Do the Catacomb Paintings of Jesus Help Us Imagine His Likeness at His Second Coming?

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Callistus Fresco of Jesus from the First Century found in the Roman Catacombs

by Reverend Anthony R. Locke
Sermon Series in Revelation # 02

Revelation 1:9-20
English Standard Version

9    I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

10  I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet

11  saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

12  Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,

13  and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

14  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire,

15  his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

16  In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

17  When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last,

18  and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

19  Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.

20  As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.[1]
 


 

Before Christianity was accepted by Constantine, the saints buried Christians along the walls of tunnels in what we call catacombs. Most major cities in the Roman empire have large sprawling catacombs underneath them. The city of Rome has over 4 million Christians buried underground in this fashion within 600 miles of tunnels.

The family often decorated the tombs. We do the same with carved headstones and occasional flowers. They often painted a portrait of Christ, or a fish, or bread and grapes, or bread and fish, or the Good Shepherd, or a cross.

Also popular were Bible scenes. Daniel in the Lions Den and the Apostle’s at the Lord’s Supper with Christ ascended were common.

I am especially interested in the paintings of Jesus. Like any Christian, I would like to know what Jesus looks like.

One book I have is called The Likeness of Christ. The author collected many of these early paintings of Jesus, and as an artist himself, he sketched what he thought early New Testament believers would be able to recognize as the Lord Jesus.

To be sure, there is no accurate painting of Jesus that we could or should use in worship. We are in fact forbidden to use a painting of Jesus for worship or veneration Exodus 20:4.

Yet, the early New Testament saints were able to look at a painting and say, “yes, an artist has painted the face of Jesus.”

Early Christians knew what Jesus looked like. They saw His face every time they greeted Him. Artists of the day were employed to paint His face and we can recreate that artwork.

Let me be clear, a fascination with the earthly Likeness of Jesus is not noble or necessary. The Apostle Paul said, 2 Corinthians 5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.

Our relationship with Jesus is not enhanced by our ability to rightly imagine His earthly facial features. Our connection with Jesus is not deepened. Our fellowship is not improved.

But, might our worship be enhanced by rightly framing a heavenly image? Might our fellowship and connection with Christ be deepened if we imagine Him in His ascended state?

The answer is YES! Revelation 1:9-20 paints a picture of our Ascended Lord and then encourages us to imagine Jesus according to this image.

In verse 9 John reminds us that he is exiled for His testimony to the Lord. He is suffering in a prison without walls, on a small island rock in the Aegean Sea.

And while meditating in worship on Sunday he was taken up in the spirit to see a heavenly vision. We might use the word trance or an out of body experience. Basically, the Holy Spirit opened a window into future heavenly revelations for John to see and record for us.

And John heard behind [him] a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

And then John turned to see the voice that was speaking to [him] and on turning saw seven golden lampstands [these are the seven churches to which he is writing which were just listed] and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

The robe could be revealing Jesus as a priest or as a king. The golden sash or breast plate might be like the High Priest of the Old Testament with twelve stones representing the people of God. It could also be battle armor fit for a King. Either way, we are meant to be impressed.

John saw Jesus as One like the Son of Man. Jesus is forever identified with the human race. He is the Risen and Ascended Son of God, but Jesus uses a human form to manifest His person. He is one person united in two natures. Jesus is God, but He is forever revealed as a Man.

John saw Jesus in the midst of the Churches. Never imagine Jesus alone. Even in the New Creation and the Heavenly Jerusalem, Jesus is always revealed in the middle of God’s people.

In verse 14 we begin to see His facial appearance. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. This is not the first time God reveals the ascended Jesus looking like this.

Daniel 7:9 As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire.

We have a preview of brilliant light coming from the face of Jesus in the story of Moses.

The face of Moses was shining when he came down from Mount Sinai. The Jews made him put a cloth over his face to lessen their fear. It was like the Shekinah glory that hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies.

The light coming from the face of Moses faded, but the light coming from the face of Jesus will never fade. Jesus is the Majesty. Jesus is the Glory and Radiance of the Father to the Creation. Jesus is the light of the new Jerusalem. He will never cease to shine.

Does this mean that the hair of Jesus has changed color? No. It’s still a naturally dark Jewish color, but there is so much light, Jesus is so bright, that you can’t inspect his hair color.

