Back when my husband was a youth pastor, one of his favorite object lessons was to print a bunch of images of Jesus and lay them on the floor. He would ask the teens to choose a picture that they resonated with and stand by it. He found some really crazy Jesus’s as well as more traditional ones.
Sweet Jesus in white robes, surrounded by children.
Tough Jesus, arm wrestling Satan.
Gentle Jesus, holding a lamb.
Powerful Jesus, calming the storm with one outstretched hand.
Bad Ass Jesus, with his sleeve rolled up showing a “love” tattoo on his muscular arm.
Hot Jesus, tall and handsome with a confident stride.
There were some similarities in the Jesus pictures, most noticeably His apparent ethnicity. In almost every image, Jesus had fair to medium skin tones, long hair, and light eyes. He appeared to be tall, thin, and good looking with definite European features.
But here’s the problem. Jesus isn’t White.
Why do I love that so much? I think it’s because I can trash my mental image of Jesus along with my churchy, Christianese ideas of who He was. I’m super excited about starting from scratch!
While the Bible doesn’t give us a clear snapshot of what Jesus looked like, we definitely get some clues from Scripture as well as from history.
Jesus was a Jewish man in the 1st century. So, He looked Middle Eastern, with dark hair and eyes, and a medium to dark skin tone. Historians agree that 2000 years ago, the average human was significantly shorter than we are today. It’s likely that Jesus was just over five feet tall! And, don’t freak out, but there is absolutely no evidence that He had long hair or even a beard.
Jesus grew up in Roman occupied Israel where the cultural norm for men was short hair. I think people confuse the fact that He was a Nazarene (meaning He grew up in Nazareth) with being a Nazirite (someone who took a specific vow that included not cutting your hair). Jesus was not a Nazirite, so He probably had shortish hair….definitely not the long feathered locks we see in many traditional images.
As far as beards go, the only Biblical reference to a beard is a prophecy about the Messiah in Isaiah 50:6 “I gave my back to those who strike me, and my cheeks to those who pluck out the beard…” The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John mention soldiers slapping Jesus in the face before they crucified Him, but that is all. No beard pulling.
Does your mind feel boggled yet?
It gets better. We know that Jesus was a carpenter before He started His 3+ years of ministry…or we think we do. “Carpenter” in our language means someone who makes things out of wood or potentially builds houses. I’ve seen many movie scenes with a tall, slender, European Jesus making wood shavings. But there is a problem with this picture. Israel doesn’t really have trees and they don’t build with a lot of wood.
When we were visiting Israel in 2015, I noticed this fact almost immediately. Historic and modern buildings are built from stone (along with things like chairs and mangers).
It is more likely that the real Jesus was some kind of stone mason. There goes slender, wimpy looking Jesus. If the real Jesus hauled around stones for a living, he probably had some decent muscles…which explains him easily flipping tables in the temple. 🙂 (Matthew 21:12-13.)
A prophecy in Isaiah 53:2 says that “…he had no form nor majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”
Jesus was just an average looking Jewish man. He blended in well. So well in fact, that he was able to slip into the crowd and disappear on more than one occasion. (Luke 4:30, John 6:15, and John 10:39 for example.) Jesus was so ordinary looking that sometimes people didn’t even know who it was who healed them (John 5).
Why does this matter?
It matters because Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and everything about Him points us to the Father. The truth is that the All-Powerful God of the Universe chose to come to earth as an ordinary man, a very ordinary man. His humility blows my mind and makes me catch my breath.
It matters because if our mental image of Jesus is totally wrong, maybe other things that we believe are wrong too. Maybe there is a lot of tradition mixed up with our truth.
It matters because too often we modern Western Christians seem to think we have a special insight into Christianity, and we need to remember that we are just Gentiles. We don’t have a full grasp of the Bible because we don’t have a full grasp of the Jewish culture. (Wow, did I feel that when I visited Israel! It was so good for me!!)
I want you to throw out every image of Jesus you have ever seen, and instead picture a short, stocky Middle Eastern man with dark hair wearing neutral colored robes and sandals on his dusty feet. His looks might be average, but the things He says and does are radical! And that beautiful, ordinary, incredible, unremarkable man is also God in the flesh. He came to show us the invisible God, die for the sins of the world, and restore our relationship with our Creator. And that’s amazing news!!
Why does an accurate picture of Jesus matter to you?