Facial Hair, the Gospel, and God's Word for You

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A change during a time of crisis is nothing new; it's an experience we can see throughout history.

Graduation for the class of 2020 looked like nothing we had seen before. Our handbook at the high school I teach at spells out specific expectations for our students with one in particular: no facial hair. But with the change of quarantine and online learning, this rule went out of the window. After weeks apart, it was shocking to see the changes our young men had gone through. By graduation day, many of them were sporting long hair and surprisingly full beards. This change during a time of crisis is nothing new; it's an experience we can see throughout history.

Clean-Shaven Theologians

In 16th-century Europe, it was a social expectation that clergy would be clean-shaven. Beards were often associated with virile masculinity, not something that would be expected of a celibate priest. When Martin Luther arrived at The Diet of Worms in April 1521, he would have been clean-shaven and tonsured. When Luther left Worms for Wittenburg, he was abducted by Elector Fredrick's men, who whisked him away to the Wartburg for safekeeping. Emperor Charles V was demanding Martin Luther's execution and also condemning anyone who would help him.

Luther went into full hiding at the Wartburg. He took on the name of a knight "Junker Jörg" and grew a beard. Pretending to be a bearded night, Luther would translate the New Testament into the language of his people, German. This time of trial for Luther was a lonely one, but it allowed him to share God's Word with the German people so they could read the gospel of Jesus for themselves.

Thomas Cranmer Grows a Beard

English Reformer Thomas Cranmer also grew a beard in the middle of a season of change. After faithfully serving the complicated King Henry VIII, Cranmer was summoned to the King's deathbed in 1547. There was an unlikely closeness between the King who broke from Rome but held primarily to Roman Catholic tradition and the Scholar who read broadly from both the Bible and the Church Fathers. Cranmer had been faithful to the King despite his ongoing battles with Rome, and at Henry's bedside, he came not to offer last rites, but rather to ask and then affirm, with a squeeze from the King's hand, that the dying man trusted Christ for his salvation.

After King Henry VIII died, Cranmer began to grow a beard. The beard was an outward sign of grief and mourning for the King, but it was also a clear sign that he rejected the Catholic traditions of the day. Thomas Cranmer fought to proclaim that our salvation and right relationship with God is on account of Jesus Christ. The passing of King Henry VIII opened new opportunities for Cranmer to slowly reform the English churches to a Biblically-grounded faith founded on justification by Christ alone. His beard marked a turning point. The death of his King meant that an important change in belief was coming to England: the gospel, given through Christ's death and resurrection on the cross, not the work of the clergy, was the salvation for all people.

A Physical Change for You

Did Jesus have a beard? None of the Gospels describe Jesus' beard or lack thereof. It's possible that Jesus had a beard, but it's not a detail that was important enough for the New Testament authors to include in their writings. But there was a time of change in Jesus' ministry that affected his followers tremendously: his death on the cross. This event shook the followers of Jesus, even though Jesus repeatedly explained what he came to do. "From that time on, Jesus began to inform his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem. There he would have to suffer a lot because of the leaders, the chief priests, and the experts in Moses' Teachings. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be brought back to life" (Matt 16:21). But after his death, his disciples and followers were afraid.

On that Sunday morning, two of Jesus' disciples were traveling to Emmaus from Jerusalem and discussing everything that happened to Jesus. Luke describes how Jesus began to walk with them, but that they did not recognize him. When Jesus asked them what happened, they described how Jesus was condemned to death and crucified, how the women found an empty tomb and saw angels, but no Jesus. After this, Luke 24:25-26 says, "Then Jesus said to them, 'How foolish you are! You're so slow to believe everything the prophets said! Didn't the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into his glory?'" For some reason, Jesus was unrecognizable to these disciples, but what Jesus did next is also important for us. He points them back to God's word, to the teachings of Moses, and to the Prophets, showing how all of Scripture points to the coming of our Savior.

Sometimes the change is so great that it leaves a permanent mark on us.

It's a beautiful moment when the disciples recognize Jesus after he takes the bread and blesses it. Did they notice the familiar way of how he broke the bread? Was the blessing said in a way that jarred their memory? Or was it the scars that marred his hands that brought them to the realization that this was their leader, who suffered and died for them? Scripture is unclear here, but doesn't hesitate to clarify the main point: Jesus is not dead; he is alive!

There are times where we find ourselves facing a great change in our lives. Sometimes the change is so great that it leaves a permanent mark on us. Sometimes, like the graduates this year, we react to change by going against the rules. Sometimes, like Martin Luther at the Wartburg, we hide in fear for our lives. Sometimes, like Thomas Cranmer breaking with the past, we become bold in our convictions. And sometimes, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we just don't understand. But the comfort we have in any change that comes our way is the comfort found in the unchanging word of God that points us to our Savior, Jesus Christ. As the disciples said, "Weren't we excited when he talked with us on the road and opened up the meaning of the Scriptures for us?" (Luke 25:32).