She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus (John 20:14).

Do you ever come across someone you thought was a stranger, only to find it’s someone you already knew? What an odd feeling! If somebody is walking ahead of you and you see only their back, you might think it’s a stranger. But when they turn, you get a good look at their face, and suddenly you recognize them.

In some cases, even when you see someone’s face and it’s a person you already know, you still might not recognize them. Recently I came across someone I had seen often before, but a few years had passed since I last saw him. Back then he had long blond hair and a shaggy mustache. So when a clean-shaven man with short, gray hair walked up, I had no idea who he might be. Only when he spoke did I realize who he was.

Sometimes even if someone’s appearance hasn’t changed, I have a hard time recognizing them, especially if I’m not expecting to see them or not really looking at them. [When I’m in a place far from home and come across someone I didn’t know was there, I might not recognize the person until a conversation starts and something clicks in my mind. There are also times when I’m close to home, in a restaurant or gas station, but my thoughts are somewhere else, and I’m not really looking people in the face.] A friend may be very near, but I don’t realize it. My focus is elsewhere. Only when they get my attention do I clue in and recognize them. I feel embarrassed at times like that, but every so often it happens.

In Bible stories about Jesus’ resurrection, we find over and over that friends of Jesus who met him after he rose from the dead didn’t recognize him at first, even when they saw him. Why didn’t they recognize him? Maybe Jesus looked somewhat different after he died and rose to new life. It can be hard to recognize someone whose appearance has changed, even though it’s the same person. Then again, maybe Jesus looked pretty much the same as he had before, but after his death, his friends didn’t expect to see him again. When Jesus came to them, perhaps they weren’t really looking at him. Their minds were in turmoil, their eyes teary, bleary and weary.

These may be among the reasons people didn’t recognize the risen Jesus the moment he came to them, but perhaps the main reason is that Jesus didn’t want them to recognize him right away. At one point the Bible says, “They were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16). It seems Jesus wanted his friends to sense him with their hearts before they recognized him with their eyes.

Jesus wanted it that way not just for their sake but for ours. The Lord wants us to know that seeing and recognizing aren’t the same thing. It was possible to see the risen Lord without recognizing him. It’s also possible to recognize the risen Lord without seeing him. It’s vital to be able to recognize Jesus without seeing him because we can’t see him.

After the first Easter, Jesus came visibly and physically in his resurrection body to various people. These encounters happened over a period of forty days. But then Jesus ascended to heaven. As long he remains in heaven, I will not be able to see or touch his resurrection body, and neither will you. Jesus’ body really did rise from the dead, and he is really alive right now. But he’s not physically present among us.

So how does he make himself known to us? How can we know when we are having a real encounter with Christ? How can we recognize the risen Lord if we can’t see him? A good way to answer that is by learning from people who had the opposite experience, people who could see Jesus but couldn’t recognize him. [In the time right after Jesus’ resurrection, this happened to a variety of people in a variety of situations. It happened to a woman who was trying to figure out where Jesus’ body had gone. It happened to a couple of people walking along a road talking sadly together. It happened to some men in a boat who had been fishing all night without catching anything.] The risen Jesus came to friends who knew him well, but they didn’t recognize him with their eyes until they first sensed him in their hearts. What got through to their hearts? In answering that, we’ll find out how to recognize the risen Lord even when we can’t see him.

Called By Name

One person who saw Jesus but didn’t recognize him at first was Mary Magdalene. Mary was devastated by Jesus’ death, because Jesus meant everything to her. At one time Mary had been trapped in horrible evil. She was under the direct domination of demons. Seven evil spirits ruled her soul and wrecked her life. However, when Mary met the Lord Jesus, he drove those demons out of her. He gave her freedom and new life. After that Mary Magdalene became part of a group that traveled with Jesus. She used her own resources to help support the mission of Jesus and his apostles.

But then Jesus was arrested and nailed to a cross. Mary heard the blows of the hammer driving nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. She saw Jesus suffer horribly hour after hour hanging on the cross. She saw a soldier stab a spear into Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead. Jesus had done so much for her, and she had poured out herself for him, so when Mary saw Jesus’ body lowered from the cross and laid in a tomb, all her happiness and hope were as dead and buried as that corpse.

