A Year five student drew me a portrait of what she thought Jesus might look like. Perhaps it was her way of starting a conversation about Jesus. Maybe she needed to gauge my reaction to see if I recognised Jesus in her drawing. Would I scrunch up my nose and say, ‘That’s not Jesus’? Or, would I look at her picture and smile in recognition of Jesus as I know him? I’m glad to say her picture captured some elements of Jesus’s character. She depicted Jesus as a superhero with a cape.
Another description of Jesus came from a boy in year five. I asked him, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ He replied, ‘When I was in prep I believed in Jesus. But I asked my Dad and he said Jesus is not real. He was made up to control people.’
A year one student demonstrated to me there was a fifty per cent chance of going to heaven and a fifty per cent chance of going to hell. He used a whiteboard to show me how the math worked. Using the same whiteboard, I showed him that with Jesus there is a one-hundred per cent chance of going to heaven. He favoured those odds far more.
Our portrait of Jesus matters. But not all portraits are equally legitimate representations of their subject.
Sebastiao Salgado Photography
Sebastiao Salgado is a famous Brazilian photographer who has focused his career on large-scale, multi-year projects that take many years to finish. As a photographer, Salgado has travelled the world and lived in regions unfamiliar to most in developed countries. Famously, he’s been to Kuwait to capture the suffering of firefighters battling burning oil wells after a deliberate attack from Saddam Hussein’s forces. The firefighters, soaked in oil, look like polished bronze statues in Salgado’s dramatic black and white photos.
Most recently, Salgado, at age 78, finished a multi-year project photographing the Amazonian rainforest and the native people living there. In the Amazon, Salgado dedicated six years to this work. Why does it take a photojournalist like Salgado that much time to develop a series of pictures? Can’t a photo be captured honestly in an instant? Not to Salgado. Relationship building with his subject is key to his work. Salgado’s aim is to bring viewers of his portrait and landscape photography into a relationship with the subjects of his art. To achieve this, Salgado takes years to develop his own personal relationship with the environment and people he is photographing. His relationship to the subject of his art legitimises the story he brings home to us in the developed world. When I see a Salgado photograph or portrait, I believe the story he is telling me is true. He was there. His testimony is valid. I love his photography because it stirs up a deep appreciation for nature and, at times, a desire for human justice.
Portraits of Jesus in the Gospels
The Bible, notably the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, give personal accounts of Jesus by the people who walked with him. The portrait of Jesus presented by the gospels is as personal as a family photo. Those who wrote about Jesus in the New Testament knew him, spoke with him, lived, journeyed, and ate with him. They witnessed his life and miracles.
Like Salgado’s photos from the Amazon, the written accounts of Jesus’s Apostles offer us an opportunity to witness Jesus for ourselves. We see Jesus’s love for all people by dying in our place on a Roman cross, and, after three days, rising from the dead. By spending years following Jesus during his life and ministry, the Apostles and eyewitnesses of Jesus are able to give readers an accurate and reliable account of what Jesus accomplished and who he claimed to be as the Son of God. Our portrait of Jesus comes from those who knew him and had a relationship with him. The Apostle John makes his intentions for writing about Jesus obvious: he writes about Jesus so that we might believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and, that by believing, we will have life in his name.
There are many voices, opinions, versions and interpretations that seek to shape our portrait of who Jesus is. But I choose to listen to the voices who knew him.
Nathan Wilson, College Pastor