We just got a Macintosh computer. In fact this article is being typed on it. Learning how to use it was filled with all kinds of little surprises, including the unique use of certain words. One of those unusually used terms is icon.” In “computerese” the word does not mean a religious picture. It’s just a simple drawing on the computer screen to open a course of action.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the term “icon” or image does just that. It is a way of approach utilized by the presenter of the image and is designed to invite individuals or groups to accept a given attitude or to commit themselves to a certain action. Sometimes it does both.
More and more in today’s society, we find ourselves using icons or pictures rather than words. For example, signs on rest rooms used to say Men or Women, Ladies or Gentlemen. But more and more we see line drawings of a masculine or feminine figure to signal which is the appropriate rest room. Our major highways are dotted with symbols directing drivers to gas stations, restaurants and rest areas. Parking places set apart for the convenience of handicapped people, areas set apart for dog walking and a myriad of traffic dos and don’ts are also designated by symbols rather than words.
God also uses symbols. He uses symbols or images to point the way toward himself or to some necessary benefit he wants to bestow. He uses these symbols not only to show us the way, but also to motivate us and move us in the direction we ought to go.
Images are important to the ministry of evangelism. The Hebrew word for image is tzelem. It means shadow, as in a shade, or projected image. In Scripture we find that God himself has an image and that we have an image, for we are created in his image. There are also images that are not of God. An example of this can be found in Leviticus 26:1, where the word “tzelem” is used:
You shall make no idols nor carved 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.
For a different aspect of images, consider the following New Testament passage:
God, who at sundry times and in diverse manners spoke in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who, being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Hebrews 1:1-4).
Christ is the image of God. The writer starts out, “God, who at sundry times…spoke…by the prophets.…” The message of those prophets was the image. In this sense Yeshua is the Logos—the word, the reason, the logic behind all creation. A logos is an image or symbol that represents the whole of a given thing by making a single impression.
We are constantly registering impressions, but we do it subjectively. Sometimes through misunderstanding we develop wrong images and wrong interpretations. Wrong images are idols and lead us away from God. Right images are reality and bring us to God.
For example, Yeshua, who is called “the express image of God,” said, “If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.” This verse has often been misunderstood. Some have interpreted it to mean that if we exalt Christ, he will draw people to himself. There is some truth to this, and so we may say it is a possible application. Another application of the text is that if we publicize who he is by lifting him up and raising him above the crowd, the people will see him and be drawn to him. While that contains a grain of truth, it is still not the meaning of the text. The context explains the text. The context is Yeshua’s crucifixion.
By his words, Yeshua projected an impression, a picture, an image. There’s no doubt what he meant when he said he would draw people to himself. However the question was, what was meant by “lifted up”? The serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness, was God’s “tzelem.” People who looked to that serpent were healed of serpent bites. We must remember that the serpents were God’s form of punishment upon disobedient Israel. By looking at the brass serpent, they were seeing the image of the judgment sent upon them. Here we have a picture of the effect of sin, and those who looked to the picture were healed of sin.
If we take Calvary as an isolated event, it is an episode of horror in the history of humanity; it is a shocking and ignoble end to a noble man. But of course, Calvary is not an isolated event, and it is certainly not the end, for Christ, who was more than merely a noble man, rose from the dead.
Through the image of Calvary, God sent a message to humanity. That message was judgment and death. And while Yeshua’s death was not the end, that is the last image that impresses the unregenerate man. The unbeliever sees only the suffering Savior; he does not see the image of the risen Redeemer.
After his resurrection, Yeshua appeared only to those who were his disciples—those who trusted in him and believed in him. Imagine how he might have disrupted the whole order of Israel after the Resurrection, if he had appeared in the Temple at the time of the morning sacrifices, showed his wounds and confronted the self-righteous schemers who had put him to death. Imagine him marching in with a backup of several squadrons of warrior angels overhead, followed by a ragged procession of the 120 who had been with him in the upper room. Hands outstretched, he challenges the priests to proclaim him Messiah. Even if they had seen the risen Christ, they still would not have believed. (Cf. Luke 16:31.)
Nothing in the human heart is so unlikely to change as committed unbelief. When confronted by unpleasant realities, people build defense structures which are, in effect, shields or blinders to keep them from seeing the unpleasant realities of life.