Even so, love for Jesus continued to stir in Mary Magdalene. She wanted to honor Jesus and show her love in the only way she still could: by showing respect for his corpse and tenderly putting sweet‑smelling spices on it. She and some other women went to the tomb early Sunday morning. But when they got there, the stone blocking the entrance of the tomb had been removed and the body was gone. Mary Magdalene ran to the two leading disciples, Peter and John, and told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” (John 20:2). Peter and John raced to check it out.

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but 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.

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).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:10-18)

Mary was the first person to meet the risen Lord Jesus, but even when she saw two angels and Christ himself standing there, she still didn’t know what was happening. Her eyes were probably so tear‑filled and downcast that she couldn’t see straight. Mary was so busy looking for a dead corpse that she didn’t recognize the living Christ. She was so focused on memories from the past that she didn’t expect to find her Lord in the present. It was not the sight of Jesus but the voice of Jesus speaking her name that finally made Mary recognize him.

It’s easy to miss Jesus if you don’t expect him to come to you. If you think Jesus is nothing but memories from the past, you can miss out on the joy of the living Lord here in the present. Sometimes religion can be like an embalmed corpse. The focus is on dead heroes, old traditions and patterns that must be honored and preserved. Now, it’s good to treasure the past, especially the past miracles and teaching of Jesus. But don’t get stuck in the past. Jesus is not just someone who lived long ago. He lives right now. He may come to you at any moment. If he does, you might not recognize him if you’re focusing only on the past. It’s all too common not to recognize Jesus simply because, like Mary Magdalene, you think Jesus is in the past and you don’t expect him to come to you and communicate with you.

But the Lord is near even when you don’t recognize him. The Holy Spirit of Christ is nearer than your nose! You may not recognize him or expect him to be here, but he is. What does it take to recognize that Christ is near? Not the sight of his face but the sound of his voice, calling your name. Even if you don’t expect Christ to come to you, even if you think Jesus is only in the past and not the present, he can break through your dullness by speaking your name.

When Mary Magdalene heard Jesus call her by name, she recognized him even before she turned to look at him. Jesus once said that as the Good Shepherd, he “calls his own sheep by name… My sheep listen to my voice” (John 10:3,27). The risen Christ can cut through your gloom and lack of expectation simply by speaking your name by his Holy Spirit communicating to your heart. You cannot come to Christ by your own searching. He comes to you. And you cannot recognize Christ unless he makes himself known to you. But when he does make himself known, when you hear him speaking your name tenderly and lovingly, you know that the Good Shepherd lives and that you are his sheep. Though your eyes don’t see him, your heart hears him and leaps with joy in the certainty that Jesus lives and loves you.

Mary Magdalene saw Jesus physically, which you can’t do. But even Mary had to move beyond counting on Jesus’ physical nearness. Jesus told her not to hang on to him. He would soon return to his Father in heaven, and Mary would no longer see his face. But Mary and Jesus’ other friends could be glad, because the God and Father of Jesus was their God and Father too. Jesus’ death paid for their sins, his resurrection gave them eternal life, and his love made them part of God’s family forever.

When Jesus calls you personally, by name, and you recognize the risen Lord for the first time, the experience can be wonderful. But it’s not something you should cling to. Mary couldn’t cling to Jesus, and you shouldn’t cling to any particular moment. Be grateful for the discovery that Christ lives and that you live in him, but then move ahead as part of his family, with God as your Father. Do what Jesus told Mary to do: tell others that Jesus lives and reigns with his Father. Live in the joy of the resurrection, and spread the news.

Fire Within

Let’s look at some others who met Jesus on the first Easter but didn’t recognize him right away. Two people were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a village about seven miles away.

They were talking with each other about everything that 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.

Jesus asked what they were discussing. With faces downcast, they explained that they had been talking about Jesus. They told him that the miracles and teachings of Jesus had raised their hopes that Jesus was the Savior God had promised and of how their hopes had been crushed by Jesus’ death. They also said his tomb had been found empty and there were rumors that Jesus was alive, but there was no proof, and nobody had actually seen Jesus, so far as they knew. So they remained gloomy.

Then Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, how slow to believe everything the prophets said! Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets.

