Return to Sermon Archive



The Towel of Jesus

John 12:12-16


by Tony Grant

I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of John chapter 12 and follow along as I read verses 12-16. Hear what the Spirit says to us.

12 On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem,

13 Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.

14 And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written,

15 Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass's colt.

16 These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him.

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.


The Mandylion Icon

What did Jesus look like? Do you imagine a laughing, short-bearded Jesus with dirty blond hair and blue eyes? What about an African Jesus? Or a clean-shaven Jesus, arms outstretched at the Last Supper? Or an Asian Jesus with his Asian mother at his side? Take your pick.

Picture the face of Jesus in your imagination. What do you see? Does he have an aquiline nose? Hair the color of walnut wood, parted in the middle, hanging straight to the ears? Does he have a dark beard, dark eyes, tanned olive skin, high cheekbones, a narrow, handsome face filled with passion and kindness, and in his dark eyes, fire and love? Is this how you picture him? Is this his true likeness?

Many centuries ago, an icon of Jesus was painted with these very familiar features. It is called The Mandylion Icon, from the Greek, meaning "The Towel." Orthodox Christian tradition claims this icon as the first painting of Jesus. Greek, Russian, and Eastern Christians believe it to be an accurate representation of his face.

By the way, an icon is a representation of sacred personages or events in mural painting, mosaic, or wood.

The story of The Mandylion Icon is found in the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. The fame of Jesus, the wonder worker and healer, had spread far beyond the lands of Judea, where he taught and worked and walked. Across the Euphrates River, in the city of Edessa lived a governor named Abgarus who suffered from an incurable disease. Hearing of Jesus’ miracles, Abgarus wrote him a letter, as recorded by Eusebius [cf Eusebius Hist. Eccl. I, 13]:

To Jesus called Christ, Abgarus the governor of the country of the Edessenes, an unworthy slave. The multitude of the wonders done by you has been heard of by me, that you heal the blind, the lame and the paralytic, and cure all the demoniacs; and on this account I entreat your goodness to come even to us, and escape from the plottings of the wicked authorities who hate you. My city is small, but large enough for both of us.

Abgarus convinced Ananias to deliver the letter and, while in Judea, to take an accurate account of Jesus—his appearance, his stature, his hair and his words. Ananias delivered the letter to Jesus, then stared at Jesus, trying to fix in his mind the face of Christ. Try though he did, Ananias could not memorize the countenance of Jesus. Jesus, knowing Ananias’ heart, asked a disciple for a wash towel. A wet cloth was handed to him. He wiped his face on the towel, then gave it to Ananias. On the towel was the miraculous image of the face of Christ.

"Take this towel to Abgarus," said Jesus, "and tell him I cannot come, for I must fulfill my destiny here, but later I will send my disciple, Thaddaeus, to heal him." Ananias fell to the ground and worshiped Jesus, then returned to Abgarus in Edessa, who was healed by means of the miraculous towel long before Thaddaeus arrived.

Orthodox tradition claims that it was from this Towel of Edessa that the first ancient icon of Jesus, The Mandylion Icon, was later painted, which became a prototype for the faces of Jesus down through the centuries.

That is the legend. The reality appears to be that a cloth was discovered in Edessa, Turkey, around A.D. 525 that bore an image of a face that was declared "The True Likeness" of Christ, "Not made by human hands." Following this discovery, Byzantine images all began to conform to this True Likeness. That iconographic tradition still exists today in Eastern, Greek, and Russian Orthodox churches. The cloth that was discovered in 525 was known as "The Image of Edessa." In later centuries it became known as "The Mandylion." The Legend of King Abgar tells how it came to Edessa from Palestine in the first century.

The Mandylion Icon seems to have much in common with the the Shroud of Turin. As you may know many people believe the Shroud of Turin to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus. Others think it is a fourteenth century fake. Skeptics also say that the Mandylion Icon is a sixth century Greek artists idea of what Christ looked like and is no more valid your idea or mind.

