A WORD IS WORTH A THOUSAND PICTURES
Written by Doug Ponder on December 12, 2014
The Living and Active Word
When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ debuted in 2004, it was met with mixed responses. Some were annoyed that a “religious film” was getting so much attention. Others were concerned that the director had taken liberties with the life of Jesus. For the most part, however, many looked forward to the film with tremendous excitement, especially those who were hopeful that the film might present the message of Christ crucified to those for whom he died.
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen the film twice. Like many others who saw the film, a decade hasn’t erased the mental images of the whip ripping flesh from Jesus’ back, the maniacal grins of the soldiers as they flogged him, the bitter defeat in Peter’s face when he denied his Lord, and a bloodied Jesus, crimson-cloaked and crowned with thorns.
The movie was nothing if not visually evocative, which brings us to the main point I hope to make here. Upon leaving the theater, one viewer remarked that many around him were saying things like, “Have mercy on me God, I didn’t know! I didn’t know!” Another said in an interview, “I’ve read the Gospels thousands of times throughout my life, but this was the first time I’d actually stepped into them.”
Although their comments seem natural, they actually contradict what the Bible says about itself. Do we really want to suggest that we could not know the meaning of the crucifixion and its significance for our lives apart from a movie? What lasting benefit do we gain from a motion picture that the sacred Scriptures have not already given us? As my former professor once cautioned, we ought not act as if we need cinematic assistance to make the “living and active” Word (Hebrews 4:12) come to life!
Words and Images
In the final chapter of Studies in Words—appropriately titled “At the Fringe of Language”—C.S. Lewis wrote about the limitations of language, about what words can and cannot do well. Today, however, we are in need of a chapter on the limitations of images. For people now declare, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” as if it were the triumphal announcement of a conquering king. Imago venit. Imago vidit. Imago vicit.
But when we say such things, we show our ignorance of the limitations of images. Show me an picture of the hypostatic union or the perichoresis of the Trinity, for example. Paint an image of first-person consciousness or moral agency. Draw a picture of theology, metaphysics, or logic. Those requests cannot be fulfilled; they are beyond the limits of what images can do.
None of this means that words = good, images = bad. Let’s not be ridiculous. Words are essential for some tasks, while images are better for others. For example, Lewis notes how language is almost incapable of clearly describing complex operations, like tying a necktie. Imagine writing out those instructions for someone who has never attempted to wear a necktie before. It would take nearly a page to write out all the details, whereas a few images could display them almost immediately.
But if you wanted to describe how an eternal God created all things for his glory and our good, how we’ve wandered away from him in rebellion, plunging ourselves and everything else into a cursed state of existence, how that same God chose to forgive and redeem this people for himself, and how he has done this through Jesus, the fully-human-and-fully-divine person who lived, died, and rose from death as the saving representative for all who trust in him—if you wanted to convey all that to someone, well, you’re going to need words. You can’t “show” people those things; you have to tell them.
The Word of God
This is why Jesus came teaching and preaching, not painting and drawing. He said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God… for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). In other words, it’s not an accident that God chose to reveal himself through words. God is no dummy. He knows that staring at a picture of a man on a cross, by itself, accomplishes nothing. After all, there were many people who saw Jesus crucified on that day, but they didn’t understand what they had seen. Some of them stood just inches away from the Savior of the world but they died without being saved. Why? Because images cannot save us. We need words. We need revelation. We need someone to tell us the identity of that man hanging there, and what the meaning is concerning all that he’s done. That is why God’s revelation is a verbal revelation. As renowned theologian J.I. Packer has noted,
“What the claim that revelation is essentially verbal does imply is that no historical event, as such, can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan. Providential happenings may serve to remind us, more or less vividly, that God is at work (cf. Acts 14:17), but their link, if any, with His saving purpose cannot be known until He Himself informs us of it. No event is self-interpreting at this level. The Exodus, for instance, was only one of many tribal migrations that history knows (cf. Amos 9:7); Calvary was only one of many Roman executions. Whoever could have guess the unique saving significance of these events, had not God Himself spoken to tell us? All history is, in one since, God’s deed, but none of it reveals Him except insofar as He Himself talks to us about it. God’s revelation is not through deeds without words (a dumb charade!) any more than it is through words without deeds; but it is through deeds which He speaks to interpret, or, putting it more biblically, through words which His deeds confirm and fulfill. The fact we must face is that if there is no verbal revelation there is no revelation at all, not even in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” (J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, vol. 6 of God Has Spoken, 51–52).
If there is no verbal revelation, there is no revelation at all. We could not have known God if he had not spoken, and we still cannot know God apart from his Word that still speaks today. This truth rubs against our natural way of thinking. We talk of “experiencing” God and “feeling” his presence, but without his Word to confirm our impressions, we may as well be experiencing the devil or feeling a Fourth Meal from Taco Bell. It is God’s Word that gives shape and meaning to all our experiences. It frames them, explains them, and corrects our misguided interpretations of them.
The Passion Revisited
One last point. It is not just that words, in general, are needed for life (thought that is certainly true). The main takeaway for Christians must be that God’s Word in particular is needed above all. Let us return to the questions we asked of The Passion of the Christ. We wondered, “Do we really want to suggest that we could not know the meaning of the crucifixion and its significance for our lives apart from a movie? What lasting benefit do we gain from a motion picture that the sacred Scriptures have not already given us?”
In other words, why did all those people leave the theaters saying that for the first time they really understood the meaning of the gospel? Because they were confusing their emotional responses to the graphic imagery of the movie with the meaning of the Word of God itself. Though they probably didn’t realize it, their comments make it seem as though we possess some kind of advantage over the untold generations of God’s people who lived before movies were invented. It’s as if we’re ignorantly saying, “Those poor people only had the Scriptures.” Or worse, we’re arrogantly suggesting that God probably should have waited until movies were invented to send Jesus into the world.
But here is how Jesus spoke about God’s Word. He told the story of a rich man in hell who wanted to send a message from beyond the grave to warn his brothers who were still alive. The plan was simple: God would send a formerly-dead man, now resurrected, to carry the rich man’s message to brothers. Surely that would get their attention! But Jesus said it would never work. “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Don’t you see what this means? Jesus says the words of the Scriptures are more powerful than seeing someone rise from the dead—and certainly more powerful than seeing someone on a cross on the silver screen.
You see, The Passion of The Christ is simply a movie. The images in the film that evoke emotional responses are meaningless without the significance attributed to them through the Scriptures. The words are where the meaning of what we see is found. This means, as moving as the movie may seem to be, the reading, hearing, and preaching of the Word of God is superior in every way. It is the words of Scripture that are God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), and God himself tells us that they alone are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15). This is why, when it comes to knowing God and his salvation, a word is worth a thousand pictures—no, infinitely more than that.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.