childhood of the Church, visual art was widely used to teach those in the Church the essential stories and doctrines of Christianity.  According to Helen de Borchgrave, a leading art historian and curator, “It was… quite natural for the early Christians to use the art forms of the classical world in the service of the gospel: to express their passionate inner convictions, as visual aids to a deeper understanding of the faith, and to transform them into places of worship.  A Christian iconography rapidly developed.”[17]

 

Conclusion

 

The holy, ordained practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as have been established, are powerful proclamations of the gospel.  They remind us of promised made to us by God.  They remind us of the faithful gift he has given us in the gospel.  They press us to look forward to the day when all will be complete at the return of Christ.  So also, in a similar but also dissimilar way, do the people of God constantly use many other types of imagery in their worship in order to proclaim what has so powerfully been proclaimed already in the words of Scripture.  May the church never cease to proclaim the gospel in its words, in its ordinances, and any action, for they all, and much more, are to be done for the glory of God.  Let us proclaim his truth in worship.


[1] The continuity and discontinuity between these practices will be examined later on.

 

[2] Stephen J. Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 119.

 

[3] Note on Genesis 17:11,14 in The ESV Study Bible, gen. ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008) 80.

 

[4] Wellum, 138.

 

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] Thomas J. Nettles, “Baptist View: Baptism as a Symbol of Christ’s Saving Work” in Understanding Four Views on Baptism, ed. John H. Armstrong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 39.

 

[7] Keith A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002) 201.

 

[8] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 653.

 

[9] Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 200.

 

[10] Russell D. Moore, “Baptist View: Christ’s Presence as Memorial” in Understanding Four Views of the Lord’s Supper, ed. John H. Armstrong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 31.

 

[11] D.A. Carson, “Worship Under the Word” in Worship By the Book ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 20

 

[12] ibid. 20

 

[13] Timothy J. Keller, “Reformed Worship in the Global City” in Worship By the Book, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 199-200

 

[14] ibid, 215

[15] Ibid, 217

 

[16] Steve R. Halla, “Visual Art and the Bible” (classroom lecture notes, 28911—Christianity and Visual Arts, Fall 2008, photocopy), 14.

 

[17] Helen De Borchgrave, A Journey into Christian Art (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), p. 6.