Paul of Tarsus was unalterably convinced that Jesus of Nazareth conspicuously reveals God to us. He widely and steadily sought to inform and convince others about this, sometimes reporting how he himself came to hold this belief. Here, in our text, is an allusive instance. Paul has reflected here about how a redeeming glory seen in the resurrected Jesus had captured him, bequeathing a richer knowledge of God, and a deeper experience than he had found as a student of Torah and life as a rabbi.
Paul had known the tradition about Moses, the revered leader whose shining face evidenced his close walk with God, that special time with God on the mount having marked him as a special man among his people. Paul knew the report about how that facial splendor gave people such a shock that he wore a veil to shield it. Paul knew as well that the veil also hid the sad fact that the splendor was steadily fading away. But now, in this text, Paul was rejoicing over the undimmed, unfading glory in the face of Jesus, that glory by which he, a radically-wrong religionist, had been radically illumined and spiritually redirected while traveling the road to Damascus, intent on deadly business against the church there. For him, the face of Jesus had been revealing, decisive, and determinative. This text is an autobiographical extract from Paul’s experience. It prods and helps us to rehearse the significance of Jesus for our faith and lives. Its wording, and import, beckons a review of some features and fundamentals about our Lord.
1. I begin with this historical detail: the face of Jesus was a Semitic face.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Hebrew, part of the family line of Shem, one of the sons of Noah. As a Semite, as that family line is described, it is more than likely that His physical appearance bore at least some of the features historically associated with what may be called a Hebrew physiology. Any proper theology about Jesus must include historical facts about Him, and there is nothing more obvious in the given record than the fact that Jesus was a Hebrew, a Semite, with a face that reflected the lineage of which He was a physical part.
2. Next, a circumstantial detail: the face of Jesus was the face of a sufferer.
Jesus was born to poor parents, with all that this tends to imply. Full information about the circumstances of the family is scanty, but from Luke’s carefully researched report, when the mother of Jesus went to offer her statutory religious sacrifice after His birth, her offering was “a pair of turtle-doves or two pigeons” (
Growing up poor and underprivileged; growing up slighted by the privileged wealthy; growing up viewed with disdain by influential religious traditionalists; and additionally burdened as part of a minority in a homeland tyrannized by foreign Roman rule — all this caused Jesus to know torments that affect the human face, torments that have usually etched lines into the human face — lines of concern over pressing needs, lines of longing for desired change, lines from sorrow and suffering.
During periodic visits to museums I find myself drawn to depictions of Jesus. Across many years of this, I have but rarely seen some artist’s depiction of the face of Jesus as a sufferer. Influenced by the meaning of His life, perhaps the notion of a physically attractive Christ has been far more appealing both to artists and theologians as well, although there have been some, like Justin Martyr, whose reflections on
It would be folly for me to be dogmatic about this, insisting on it, because no contemporary descriptions of Jesus have come down to us, but the record of His poverty, His struggles, His situated experiences among the disinherited, all these strongly suggest to me that the face of Jesus reflected His lot in life as a sufferer.
3. And now, a personality detail: Jesus had a set face. There is an enlightening mention in Luke’s gospel about this: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (
Jesus lived intentionally. This was characteristic of Him. He set Himself on the side of the will of God, with strict intent to live out the insights of God’s word within Him. He set Himself to be with people, to be open to them, to live with concern for them, and to risk Himself in interest of helping them. Personal imperative was as much a feature of His life as was integrity. This had to be so from the start: from the time He deliberated in the wilderness, weighing the issues of how He would serve the people, right though to the time He struggled so valiantly in accepting the inevitability of a cross in His future. He had to set Himself against some things, even as He set Himself for some others. This was crucial to Jesus, who knew Himself to be on mission for God.
4. Thus this central theological truth about the face of Jesus: His is the face of the Savior. That is why Paul in this apostolic witness hails him here as the “Christ.” By “the face of Jesus Christ” Paul is referring to Jesus as the Saving Person.
One of the centralities of Christian faith is the teaching that Jesus came to help us to apprehend God historically, so that our personal histories can be apprehended redemptively.
