Have you ever run into an old friend you almost didn’t recognize? Maybe they’ve lost weight, grew a beard, or just aged a lot since junior high.

Many of Jesus’ good friends found it difficult to recognize Him after His resurrection. Aside from a few scars, scripture doesn’t tell us about any major physical changes to His appearance over the three days since they’d seen Him crucified. Yet the Gospels record three encounters between Jesus and His disciples on the first day out of the tomb where they, for a short time, didn’t know who He was. What could have made Jesus unrecognizable to those who had known Him so well and followed Him for the previous three years? And what made them finally recognize the risen Savior?

At the Tomb

In John 20:11-16, Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb, surprised to find it empty. She asked someone she mistook as a gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where…” . Then Jesus spoke her name: “Mary.” Not long before this, Jesus had told the Pharisees, who failed to recognize the Messiah, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me.” (John 10:27) Grief may have dulled Mary’s perception, but one reason she may not have recognized Jesus was that she was looking for a lifeless body, not a Jesus who was very much alive. Until the voice of a friend said her name.

On the Lake

In John 21:1-7, six of Jesus’ disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee to get their minds off the loss they were feeling over Jesus’ death. Fishing was what they’d always loved to do and now they didn’t have anything else to do. The very one who gave their lives purpose and said He would make them fishers of men was gone. And despite their best efforts they weren’t catching any fish that morning. When they decided to follow the advice of a stranger on where to cast their net, the miraculously massive catch of fish that followed opened their eyes to Jesus standing on the shore. That’s when Peter went full Michael Phelps and dove into the water to reunite with Him.

Jesus’ miracles always served a deeper purpose than their material results. They were to reveal who Jesus truly was—the Messiah. Sometimes we can get so preoccupied with other things that it takes a miracle to see Jesus.

On the Road

In Luke 24:13-15, two of Jesus’ disciples, grieving over Jesus’ death, were walking the 7 mile stretch from Jerusalem to Emmaus when Jesus Himself came up and walked alongside them, “but their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.” (vs. 16). Jesus began to explain to them all that scriptures had previously revealed about the Messiah. When they reached Emmaus, they convinced Jesus to stay with them for a meal. “When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…” (vs. 30-31a).

Why were they “kept from recognizing Him” earlier? Was it so Jesus could cure their doubts and connect the dots for them without distraction? Was it the fellowship at the Lord’s Table—the place where we now remember Christ’s sacrifice for us— that finally opened their eyes? Maybe, but they knew all along there was something about Him. After Jesus departed, “They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (vs. 32) And how often can we look back at a particular journey in our lives and in hindsight recognize that He was actually with us in our despair and confusion, teaching us and reviving our spirits?

Like Mary, are you grieving? Or are you looking for a different Jesus? Like the disciples on the lake, are other things—even ministry—taking your gaze off Jesus? Or are you trying to manage by your own strength? Like the two on the road to Emmaus, are you in doubt or despair? Do you need a reminder of God’s love and sacrifice for you?

Whatever we know or hear about Jesus, none of it matters if He didn’t actually rise from the tomb. Paul reminded believers, “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Imagine if Mary Magdalene had actually found the Jesus she was looking for—a dead one. An occupied tomb would have proven Jesus was not God, that He did not defeat death, and had no way to pay for our sin. On Easter, we celebrate a living Christ who personally knows our grief, our doubt, and our name, and who walks with us in our fear, and loves us whether we see Him or not. To recognize Jesus for who He really is, we need to recognize that He is risen indeed!

Share This