My friend Tony Merida recently pointed out a painting I was unfamiliar with that has grabbed my fascination.
The painting is by one of Martin Luther’s friends, Lucas Cranach (1472–1553) and hangs in the City Church of Wittenburg, Germany, behind the altar.
On the far right-hand side of the painting, Luther is seen preaching in a pulpit. He has the Bible open, his left hand resting on the text, as if to signify that everything he says must come from the book. With his right hand he is pointing; his eyes are looking up.
You can also see the congregation—men, women, children, and babies. They are listening intently, taking in what Luther is saying. But if you follow their eyes, you’ll see that most of them are not looking at Luther. A few have eyes turned away, looking at other members of the congregation, some with scorn in their faces. But most of the congregation is looking up to the center of the painting.
And grabbing our attention immediately, in the middle of the painting, our gaze is fixed as well: Christ crucified is the focal point of the artwork. He dominates our field of view. All eyes are on him.
Luther looks and points to Christ from Scripture, the people fix their gaze on Jesus, and we see Jesus.
I love this painting because it illustrates for me the work of a pastor, as much as it does the work of the congregation. As I’ve heard Tony say on occasion, “All eyes up! All eyes on Jesus!”
DISTRACTED AND DISTORTED
Just as it has always been, having our eyes on Jesus in today’s culture is hard. Distractions are ever-present.
Tony Reinke is right: we wrestle not only with the pace of our society, the constant demand for impeccable performance and abundant production, but then we turn our eyeballs to a glowing screen and succumb to the distractions of the spectacle of the world. We squeeze out margin for reflection, prayer, conversation, and rest.
Like Peter trying to walk on water, we get a glimpse at the oncoming wave of whatever is current, building, and now, and suddenly we’re drowning in the sea.
In this kind of environment, with a distracted and distant view, it’s no wonder we see the church flailing about, trying to stay afloat. It’s no surprise that Christianity in America would reach for the faulty life-preserver of cultural approval or political power by denying and distancing herself from her head (Eph. 4:15) just to stay relevant and “influential.”
Keeping your eyes on Jesus is so passé, it seems.
Furthermore, keeping our eyes on Jesus is hard because we aren’t looking at Jesus properly. Everyone wants to talk about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, what Jesus would or wouldn’t say, how Jesus would or wouldn’t vote. Yet, the observation is absolutely correct; no one’s version of Jesus would disagree with them.
THE REAL JESUS FOR TODAY
The antidote for both our distractions from Jesus and our distortions of Jesus is the actual Jesus. We should not read the first chapter of Revelation without seeing that Jesus defies the boxes that we’ve made for him. He will not be domesticated. With regal glory, omnipotent power, and absolute authority, Jesus commands our attention. He stands in the midst of his church, and holds his people in his hand.
It is this Jesus who we are told “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5). It is this Jesus who picks up his fear-smitten people and says, “Fear not!”
We need this Jesus who is powerful in executing justice and compassionate in showing mercy. We need this Jesus who is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). We need this Jesus who is both a lion and a lamb (John 1:29; Rev. 5:5). We need the one who conquered so that we too can conquer. We need the Jesus who endured suffering both as an example and as Savior.
Do you see him?
ALL EYES ON JESUS
One of the faces in Lucas Cranach’s congregation isn’t looking at Jesus or at Luther preaching. She isn’t even looking at the other congregants in the assembly.
She stares back at you and me.
Honestly, her gaze is a bit unsettling. I chuckle when thinking about it, as if to brush off the awkwardness of the look, but I can’t unsee her eyes.
It’s as if she’s staring at us, asking, “Who are you looking at?”
The point is clear: all eyes up, all eyes on Jesus!
Jeremy Writebol is the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI and the Executive Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in The Present and a contributing author to several other publications. He writes personally at jwritebol.net.