Seeing the Cross As the Greatest SpectacleSeries: Technology and the Christian
Psa. 119:37 ESV, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.”
Heb. 12:1–2 NIV, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles… fixing our eyes on Jesus… For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Luke 23:47–48 ESV, “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.”
Col. 2:15 NIV, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
1 Cor. 1:22–24 ESV, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
We live in what has been dubbed by some as the age of the spectacle. By spectacle I do not mean glasses through which we see, but a thing we look at. Tony Reinke, whose book, Competing Spectacles, inspired this lesson, defines a spectacle as “A moment of time… in which collective gaze is fixed on some specific image, event, or moment. A spectacle is something that captures human attention, an instant in which our eyes and brains focus and fixate on something projected at us.”
As we move to the table this morning, I want to put a pebble in our shoes with an assertion: The cross is spectacular, but constantly putting a worthless yet awe-inspiring spectacle before our eyes can desensitize our awe and veil our faces so that we struggle to see the glory of the Lord in the cross — the greatest spectacle ever devised.
In 21st century America, our eyes have the opportunity to continually consume all manner of visual wonders through our media. Ad-makers, streaming services, sports providers, social media outlets, news sites, and the gaming industry continually pump out high quality, hilarious, ridiculous, dramatic, awesome, seductive, and spectacular photos and videos. Today, everything is a spectacle — not just entertainment and sports. News, politics, war, and local disasters are sensationalized and broadcast everywhere simply for our information, shock, and viewing pleasure. 720,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube alone every day— which would require 82 years to watch uninterrupted. “Never satisfied are the eyes of man.” (Prov. 27:20 ESV) Never before have people had such a visual feast continually available to them. But, does partaking in this visual feast have any effect on our appetite as we come to the Lord’s feast? There’s different opinions here, but research suggests that for many even listening to this sermon is difficult unless spectacular visuals are displayed — not because we are genetically predisposed to only be able to learn through visuals, but potentially because we have trained ourselves through our media to need to see in order to hear and believe (do your own research: the myth of visual learning).
“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed…” (Matt. 13:14–15 ESV)
Spectacles call out to not be ignored. They want our likes, love, outrage, sharing, retweeting, and cheering. They want us to tap and buy, worship, pick sides, pledge allegiance, pick up a gun, and serve them. At their best, the right spectacles — like the temple in Jerusalem, the cross, baptism, the assembling of the saints, or the Lord’s Supper — can draw someone closer to true glory and true worship. At their worst, flashy worldly spectacles blind us to true glory and win our cheers, likes, affection, and action for something fleeting, forbidden, or simply worthless.
“If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:3–4 ESV)
Spectacles are not new. The ancient world had pagan temples and idols which were crafted to be visually spectacular to pull at sentiments and win worship. Imposing images of kings were scattered in strategic locations throughout the ancient world to remind those who lived there to be faithful in their allegiance. Ancient Greece was known for their spectacles in the amphitheater: plays, comedies, tragedies, performances of various sorts. Sporting competitions were also popular: people ran, wrestled, and boxed one another bloody. But the arena of the Roman Empire was especially gruesome. Animal hunts, gladiator fights, and public executions all took place before the cheering and booing of the hungry crowds who gathered to behold a spectacle. But these did not serve to merely entertain; politicians put these exhibitions and shows on to leverage the allegiance of their people and to win social and political power — similar to how our own government subsidizes sports teams if and only if they fly the flag and sound the anthem.
Around AD 200, Christian author Tertullian wrote a short book called De Spectaculis or On the Shows. In it he rebukes Christians for returning to the shows — the plays, the circuses, the fights, and the various spectacles and amusements. He offers four reasons why they must abstain as they had before. First, the spectacles are associated with idolatry and demons. Second, the things the actors and fighters do are sinful. “He condemned violent sports that disfigured the bodies of God’s image bearers.” (Reinke, pg. 71) If it is sinful to do on the streets, it is sinful to watch on the stage. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8 ESV) Third, the chief sign to pagans that someone has adopted the Christian faith is their rejection of these amusements.
But in the final six chapters, Tertullian offers a fourth objection that maybe you can relate to: Christians are “sighing for goal-posts, the stage, the dust, the arena” when they should long for and be satisfied by the numerous spectacles God has given us in Christ. Where is that same hunger for Christ’s body and blood? energy to conquer sin? anticipation over the return of our Lord?
We have the challenge of coming back to the table week after week and being awed at the spectacle of the cross that never changes. We know the story — it’s not new. But worldly spectacles are are always fresh and new. Our hunger to be drawn into an exciting story full of mystery and purpose is easily fed with the a tap. But does it dare satisfy our hunger and thirst for the body and blood of our Lord? our wonder over the cross? or our anticipation of his coming?
There is an exciting story full of wonder and meaning in the cross if we will continually press into it, meditate on it, and wonder. Because, actually, the cross of Christ is a spectacle. It is a spectacle devised by both the Romans and by God himself.
We often rehearse the pain of the cross, but crucifixions were designed by the Romans to not only maximize pain, but shame. The Romans made a public spectacle of thousands of runaway slaves and insurrectionists by stripping them naked, pinning them to a tree or a cross at eye-level by a busy road with their crimes written above their head so everyone could see and be warned. Those passing by saw someone who was naked and humiliated before all. The spectacle was designed to send a clear message: Rome is in charge, stay in your place.
Jesus’ crucifixion carried an irony that made it even more of a display. He made himself out to be a king, so they adorned him with a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns. They put a reed in his hand, bowed before him and cried, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Then they took his “scepter” and struck him over the head and spit on him. Then, as with others who were crucified, they paraded him a through the streets — a walking spectacle. When he was crucified, the charge written above his head read, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Crowds gathered for the spectacle and mocked him. For some, there’s something amusing about the visage of a faux king nailed to a cross. Here’s the man who would become king! This YouTube video would have gone viral.
