Question: Why is it that those who knew Jesus well could not recognize him after his resurrection?
The Gospel of Luke recounts the experience of two of Jesus’ followers the day after the resurrection who did not recognize him for hours:
Luke 24:13-16 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.
The morning of the resurrection, Mary and the women with her did not recognize Jesus at first either (Matt. 28:8-10; Jn. 20:14-17). And when Jesus appeared before the disciples hiding behind locked doors, they thought they were seeing his ghost (Lk. 24:36ff.).
The truth is no one expected to see Jesus alive. Regardless of Jesus’ repeated predictions of his resurrection, such a thing was so far outside the realm of believability that the disciples simply weren’t prepared for it actually happening.
All this matters because our expectations have a tremendous impact on our perception of the world around us. I have a rather embarrassing example of this in my own experience. My wife and I were meeting our daughter at the airport following several months when she was away at college. As I scanned the off-boarding passengers, my daughter walked right up to me before both of us realized I had not recognized her! My ‘little girl’ had cut her long hair and now wore it in a very mature looking, sharply professional style. Had she not said, “Hi dad,” she could have walked right on by without my ever recognizing her. I imagine the shock on my face once she got my attention was quite similar to the looks Jesus received when he finally got the attention of his disciples.
So it was with Mary Magdalene, grieving near the empty tomb, thinking it had been robbed. Who can blame her for mistaking Jesus for the gardener? The last person she expected to see was Jesus alive from the dead! But—as when my daughter said, ”Hi dad!”—when Jesus spoke her name and asked why she was crying, Mary’s limited perception suddenly dissolved in the face of reality…in the face of Jesus! “Rabboni!” she cried out, and threw her arms around him in sheer joy (Jn. 20:14-17). So it was with the two on the Emmaus road, and with the eleven in the upper room who thought Jesus was ghost! That, for them, was more believable than a mutilated corpse being resurrected!
The resurrection is unbelievable because it is absolutely unnatural. In fact, it is a supernatural act of God’s mercy as He rescues mankind from the ravages of sin and death and makes us fit for eternal life:
1Pet. 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…