However that may be, since the time when Ananias delivered the Towel of Edessa, if he did, thousands of icons, western-style paintings, and sculptures have been created with Jesus as the subject. Last summer more than one hundred paintings and icons of Jesus were collected for one show. The Gallery at the American Bible Society in New York City hosted an art exhibit entitled, "Icons or Portraits? Images of Jesus and Mary from the Collection of Michael Hall." This collection investigates the image, or true likeness, of Jesus in art over time. From the symbolic images of Early Christian catacombs to modern interpretations, iconic as well as narrative images have served as objects of education, edification, devotion and aesthetic appreciation.

These collected works illustrate how artists, especially in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods, tended to use an established prototype for the portrayal of Christ. Whether he is part of a story or an isolated figure, Jesus is recognizable by virtue of his recurring facial features. But again, that was just those artists idea of what he looked like.

What did Jesus look like? no physical descriptions are given in the gospels. The gospel writers were primarily concerned with how Jesus lived inside them. They were more concerned with what Jesus did than how he wore his hair.

Over the centuries, painters, sculptors and artisans from all over the globe have imagined the face of Jesus. His countenance has been conveyed in illuminated Bibles, paintings, sculptures, icons, mosaics, murals, stained-glass windows and pieces of cloth. The variety of images shows the struggles artists have had in portraying the one who is viewed within Christianity as both human and divine. Frederick Buechner once wrote about the face of Jesus: "Like the faces of the people we love, it has become so familiar that unless we take pains, we hardly see it at all. Take pains. See it for what it is and, to see it whole, see it, too, for what it is just possible that it will become: the face of Jesus as the face of our own secret and innermost destiny, the face of Jesus as our face."

Reimaging Jesus

Scripture teaches that we are made in God’s image, but often enough we remake Jesus as a reflection of our own image — projecting ourselves onto him.

Did you hear the story about a kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.

The girl replied, "I’m drawing Jesus."

The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what Jesus looks like."

Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."

Now we might chuckle at that little girl, but we do much the same. We try to make Christ into our own image. I suppose we do this because his true likeness, his character, has always been difficult to capture — even for those who knew him personally. When Jesus was with his friends, teaching, laughing, drinking wine and eating bread, visible, touchable and knowable, even then, he was rarely seen or understood for who he was.

John 12:12-16 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We hear the crowd shouting "Hosanna." This is probably a quotation from Psalm 118:25. In Hebrew, the first word of that verse is Hoshianna, which becomes in the Greek, "Hosanna." It means, "save us." Probably they were referring to some sort of physical salvation. They were saying, Jesus, you are the messiah. Save us from the Romans. Save us from the tax collectors (Yes, they had April 15 in ancient Palestine). Save us from the temple authorities. Save us from the demons of oppression and destruction and evil. That is still our cry. Save us Jesus from sin and death.

It is a misconception to suppose that riding on a donkey was a sign of Jesus humility. The donkey or mule was the traditional animal on which the kings of Israel rode to their coronation. And of course Jesus knew exactly what he was doing on that festival day when he rode into Jerusalem. He was proclaiming himself the rightful heir to the throne of David. And the people would have known that, but knowing that only seemed to lead to more misunderstandings about who Jesus was and where he was headed. Thus began a week in which the world, finally gaining a true likeness of him, finally understanding him to a certain degree, decided they didn’t like what they saw, and preferred to put him away, permanently.

The adoring crowd expected a conquering king who could restore Israel’s ancient greatness, throwing off the weight of Roman servitude. That is why they "Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord" (v13). What they got was an humble servant Savior.

The religious authorities thought he was a dangerous, riot-rousing rebel who would lead the people astray. Little did they know that by killing him, he would become far more powerful, leading generations to God.

So what is the character and true likeness of Jesus? During the week we call Holy Week:

We see Jesus righteously indignant at the materialism of the temple.

We witness him overturn tables while simultaneously turning the table-owning merchants against him.

We watch Jesus challenge his disciples while he faces their betrayal.

We see him prayerful in the garden, desiring not to fulfill his destiny, but knowing he must.

Finally we see him demonstrating sacrificial love on Friday on the cross.

This, and more, is the true likeness of Jesus. The danger is that we, like the disciples, like the crowds of Jerusalem and the religious leaders, might be among those who "understood not these things" (John 12:16).

What did they not understand?

