John Owen on Images Depicting Christ

The great Congregational theologian John Owen (1616-1683), one of the greatest Christian minds in history, writes on the topic of images depicting Christ in his work, The Glory of Christ:

“In this way Roman Catholics are deceived. They delight outwardly in images of Christ depicting his sufferings, resurrection and glory. By these images they think their love for him grows more and more strong. But no man-made image can truly represent the person of Christ and his glory. Only the gospel can do that.

John writes not only of himself but of his fellow apostles also, ‘We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Now what was his glory of Christ which they saw, and how did they see it?

It was not the glory of Christ’s outward condition for he had no earthly glory or grandeur. He kept no court, nor did he entertain people to parties in a great house. He had nowhere to lay his head, even though he created all things. There was nothing about his outward appearance that would attract the eyes of the world (Isa. 53:14; 53:2-3). He appeared to others as a ‘man of sorrows’.

Neither was it the eternal essential glory of his divine nature that is meant, for this no man can see while in this world. What we shall see in heaven we cannot conceive.

What the apostles witnessed was the glory of ‘grace and truth’. They saw the glory of Christ’s person and office in the administration of grace and truth. And how did they see this glory? It was by faith and in no other way, for this privilege was given only to those who ‘received him’ and believe on his name (John 1:12). This was the glory which the Baptist saw when he pointed to Christ and said, ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29).

So, let no one decieve himself. He that has no sight of Christ’s glory here shall never see it hereafter. The beholding of Christ’s glory is too high, glorious and marvellous for us in our present condition. The splendour of Christ’s glory is too much for our physical eyes just as is the sun shining in all its strength. So while we are here on earth we can behold his glory only by faith.”

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  1. Here are a few other John Owen quotes that may be helpful:

    “He who lives in the exercise of Faith and Love in the Lord Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Gospel, as evidently crucified, and evidently exalted therein, and finds the fruit of his so doing in his own Soul; will be preserved in the time of Trial. Without this, men will at last begin to think that it is better to have a false Christ than none at all; they will suppose that something is to be found in an Image, when they can find nothing in the Gospel.”~John Owen

    “The glory that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the real actual possession of in heaven can be no otherwise seen or apprehended in this world, but in the light of faith fixing itself on divine revelation. To behold this glory of Christ is not an act of fancy or imagination. It does not consist in framing unto ourselves the shape of a glorious person in heaven. But the steady exercise of faith on the revelation and description made of this glory of Christ in the Scripture, is the ground, rule, and measure, of all divine meditations thereon.”~John Owen

    “It is no work of fancy or imagination; it is not the feigning images in our minds, of such things as are meet to satisfy our carnal affection, to excite and act them; but it is a due adherence unto that object which is represented unto faith in the proposal of the gospel. Therein, as in a glass, do we behold the glory of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, and have our souls filled with transforming affections unto him.”~John Owen

    “But the ancient Christians told those men the truth; namely, that as they had feigned unto themselves an imaginary Christ, so they should have an imaginary salvation only.”~John Owen

    “But that which is produced by an image, is but an image; an imaginary Christ will effect nothing in the minds of men, but imaginary grace.”~John Owen

    “The shadow or image of this glory of Christ is drawn in the gospel, and therein we behold it as the likeness of a man represented unto us in a glass; and although it be obscure and imperfect in comparison of his own real, substantial glory, which is the object of vision in heaven ; yet is it the only image and representation of himself, which he hath left, and given unto us in this world. That woeful cursed invention of framing images of him out of stocks and stones, however adorned, or representations of him by the art of painting, are so far from presenting unto the minds of men any thing of his real glory, that nothing can be more effectual to divert their thoughts and apprehensions from it. But by this figurative expression of seeing in a glass, the Apostle declares the comparative imperfection of our present view of the glory of Christ.”~John Owen

    “And therefore those who dream of his personal reign on the earth before the day of judgment, unless they suppose that all the saints shall be perfectly glorified also, (which is only to bring down heaven to the earth for a while, to no purpose), provide not at all for the edification or consolation of the church ; for no present grace advanced unto the highest degree whereof in this world it is capable, can make us meet for an immediate converse with Christ in his unvailed glory.

    How much more abominable is the folly of men, who would represent the Lord Christ in his present glory by pictures and images of him? When they have done their utmost with their burnished glass and gildings, an eye of flesh can not only behold it, but if it be guided by reason, see if contemptible and foolish. But the true glory of Christ neither inward nor outward sight can bear the rays of in this life.

    The dispensation which we are meet for, is only that of his ‘presence with us by the Spirit. We know him now no more after the flesh,’ 2 Cor. v. 16. We are advanced above that way and means “of the knowledge of him by the fleshly carnal ordinances of the Old Testament. And we know him not according unto that bodily presence of his, which his disciples enjoyed in the days of his flesh. We have attained somewhat above that also : for such was the nature of his ministry here on earth, that there could not be the promised dispensation of the Spirit until that was finished. Therefore he tells his disciples, that ‘it was expedient for him that he should go away and send the Spirit to them,’ John xvi. 7. Hereon they had a clearer view of the glory of Christ, than they could have by beholding him in the flesh. This is our spiritual posture and condition. We are past the knowledge of him according to the flesh; we cannot attain nor receive the sight of him in glory; but ‘the lite which we now lead, is by the faith of the Son of God.'”~John Owen

    “So do the Papists delude themselves. Their carnal affections are excited by their outward senses to delight in images of Christ,—in his sufferings, his resurrection, and glory above. Hereon they satisfy themselves that they behold the glory of Christ himself and that with love and great delight. But whereas there is not the least true representation made of the Lord Christ or his glory in these things,—that being confined absolutely unto the gospel alone, and this way of attempting it being laid under a severe interdict,—they do but sport themselves with their own deceivings.”~John Owen

    “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. We may have seen hence the vanity as well as the idolatry of them who would represent Christ in glory as the object of our adoration in pictures and images. They fashion wood or stone into a likeness of a man. They adorn it with colors and flourishes of art, to set it forth unto the senses and fancies of superstitious person as having a resemblance of glory. And when they have done, the lavish gold out of the bag, as the prophets speaks, and so propose it as an image or resemblance of Christ in glory. But what is there in it that hath the least respect thereunto,—the least likeness of it?, nay, is it not the most effectual means that can be derived to divert the mind of men from true and real apprehensions of it? Doth it teach anything of the subsistence of the human nature of Christ in the person of the Son of God? Nay, it doth it obliterate all thought of it! What is represented thereby of the union of it unto God, and the immediate communications of God unto it? Doth it declare the manifestation of all the glorious properties of the divine nature in him? Persons who know not what it is to live by faith may be pleased for a time, and ruined for ever, by these delusions. Those who have real faith in Christ, and love unto him, have a more glorious object for their exercise.”~John Owen

    “It is the eye of faith alone that can see this King in his beauty.”~John Owen

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