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Why didn't people always recognize the resurrected Jesus?

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Many have been intrigued by the fact that the followers of Jesus did not always immediately recognize Him after His resurrection. The Gospels record three such instances.

John 20:15 reveals that Mary Magdalene was weeping at Jesus' empty tomb when Jesus asked her what was wrong. She assumed He was the gardener and asked where the body had been taken. When He spoke her name, Mary recognized Him as Jesus (John 20:16). In this case, she may have been weeping with her face down and did not immediately realize the person with her was Jesus. The text is unclear with the exception that Jesus had asked her why she was weeping and that Mary recognized His voice when He spoke to her by name.

Luke 24:13-35 records two disciples who walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day of the resurrection. Their names are not mentioned but they were not part of the eleven (Luke 24:33). Luke 24:15-16 states, "While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him." In this case it seems that God kept the men from recognizing Jesus as they walked with Him along the road and explained the Scriptures to them. That night, however, Jesus ate with them and "their eyes were opened, and they recognized him" (Luke 24:31). We can only surmise why God would veil the men's eyes – perhaps so they would fully consider what Jesus was teaching about the Scripture – but it is clear that it was God's will for Jesus not to be recognized for a time in this particular instance.

John 21 talks about seven disciples who fished all night and caught nothing. At break of day, while they were still out on the water, Jesus spoke from the shore, asking them about their fishing trip. He then told them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they did, 153 fish were caught. John first recognized the man as Jesus, and Peter immediately jumped in the water and swam to Him. In this case, Jesus may have originally been too far away to recognize at first, though the text is uncertain on this matter.

Based on these three accounts, only the second one, the disciples walking with Jesus to Emmaus, requires a supernatural explanation. Jesus used the time He was unrecognizable by the men to explain how the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah had been fulfilled in His own life. These two men immediately returned to the disciples in Jerusalem, who also confirmed seeing Jesus alive. Their testimony confirmed the accounts of Peter and the women who saw Jesus at the tomb; and Jesus appeared to the disciples that evening.

These accounts reveal that the appearances of Jesus to His followers were unexpected and supernatural. Such accounts help to disprove alternative theories that seek to dispute the resurrection. Jesus did not merely pass out and revive, nor did His followers anticipate seeing Him alive three days after He was crucified. In addition, many of these followers both served Christ and died for their belief that Jesus is alive.

Related Truth:

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