Recognizing the Risen Savior
March 31, 2018 § Leave a comment
Have you ever had a friend or relative disappear from your life for a while and it’s hard to recognize them when you run into them? Maybe they shaved their beard, lost a ton of weight, 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 Jesus showed to Thomas, 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?
Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20:11-16)
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
A couple possible reasons that Jesus’ friend Mary didn’t immediately recognize Him come to mind. One is her grief, which often clouds or dulls perception. The other is the simple fact that she was looking for a different Jesus. Mary came to the tomb hoping to anoint a lifeless body with spices (Mark 6:1) and was not expecting to meet a resurrected Jesus.
What made Mary recognize Jesus? “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.'” He spoke her name. Not long before this, Jesus had told the Pharisees, “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me.” (John 10:27) The Pharisees never recognized Jesus for who He was, but Mary did. As a follower, she knew His voice. Especially when He spoke her name. We don’t get to hear exactly how he spoke it, but I imagine it was the tone and inflection of a close and faithful friend. And He was very much alive, the Jesus she should have been looking for all along.
The disciples on the lake (John 21:1-7)
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way:Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
“No,” they answered.
He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.
Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.
I suppose distance or low light could have factored into the disciples not recognizing Jesus standing on the shore. The men were also pre-occupied with fishing, maybe to get their minds off the loss they were feeling over Jesus’ death. It’s 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 said He would make them fishers of men was lost to them, at least for a while. Even in serving in the church, we can be so focused on the Lord’s work that we forget the One we’re doing it for.
What made the disciples recognize Jesus? It was the miraculous catch of fish that opened John’s eyes. When Peter recognized Jesus, the one who couldn’t get away from Him fast enough the night of His trial turned into Michael Phelps and couldn’t get to Jesus fast enough. Jesus’ miracles always served a deeper purpose than their material results. They were to reveal who Jesus truly was—the Messiah, God’s Son sent with the Father’s message, authority and approval.(1) It took a miracle for these men to see Jesus, as it often does for us.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them;but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast.One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him;but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morningbut didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
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, and he disappeared from their sight.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?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled togetherand saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
These two followers of Jesus, reeling from the events of the last couple days, were actually “kept from recognizing” Jesus (verse 16). Did God cloak Jesus in some way for some particular reason? On this walk, this presumed stranger rebukes their doubt and begins to explain to them “what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (verse 27). Perhaps the distraction of seeing their risen Savior would have kept them from listening to Jesus as He connected the dots for them. For whatever reason, He seems little more than an incredibly interesting stranger to them.
Not until the end of their journey together do the men realize it was Jesus, now sitting 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…”. Maybe it was the fellowship that finally opened their eyes. Or maybe it was a deeper understanding of the broken bread representing what Jesus’ body had gone through for them.
The last time Jesus broke bread was in the upper room with twelve other disciples; a purpose and command now revealed to these two in communion with Jesus. Do we not gain a unique familiarity with our Savior at the Lord’s table, when we pass the bread and cup and remember Him in thankfulness and worship because of His sacrifice for us? 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 do it all 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 the believers at Corinth, “…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 business paying for our sin. On Easter, Christians celebrate a living Christ who personally knows our 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!