The first disciples of Jesus did not realize the multi-dimensioned character of the life and work of Jesus until quite late — after His ascension really — but once they understood His true purpose they witnessed boldly to what they had discovered about Him. Interestingly, their faces became illumined by the glory they experienced through being agents of His spirit. Jesus was at last understood as Savior and Lord, and that He did not just belong to them but to everyone else as well. His role as Savior was a universal one.
My boyhood home city of Detroit was shocked into a deepened religious awareness of this in 1967, in connection with something that happened to a statue of Jesus. Standing on the well-manicured lawn of Sacred Heart Seminary, just across the street from our church building, was a grey stone statue of Jesus whose face, hands and feet turned up black during the infamous riot that year. Those portions of that statue had not blackened from smoke from any burning buildings nearby, nor from any firebomb tossed in anger against it. According to my father-in-law, who was driving along the street and saw them in action, two young black boys from the community painted those parts of that statue black! From the pulpit of his church, just a few blocks further down the same street, Albert Cleage Jr. had been preaching about Jesus as “Black Messiah.” Had those two boys acted to concretize that message? In pockets across the nation at about the same time, voluble voices were urging that blacks increase their militancy with the cry of “Black Power.” Had those two boys caught new spirit from that slogan?
I watched to see what the white Roman Catholic officials at Sacred Heart Seminary would do. Wisely, the officials decided to leave the statue black. They thus affirmed the new coloring as a witness that Jesus is related to all, that He is the inclusive Christ who must always be understood beyond color and race considerations.
The true Christ is for all. Perhaps that repainting by those boys from our community was an act of self-affirmation and racial pride, but it was soon understood as more: it was also an act of insight regarding the identification of Jesus with people in their situated lives. Painting black the face, hands, and feet on that grey stone statue provided occasion for a new hearing in a racially-troubled city of that central biblical truth: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (
The face of Jesus is the face of the Christ who saves. It is the face of the One who has loved us all enough to catch all of us up into His own life and meaning as the Son of God.
The face of Jesus is the face of the Savior. It is His experienced, understanding face that companions us in our living and comforts us in our pain. It is His unselfish face that confronts us in our prides. It is His set face that calls us from our polarizations and rebukes our tribal selfishness. It is His holy face that disarms and defeats the syncretistic notions urged upon us by the attempts of many to relativize the New Testament message regarding who He is.
The face of Jesus is the face of the Lord. His is the prophetic face that beckons us beyond our shortsightedness, and approvingly smiles upon us when we unselfishly affirm each other, lovingly serve other humans in their need, and courageously resist evil in its recognizable forms. His is the face that mercifully welcomes us when we rightly worship and honestly pray. And His is the face we will see eagerly receiving us when, at the last, Father Time will take us from Mother Earth, sending us on beyond our tasks, our times, and this troublesome shadowland of life to experience life at its best in His glorious presence.
I have been at the bedside of the godly as they I took that last journey, and I remember well what some of them voiced as they looked ahead. I am thinking now about one of them. As I was reciting those soul-steadying lines at the close of
As I remember my own times of toil and strain, my own experiences of sorrow and longing, I understand the heart-cry and witness of that twelfth century pilgrim who wrote:
Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
Bui sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy presence rest.
No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find
A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,
Savior of humankind.
O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!2
This is also why I gladly join my heart and voice with others in singing Sister Lucie Campbell’s strong statement of faith and longing:
Not just to kneel with the angels,
Nor to see loved ones who’ve gone,
Not just to drink at the fountain
Under the great white throne;
Not for the crown that He giveth,
That I’m trying to run this race;
All I’ll want up in heaven
Is just to behold His face.
Not just to join in the chorus,
And sing with those that are blest,
And bathe my soul that is weary,
In the sea of heavenly rest,
But I’ll look for the One who saved me,
From a death of sin and disgrace;
‘Twill be joy when I get up in heaven,Just to behold His face.
Just to behold His face,
Yes, just to behold His face;
All I will want up in heaven,
Is just to behold His face.3
1. For a discussion of this controversy, see Charles Guignebert, Jesus (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, Inc., 1956), esp. pp. 164-169. Trans, by Sidney H. Hooke.
2. Translated from the Latin by Edward Caswell.
3. Lucie E. Campbell, Just to Behold His Face, 1923. See We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers, edited by Bernice Johnson Reagon (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 133-134.