If we could travel back in time to 30 A.D. and meet the Lord Jesus as He carried forth His public ministry, we might be quite surprised by what we saw. I say this because many of us are heirs to a rather filtered description of Him that is both Western and modern.
Most picture Jesus as fair-skinned and slender, with long, straight hair and a gentle beard. This physical reimagining of Him began rather early, gathered steam during the Renaissance, and has come to our day. I will not dwell here on His physical traits in this post, as I have written in detail on them elsewhere: What Did Jesus Look Like?.
As for His mannerisms, most imagine Jesus as gentle, kind, soft-spoken (except to mean people like the Pharisees), and “loving” in the modern sense. Images of him welcoming children, being the Good Shepherd, speaking of the lilies of the field, and forgiving the woman caught in adultery (but not the part when He tells her to stop sinning), predominate. Many modern people default to or strongly emphasize these images (rather than consulting the fuller text of Scripture) in interpreting Jesus. For many, the preferred images overrule the Sacred text, no matter how voluminous those balancing texts might be.
And thus if the Church, or a priest, or any Christian says anything that seems “hard” to modern ears, many will retort that Jesus is love and would never talk like this. Some years ago, after preaching a sermon on Hell and the need to be prepared for judgment, a woman in the parish I was visiting said this to me: “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your words today.” I replied that I was quoting Jesus Himself (the gospel of that Sunday was about the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to Hell). She was not fazed, and simply replied, “I know He never said that.” Her personal image of Jesus overruled even the sacred text. This is common today.
This is why I think the real Jesus, as described in Scripture, would surprise many modern people.
Surprise #1: His physical vigor and stamina
A mere consultation of the map reveals an enormous and diverse terrain where Jesus, His family, and His apostles routinely walked. Each year, Jesus journeyed on foot approximately 70 miles south to Jerusalem and then back again. His daily journeys took Him throughout the whole of Galilee and as far as 35 miles to the north (Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea Philippi). The terrain in the area was difficult, hilly (even mountainous) areas alternating between fertile lands and deserts within mere miles.
Jesus climbed the hills around the Sea of Galilee and mountains as high as Tabor. He, His family, and His followers often trod long journeys of many days. Travels could be dangerous because brigands and thieves lay in wait for opportune moments. The availability of lodging was unpredictable and many nights had to be spent out in the elements.
In His final journey to Jerusalem, Jesus took the desert route that went through Jericho. It is a howling desert that descends more than 800 feet below sea level. His climb to Jerusalem (more than 2500 feet above sea level) was more than 3000 feet up. Despite this difficult journey, He was the guest that very evening at the house of Martha and Mary, where He was anointed by Mary with costly nard.
Most moderns know little of such vigor and stamina. Many of us become winded by a mere hill; the thought of walking 70 miles would seem almost impossible to us. Those who go to the Holy Land today and follow the paths of Jesus usually do so in air-conditioned buses and complain of the steep hills that must be climbed on foot in Nazareth, Ein Karem, and Jerusalem.
These were hardy people, not the slight figures that modern artists often depict. It does not mean that they were extremely muscular, but they were used to hard physical work, long walks, and the sorts of hardships that would discourage many of us.
Surprise #2: His loud and challenging preaching
In those days there were no microphones or amplification of any kind. Preachers of that time did not (could not) use a gentle, suggestive tone. They had to shout out their message. Town criers were called such for a reason. Even indoors an elevated tone was required because crowded rooms muffle sound.
Jesus often preached outdoors, sometimes to crowds of thousands. Consider again His stamina and that such sermons were more of a shout than a mere discourse or exhortation. This would likely be challenging to us who are used to the more discussion-like quality of the preaching in the last hundred years.
A number of years ago I gave a talk on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to a large church gathering. For some reason the public address system was not working. Now I have a loud voice, but projecting it in such a large venue required a near shout. I tried to mitigate that by interspersing humor and other disarming methods, but about half of the audience indicated (on the evaluation forms they filled out) that I seemed angry or harsh. I was certainly not angry, and although the message of traditional marriage is challenging to modern notions, the emphasis was that grace assists fidelity and the forgiveness that is necessary for lifelong love.
A further surprising note on Jesus’ preaching is that he preached while seated. The sacred text affirms this tradition in many places. All the ancient rabbis preached while seated, it was a sign of authority.
Surprise #3: His uncompromising stance
Jesus was in the mode of the prophets, and the prophets were never ones to soft-pedal, compromise, or be vague. Any analysis of Jesus’ true message (not the selective and filtered modern version) shows that He made expansive, uncompromising demands on any who would be His disciples. We must repent and believe His Gospel. We must clearly accept that He is the only light, the only truth, and the only Son to the Father. We are to love no one and nothing more than we love Him. This includes our very family as well as the things most essential to our physical survival, such as career and livelihood. If we do not do this, then we are not worthy of Him. We must take up our cross daily. We must be willing to suffer even unto death for Him and what He teaches. It is not enough to love our neighbor; we must love our enemy. It is not enough to avoid adultery; we must have a comprehensive sexual purity that excludes all forms of sexual activity outside of biblical marriage, even impure thoughts. We must forgive others who have hurt us or else the Father will not forgive us.