But, two people saw right through the this show put on by Israel and Rome. First, the criminal crucified next to Jesus. When one criminal started railing against Jesus, the other criminal defended him. But notice his astonishing request in Luke 23:42. Before this criminal’s eyes is a beaten and bloodied Jesus. Yet, despite this visage crafted to expose a faux king, he’s certain: Jesus is the Son of David and I don’t know how, but he’s still going to come into kingdom power. He didn’t let the worldly spectacle blind him to a more shocking, mysterious wonder before his eyes: the king who’s going to rescue the world is about to die next to me on a cross.
Mark’s account accentuates the same thing with the centurion. The Roman soldier in charge of ensuring Jesus died was watching closely past his own spectacle that he was putting on and notice Mark 15:39. For everyone else, Jesus on a cross is a sign that he’s not the Messiah. Furthermore, when we see how Jesus is raised from the dead, we cry, “Jesus is Lord!” But, like the criminal, when the centurion saw how he died he exclaimed, “Son of God!” Here there was no miracle. The humility and grace with which Jesus died was a spectacle of its own that created faith in these two men. When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died… At the cross, at the cross —where I first saw the light.
Satan worked with rulers to plot the cross as a grand spectacle of rebellion — “God is dead!” — but Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that in the cross Jesus disarmed the evil forces of heaven and made a public spectacle of them. The whole cross event was planned by God as a spectacle for the ages to draw in the nations. It is a spectacle of triumph over Satan and of glory for the Son. When the Greeks wanted to see Jesus, Jesus said he would he cast down the god of this world and draw all men to himself only when he was lifted up on the cross.
We long to see glory. Do we want to see a carefully crafted story full of irony, foreshadowing, highs, and lows? Look to the Scriptures and see the climax of history at the cross. Do we want to see the ultimate upset? The powers of earth made a spectacle of Jesus, so they sealed the tomb, and patted one another on the back — but death could not keep its prey, he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord. Do we want to see conquest? Jesus went to the spiritual powers who previously rebelled and proclaimed his victory over them. Do we want to see a love story? “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8 ESV) Do you want to a messed up family come together in unity? Try the table of the Lord. Would you have blood? Here, you have the Lord’s. At the cross Satan and his forces are thrown down, captives are set free from his grip, history reaches its climax in a decisive victory, and the greatest love ever known is put on display.As we move to the table, I want to conclude by briefly pointing us to three Jesus-displaying spectacles.
First, the assembled body of the Lord. Paul says in Ephesians 1:22 that the church is Jesus’ body, the fullness of him who fills all and all. Jesus is filling all things and we are the fullness of Jesus by which he fills all things. As we gather today, if we have eyes to see it, we experience the fullness of — in a sense, Jesus incarnated. Here are his hands, his feet, his heart, his eyes, and mouth. This is why we cannot assemble on Zoom and I believe we all came to see the six weeks we did not meet last year as harmful: incarnation is not virtual. We only had a few days to make a decision and we were doing the best we could at the time with what we knew and I even supported our decision, but the pandemic has taught us something. If in the future safety is ever at risk — whether due to pandemic or persecution — I hope we will consider other solutions because Zoom can present a theological problem. Some things can be mediated well through letters, pictures, and videos. But not assemblies. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and we need to see and experience in the assembled body — whether few or many — the fullness of the Lord incarnated.
Second, the suffering church. God put Jesus on display at the cross to send a message to the world, and he intends to put us on display too. Did you see that in the Scripture reading from 2 Corinthians 4? Paul says that wherever he goes, as he suffers and yet still endures, he is carrying around the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus is manifested.
He talks about his suffering in this way elsewhere too. 1 Cor. 4:9 NLT, “I sometimes think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor’s parade, condemned to die. We have become a spectacle to the entire world—to people and angels alike.” 2 Cor. 2:14 NLT, “But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume.” When Rome conquered other peoples, they brought back prisoners and held a parade — a triumphal procession — in the city of Rome. The Roman general would lead a procession of the spoils of war along with a train of captives. Those at the end of the procession would be executed before the gathered crowds in order to demonstrate Rome’s power. Paul says this is an example of how God uses him — and I believe he intends for us to all take on this role. For the lost world and even the angels, God has not only penned his word, he’s also sent us out — his conquered slaves soberly take on the shame of Jesus and accept becoming outsiders. We don’t seek to fit into the cities of this world nor to revel in their spectacles; rather, seeking the city to come, we become God’s submissive, self-sacrificing spectacles to draw the world to the cross of Christ (cf. Heb. 10:32-33). We go outside the city to bear his reproach (cf. Heb. 13:13-14). Maybe, when they see how we “breath our last,” submit, and deny ourselves with as Jesus did, they’ll come to the cross. Furthermore, when we suffer and endure among one another, we manifest the cross and the resurrection. But again, try mediating that through a screen. Paul is appealing to what the Corinthians have seen in him.
Third, the table of the Lord. Now we commune with the Lord and — despite our differences — with one another as we anticipate the great banquet feast in the Kingdom of God. That great day will be the show-stopping spectacle to end all others! He will come in the clouds with trumpet sound and we will be gathered to him. But today, until he does come, what we eat and drink now is the body and blood of the Lord himself. What a wonder: our host is our sacrificial meal. And this is an altar that no great priest or ruler outside these walls may eat at. What a privilege.
We won’t be continually awed every day at the wonder of the cross. It’s not good to over-emphasize emotions. But, may I call this church to have the discipline to set aside the continual visual feast of our culture more often so we can develop better appetites for all the wonder of Jesus and the cross — to consume his body and drink his blood.