The Unrecognizable Jesus

Luke 24 presents the narrative of 2 disciples, walking a 7 mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus, on what may be the afternoon after Jesus’ morning resurrection. We know the name of one of them—Cleopas. We do not know the name of the other. One could speculate the unnamed person is Luke, the author of the narrative, who would be exercising authorial humility by not naming himself. No matter, what we realize from context is these two travelers had just come from Jerusalem, after having heard the news of Jesus’ resurrection and after having had an empty tomb confirmed.

They had been with the 11. They heard the report of the women about Jesus’ resurrection first hand; but they hadn’t seen Jesus for themselves, and they understandably were exploring their doubts in the face of what they knew and what they had heard. Maybe they were “getting out of town,” because all of this was so troubling & frightful. We can’t be sure why they were traveling, but in their explanation of the events, we do read that they refer to Jesus as a Prophet, not the Messiah / the Christ.

Some might say that these 2 travelers were not yet genuine believers. I would remind those, who reply with that answer, Peter’s confession was 2.5 years into following Jesus… and still Peter denied Jesus, needing recommissioning (John 21); and Thomas was with Jesus for 3 years and did not call Jesus Lord and God, until the point Jesus offered his wounds as proof. Despite struggles of faith by Peter and Thomas, from John 17 we know all of the 12 (except Judas) were classified as redeemed & kept. Even John the Baptist, the cousin & forerunner of Christ, doubted from prison whether Jesus is the Messiah; yet, Jesus labeled John as the greatest. Jesus’ response to their disbelief of the women is a correction their lack of readiness to believe the prophets, particularly with regard to the predictions that the Christ should suffer. These 2 men, like the 11, had wanted a political savior, and that strong desire had blinded them to the “righteous suffering servant” prophecies. But that lack of readiness to believe the prophets puts them in the same company as the 11 and John the Baptist, and for that reason, I am completely resistant to saying these 2 travelers on the road to Emmaus were categorically “not God’s.”

A Jesus Unknown to His Followers

Verse 16 of Luke 24 states that God prevented these 2 followers from recognizing Jesus, and verse 31 states that “their eyes were opened and they knew him….” Why would God disguise the resurrected Jesus’s identity from these followers? It seems a rather arbitrary and capricious thing to do. In fact, the unrecognizable Jesus acts like he would leave their company without disclosing his identity, until the 2 finally ask him to stay with them. They recognize Jesus only after Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks with them.

Was God building their faith? Was God being a monster? Is this a contradictory error made by the author penning the account?

Again, what we do know is these two travelers are followers of Jesus. They are not disbelievers altogether, and so, we need to see the passage in that context. This is not about ‘how God saves the lost’ or what have you. This is about 2 followers of Jesus having a crisis of faith. This is about what God does for his own, during their crises of faith.

If we examine other post-resurrection appearances, we see that none of those, who were closest to Jesus, recognize him immediately. There is something different about the resurrected Jesus, something both altered and even startling. Mary Magdalene thought Jesus to be the gardener before Jesus spoke to her. We also read (vv 36 – 43) that Jesus appeared to the 11 and had to say “peace be with you” and had to assure them, because they thought he was a ghost. And again, Thomas did not recognize Jesus (perhaps both physically and metaphysically) as Lord and God, until Thomas was shown the wounds of Christ.

These post-resurrection appearances of Jesus remind me of the Old Testament Angel of YHWH Christophanies. Joshua did not recognize him and neither did Abraham or Samson’s parents.

Building Faith

I’m asserting from the congruence of these post-resurrection accounts that the resurrected Jesus needs to be revealed, even to those closest to him, before he can be recognized by them; & in each case, the delay in that revelation is for the purpose of building the faith of those, who already belong to God.

In Mary Magdalene’s case, Jesus said, “do not cling to me; I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Her lesson was that Jesus is not to be clutched onto, no matter how close a relationship we have to his humanity. He is Deity, not only humanity.

In the case of the 11 and particularly of Thomas, we might learn that even though we categorically belong to God, we still need help fully recognizing Jesus during our crises of faith. He does not fit neatly into our paradigm of expectations. He is more. Thankfully, Jesus meets our need, if we wait for him.

In the case of the 2 travelers, we can gather that if we do not understand Jesus’ purpose for having died, then we certainly will never recognize the Person of the resurrected Jesus, unless he shows us; and, to that end, hospitality while taking time to talk through our doubts may well open not only the door of our lodging but also the doorway of our understanding.




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