As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther; but they held him back, saying, “Stay with us; the day is almost over and it is getting dark.” So he went in to stay with them. He sat down to eat with them, took the bread, and said the blessing; then he broke the bread and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:25-32 TEV)

Here’s a striking example of seeing Jesus without recognizing him and of how you and I can recognize Christ without seeing him. The two travelers didn’t recognize Jesus’ face at first, but as he explained to them what the Bible said about himself, they sensed a fire being lit inside them, and they didn’t want it to stop. So too, when you read the Bible or hear someone explain how the Bible reveals the suffering Savior and his victory over death, you are hearing the voice of Christ himself, even if you don’t realize it. As your heart stirs and warms, you know something tremendous is happening, even if you’re not sure what it is.

Maybe right now, as you hear me speaking from the Bible and telling of Jesus, a fire has been lit in your heart. If so,  you’re not just hearing me. You’re hearing the Word of God. You’re hearing the voice of Jesus. Your heart is aflame. Seize this moment. Like the Emmaus travelers, invite Christ to stay. If they had ignored the Scriptures they were hearing and had let the stranger go on, they would not have recognized Jesus. So too, if you don’t take the Bible to heart and don’t welcome Jesus to be at home with you, you’ll never recognize him. Don’t let the Lord on ahead and leave you to yourself.

What happened literally to the Emmaus travelers can happen to you spiritually. If the Holy Spirit’s fire touches your heart through the words of the Bible, then Christ is walking beside you. Even if you don’t fully understand, invite him to stay with you and welcome him to live within you. In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

You don’t need to see the living Lord to recognize him and enjoy friendship with him. Just listen to the Bible with an ear for how it reveals Christ. Keep listening until your heart is aflame with his reality. In the Emmaus encounter, Jesus showed that a heart in tune with God’s Word leads to recognition of Christ’s presence.

Note also that the Emmaus travelers recognized Christ in the breaking of the bread. Did they see the nail marks on his hands as he took the bread and broke it? Whether they saw the nail marks or not, they suddenly recognized their Lord in the breaking of the bread. And today, in any true church, whenever bread is broken in holy communion, the bread is given to us by the nail-scarred hands of Jesus himself, and we can recognize that he is among us, even though we don’t see him. The bread is a token of Christ’s body. As the mouth opens to receive the bread, the soul opens to welcome the living Christ and be nourished by his Holy Spirit for eternal life. If the biblical words of Christ are burning in your heart and the bread of holy communion is in your mouth, then Christ is with you as surely as if he were physically sitting across the table from you. Recognize him and rejoice!

Blessed Beyond Our Power

Here’s one more story which occurred some time after Easter. By this time Jesus’ apostles knew he was alive and had encountered the risen Christ twice already. But they still weren’t sure what to do or where to go.

“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!” …When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”

Simon Peter climbed aboard and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (21:4‑13)

What made the disciples so sure it was Jesus? It was the fact that after all their own efforts accomplished nothing, they suddenly got more blessings than they could handle simply by doing what the stranger on the shore told them to do. If the disciples had not done what Jesus said, they would not have caught those 153 fish, and they would not have recognized that Jesus was with them.

Does Jesus seem like only a distant stranger to you? If so, perhaps you’ve been too busy fishing on your own, depending on your own efforts. Stop doing everything your own way. Do things differently. Take your directions from Jesus. The Lord will multiply blessings for you, and like those disciples, you will recognize that the risen Lord is with you.

Unlike the disciples on the lake that day, you can’t see Jesus standing nearby. But like those disciples, you can recognize the risen Lord at work when you obediently do what Jesus says and see amazing things happen. It may helping with an urgent need, renewal in your spirit, transformation in your family, increased effectiveness in sharing the gospel and leading others to Christ, or some other sort of blessing. Whatever form it takes, when you experience such blessing, you recognize the risen Lord at work. Great things happen when you listen to Jesus and respond with obedience. He blesses you, warms and nourishes you, and commissions you to fish for people and not just fish.

We’ve seen that it’s possible to see without believing, but we’ve also seen that it’s equally possible to believe without seeing. If you sense the Lord calling you personally by name, if he sets your heart afire with the Bible and reveals himself in the Lord’s Supper, if he challenges you to do something different and then blesses you, then you don’t need to see him to recognize the risen Lord. The Bible says,

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… Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:3,8).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.