Unmasking Caesar: Art as Herald of the True King

Scripture tells us that God is One, and that God is King: God is the One True King.  He has made his creation such that it should resound with his majesty and declare his glory.  More still, humanity, being made “in the image of God,” is created to visibly represent the invisible God to a watching world: God speaks, sending forth his mighty, effective word, and humanity responds in kind by speaking, confessing him as Lord and King; God creates with grandeur, subtlety and beauty, and humanity responds in kind by creating whatever we can that resonates with the wonder of God’s world.

As conveying both proposition and beauty, art is both confessional and creative.  As such, it is of the essence of humanity’s inherent and necessary declaration of the glory of the One King.  Although art has the power to communicate truth powerfully through its content, there is something about the mere fact of art as art, aside from its specific content, that pays tribute to the Source and Giver of being and meaning, however gladly or grudgingly.

And perhaps that is why art asserts itself so strongly and effectively against human powers that presumptively raise themselves to god-like status, grasping after God-like authority to be used to oppressive ends while caring nothing for God-like justice, righteousness, and love.  Against such a power, art is virtually irrepressible, art is comforting, and art is powerful.  Art is irrepressible because, while one may stifle speech and censor publication, art will surface as graffiti, as drawings in the sand, as poems carved into prison walls: you can keep a man from speaking publicly, but you cannot keep him from singing to himself as he walks.  Art is comforting because it reminds us that the powers of human oppression stand mocked by comparison with the transcendent glory and power of the God who is the very source of being, meaning, beauty, and goodness.  To remember the God of transcendent goodness is to remember that the oppressor’s days are numbered.  And finally, art is powerful, because art created to God’s glory bolsters its proposition of ultimate Goodness and Beauty with a visceral illustration of a beauty that comes to the oppressed like an oasis in the desert, leading them toward the Spring of Living Water, in whom alone is found the true freedom of which art is an ambassador.

This, I think, is what makes the emergence of art from the persecuted church so moving, particularly when that art explicitly declares the riches of the liberating gospel of Jesus in the face of repression by a government that has set itself up in opposition to the True King.

In what follows, then, I’d like to consider this anonymous work of art from the persecuted church to get a sense of how powerfully and immediately a simple work of art can convey rich, robust, and beautiful premises of the gospel to a watching world, even in the face of oppression.

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The Bible sometimes expresses covenanted faithfulness through the imagery of being written, engraved or set as a seal upon the hand or arm.  Immediately in this painting, then, we have the comforting reminder that Jesus himself (whom we recognize by the pierced hands) is our advocate whose intercession is not sporadic or capricious but grounded in covenant faithfulness to the world He came to redeem.

But there is something else I find fascinating about this painting, and it addresses the question of how Jesus’ death and resurrection could redeem the world.  Notice that the nail mark in his hand also goes through the very middle of the world.  But there are not two piercings: the one that pierces the hand of Jesus also pierces the world to its heart.

I think this illustrates a very important point: Jesus relates to this broken world not merely as its penal substitute but as its representative.  A substitute can be an outsider, aloof from the party for which he substitutes; but a representative is an insider, “one of us.”  The miracle of the Messianic story is that, in an act of almost scandalous love, the God of All became incarnate as one of us, became an “insider” among those who were outsiders to the Kingdom of God, becoming their representative, a second Adam, such that when Jesus is pierced, the world is in a very real sense pierced through its representative.

This has several important implications, which our artist notes.  First, is it significant that the pierced hands of Jesus are perfectly upright?  In Biblical imagery, uprightness implies justice and righteousness.  And indeed, Jesus’ role as our representative is what enables him to be our perfect substitute with no travesty of justice.  In Jesus, the waters of judgment are neither denied nor diverted, but are indeed poured out on none other than the world that deserves it—but Jesus, as a representative of that world, bears the God-sized flood of judgment in himself for all who would put their trust in him.  Only through Jesus the God-man do we truly see a God who, in the words of Isaiah, “swallow[s] up death forever” (Isaiah 25:8, italics mine), destroying death by absorbing it in himself.  And accordingly, his blood, shed for the remission of sins, spreads as an atoning cover over the world for which—and as a member of which—he died.  This, too, our artist illustrates through the blood flowing over the world from the wound.

Second, if the world is pierced when Jesus is pierced, we can further say that the workings of “this present evil age” become nailed to the cross when Jesus himself is nailed.  That means that in Jesus our representative, our “old man” with its sin-nature is put to death.  This should be both comforting and terrifying.  Comforting, because it is not only the promise but the evidence that evil, oppression, and brokenness stand ultimately and decisively defeated.  But the idea that the “old man” of sin should be put to death ought also to be somewhat terrifying when we consider that if there is no “new creation” living in us—if all we have is the “old man” in his gangrenous comfort—then Jesus’ victorious death over the evil and brokenness of this world necessarily spells our own demise.  That, I think, is why the artist depicts Jesus’ hands in a praying posture, emphasizing His stance of intercession: we desperately need a new birth through the Spirit into a new creation, without which we cannot even desire the things of God: and as Jesus earnestly desires that nothing he has died to redeem should be lost, he stands as our perfect High Priest to make intercession for us as our representative, pleading the benefits that he has purchased for us on the cross.

Jesus’ humanity assures us that, as our representative, his payment for sin was made truly on our behalf.  But we are still left with the question of what is to guarantee that the payment will be acceptable before God.  Will Jesus’ intercession be honored?

Scripture does indeed tell us that God is One.  But it also tells us that God is Three-in-One.  Numerous passages throughout the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a coming Messiah who is a servant of God but yet does what only God can do and is rightly accorded a glory due to God alone.  And Jesus, stunningly fulfilling these various prophesies and types, consistently claimed the very hame of God for Himself, even while speaking constantly of God as his “Father.”  The proclamation of Jesus as the Son of God–as God incarnate–is supremely good news, because that is what assures us that Jesus’ work and intercession are effective to a degree that unitarian[1] or tri-theistic[2] theology simply cannot.  If Jesus is indeed the Son of God–God incarnate–only then can we be assured that he is fully an “insider” not only with man but also with the One Eternal God who is the Source of the justice against which we stand condemned.  In other words, our intercessor is none other than the Judge himself, who has gone to immense and unthinkable lengths to secure our pardon.  What a thought!  If the Judge has superabundantly paid your debt and stands to advocate for you, then who can be against you?  Who can lay any charge against you if you stand justified and defended by God himself?

But Jesus’ effective intercession goes still further than our pardon.  There’s more to the gospel than simply forgiveness of sin.  Having become an insider to the outsiders to bring the outsiders into the Kingdom, Jesus qualifies us, through his merit and status alone, to share in all the unimaginable riches of the eternal Kingdom, against which this present age—its riches and rulers, its glories, sorrows and oppressions—are merely a passing shadow.  And it is to this great hope that Christ-proclaiming art, especially that created in the face of resistance and oppression, stands as a timeless testimony.


[1] That is, the belief that God is one person—typically, the belief that the Father is God but not the Son or the Spirit.

[2] That is, the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three deities.