Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Face of Jesus

What did Jesus look like?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t know. 

This question came to my mind again recently when my grandmother pointed out a guy at a concert we were at and said that he looked just like Jesus. He was of average height, had shoulder length dark hair, and a full beard. Now with no disrespect meant at all, the guy was kind of homely looking, unassuming, someone who I would not give a second thought. Confession, I thought he was homeless actually. Ok so that sounded disrespectful. Cue the big kick in the face when I realized that both my grandmother and I had our own different cultural preconceptions about what Jesus looks like, founded on what? Whatever artists and filmakers view as "typical?"

In December 2002 Popular Mechanics did a cover story called "The Real Face of Jesus." Using "forensic anthropology" scientists and archaeologists combined to investigate what a first-century Galilean Jew might have looked like, with medical artist Richard Neave commissioned to do the rendering. The article describes the process:

"The first step for Neave and his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived and preached. Semite skulls of this type had previously been found by Israeli archeology experts, who shared them with Neave. With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray "slices" of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles and skin overlying a representative Semite skull."

How tall would a first-century Jew be? "From an analysis of skeletal remains, archeologists had firmly established that the average build of a Semite male at the time of Jesus was 5 ft. 1 in., with an average weight of about 110 pounds." So apparently, I'm taller and heavier than Jesus! Now that's weird! But it's good to have our cultural preconceptions—even prejudices—challenged.

There are numerous physical details about Jesus' appearance that can be determined from the Bible. We do know that he was in his early 30s when he began his ministry. Jesus may or may not have had long hair or a beard. Irrelevant matter though. I wonder what the length of anyone's hair has to do with their impact in the world. Unless you're Troy Polamalu, who's hair is three feet long and insured for $1 million.

Isaiah's messianic prophecy does suggest that there was nothing unusually attractive about Jesus ("he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him," Isaiah 53:2). Is it taking it too far to say that Jesus was homely, unattractive or ugly? 

Here's where I'm going with this. I am sad to say that I regarded the guy at the concert with some sort of disdain, and my grandmother sort of revered the same guy, just based on his outward appearance. I always thought that if I ever came face to face with Jesus, I would be completely blown away by his beauty, and the forgiveness and mercy in his eyes. Still might be the case someday. But I keep thinking about how so many people just missed Jesus back then.

Who could have cared about the birth of a baby while the world was watching Rome in all her splendor? All eyes were on Augustus, the caesar who demanded a census so as to determine a measurement to enlarge taxes. At the time, who was interested in just another couple making a long trip to be counted for the census? What could have possibly been more important that Caesar's decisions in Rome? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in Bethlehem?

Well, God sure did. Augustus was only a pawn in God's grand plan. While Rome was busy making world history, God showed up. He pitched his fleshly tent in silence on straw... in a stable. The world didn't even notice. Reeling from the wake in Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Mary's little Lamb.

Just because Jesus didn't come down from Heaven in a fiery chariot and stage a coup to take over Rome, most of the inhabitants of the Roman empire overlooked him and his work. An itinerant preacher, with no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) is this guy right here!

A man who walked and served among the poor, needy, marginalized and oppressed, is my King. I only pray that I seek and serve him every day of my life. Do you know him?

The Name of Jesus

Over the past 2000 years, more people on this earth have known the name of Jesus than any other name. Since 33 AD, over 8 billion people have claimed to be followers of this Jesus. Billions more have heard of his name. Presently, the name of Jesus can be found in over 6000 languages and more are being added every year.

It’s strange that this single name has dominated the last 2000 years of world history, especially Western history. For most, Jesus has a sacred ring to it; it sounds holy and divine. But this wasn’t the case when Mary and Joseph followed the angel’s instructions and gave their baby his name. Yes, it had a special meaning, but it was not an unusual name. In Acts 9 we read of the Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus. In Colossians 4, Paul mentions one of his fellow workers, Jesus, called Justus. And some ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Matthew call the robber released by Pilate, Jesus Barabbas, which can be translated, ironically enough, “Jesus Son of the Father.”

