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Would you know Jesus if you saw Him? How tall would you guess He was? Five-foot-ten? Taller than that—six-two, at least? Not a chance. All the skeletons that have been dug up from His time suggest that He would have been a short man by today’s standards.

And what about His hands? Gracefully tapered, soft to the touch, with well-manicured nails? Not likely. Remember, they were carpenter’s hands—tough as a horned toad’s hide, covered with calluses. And what with writing in the dirt and making little balls of clay to heal people, He may even have had dirt under His fingernails at times.

Consider the trade of carpentry in Jesus’ time. No chainsaws—one chopped down the trees with an ax. And the wood had to be fairly hard, because it was used to make yokes, plows, and benches as well as boats and houses.

These ox yokes were not made with an electric lathe, either. They required a crude plane, a mallet, and a chisel. And the lumber for the benches didn’t come nicely smoothed. It had to be chipped with an adze. Of course, if a carpenter happened to land a contract to make Roman crosses, those could be a little rougher on the surface.

Jesus spent a good 20 years at this kind of work. He must have been powerfully built.

Jesus’ clothes

And what about His clothes? Thanks to the image we demand from our artists, we’ve gotten the idea that Jesus’ robe was always spotlessly bright, carefully ironed, and falling in neat, wrinkleless folds.

But Jesus said that the foxes and birds slept in better beds than He did. How did His robe look after he had slept in it for a week? Even if He didn’t sleep in it, how did it look after even a single night of praying on the ground?

His garments must have been travel stained too. Doubtless they were grass stained and fish stained as well, not to mention the grimy marks left on them when hundreds of peasants crowded around and tried to touch Him.

This is not to say that Jesus was sloppy or dirty. He probably was scrupulously clean for His time, but it was a time without laundromats and detergent. We must be willing to face the realities of the situation into which the King of glory was willing to place Himself.

But why mention it? He was divine, wasn’t He? Isn’t that all that matters?

No, it isn’t. He became a Man. Jesus suffered from hangnails and stubbed toes just as everyone else does.

Remember His saying about getting a plank out of your own eye before you attempt to take the speck of sawdust out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3–5)? Where do you think He got that illustration?

Picture this: a teenage apprentice carpenter bends over to grab a stick of wood. His swift movement frightens a chicken under the workbench. The squawking fowl exits her hiding place in a cloud of dust and shavings, and there goes Jesus, blinking and weeping to Joseph to get the sawdust out of His eye.

Christ’s followers have felt uneasy with His manhood for a long time. Very soon after His death, a Christian group called Docetists believed that the human body was sinful, making it sinful for anyone to have real flesh and blood. Therefore, they claimed that Jesus only seemed to be a man; that He was, in reality, always and only divine.

The Docetists were condemned as heretics—but the temptation to equate spiritual perfection with current standards of beauty and cleanliness continues. We want Jesus to be a spiritual Being who could walk all day on a dusty road—no, not just a dusty road, but a road He shared with mules and oxen and goats and sheep and all their droppings—and not even get His feet dirty!

Jesus has been painted as a black man. In a spiritual sense, the undeserved nature of the inhuman suffering He endured makes Him the black everyman. That’s why the slaves accepted Him. Not because He kept them docile but because they knew He understood what it was like to be despised and rejected.

But what was the color of His skin? We must remember that He was a Palestinian Jew. He was Semitic, not Caucasian. Portraits of a black Jesus help us to correct portraits of a Jesus with blue eyes and flowing blond hair.

40 days without food

Look at Jesus’ physical strength and endurance. How many men could survive 40 days in the Judean desert without food? When Cesar Chavez fasted 40 days, he ended up in a wheelchair with degenerative back trouble.

And there’s further evidence of Jesus’ endurance. During the Passion Week, He went without sleep from at least Thursday morning until Friday afternoon, when He died. During that time, He suffered intense mental stress, not to mention having a circle of thorns beaten into His head.

And He was scourged. The Roman scourge was a cruel instrument of torture. Bits of metal and pieces of bone were twisted into its leather lashes to increase the suffering. Stripped to the waist, the victim was bound to a post with his hands tied together. The scourge was applied to the back—and sometimes also to the front—with terrifying results. Veins, muscles, and sinews were exposed as ribbons of flesh were torn away.

Many men died right there. Although Jesus remained conscious right down to His final moments, He couldn’t carry the cross—further proof of His humanity.

Jesus’ friends

Look, also, at the kind of men Jesus attracted. Fishermen they were, with language so rough that Peter still had a good command of profanity three and a half years after he had begun to follow Jesus.

It’s doubtful that a smelly fisherman like Peter, who worked so hard he stripped to the waist to keep cool at night, would be attracted to an effeminate weakling. Of course, it was Jesus’ message that drew him, but the medium is at least a part of the message.

We want a Jesus, meek and mild. We want a Jesus we can mold and use, One who is always ready to “forgive,” by which we mean ignore our sin.

Jesus was meek, understanding, and forgiving. He was capable of great tenderness—but only because He had a keen, tough mind that immediately sorted out all that was superficial and sentimental about a situation and got down to the basic issue.

Our plastic Jesus would probably have said to the woman at the well, “Pardon Me for mentioning it, but I have this vague feeling that you might be living with several different individuals. I am sympathetic, of course; I mean, I wouldn’t want you to suffer from any guilt feelings or anything. But I just thought perhaps I could help you.”

The real Jesus, seizing the opportunity, said, “You’re right,” when the woman said she had no husband. “You’ve had five husbands, and the one you’re living with now isn’t your husband” (John 4:18). That doesn’t sound like a “voice . . . so sweet the birds hush their singing.” And the woman didn’t think so either.

“Sir,” she replied, “I can see that You are a prophet” (verse 19).

Can we see it too? Can we imagine this Man, lean and powerful, yet gentle enough to attract children to His knee? Can we see Him haggard and dirty, yet neatly folding His grave clothes before leaving His own tomb? Can we visualize Him weeping over Jerusalem, even as He condemns it to destruction?

Then perhaps we can know Him just a little better.

What the Storybooks Don't Tell You About Jesus

by Ronald Graybill
From the April 2015 Signs