Martin Luther and the Topsy-Turvy Beauty of the Cross

Tim Chester | March 27th 2019

Churches across the world are filled with beautiful crosses. There are crosses of coloured glass in stained-glass windows. There are crosses of shaped brass, perhaps even studded with jewels, flanked by candles on communion tables. Some Christians wearing intricate crosses of twisted silver around their necks. The cross of Jesus is so central to our faith that it is perhaps no surprise to find Christians wanting to honour it in this kind of way.

The Crude Cross

But make no mistake: on that first good Friday the cross was not a thing of beauty. It was a crude shaft of wood upon which hung a battered, bloodied, half-naked body, for whom each breath was an agonising struggle. If you had been there you would have turned aware in revulsion. To have held your gaze would have been almost unbearable.

The Prophet Isaiah had prepared us for this moment. In his final ‘servant song’ he had said:

As many were astonished at you –
    his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of the children of mankind –
so shall he sprinkle many nations. (Isaiah 52:14-15)

So intense would be the servant’s suffering, said Isaiah, that he would become almost sub-human – ‘beyond human semblance’. Isaiah went on to say:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
    a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:2-3)

The cross shatters our pride into a thousand fragments

Just Like One of Us

Isaiah was not just talking about the death of Jesus, but also the life of Jesus. His point was that the physical appearance did not make Jesus stand out. Jesus was not especially tall or handsome or striking. If you had passed him in the street, you would not have given him a second look. He was just alike anyone else. But that’s the point. He was not some kind of super-human. He was one of us, like us, truly and fully human.

What made Jesus stand out were his words, his attitudes and his actions.

But we did not like what we saw. Jesus was despised and rejected. We preferred to turn away and ignore him. This was the attitude of people towards Jesus throughout his life. But at the cross this hostility came to its climax. We were not attracted by what we saw. Quite the opposite. We preferred to look away. As far as humanity was concerned, he had ‘no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isa. 53:2). And so in the end we pushed him out of our world and on to the cross.

However you conceive of God, the cross is the last thing you expect. If you know anything about God then you know he is supposed to be all powerful. So what has this pathetic, conquered figure hanging on the cross got to do with God? Surely nothing. God is all wise, so what has this ridiculous act of folly got to do with God? God is glorious, so what has this shameful death got to do with God? We are supposed to worship God in the beauty of holiness, but here is a man from whom we instinctively turn in revulsion. Where is God in this moment? Surely he is far, far away.

Topsy-turvy Revelation

Yet Mark addresses these instinctive responses head on at the climax of his gospel when the Roman centurion declares, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ When does the centurion say these words? It was as ‘when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last’ (Mark 15:39) The centurion has not turned away from the cross; instead he has faced it head on and seen the way Jesus died. And somehow he sees in this horrendous moment the revelation of God.

This topsy-turvy revelation of God—power in weakness, glory in shame, wisdom in folly, beauty in horror—was central to the theology of the great Reformer Martin Luther. Here’s what Luther said:

"Because human beings misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honour God as manifested in his works should honour him as he is hidden in his suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 1:21, ‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.’ Now it is not sufficient for any, and it does them no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless they recognize him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise." (The Heidelberg Disputation §20)

If we come to the cross with our preconceived ideas about God, said Luther, then we are bound to find it very confusing. ‘How can this be an act of God?’ we will say. In this way God hides himself from the proud. We think we are clever enough to know God or good enough to be right with God or capable enough to please God. But the cross shatters all these proud notions into a thousand fragments.

Only by faith do we recognise the beauty of Christ in the cross

It is only those who humble themselves who see by faith the revelation of God in the cross. And what we discover confounds our expectations. What we see is a God more loving than we could have ever imagined:

  • A God who is willing to exchange the glory of heaven for the shame of the cross

  • A God who is willing to exchange the safety of heaven for the pain of the cross

  • A God who is willing to exchange the power of heaven for the weakness of the cross

To any self-interested person the cross looks like utter folly. But God is not self-interested. He is self-giving love. And to self-giving love this is wisdom. For through the cross God rescues the people he loves.

Think of it like this. We could look for a revelation of God in visible things: creation, spiritual experiences, miracles. But if this was sufficient, it would only make sinful people proud. They would think they had ‘discovered’ God because they were clever enough to figure him out or religious enough to apprehend deep spiritual truths. So what is God’s alternative? Not to reveal himself in history at all? No, for then no-one would come to know him. So instead God reveals himself in a topsy-turvy way. He reveals himself in the cross: power in weakness, wisdom in folly, beauty in horror. He is there for all to see, but only humble hearts can recognise him. Only by faith do we recognise the beauty of Christ in the cross. And that faith is itself an act of grace. God makes himself known, but in a way that humbles us and that protects his grace.

The servant Song of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 begins, ‘Behold, my servant’ (52:12) It is an invitation not to turn away and hide our faces (53:3). It is an invitation to look at the horror of the cross and see the glorious beauty of Christ. In eternity no-one will be boasting in their spiritual insight. ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,’ says Paul, ‘so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.’ Instead our boast for all eternity will be wholly in Christ (1 Cor. 1:28-31). We will sing for endless days:

The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD’s doing;
    it is marvellous in our eyes. (Psalm 118:22-23)

Tim Chester

Tim Chester is a pastor at Grace Church, Boroughbridge, UK; a faculty member of Crosslands Training; and is the author of over 30 books. He has a PhD in theology and was previously Research and Policy Director for Tearfund UK. He has been an adjunct lecturer in missiology and reformed spirituality. Tim is married to Helen and has two daughters.

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