No, Yeshua did not divulge his image as the risen Christ to those who were unbelievers. He showed himself only to those who were his followers. In God’s economy he seldom shows himself in power and might. He gives us a chance to serve him because we find it in our hearts to do so. He gives us a chance to love him because we find it in our hearts to love him. He does not confront us with images of overwhelming force that demand allegiance.
It’s just as well. We all have a tenuous grasp on reality—past and present—so much so that we can be in the midst of a miracle and later question whether or not we really saw it. The Israelites who had seen the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the water from the rock and the manna and quail from heaven could still continue in unbelief and murmur against God, as though all those things had never happened. Many people have heard from God and have given story of God’s speaking to them. Some have been healed and give story to healing. Others stand up, and with ringing conviction declare the wonderful works of God. BUT when the opposition gets tough and the going gets rough, and they feel they’ve had more than enough, they do that obscene four-letter word: QUIT.
How can the bright light switch off and begin to beam darkness? It is because the quitters enter into an experience common to all people—one in which we reaffirm one another. That experience is called doubt.
Because of doubt, God must, of necessity, have used the darker and more sobering images to capture our attention. If God had chosen the bright and glorious images to approach us, we would not have taken them as seriously. For example, if he had showed us bright images of heaven, gleaming like a celestial Disneyland, and it looked like great pleasure and enjoyment, we would have been momentarily transfixed as we considered the possibility of enjoyment. But the impression would not have been as deep or as lasting as the dark image of Calvary.
Nor did God use a power image of himself to impress the world. Yeshua said, “If I be lifted up…I will draw all men to me.” Something about the impression of death challenges us to come closer to God—to take a look at stark reality. Considering the pain, apparent finality and fearfulness of the event, one might think that images of death would be utterly repellent. Yet the crucifixion image has been God’s instrument to attract sinful humanity to the Savior.
There is a saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” For those who place great value on accumulating flies, that is great advice. But we are not insects; we are people. That which is sweet to sophisticated palates has only momentary appeal. How long do we savor a candy bar? And how long do we remember a toothache? The sweetest and best experiences bring only momentary satisfaction. Bright and beautiful things make a momentary impression. But the dark images of pain press and impress.
I don’t know much about training mules, but I have heard about the carrot-and-stick method—a reward and punishment technique. It seems that the reward method does not get more immediate results, because while not every mule wants a carrot all the time, all mules want to avoid a whack on their rumps at any time. Because of the perversity of human nature, we too are more easily motivated by pain avoidance than by pleasure-seeking. It is the darker images that make the deeper impression. We remember those things that hurt and frighten us much more profoundly than we remember those things that please and affirm us.
Therefore, we should not think it strange or morbid of God that he approaches us with the message of healing through the picture-image of the serpent raised up or the Savior crucified. If humanity had a different psychological constitution, God might approach us differently, but he confronts us with the darker images rather than the brighter images because in the language of the Scriptures, “men love darkness rather than light…,” and God must send a dark image to get our attention and make an impression upon us. The natural man must be approached by frightening images when he fails to respond to the bright image of Christ.
What is it about Calvary that draws people? It goes beyond the basic motivations for food, shelter, reproduction or self-esteem. More than anything else, we want meaning and significance in our lives. There must be a reason for it all that goes beyond the present moment of pleasure or pain.
We live to discover the meaning of life. In order to do this, we must gaze at death. The image of the cross is not one of passive resignation to humanity’s most fearsome enemy. That may be what the unbelievers see, but they miss the whole point. For Yeshua, the cross was a matter of acceptance, but not with resignation. It was a matter of the almighty Son of God defiantly telling sin to do its worst. When in faith we gaze at Yeshua’s death, we also see life—everlasting resurrection life.
There are believers today who are willing to be as bright and frivolous as Madison Avenue advertisers in raising images to invite people to Christ. They want to dangle the carrot and avoid the stick. Anyone who preaches about hell, punishment or tribulation is likely to be labeled a Gloomy Gus instead of a prophet of God. We need to examine our hearts and evaluate our message to see if we are seriously proclaiming what God would have us proclaim. God offers only one “brand name” Savior. Others might present big advertising images, but they cannot save. Our message must be, “Don’t be deceived. Be delivered in Jesus’ name.” Good-natured humor is important in communications, and we Jews for Jesus use enough of it, but I am more concerned than ever that we must seriously state the consequences of sin by uplifting the cross, and Jesus will then draw all men to himself, as he said.
I like the motto, “We preach Christ crucified, risen and coming again.” That aphorism has the right balance of seriousness and joy in the image it presents.