As I was preparing a sermon on Genesis 50 this past week I ran across something that I hadn’t noticed before in the text. The very last sentence in the book of Genesis says, “And after they embalmed him (Joseph), he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:26). The point that caught my attention was the fact that, culturally speaking, Joseph looked nothing like a believer (Hebrew). He looked like an Egyptian.
Now to what extent the Hebrews, at this point, would have had their own distinctive look from the rest of the world is difficult to say. But at the very least, what we can say confidently is that Joseph, who is arguably one of the most faithful men in the entire Old Testament, looked A LOT like the culture in which he lived, a predominantly pagan society.
This got me to thinking about the “looks” of some of the other famous characters of Scripture. One in particular with a distinctive look came to mind – John the Baptist. Out of Jesus’ own mouth, “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11). That is the single greatest praise that’s ever been given to a human not named Jesus of Nazareth. Christ’s statement here is almost shocking in the greatness he attributes to a mere man.
And yet, look at the physical description of John the Baptist: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4) You can almost picture a wild and bushy beard that may or may not still have yesterday’s honey stuck in it, not to mention grasshopper remnants.
Alright, so that makes him sound a little crazy. That he was not. He probably, however, was an ascetic (in modern terms, more often termed a “minimalist”). He didn’t partake in the luxuries of this world and he probably looked fairly strange to most. Unlike Joseph, John the Baptist probably appeared nothing like his culture. However, much like Joseph, John the Baptist looked very little like the believing Jews of his day.
I think you get where I’m going with this…
In traditional, conservative churches, there is sometimes a perception that the common culture of the believers is the ideal. Taken to its ugliest extreme, that perceived ideal becomes practically canonized and everything else, while it rarely gets labeled as “sinful,” receives judgmental attention and is considered pushing the boundaries of good taste or taking license with our Christian freedoms.
Well then, one might ask, “What pray tell is a Christian supposed to look like?” If you answer that question with anything but the word “Jesus,” I’d encourage you to rethink the importance of appearances in faith.
As a pastor who gets to work a lot with youth, I’ve heard plenty of comments about how boys wear their pants or their hats and how girls wear their hair and their make-up. The great majority of these comments have little to do with Scriptural direction and much to do with that individual’s perception of what a Christian is supposed to look like. Unfortunately, sometimes worship visitors who don’t fit our perception of the Christian ideal similarly get the cold shoulder from the highly religious. Tattoos, piercings, hairstyles, facial hair, eyewear, headwear, clothes, make-up, and so forth and so on are highly culturally driven and often have very little to do with faithfulness or unfaithfulness to the Lord.
As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t tell us to look like anything but Jesus. Unless someone is wearing a shirt that says, “I love the devil” or is living as a cross-dresser (1 Cor 11:14-16) or is not covering up their most intimate of fig leaf areas (1 Tim 2:9), I don’t know that any Christian has any business telling another Christian how they should look, let alone judging that person for not meeting a manmade ideal.
None of us inherently looks lovable to God. None of us, no matter how straight our ties, neatly parted our hair, or finely pressed our slacks, stands on our own as attractive before God. We are only attractive in Jesus.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with traditional and conservative dress. I typically prefer to suit up on Sundays myself. But God help me if I think that makes me more desirable to God than the “tax collector” with the nose ring and sleeve tats next to me.
Our simple world is material. Sometimes we like to pretend to be God ourselves, as though we were fit for the judgment of others. The reality is that whether three-piece suit or camel-skin, mummified corpses or cemetery casket, these are all now just temporary, material things. Our appearance is neither good nor bad. Just there.
God is bigger than that and beyond that. He sees directly into the souls of mankind. He knows whether or not the message of salvation through his Son has taken root in our hearts. And as that root branches out, it is seen in the material world not so much in the clothes or hair as much as in the words and deeds (i.e. the love) of the Christian.
Finally, I’d direct your attention to the uniformity and diversity that the Apostle John sees in his great Revelation. John describes the saints in heaven in interesting detail: “They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Rev 7:9) At first glance we might be tempted to think, “They all look alike and act alike. We too should all be exactly alike.” But that’d be missing the point of how they became united. You see, these are “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7:9) These people are from vastly different cultures, with different dress and different languages. While on earth, they looked very different. They don’t now wear white robes because they have all chosen white robes. They only look similar because all of their robes have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. In other words, it isn’t how they look or really anything they’ve done that unites them. It’s what has been done for them that unites them – forgiveness through Jesus. The only true similarity they’ve gathered around the throne to celebrate is God’s grace through Jesus. “And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (Rev 7:10)