Well, it’s that time of the year. The holidays are drawing near and with them some of the usual hustle and bustle. Cards are arriving in the mail, festive music floats through the air, lights are strung on gutters and railings, and ornaments are hung with care on trees. And, of course, adorning many front yards or placed on the table is the iconic nativity scene whose center is focused on a baby. A baby that is likely wrapped in sheets, and who sometimes has a halo or at other times is straining its neck beyond the natural capabilities of a newborn child. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that this baby represents Jesus Christ.
God becoming man — or what Christians call the incarnation — is at the heart of the faith we profess. Without it there is no salvation. In order to bring Holy God and sinful man together one must represent both. This is precisely what the eternal Son of God did when he took to himself a human nature. As Augustine so elegantly put it: “The Maker of man became man […] that he, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that he, the Teacher, might be scourged with whips; that he, the Vine, might be crowned with thorns; that he, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Strength might be weakened; that he who makes well might be wounded; that Life might die.” There’s few truths as sublime but as practical as the incarnation. Or, as the Apostle wrote: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Timothy 3:16).
It’s important how we understand the significance of the incarnation. One of the things that makes it significant is that the incarnation itself is revelation. We should remember that Christianity is a revealed religion. What that means is that at its center Christianity isn’t about man discovering God but God making himself known to man. In his self-revelation God has ultimately made himself known in Jesus. This is why Jesus is able to say: “Whoever has seen me as seen the Father” (John 14:9). That’s because “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9) and he is the “exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). It’s the incarnate Son — the God-man Jesus Christ — who reveals with perfection the glory of the Father (see 2 Corinthians 4:6). In revealing himself in Jesus the Father has given us a complete self-disclosure. BB Warfield reflected on this when he wrote: “[The Scriptures record] the steady advance of this gracious revelation through definite stages from its first faint beginnings to its glorious completion in Jesus Christ.”
But the incarnation isn’t only revelation. It is, if I can split a bit of a hair, also interpretation. The Apostle John wrote: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). The verb “has made known” is the word “exegete” — or, “to exposit” or “to interpret.” Jesus is both the revealer and the interpreter of God. That is to say, he doesn’t just reveal facts about God but he also interprets those facts in his own person. By him we come to not only see God but we also come to understand who God is. This is part of the glory of the incarnation. The person of Jesus Christ uniquely, fully, and finally reveals and interprets the Father to us.
It’s this significance of the incarnation that is one of the reasons I think we should do away with the manger scene and pictorial representations of Jesus. Why? Because by their creation these images are trying to picture for us God in the flesh. But the incarnation has meaning and you cannot abstract a picture of the incarnate Jesus from that meaning. Thus, an image or picture of Jesus becomes a way to reveal and interpret God to us – inevitably, every representation of Jesus is saying something about God. Or, to express it this way, any and every picture of Jesus makes the claim: “Here is a representation of God.”
Now, is that a problem? After all, many people would say that they learn better through pictures than, for instance, written word. Well, to put it bluntly it’s a big problem. The second of God’s Ten Commandments forbids the making of images as a means to reverence and worship God (see Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10). This was Israel’s problem when Aaron made the golden calf and after him Jeroboam the golden calves. The golden calf didn’t represent the gods of the Egyptians of Assyrians, but it was an image of Jehovah: “O Israel, this is Elohim who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (see e.g. Exodus 32:4 or 1 Kings 12:28). In other words, they sought to create through their own imagination a picture of God, and he didn’t take that lightly: “I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence? For it is from Israel; a craftsman made it; it is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces” (Hosea 8:5-6).
Of course, someone might say there’s a big difference between bowing down to a crafted golden calf and putting up a manger scene with a baby Jesus. When is the last time you saw someone bowing down at the nativity? I never have! But here I would add the third of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This command requires that God, as he makes himself known, is to be revered and worshiped. If we follow the logic it seems inescapable. A picture of the incarnate Son — which is a representation of God — should not, by the third commandment, be treated with indifference or else it’s a vain picture. Back to the second commandment! God forbids that we use images to revere and worship him. The only way out of the moral dilemma is to not make pictures of Jesus!
As scenic and nostalgic as the nativity scene may be the fact that the Jesus, the Word of God, was made man doesn’t entitle us to make pictures of him. To do so actually detracts from the true meaning — not of Christmas — but of the incarnation. It cheapens the sublime and practical truth of the God-man. Christ wasn’t manifest in the flesh to give us sentimental feelings or a mantle centerpiece. No, the eternal Son of God took to himself human nature that we might have the knowledge of the glory of God revealed and interpreted in the face of Jesus Christ. So, I say with seasonal cheerfulness: “Away with the manger!”