When I was growing up, I remember that my pastor, before the closing prayer of his children's sermons, would ask us to close our eyes and imagine the most beautiful, most loving picture of Jesus that we could. We were to believe that He was right there with us as we prayed. When I closed my eyes, the only image of Jesus that came to mind was the one that I had seen in paintings around the church and my children's Bible.
Do you know the one I'm talking about? I thought Jesus was light-skinned with a subtle tan. He had a distinctively trimmed beard and long brown hair that was treated with Pantene Pro-V conditioner. He wore a long, flowing white robe with a bright red sash over one of his shoulders and his arms were always outstretched. This was the Jesus that I saw with my mind's eye.
It doesn't take much to disprove that picture of Jesus. I know that's not what He looked like. Yes, He was born in the Middle East, and He had dark skin. And no, they did not have Pantene Pro-V conditioner in Nazareth. We all know these things.
We also know what the Scriptures say about how Jesus looked. It's not much at all, but the best visual that we have in the Scriptures is the prophet Isaiah's description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:2b-3: "[H]e 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." According to Isaiah, Jesus was a plain, sorrowful man. He was so unimpressive and ordinary that you would be hard pressed to pick him out of a crowd. In fact, when a large group of people gathered to be baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus stood in plain sight among them, and no one recognized Him as the Christ (John 1:26-27).
No one knows what Jesus actually looked like. All we know for sure is that He was indistinguishable from the ordinary person. And that's a beautiful thing. Dare I even say that there's a divinely inspired point in not knowing.
Of course, Jesus had a distinct face and pigment to His skin, but that doesn't stop artists from portraying Him to look like every ethnicity under the sun, nor does it stop churches all across the globe from putting on passion plays and nativity scenes that depict Him as one of their own. Why is that? Don't they care what He actually looked like? Perhaps there is an even more significant benefit to seeing Jesus look like me.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in his Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism, wrote: "For that which [Jesus] has not assumed He has not healed, but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole."
Each of us has been given a unique face, skin color, and personality by God. We stand before Him with a unique set of problems, diseases, and sins. The comforting truth of the Incarnation is that Jesus took my flesh. All of it. From a two-celled embryo to a fully grown adult, He assumed every part of me to save every part of me.
What did Jesus look like? He looked like every person for whom He came to save. He looked like you, and He looked like me. Seeing Him look like me reminds me that my flesh is redeemed and my flesh will be raised from the dead. Our whole selves, having been joined by baptism into His life, death, and resurrection, will be raised with Him on the day of His return.
And on that day—the day of the resurrection of all flesh—we will look a whole lot like Jesus.
"But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21).
Jake serves as the pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Williston Park, NY. He received his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 2011. His passions include exploring the depths of God's grace, playing guitar, good coffee, White Castle burgers, and old school video games. Jake and his lovely wife, Christina, have one adorable little son named Roman.