“Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?”
Cassius, one of the villains in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is ambitious. He sees Julius Caesar ascending to power, and Cassius hates it. Yet he knows, like Scar in The Lion King, that if he wants to take down Caesar, he must gain powerful allies. Brutus, a noble war hero, is such a man.
Cassius slithers up to Brutus while Brutus is in some untold conflict with himself (perhaps fighting a similar concern with Caesar’s rise). Listen again to his question,
“Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” (1.2.51)
Cassius asks Brutus if he can see himself. In other words, Cassius asks if he can properly know himself — see Brutus as Brutus is — without the help of another.
“No, Cassius,” Brutus responds, “for the eye sees not itself, but by reflection, by some other things.” (1.2.52–53)
As the eye cannot see its own face, Brutus responds, neither can he know himself alone. He must see his reflection by some mirror. Cassius, to recruit this needed Knight to checkmate the potential King, offers to be that mirror for Brutus. Flatteringly, he reflects a majestic Brutus. A regal Brutus. A Brutus that is as great, if not greater, than Caesar — a Brutus the people would wish was in charge.
Who Shows You Your Face?
Shakespeare gives us the perceptive question that I turn now to you.
“Tell me, good reader, can you see your face?”
Who do you look at to see yourself? Whose opinion of you forms your identity? If you have been like me, perhaps you rely on many mirrors. Does this group think I am fun to be around? Does my wife find me desirable? Does this pastor or small group respect me? Do these people think I am smart, or those people, funny? Does this group like my writing; does he think I talk too much?
“Who do you look at to see yourself? Whose opinion of you forms your identity?”
I see myself, if I am not careful, reflected in a carnival of mirrors. In this one, I’m short and chubby. In that one, I am tall and skinny. In this one, I have an inflated head. In that one, massive feet. In the one over there, I am “too Christian.” In this one here, I am just right — at least for the moment. We too often live from mirror to mirror, always looking into others’ faces to see our own. We live and move and have our being looking for certain people to approve of us.
Isn’t it a wonder, then, that there was one who walked among us who cared not for human mirrors, one of whom even his enemies had to admit, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you [do not look at the faces of men]” (Matthew 22:16)?
Nothing but the Truth
The Pharisees, in the spirit of Cassius, said this to manipulate Jesus. They meant to entangle him. They wanted him out of the way, so they held a meeting to discuss how to trap him in his words. This introduction, which flattered Jesus for not regarding faces, was bait.
For their plan to work, they needed him to continue to do what he had been doing: speak truthfully regardless of the consequences. He couldn’t back down now, or the web wouldn’t stick. They need him to answer; they think they’ve asked a question Jesus cannot answer without his harm. So they say in effect,
Teacher, we know you’re true and speak God’s way truthfully and that you don’t fear any man. We know you will tell us exactly how it is — that you will speak plainly the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — come what may.
They speak truly of Jesus falsely, yet they speak truthfully about him. Matthew Henry comments,
In his evangelical judgment, he did not know faces; that Lion of the tribe of Judah, turned not away for any (Proverbs 30:30), turned not a step from the truth, nor from his work, for fear of the most formidable. He reproved with equity (Isaiah 11:4), and never with partiality.
He did not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God. He spoke the truth as it was. No faces swayed him; no appearances prejudiced him against the truth. He is the Truth.
Whether Friend or Foe
We come to more fully appreciate our Master’s impartiality when we consider the various groups to whom he delivered the undressed truth.
He spoke plainly to his enemies and to sinners. He saw the faces of the chief priests and Pharisees, the faces of tax collectors and prostitutes, the faces of large crowds, and taught directly the way of faith and the way of repentance. He “went there” with the woman at the well concerning her sordid relationship history. With the powerful scribes and Pharisees, he pronounced “Woe to you!”
What’s equally admirable (and at times more difficult) is that he lived without undue regard even toward the faces of his own family and friends, altering his message for none. At twelve years old, he caused his parents great distress by staying back in the temple three days, only to ask when found, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). He notes the disciples’ little faith, and then memorably confronts Peter, that great rock of an apostle, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33).
He did not receive his identity from men and thus he could perfectly love men with the truth. Uninhibited by the fear of man or the craving for endorsement, he did not campaign for human votes, but baffled crowds as one who spoke with authority, as one without need of their applause and support.
The King’s Face
So tell me, Christian, can you see your face?
Instead of looking around to see your reflection in faces around you, look to the beautiful face of God in the face of his only Son, Jesus Christ. His face gives freedom from the fear of man. If he approves, let all the world condemn.
“Jesus’s face gives freedom from the fear of man. If he approves, let all the world condemn.”
To illustrate how looking to this exalted face can extinguish the slavish fear of any other face on earth, consider in closing a story Michael Reeves recently gave at Ligonier about Hugh Latimer (1487–1555). Latimer, an English bishop, once preached before the frightful King Henry VIII, an easily provoked man with many wives and mistresses.
Spurgeon described the scene this way.
It was the custom of the Court preacher to present the king with something on his birthday, and Latimer presented Henry VIII. with a pocket-handkerchief with this text in the corner, “Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge” [Hebrews 13:4]; a very suitable text for bluff Harry. And then he preached a sermon before his most gracious majesty against sins of lust, and he delivered himself with tremendous force, not forgetting or abridging the personal application.
The king, as you would expect, was not pleased. He told Latimer that he was to preach again the next Sunday and apologize to him publicly. Latimer thanked the king and left.
The following Sunday arrived, Latimer climbed the pulpit, and said these unforgettable words:
“Hugh Latimer [referring to himself in the third person], thou art this day to preach before the high and mighty prince Henry, King of Great Britain and France. If thou sayest one single word that displeases his Majesty he will take thy head off; therefore, mind what thou art at.”
But then said he, “Hugh Latimer, thou art this day to preach before the Lord God Almighty, who is able to cast both body and soul into hell, and so tell the king the truth outright.” (Godly Fear and Its Goodly Consequences, 237)
The most foreboding face among men looked menacingly upon Latimer and bid him mind his tongue. But Latimer gazed above the man, in whose nostrils was breath, and considered the face of Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth. He would not play small. He would not tamper with his Master’s message. He would not mind a merely human face, even the face of his earthly king, if that face bid him look away from the face of the King of heaven.
And while our moments may be (far) less dramatic and less threatening, we are still in need of such lion-hearted, Christ-exalting courage. Who cares what the world thinks? Faces do not show us ourselves; but Christ does. Christ calls us to look to his face, to hear his word, and to listen to his people to understand who we are in him. And as we hear what he speaks over us, mere human faces lose their hold on us. We speak truthfully and love freely because we, like Christ, are not receiving glory from men.