One of the great mysteries in the New Testament is why the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus after the resurrection. Being the curious type, I dug around a bit online and found that the question tends generally to be avoided, but when it does come up, the scripted responses more or less go like this:
- Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus (mistaking him for the gardener) because it was too dark to see properly, he was possibly standing some distance from her, and her vision was obscured by her tears;
- the disciples fishing on their boat didn’t recognize Jesus because he was too far away (on the shore) to see him properly;
- the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus because they were “supernaturally” (not my term) kept from seeing his real features; and
- the disciples at home didn’t recognize him for the same reason.
I don’t buy any of these explanations. This is Jesus we’re talking about, not some casual acquaintance. Most of the disciples had spent every day of the past three years with him – eating with him, walking with him, sitting with him, listening to him. They knew his voice as well as they knew their own; they knew how he stood, how he walked, how he moved his hands and gestured with his body when he spoke. They knew his smell (we all have our own unique scent) and the special tone he used with each of them. They knew him as well as it was possible to know another human being, and on top of it all, they loved him intensely. They were consumed with grief over his death, and he was constantly on their mind.
So, with regards to the first and second points, even if it was pitch black, Mary would have recognized Jesus by his voice, if his voice were the same. And even if they were some distance from him, the disciples fishing would have recognized Jesus by his voice (if it were the same voice) or at least by his form, his height, his way of standing, moving, etc., if these characteristics were the same. Or did all of the disciples all of a sudden get myopic and hard of hearing?
When people I love pass away, I sometimes think I see them in the distance or hear their voice the next aisle over at the supermarket. Of course, it’s never them, but I rush to see if it is anyway. That’s quite a common phenomenon – to hear the voice of your lost loved one in the voice of stranger, or to see a stranger from behind and think it’s someone you used to know. I mention this, because I believe that when you’re grieving, you’re more likely to think that a stranger is your lost loved one than that your lost loved one is a stranger.
As for the third and fourth points, which are based on “supernatural” intervention, there is definitely something to that, but not in the way it is argued. Scripture says that the disciples’ eyes were “holden” so they could not see it was Jesus. Some people argue that this means that Jesus, post-crucifixion and pre-ascension, looked just like he always had, but the disciples couldn’t see him because God had blinded their physical senses. I would argue that quite the opposite is true – that Jesus did NOT look like he had looked before, and that the knowledge that this ‘stranger’ who didn’t look like Jesus was in fact Jesus was “holden” from the disciples on a spiritual level, not a physical one. Thus, their eventual recognition of Jesus was a spiritual recognition, not a physical one.
I have had personal experience with my eyes being “holden”. For three and a half years after I was born again (out of atheism), I was heavily invested in Catholicism. In fact, I was so heavily invested (as a lector, committee member, twice-daily mass attendee, etc.) and spent so much time in the church building, I was given a key to come and go as I pleased. I loved being in the building because I thought God lived there (that’s what Catholics are told to believe), and as a born-again, I always wanted to be where God was.
After three and a half years of intense involvement with Catholicism (even to the point of considering becoming a nun), I had what you might call a spiritual breakdown. Even though I was doing everything I was supposed to do as a “good Catholic”, I had lost my love and compassion for people that had been the chief characteristic of my early rebirth days. Even worse, I felt I was moving further and further away from Jesus and God. As blinded as I was by Catholic doctrines, I still knew enough to know that this was not the way things were supposed to be. So, down on my face I went, bawling my eyes out and begging God to take out of my life anything that was keeping me from doing his holy will.
I know now that God hears the cries of your heart, not the words of your mouth. Despite the stiltedness of my pre-packaged prayer, God heard my heart loud and clear that day. And a week later, he delivered.
I was sitting in church just after Sunday mass. It was about 11 in the morning, the sun streamed idyllically through the stained glass windows, and the air smelled like birthday cake from the newly extinguished candles on the altar. I loved that smell, and I loved the prettiness and coziness of being in what I thought was my Father’s house. I never wanted to leave.
Then, in the midst of my reverie, something happened that I can only describe as scales falling from my eyes. For the first time, I saw what kind of a place I was really in. It wasn’t God’s house. It was a pagan (demon) temple, and those statues that I had been told were angels and saints were actually idols that people were bowing down before and praying to (that I had bowed down before and prayed to). And the worst of it all was the crucifix – the life-size depiction of Jesus’ mangled corpse hanging like an inverted centrepiece over the altar. This was not a place where God was worshiped; this was a place where something quite the opposite was being worshiped. The coziness I felt turned to a chill. I wanted to get out of that place immediately, and did so. I never went back.
This is one of my experiences when my eyes were “holden” from the truth until I was ready, in my heart, to receive it. The candlesticks didn’t suddenly turn into writhing snakes or the statues into leering devils – no, not at all. Physically, the candlesticks and statues remained exactly the same both before and after my revelation. What had changed was how I saw them, not how they looked.
