After Jesus' resurrection, why did people always seem to have difficulty recognizing Him? We can't help but notice something strange about Jesus' post-resurrection appearances.
That early Sunday morning, even Mary fails to recognize Jesus at first.1 She mistakes Him for the gardener-until she hears His voice. She was no casual acquaintance: a few days earlier she washed His feet with her tears! Why didn't she know who He was until she heard His voice? It seems that "Mary!" prompted her recognition.2
Later that afternoon, Jesus joined two disciples on the Emmaus Road, and for seven miles He gives them an Old Testament Bible study.3
Although "their eyes were holden that they should not know Him," the Bible doesn't really explain what this means.4 In any case, they did recognize Him when He broke the bread at dinner. (This itself is odd, since it was the role of the host-not the guest-to break the bread.) Their tip-off was in viewing the nail prints in His hands. (They confirmed this later that evening.)
These two disciples join the gathering that evening in the upper room and confirm His appearance, emphasizing that it was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who He was.5 Why not during the seven-mile walk? What is going on here?
When Jesus ultimately emerges in their midst, we find them all terrified.6 Astonished, of course, but why frightened? For some reason they don't recognize Him until they examine His wounds! Why?
The Galilean Breakfast
Perhaps the most puzzling thing occurs later at the Sea of Galilee.7 When they join Him for that early morning breakfast on the seashore, John makes the strangest remark: "And none of the disciples durst ask him, Who art thou? knowing that it was the Lord."8 What does that mean?
A Possible Clue
We should remember that the Bible is a single, integrated message -- 66 books, penned by over 40 authors over thousands of years, but in which every detail is there by supernatural engineering. Thus, we also need to recognize that:
the New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed;
the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed.
There are many surprising insights and details in the Old Testament which amplify the New, including some astonishing physical descriptions.
A familiar example is Psalm 22, which reads as if it were dictated by Jesus Himself as He hung on the cross. He describes His pain, the piercing of His hands and feet;9 He quotes the taunts of the crowd10 and observes the parting of His clothes,11 etc. The Psalm even opens and closes with His first and final words from the cross.12
Another such passage is Isaiah 53.13 This passage, sometimes called "The Holy of Holies of the Old Testament," highlights the implications of the cross as eloquently as any of Paul's epistles. In Isaiah 52:14, however, it specifies that the extent of the abuse left Jesus hardly even looking human.
Yet another most disturbing detail appears a page earlier:
I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair. Isaiah 50:6
This seems to indicate that the Roman soldiers ripped off His beard! No wonder His friends had trouble recognizing Him!
I had an occasion some years ago to work with a software specialist who wore a very full beard. One day he came to work with it shaved off. I almost didn't recognize him! It is surprising what a difference a single feature like that can make.
(And this didn't involve any scar tissue or other evidences of abuse resulting from treatment received at the hands of vicious Roman soldiers.)
An Emblem of Love
I am reminded of a young mother whose face was badly disfigured. Her little girl was continually ridiculed by the children in school because of her mother's appearance. (You know how cruel children can be.)
When the little girl was old enough, the mother explained to her that when she was a baby there was a dreadful fire in the apartment and, although the mother was able to save the little girl, the mother herself suffered very severe burns in the process. From that day on, the little girl was no longer embarrassed about her mother. Every time she looked into her mother's face it was a reminder of just how much she was loved.
Is it possible that, in addition to the nail prints, there were additional scars-perhaps where His beard used to be-that caused their difficulty in recognizing Him? Are they still there? Does Jesus still bear the marks of His humiliation?
In the Book of Revelation, John is propelled forward in time some several thousand years and is granted a vision of the throne of God. In Revelation 5 we find "the lamb as it had been slain," apparently still bearing the scars of the cross.14 They say that the only man-made things in heaven are His scars.
When Jesus returns to rule Israel, He proclaims, "And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced."15
The marks of His humiliation are also the marks of His glory. Furthermore, I'm sure the most significant aspects of the cross were not the physical or physiological aspects. I believe it will take us an eternity to even begin to understand what it cost Him that we might be with Him.
He was born of a woman so that we could be born of God.
He humbled Himself so that we could be lifted up.
He became a servant so that we could be made co-heirs.
He suffered rejection so that we could become His friends.
How precious our Redeemer is! Have you really thanked Him lately?