Time and time again, the real Jesus warned of Hell and the necessity to be sober and serious about judgment. Jesus was not some angry preacher. Jesus, who loves us, warned that many would be unable and unwilling to enter Heaven on its terms; few would take the narrow road of the cross. Not all who say, “Lord! Lord!” will enter heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father. Many will hear from Him, “I know you not. I know not from whence you come. Depart from me.”
There is no compromise, no third way. We cannot serve two masters, God and mammon. A friend of the world is an enemy to God. He would say that no one who sets his hand to the plow and keeps looking back is fit for the reign of God. To our excuses and pleas for time in “getting our act together,” He might say, “Let the dead bury their dead, but you go and proclaim the Kingdom!”
There is little we can call gentle or soft in the mainstream of Jesus’ preaching. Though He invited His disciples to discover Him as the true shepherd, the true lover of our souls, who can give us the true Bread for which we hunger and lasting water to quench our thirst, He wants us carrying our cross, not reclining on our couch. Jesus healed many, but He insisted on faith being operative prior to performing miracles.
Jesus’ plan for us involves deep paradox; He challenges our every expectation. He does not apologize for offending our notions. He declared that if anyone was ashamed of Him and His teachings, then He would be ashamed of that person on the Day of Judgment. There is to be no compromise with the wisdom of the world.
All of this, though recorded clearly and consistently in the biblical record, is conveniently forgotten by. Most modern people prefer nuance and/or euphemisms; they prefer a suggestive and inviting tone. But Jesus, like the prophets of the day, combined a searing judgment on worldly ways with an uncompromising insistence that we choose sides.
Surprise #4: His urgency
Jesus had a determination that a lot of us would interpret as a kind of inflexibility. We like to discuss things; we celebrate collaboration and team work.
Jesus doesn’t fit in this box at all. He knew exactly what He wanted to do. He sent missionaries ahead of Him into every town and village. He accepted no correction from those objected to His course or to the fact that He ate with sinners. When the crowds objected to Jesus’ teachings (such as His teaching on the Eucharist at Capernaum), He did not reconsider His words or go out and hire a public relations firm to improve His image. He did not conduct focus groups to test out His words and ideas. No, Jesus doubled down on disputed teachings and then asked His disciples if they were going to desert Him. He had an urgent mission to convey the truth, not debate it at length with detractors.
Jesus was on the move and urgently pursued His task. He told His disciples that He must work while it was still day because the darkness was coming when work would cease. In his final journey to Jerusalem, it was said that Jesus “set His face like flint,” an expression that conveys firm resolve. He set out on the journey, fully knowing (and announcing) that He would suffer at the hands of men, die, and rise.
Jesus’ own apostles balked and resisted, wondering why He would go there knowing that the leaders sought to kill Him. When Peter tried to dissuade Him, Jesus turned to him angrily, challenged his worldly thinking, and called him Satan.
No, Jesus would not turn back. At one point, He rebuked the weak faith of the Apostles, saying, “How much longer must I tolerate you?!” He also warned, “He who does not gather with me scatters.”
So Jesus was urgent and unstoppable. Meanwhile, His apostles vacillated between resistance to the looming danger, denial, and avoidance. More than once, the sacred text indicates that they were afraid to ask Him any more questions.
Nothing would stop Jesus. Even at the Last Supper, as He arose to go forth to His Passion, Jesus said, “The world must know that I love the Father and that He sent me. Arise. Let us go hence.”
Only briefly (in the garden) did Jesus express even the slightest doubt. Quickly it was resolved: whatever the Father wanted would receive His assent. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person.
Why this urgency? It was to save us! “What should I say? ‘Father save me from this hour?’ No, it was for this hour that I came into the world” (John 12:27).
I am convinced that all of this urgency would surprise us. We are more comfortable with a Jesus who wandered about blessing people, telling stories, and who only at the very end fell into trouble. Nothing could be further from the recorded history of the sacred text. Knowing everything that would take place, Jesus set out manfully to His goal and would allow nothing to stop or sidetrack Him. This was His Father’s will and He was urgent.
Yes, I suspect that most of us would be surprised if we encountered Jesus back around the year 30 A.D. For those who have not internalized the biblical texts and have substituted a modern image far removed from the recorded truth, Jesus might seem overbearing and even impatient. They would see Jesus speaking broadly—even bluntly—in the mode of the prophets. Would there be nothing of the gentle Jesus that so many prefer? Of course there would, but not in the exclusive amount that many moderns prefer.
Perhaps I do well to finish with the words of Ross Douthat, who in his book Bad Religion, summarizes this well:
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a [careful and] wise ethicist the next. … He promises to set [spouses against one another and] parents against children, and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. … He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping.
The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. … [Where heresy says which one] Both, says orthodoxy …. The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus .