“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake 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” Hebrews 1:1-2
America is quickly leaving a word-based society and becoming an image-based society and so is the church of Jesus Christ. Christians have always been readers and listeners. The invention of radio was a simple diversion where simply sitting and listening began to overtake the struggle of reading. The advent of printed images in magazines increased the ease of perusing through a magazine where one could look at the pictures rather than read the articles. With moving pictures came the theater and the modern wonder of bringing images to life, which was eventually brought into the living room with the television. Few living Americans today have ever experienced a time when these things were not commonplace.
But movies and television are ancient history to today’s young people. They have not known a time without computers and the internet. Many young Christians have never experienced a church service with simple singing, praying, and preaching. Their world is a world wallpapered with images and sounds at home, in the car, at school, in the mall or restaurant, and also at church.
The epitome of image is the commercial—a professional moment created by people who want to make money that invades the world of people who live by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. If one wants to get a true picture of the moral level of a society, he only needs to go as far as the radio, television, or online commercial. Consider the commercial where a product is being sold that supposedly will help you lose weight or increase bodily function of some sort. The pictures shown portray a happy, loving, successful person who is experiencing a perfectly happy moment. But while the pictures are being shown, by law the commercial must audibly say that taking the product may harm you in a number of different ways, actually causing a reaction opposite of what was intended, and in some cases may even cause death. But these ubiquitous commercials obviously work evidently because people watch but do not listen. Of course, the next commercial break will feature a law firm telling you that if you’ve taken the same drug, call because you will be able to sue them for damages and false advertising.
Some feel that our image-based world began in the 1930s in Nuremburg when Adolf Hitler held the first multi-media rallies. Thousands of people crowded shoulder to shoulder watching huge pictures with lights and music. Hitler was spewing the worst audio message imaginable but people were persuaded to follow because of the visual effects. Hitler knew this better than anyone and specifically describes his goal of brainwashing by this image-based methodology, calling it “the magic of influence of what we designate as mass suggestion.”1
Some feel that this all started in 1960 with the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon had been in the hospital and came to the debate physically weakened and looking emaciated. Kennedy, on the other hand, was young, tanned, and good looking. Those who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy won, but those who listened on radio thought that Nixon won. Image wins in a debate every time. That is why today’s presidential debates are everything to do with image and almost nothing to do with substance.
While attending a pastor’s conference in Denver some years ago I listened to a young pastor explain why we must now fill our preaching and teaching times with multiple visual aids, because today’s youth are now learning from multiple sources that feed all the senses of sight, sound, feel, and even smell. This is how they learn today in school and the church cannot afford to be behind in its pedagogy. Another pastor then asked why the American student ranks almost last in most of the important educational categories world-wide. The leader had no answer.
Ironically we call the historic period of image-based worship the dark ages. Carl Trueman has written, “As regards the cultural trend away from words to images, one could make a case for seeing this as, theologically, an undoing or a reversal of the Reformation and a reversion to aesthetic and sacrament-centered church life of a kind that defined much of medieval Catholicism.”2 He refers to a time when the images filled the beautiful cathedrals and sight and sound became the essence of worship, not the preaching of the Word. God brought Christianity out of this first with a Renaissance of learning, then the invention of the printing press, and finally (and most importantly) a return to the Book in the Reformation. The Reformers believed that God speaks through His Word and therefore the Word must be central in any worship service—sola scriptura!
Much has been written and spoken about the effects of postmodernism on our image-based culture. Authur W. Hunt, III, wrote, “Much of what is going on in our church sanctuaries falls under my definition of postmodernism—that is, a turning from rationality and an embracing of spectacle.”3 Trueman points out that postmodernism has left us with two dangerous results: the death of the author and the medium as the message.4 Postmodernism posits that language changes so quickly that we cannot know the original intent of the author. The author, for all practical purposes, is dead. Therefore, we have to read all writing, especially old writing, without trying to discover the author’s meaning but rather ask what it means to us right now. In postmodernism this is the only possible knowledge we can gain from writing. No wonder Americans today do not believe we can even discover what the writers of our constitution meant. This is why so many argue for a fluid meaning rather than a historical meaning. Applied to the Bible, however, this means that for all practical purposes God is dead and the only question we can ask is what the Bible means to me, not what the original writers meant. This also means that exposition of a text is largely a waste of time. Emotion and inward searching of the soul become a better hermeneutic.
On the heels of this, the medium virtually becomes the message. How the message is conveyed basically determines what the message is going to be. In this way the hearers (or experiencers) become the final authority. If the author of the text is dead, the hearer becomes his own god by determining what message can fit the medium. Is this a return to medieval Christianity? Have screens and speakers taken the place of icons, altars, incense, and stained glass? Albert Mohler wrote, “Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the Word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. Preaching has in large part retreated, and a host of entertaining innovations have taken its place.”5
If God has spoken and speaks today through His Word, the Christian has an imperative that cannot be compromised. The preaching of the Word is God’s ordained means of communication and the exposition of that Word is the most important job of the teacher or preacher. And, we might add, filling of the Spirit Who inspired the sacred text, becomes the most essential methodology in worship. Hebrews 1:1-3 and 2:1-5 make important statements about the God Who speaks.
God spoke in time past
God spoke at sundry (various, NKJV) times and in divers manners. Beginning in Genesis chapter one, we find, “And God said, let there be light” (1:3); “And God called the light Day” (1:5). This pattern continues throughout the six days of creation. In addition, and wonderfully, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak among themselves (one in essence, manifested in three persons) “Let us make man in our image” (1:26); “Behold, the man is become as one of us” (3:22); and later, “Let us go down and confound their language” (11:7). From the beginning God has been a God who speaks. God spoke unto the fathers by the prophets. From Abraham and the patriarchs to Moses and the prophets, God spoke in various languages, visions, dreams, handwriting, inspiration, and other miraculous means.
When liberalism tried to “demythologize” the Bible, it wasn’t to take myths out, it was to remove any mention of God speaking through these miraculous means. This has been Satan’s method from the beginning, “Yea, hath God said?” But when Eve “saw” the fruit she was more impressed by the visual than by the word. Why will the unbelieving world today not accept creation? Because it was a miracle, and they have long ago decided that the miraculous never happened and that God has not spoken.
God spoke through His Son
Hebrews also makes plain that God spoke in the most unique way, through the incarnation of the Son both personally and prophetically. God spoke through Christ personally because Jesus Christ was God in the flesh and in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Col. 1:19, 2:9). He is called the Word, or Logos (John 1:1) because He conveyed the true message from God’s mind to us.
But God also spoke through His Son prophetically i.e., through the very words that Jesus said. “For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him” (John 3:34. See also John 6:63; 6:68; 8:26; 12:48-50). This was an historic occurrence that cannot be erased. Our very calendar forever will testify to the fact that God spoke historically through the Son. The gospel is the historical fact of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can never be undone. The preaching of it can fail, the belief of it can wane, but the fact of God speaking through His Son will judge men in the end.
God speaks to us today
Such a statement as this is much used and abused. I hold to cessationism, i.e., that the miraculous sign and revelatory gifts ceased with the apostles and are not operative for today. However, God also did something in the first century through the apostles which was for us today—He gave us His inspired Word, “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Through the Bible God is still speaking with the same authority with which Jesus spoke. Hebrews 2:1-5 tells us that Jesus spoke to those that heard Him (the apostles) and the apostles’ words were confirmed by their own miracles. Mohler said, “If you do not believe that God now speaks from His Word—the Bible—then what are you doing every Sunday morning? If you are not confident that God speaks as you rightly read and explain the Word of God, then you should quit.”6
There have been two errors made historically about God giving us His Word. The first is that God never started. These are those who, through their liberal presuppositions, could never accept that God inspired a Bible. To them the Bible is as any other book, a product of good and enlightened men, but not a divine product of the Holy Spirit. The second error is that God never stopped. These are the cults who believe that God is still giving the gift of inspiration to add to the Word of God—Mohammad, Joseph Smith, etc. But God spoke once through inspiration (of course, 66 times over 1500 years, but “once for all delivered unto the saints”). But every time we read the Word of God, God is speaking through it directly to us. That is why exposition of the Word is vital to worship.
And so . . . .
By leaving a word-based culture and turning to an image-based culture we are forfeiting the very power of God in our worship. It is not that we cannot use pictures, screens, power point and so forth, but these must always be secondary and illustrious to the main thing, the written and spoken Word of God. After all, God gave us two illustrations to use in our preaching: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But the difference in these illustrations and all others is that the very Word which they illustrate commands their use and explanation. An image-based worship is a return to a more ignorant time, not a progression forward. Arthur Hunt wrote, “Paganism never really died in modern western culture; it was only restrained. American Protestantism effectively suppressed many pagan forms up until the twentieth century; but the advent of the image-based media has brought forth a revitalization of the pagan gods in popular culture.”7 One would be hard-pressed to deny that the common scene at a rock concert is a return to paganism. In fact, it is the world’s idolatry. The church should be very careful in copying it.
Carl Trueman also wrote, “What we need to be concerned about is the replacement of preaching and doctrine in many generic evangelical churches with drama, with so-called liturgical dance, with feelings, emotions and mystical experiences, and, sometimes, with elaborate sacramental ceremonies which make the Catholic Church look positively Puritan by comparison. These all speak of the transformation of Protestantism from a word-based movement into something more concerned with aesthetics of one form or another.”8
If these warnings are not sufficient to make us pause, consider the warning in Revelation 13, a scenario which could realistically happen a short three and a half years from now if the Lord were to come today. Here the “beast” or antichrist is “worshiped” by the whole world, empowered directly by Satan. The whole worship scene is enhanced by “another beast” or the false prophet. This beast constructs the final multi-media, image- based worship service before Armageddon happens. He does it with “great wonders” and “miracles” (both from semeia, image, sign). The whole world will be tattooed with a “mark” upon the skin that shows solidarity with the movement. Is the world not conditioning itself for this type of worship?
Perhaps this article ought to be closed with Paul’s admonition to Timothy,
I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
1. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (New York: Houghton & Mifflin, 1971) 479. Interestingly, this comes from a section titled “The Significance of the Spoken Word.”
2. Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2004) Kindle, 793.
3. Authur W. Hunt, III, The Vanishing Word (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003) 202.
4. Trueman, part 2, “”Short, Sharp Shocks.”
5. Albert Mohler, Jr., He Is Not Silent (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2008) Kindle, 260.
6. Mohler, 764.
7. Hunt, 25
8. Trueman, 359