Jesus was a common name. When Mary and Joseph called their son Jesus, there were no prayers in his name. No one used it as a swear word. No one sang songs about this name. We don’t name our sons John with the expectation that over the next 2000 years 8 billion people will pray in his name. But common as it was, Jesus was “Jesus” by design. In Greek it is Iesous, in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Yesu. Both are derived from the Hebrew, the name is Yeshua or Joshua. Joshua is made up of two parts: Ya, which is short for Yahweh, and hoshea, which means salvation. Therefore, Mary and Joseph give their little baby the name Jesus, “Yahweh is salvation.”

Which he was. And is. Through Christ alone. Ever since the first Christmas, Jesus has been more than just a name. It’s been our only comfort in life and in death, our only hope in a hopeless world. When you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, you have life in his name (John 20:31). There is, in fact, no other name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved (Acts 4:12). So naturally, whatever we do, in word or deed, we ought to do in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). For God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:11-12).

The power in the name is the person behind the name. In the Old Testament, names meant something. They were more than badges of identification. They often told others who you were and what purpose God had for your life. So Adam was the first man. Eve was the mother of all living things. Abraham was the father of many nations. Benjamin was the son of his father’s right hand. Moses was drawn out of the water. Peter was the rock. Barnabas was the son of encouragement.
And what about Jesus?

“And you shall call his name Jesus,” the angel told Joseph, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). More than a great teacher, more than a worker of miracles, more than giving us meaning in life, more than a caring friend, more than a transformer of cultures, more than a purpose for the purposeless, Jesus is a Savior of sinners.

So there really is just something about that name.

Nope, not just something: everything.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why I LOVE This Time of Year

This time of year always gets me thinking about traditions. Mainly family and cultural traditions. Tradition is usually a sign of established order and gives an individual or group a certain identity. That identity differentiates people making each person unique and special, and who doesn't want to feel like they're special?

Specifically related to this time of year, my family has a lot of different traditions. There's the whole not-celebrating-Thanksgiving tradition, followed by the house-decorating tradition on Black Friday. We have nothing against Thanksgiving, it's just an exclusively American holiday, culturally, we just never really got into it. Celebration of advent is another family tradition, along with weekly Christmas carol sing-a-longs. My favorite tradition by far though is following up Christmas Eve service with a Chinese food dinner and opening presents at midnight.

Recently I was reading an article on cross-cultural mission that also got me thinking about traditions. While the Bible centers on one people - the Jews; and then upon the "New Israel," the church - the world at that time included scores of other ethnic and cultural peoples. Today, our world inhabits about 30,000 different people groups, all with their own traditions and ways of life.

Biblical writers often stress our mission to reach Earth's "peoples." God promised Abraham that his descendants would bless "all peoples on earth" (Genesis 12:1-3). Isaiah declared that Israel was raised up to bring "salvation to the ends of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6). Jesus' Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to "go and make disciples of all nations" reinforces this sacred calling.

Christianity is not the only religion inviting others to join its ranks. Judaism welcomes "Gentile" converts, and Islam is proactively mission-minded. Christianity's approach, though, is different. Judaism expects Gentiles to become culturally kosher, and Islam shapes converts into an Arabic cultural mold. But ideally, Christian mission adapts to the tongues and cultures of the people it seeks to reach. This was actually an official policy in early Christianity, with the decisions of the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts 15. It's voiced in Paul's reflection in 1 Corinthians 9:22, "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."

I know for me, there's is little else more meaningful than the opportunity to help plant or advance an indigenous church in another culture. As the Gospel's meaning is expressed in their own language, music, art, architecture  and style, some of these people will discover faith, experience life change, and become agents of hope to their peers - and even to other peoples. And we gain a deeper understanding of the Gospel's meaning through the experience of interpreting cross-culturally than we ever could by staying home.

You know what this makes me excited for?
And that's from....

For those of you who don't know what Urbana is, it is a large scale, empowering missions event held every three years and is a hugely diverse gathering of students, graduates, missionaries, and church leaders from all over the world. I can't do it justice by just writing about it. It's worship with thousands of people. It's a chance to learn and seek what your place is in God's global mission. It's the chance to hear from dynamic speakers from all around the world who have ministry experience in areas like engineering, health, economics and finance, art, church planting and leadership, all with a global perspective. Basically it's a glimpse of Heaven. Urbana is truly a multicultural and multinational experience. And why wouldn't it be? God's global mission is all about drawing all people and nations to Himself.

Urbana 2012 (December 27-31 2012). See you there!