The same is true about the eyes of Jesus. His eyes were like a flame of fire. When you look into the eyes of Jesus you won’t be focusing on His eye color. The eyes are the window to the soul and His gaze pierces your soul with a purifying fire of righteousness and holiness that scares you to death.

This reminds me of my wife looking at a disobeying child with fire in her eyes.

The gaze of Jesus is a consuming fire that either purifies us holy or sends us running toward Hell. Why Hell? The greatest personal terror in scripture is a sinner forced to appear unprepared in the presence of God. They fall as dead men. They pray for the earth to swallow them. They look for a rock to hide under. They hope the ocean is deep enough or Hell is dark enough to hide from the fiery gaze of God’s holy eyes.

Daniel 10:6 his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches. Jonathon Edwards rightly preached that there is no comfort for Sinners who fall into the Hands of an Angry God.

Verse 15  his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

His feet are mentioned in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.

The feet of Jesus are strong like steel, but so hot with judgment that they shine with a yellow-golden glow. Don’t imagine the feet of Jesus being made out of bronze. They are white hot, and with searing wrath, Jesus is trampling out the enemies of God.

Even so, come Lord Jesus? Are you still happy to see Him return? If we are ready, then we will be resurrected to follow Jesus in this victory. Faith in His coming is a purifying hope.

The Bible is painting a portrait of the Ascended Christ that we might rightly fear God.

Remember, blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. These blessings are for those whose life is changed by what is revealed in this book.

Verse 15 his voice was like the roar of many waters. If you have ever stood at the foot of a great waterfall, then maybe that memory will help you understand the meaning.

My childhood summers were spent at the Wilds Christian Camp and Conference Center in Rosman, N.C. The largest succession of waterfalls in the South East are on their 1,000 acre property. Standing at the foot of the fourth falls, with thousands of gallons of water falling with a thunderous roar, will make the strongest of men tremble.

Niagara falls or the crash of ocean waves provide the same effect. The voice of Jesus speaking God’s word will shake every man to his knees and pound his heart with a godly fear.

Verse 16 In his right hand are seven stars. Most commentaries suggest that the seven stars are the seven teaching elders at these seven churches. Maybe we should think of the session too and church leadership.

Regardless, Jesus holds them in His right hand of power. Jesus exercises dominion over the Church through faithful preaching, teaching and elder rule. Why are they called stars?

The word of God is the fixed light in the night sky by which we navigate our life in a dark world. Faithful messengers declare that light. They do not change their position as the world changes. They stay fixed and useful for navigation.

Too many preachers want to be more like shooting stars. They change with the times to stay “relevant.” They do not work with Jesus to extend His dominion according to the Bible’s commands. They try to be popular by “updating” God’s expectations and lowering standards.

Verse 16 from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword. The Roman army used two types of swords. There was a short sword mentioned in Ephesians chapter 6 which was used to fight temptation. This passage is describing a sword which was as tall as a man. A soldier would use both hands to swing this sword and destroy more than one enemy at a time.

When Jesus comes back His judgment will be universal against all those who oppose Him.

Finally, his face was like the sun shining in full strength. What human experience can illustrate the radiant glory of Jesus better than the sun in full strength?

This is how God teaches us to imagine Jesus. Why? Because if we imagine Jesus with these features, then we will respond like John and be blessed.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Don’t expect that your soul will respond any different when you see Jesus. You will be shaken to your core and fall down as though dead.

But here is a beautiful promise. If you are living by faith that Jesus shed His blood for your salvation on the cross, then God will do for you what God did for John. He laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

When you see Jesus you will not care what He looks like. You will want to know His person. You will want to feel His grace and peace. You will want to know His love.

This is how we should picture Jesus. His Second Coming is completely different than the first. We can’t paint this image, but we can let our hope purify us to be ready.

Even so, come Lord Jesus!


[1]  The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


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Live in Gwinnett, GA next to Lake Lanier Islands. Married with four children. Pastored three churches over 18 years. Spent time serving as an Army Chaplain. Traveled in ministry to over 34 countries. B.A., M.A., M.Div., M.A.T.S., D.Min. BCC with NSC. Covering Georgia and upstate South Carolina

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