They did not understand humble service. In John chapter 13, Jesus whipped out his towel and washed the feet of the disciples. It blew them away. The disciples had continually bickered about their pride of place in the coming kingdom. Even at the Last Supper, only days after his entry into Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus were still arguing about who among them was the greatest. It’s totally unreal: They have just eaten the bread and shared the cup, and a fight breaks out (Luke 22:24). They did not get it.

They did not understand his redemptive mission. He had come, he reminded his disciples, "not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32 KJV).

There is more. They did not understand his welcoming compassion. While his heart broke for the multitudes, his disciples tried to send them away.

They did not understand intercessory prayer. They had to ask Jesus how to pray.

They didn’t understand sacrificial love. Jesus told them, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). At this, those in his hearing thought he was stark, raving mad (John 10:20 NIV). He would later say to his disciples, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13 NIV).

Jesus had to teach them the meaning of love on the cross. Megan Choate is from Texas. She’s a senior in a high school where most teens, she says, might call themselves Christians, but tend to confuse that with wearing bracelets that ask WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) and singing in church. "We’re here [at The Duke Youth Academy] learning about what a Christian is and what one is not. We’re discussing issues most people tiptoe around, like racial prejudice and abortion, things that are very difficult to agree on — and often we don’t. But we aren’t here to get that warm, fuzzy feeling. We learn in depth about who Christ really was, and that’s not always pleasant. He was poor and hated, and his death was gruesome."

[Patrick Adams, "Faith goes to school," Duke Magazine, September-October 2002, 18]

What Megan says about Christ is absolutely right. "He was poor and hated, and his death was gruesome." The cross was not a nice thing. It was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. Yet Christ went to the cross for us. That is love.

In summary, on Palm Sabbath and on Easter, they did not understand who Christ was. The Westminster Confession of Faith says,

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and Man, the Prophet, Priest, and King; the head and Savior of his church; the Heir of all things; and Judge of the world; unto whom he did from all eternity give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. (chapter VIII)

Salvation comes through Christ. That is the heart of the gospel. As we seek to understand this, we ask two questions: Who is Christ? What is this salvation that he has wrought.

The questions are interrelated. We cannot understand the person of Christ apart from the work of Christ. The Confession lists his titles: Prophet, Priest, King; head and Savior of the church; Heir of all things; Judge of the world. Most importantly, Christ is the mediator between God and us. The titles show us who Jesus is and what he does. Notice that the confession emphasizes that Christ was God's eternal plan. The gospel was not a haphazard system that God threw together to somehow work around Adam's sin. From the very beginning of time, God had decided to give Christ a people, a "seed." These people were chosen by God from all eternity. That is, there never was a time when they were not chosen. Nevertheless, they are saved by Christ. The confession describes what Christ does. He "redeems, calls, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies," not everyone, but his people. Christ does not save the world. Christ saves his people. To say it any other way makes Christ into a wimpy do-nothing savior. If Christ is up there in heaven waiting for me to make some salvation decision, then in fact, I save myself by my decision. That is not at all what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that Christ saves me. Christ does the saving. Christ saves everyone that God intended for him to save. Christ does not fail. God does not fail. Therefore every one that God intends to save will be saved. Not a one will be lost. The Confession says that we were originally God's people, but we got lost along the way, lost in sin. Christ retrieves and reclaims us. He summons us to be his people. He exonerates and vindicates us before God. He cleanses us and consecrates us. He exalts us and extols us.

That is what a savior is. That is what Christ is to us, but no one understood that on Palm Sabbath. They did not get it during the week, either. On Maundy Thursday, they understood him even less. On Good Friday, they gave it up, going home to return to their previous occupations. They had yet to perceive the true likeness of Jesus. They had seen the towel in action, they had seen Jesus in the flesh, but they had not seen Jesus. Now Abgarus saw Jesus. He was healed by the towel bearing his likeness. That is the legend anyway. He saw Jesus in the only way it counts, in his heart, mind, and soul. He saw Jesus as Lord and saviour How do you see Jesus? Do you see him in the only way that counts—as Lord and Savior? Amen.


Ante-Nicene Fathers, Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College, Retrieved October 18, 2002.

"Icons through the centuries," American Bible Society Web site, Retrieved October 18, 2002.

"True Likeness of Christ." Christian Century. September 11-24, 2002, 49.




If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

HOME About YARPC Webmaster Links Sermons What's New Prayer Center

Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Last modified 4/22/03