Eric B. Watkins
What color is God? This is a strange question, but one that many have wrestled with through history, especially as it relates to the subject of social justice and the church (an issue that is becoming increasingly important—particularly among millennials).
Having recently finished preaching through the entire book of Exodus, it is striking to me that for all that the Israelites and Moses saw, they never saw God’s face. If there were ever a time when God might have given his people an artistic depiction of himself, this would have been the time. A painting of God might have looked lovely in the tabernacle. However, God never gave Moses any instructions for depicting God in any particular way; in fact, God strictly forbade it. As John Calvin would later say, our hearts are idol factories, and the Israelites would surely have worshiped the image of God rather than God himself—if God had given them such an image.
All the “images” that God positively gave Israel were means of grace to point to God’s redemptive work in the covenant, not to a physical description of his person. The Bible does not depict God as being white, black, or any other color. In short, the God of Israel does not “have a body like men,” as the children’s catechism rightly states.
When Jesus came, it is equally striking that he never sat down to have his portrait painted (and yes, they had artists back then). The apostles never gave us a picture of Jesus. We are not told how tall he was, whether he was heavy or thin, the color of his eyes or skin—anything. Though the New Testament does not give us a physical depiction of Jesus, his image is sweetly expressed through his Word and sacrament, and through his redeemed people as we walk in his ways.
For this reason, pictures of Jesus have always puzzled me—because they all tend to look like the artists who painted them. Sometimes Jesus is depicted as having wavy blond hair and blue eyes. This is pretty poor history, but it again reflects exactly what Calvin said: our hearts are idol factories, and it is our constant inclination to conform God to our image. We all want “our own personal Jesus” (to quote a great 80s song). I have seen “white Jesus” in white churches and “black Jesus” in African American churches, and I can’t help but wonder if anyone sees the self-reflective narcissism in this. The contemporary zeal to recast Jesus into our image lies somewhere between the pragmatic idolatry of the golden calf in Exodus 32 and the postmodern narcissism of our day. Whatever Jesus looked like, he did a pretty good job of keeping it a secret.
What color is the church? Here again we find the Bible leading down a different trail than many contemporary voices. I am a biracial pastor with biracial children, serving a somewhat diverse church in the South. It has been heartbreaking to hear it said by evangelical friends (and leaders) that that they are leaving their churches to form new ones that better reflect their cultural, ethnic, and political commitments. To do so has become trendy and provocative, but is it biblical?
Colossians 3:11 tells us that the church
is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and is in all.
In New Testament times, there was a plethora of potential lines of division. There were ethnic differences, cultural differences, economic differences, distinctions between genders and generations—it was all there. But none of these were lauded as reasons to divide the church. The New Testament rather depicts one holy and apostolic church, striving to work through its differences rather than dividing because of them.
Strangely, for all the problems the New Testament addresses, it yet brings the people of God (culturally divided as they were) into one church to participate in one worship service to the one triune God. The gospel was the bridge that transcended barriers. God calls his people to leave their narcissism at the door, and to strive to be one on earth as in heaven. He calls us to live cross-shaped, servant-hearted lives that depict his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24). And it takes the whole body to do that well. As a diamond’s many facets allow it to brilliantly reflect light, it takes all the beauty, gifts, passions, and diversity that God has given each one of us to reflect the whole of Christ’s glory well.
In light of these ideas, what color is faithful preaching? Again, it feels like a silly question. And yet my library has numerous books distinguishing preaching along ethnic lines. Is that a biblical distinction or a postmodern, consumeristic one? Should we go shopping for preachers that look like us or that cater to our cultural and political paradigm? Do we need our own personal preacher to go along with our own personal Jesus? Or would we be better off to drop the mall mentality and long for the “pure milk of the Word” (1 Peter 2:2)?
Social justice is an important subject that should not be ignored either by the church corporately or the Christian privately. But we should not forget what Protestant liberalism did in the last century, making social issues into the cloud that eclipsed the glory of Christ and his gospel. When social issues define the church and her preaching, Jesus will soon become little more than a means to an end of pushing one’s political agenda (regardless of what that agenda is).
This is contrary to the historic Protestant view of preaching, which regarded faithful preaching as the Word of God to the people of God by the man of God (Second Helvetic Confession). Preaching is one of the outward and ordinary means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 88). It is, as the hymn goes, “that Word above all earthly powers” (including politics, racism, and cultural narcissism), and it pierces our hearts as it comforts us with the gospel.
So what color is faithful preaching? The same color as the church; the same color as the gospel; the same color as God himself—incapable of being color-coded. Perhaps in this time of competing and confusing voices, what we need is to return to a biblical theology of the church, right worship, and right preaching—to see the church the way Christ sees her, and to love the church the way Christ loves her.
After all, there is but one human race, and there is but one body of Christ. What we already are in Christ (our heavenly identity) is that which should define us on earth. Nothing more, nothing less. Jesus is the color of preaching.
The author is pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine, Florida. New Horizons, May 2019.