In the same way, the disciples’ eyes were “holden”. Jesus appeared as someone who didn’t look or sound or walk like Jesus, and the disciples couldn’t see that this person was Jesus because they were looking at him with the eyes of their head, not the eyes of their soul. When their hearts were open to receiving the knowledge, then they could ‘see’ that this person who looked like a stranger was, indeed, Jesus.
As with everything else in the Bible, if you want something clarified, just ask God. It’s not God’s goal to make his Word unknowable to you as some great mystery. On the contrary, he wants to reveal everything and to make it understandable even to a small child.
The truth of the matter is that Jesus wasn’t recognized by the disciples because he didn’t look like the Jesus they had known. They weren’t being prevented from seeing him as he was; they were being prevented from knowing who he was. It wasn’t the fault of darkness or distance (or even myopia): Jesus simply looked different.
In fact, Jesus states outright why he was unrecognizable – he told Mary that he had not yet ascended and for this reason she should not touch him. We know that our bodies will be ‘perfected’ when we go to heaven. Paul says they will be changed. Our Earthly bodies are flawed, while our heavenly bodies are perfect. When the disciples saw him post-crucifixion and pre-ascension, Jesus’ body was undergoing the process of being perfected. Jesus looks vastly different in heaven than he did on Earth, as will we. When Mary saw him at his empty tomb, he was still morphing into his perfect body. Keep in mind that Jesus told us that, in heaven, we would be “like the angels”, who are renowned for their physical beauty and are also genderless (neither male nor female). My guess is that the resurrected Jesus who Mary saw in the graveyard that morning was quite good-looking, whereas before his resurrection, Jesus was not, according to scripture, physically attractive.
Another key reason why Jesus didn’t look the same after his resurrection is that God works by faith, not by the witness of our senses. If Jesus had looked the same after his resurrection as he did before, people would not have to believe by faith that he was the Messiah. Remember how Jesus praised Peter for knowing by faith that he was sent by God? This is how we’re all to know that Jesus is who he said he was – by faith, through God’s spirit, not by the witness of our eyes.
Keep in mind, too, that the person we know as “Jesus” is not simply an animated body (although I did find one entry online entitled: “Was Jesus a Zombie?”). No, Jesus is not a zombie. He is first and foremost a spirit that cleaves to God’s spirit, as were all the prophets before him, and as are all true believers since his resurrection. This spiritual essence of Jesus (and of us) remains the same, regardless of what vessel it’s in. So, through the eyes of faith, we can know that Jesus is the Messiah and can recognize Jesus no matter what form he takes, just as we can recognize God’s spirit in other born-again believers.
Yet another (and a very practical) reason why Jesus did not appear in the same body is that it might have sparked a manhunt for him and put his followers at risk. If the authorities thought he hadn’t actually died on the cross, they might have tried to hunt him down so they could kill him once and for all. Everyone Jesus knew would have been suspected of harboring him as a fugitive, and it just wouldn’t have been Jesus’ style to put those he loved in harm’s way.
In contrast to his pre-ascension appearances, Jesus tells us that everyone will see him and know who he is when he returns at the end of time. There won’t be any mystery about it; no-one will need to announce who he is; God will give everyone the knowledge and everyone will see him at the same time. He won’t come wearing a tag that reads “Hello, my name is Jesus”. People will simply know he’s Jesus. It will be a spiritual recognition rather than a physical one. By the way, this is also how Jesus’ followers will not be deceived by the “man of perdition” who says he’s Jesus, but isn’t. They will rely on their spiritual senses, not their physical ones.
I would like to add here that while I am vehemently against Catholicism, I’m not against Catholics. I WAS a Catholic. I was baptized as a Roman Catholic when I was three weeks old, which is why I “returned to the fold” after I was born again. I thought I belonged there, I thought Catholics were my brothers and sisters, and God in his infinite wisdom let me believe it for a while, for his and my purposes. Allowing me to get to know Catholicism from an inside rather than an outside perspective enabled me to better understand how people could be so deceived by “doctrines of man”, since I myself had also been deceived.
Again – I’m not against Catholics; I’m against their belief system, just as I’m against the Islamic belief system (not against Muslims) and against the Judaic belief system (not against Jews). For the record, I’m against all organized religious systems of belief. So, I’m not a ‘Catholic-basher’, I’m a Catholicism-basher, or just an all-round general religion-basher. This is a very important distinction: I don’t hate people, I hate the lies they believe. When Jesus railed against the Sadducees and Pharisees, he wasn’t bashing people; he was bashing their belief system so that they might be jolted into questioning the ‘doctrines of man’ they had been taught (and in some cases forced) to believe, and, by questioning their beliefs, become open to receiving the truth. Like Jesus, we must also bash those erroneous belief systems so that those who want to know the truth may be freed.