What image comes to mind when you think about what Jesus might look like? Through the centuries, artists have created thousands and thousands of possibilities. For many Americans, the classic image is what might be called the White Jesus. Some of you might have a picture of the White Jesus hanging in your homes. It is a classic.
But this is almost certainly not what Jesus looked like.
In the Black church they talk about a Black Jesus. Interestingly, they do not talk about a Black Jesus because they think he was actually African, but because they are correct to symbolically depict how Jesus clearly identifies with the oppressed.
But though Jesus wasn’t biologically African, it is likely he had a middle eastern look to him, and perhaps had a darker skin color that was closer to that of the Black Jesus than it was to the White Jesus.
That’s because Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine in the First Century. But what would Jews have looked like in that day? Was it anything like the Passion of the Christ, in which American Actor Jim Caveziel played Jesus?
Caveziel made for a good White Jesus, with a hint of a middle easterner’s look. But that’s likely not what Jesus looked like.
Then there is the Shroud of Turin. Some people have claimed that the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus, when he was buried, has his image burned into.
We don’t know for sure if this shroud was actually covering Jesus in the tomb. The image on it is kind of blurry and creepy. Artists have tried to render a face from the Shroud’s faint shadow, and this is what one came up with.
Then there is the work of scholars and archaeologists, biologists, and anthropologist and artists who together try to recreate what ancient people looked like. One possibility is this image on the right.
And more recently artificial intelligence (AI) came up with the one below. Not what you have in mind when you think of Jesus, right? And yet, given the data we know, these two images are highly probable.
As we will see in our next section on Colossians, Paul also paints an image of Jesus. Turn to Colossians 1:15-20. It is not a painting, but a poem. Maybe even a song that the earliest Christians sang. Through this artistic expression of Jesus, Paul teaches us an amazing description of Jesus.
In verse 15 we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.”
The word here for “image” is where we get our word “icon.” In English we use the word “icon” a lot, and thus it has a lot of meanings. On computers and smartphones, it is the little picture or symbol on the screen. You click it or tap it, and it opens an application, a computer program. So that little picture is not the program itself, but a way to access the program. But that’s not what Paul means when he says that Jesus is the icon, the image of the invisible God. You can see how the ideas are related, but Paul means so much more.
We also use “icon” for a leading person in their field. In that sense, the person, the icon, is someone that has achieved a lot, or is looked up to. They are rare. Or they might be considered to be the ultimate example of something. They can be living, or they can be a historical figure. For example, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are iconic US Presidents. Again, you can see how that use of the word “icon” is related to how Paul describes Jesus, but still it doesn’t go far enough.
In the Orthodox Church, there is something called iconography. They are paintings, called icons, of famous people from the Bible and Christian history. Anyone can paint an icon, but for the Orthodox Church, for the icon to be “official” the painter has to be theologically qualified. So when my friend who is the priest at Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Harrisburg wants to have icons painted on his sanctuary walls, he contacts an Orthodox priest who is an official iconographer. It is a very spiritual process, a practice of theological and missional art. Most Orthodox Church sanctuary walls are covered floor to ceiling, including the entire ceiling with icons. Some are larger paintings depicting Bible stories. Some are of individual saints. And of course some are of Jesus. Is that what Paul is getting at? That Christians should paint images of Jesus, thus making the invisible God visible?
In the next post, we begin to study what Paul means, and why it matters to our lives.