But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared many times over a period of forty days, once to over 500 people (1 Corinthians 15). Near his tomb, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, who “did not know that it was Jesus” until he said her name (John 20:11-18). Later, the Eleven remaining disciples received anonymous fishing advice from the shore, and “did not know that it was Jesus” until the advice yielded amazing results (John 21:1-14). Most inexplicably, the disciples on the road to Emmaus walked seven miles conversing with Jesus, about Jesus, yet they didn’t recognize his face or voice until they sat down to dinner (Luke 24). Since the Resurrection is the historical bedrock of Christian faith, we can learn a lot from asking why all of these disciples were slow to recognize Jesus, especially those who were on the way to Emmaus.
These are not all the explanations, but they are some of the simplest.
First, many readers think supernatural intervention is evident in the text. This is seen in three places:
1) “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).
2) “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” (v. 31) (As in verse 16, God is not mentioned in the Greek, but it is possible that he is the actor.)
3) “He vanished from their sight” (v. 31). This may mean that he slipped out suddenly, but it may mean that he disappeared (ἄφαντος ἐγένετο) just as miraculously as he re-appeared behind locked doors in other instances (John 20:19, 26).
All three sentences could just be Luke’s idiomatic way of explaining unusual events, as Albert Barnes comments: they simply didn’t recognize Jesus when they should have, and when they did, he suddenly was gone. The NLT takes away the verbal ambiguity, translating verse 16, “God restrained their eyes.” But the Greek doesn’t state how their eyes were restrained, whether by God, their disbelief, or a lack of sunglasses. All three are possible, and the most supernatural-sounding interpretation of a story is not necessarily the most accurate.
Luke 18:31-34 states similarly that—although Jesus explained that the Son of Man would be mocked, flogged, killed, and resurrected—the Twelve “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34, cf. 19:42, Mark 9:32). Here, Luke sandwiches the “hidden saying” between twin statements that the disciples didn’t understand and didn’t grasp what was said. Would Jesus both explain something and hide its meaning? I don’t know. It is safe to be ambiguous where Scripture is ambiguous. Jesus only did one negative miracle, and blinding the eyes of doubting disciples is confusing at best.
That being said, some believe God had very good reason to restrain their physical sight, so that Jesus could build their faith, test their resolve, and provide them a few years’ worth of lively discussion about Messianic prophecy. But if that is not satisfying, below are three more ideas about why Jesus was not quickly recognized by his followers.
It cannot be mentioned too often that Jesus’ disciples were not “in” on his plan to go to a shameful death and afterwards return to life. He told them plainly “that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31-32). Yet not one disciple understood the Cross before it occurred. Peter’s response to Jesus’ plan to die was “far be it from you, Lord!” (Matt. 16:22) How few have understood, even today, that it is a little Lamb on the throne of the universe (Revelation 7:17). The disciples on the road to Emmaus expected Jesus to restore sovereignty to Israel (Luke 24:21, cf. Acts 1:6), which explains why they were “downcast” (24:17)! Their lofty ambition for Jesus’ life was shattered by his crucifixion. Even Jesus’ closest followers did not expect him to die or be resurrected. They simply expected something else.
They had not rejected Jesus’ plan for their life—he had rejected their plan for hislife. He was not playing ethnic favorites, or partisan politics. His mission moved forward, silent and undeterred, more grand—and more painful—than any of them predicted.
Action movies have made it common to see characters come back from death or the edge of death. What could make a storyline more dramatic? In Captain America 2, Nick Fury’s heart stops and he is declared dead, but in classic comic book style, he reappears as a convalescent in a cave. Natasha sees him and says, “it’s about time.” But what would really happen if your close friend was declared dead, but reappeared on a road a few days later? Would you go into shock? Denial? Would you think it was your friend’s doppelgänger, or an elaborate hoax?
The true experience of the Resurrection in Luke 24 involved controversy (v. 11), denial (v. 25), fear (v. 37), awe-stricken disbelief (v. 41), Old Testament study (v. 44), revelation (v. 45), worship, and great joy (v. 52-53). If a friend of mine rose from the dead, I think that at first I would rationalize that this was a total stranger, and the resemblance coincidental. This could be what the disciples of Emmaus did.
Jesus’ face had changed. The most conspicuous Scripture on this is Isaiah 52:14: “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” Isaiah 53 then follows by exhausting the Hebrew language’s expressive capacity for suffering: despised, rejected, sorrows/pains, grief/sickness, stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, bruised, oppressed, cut off, travail. In his resurrection glory, the battle-worn champion was stronger than ever, but he still bore the marks of his sacrifice, as Thomas tested empirically. Some speculate that when he broke bread, he exposed his wrists to the disciples of Emmaus, revealing that he was the disfigured servant of Isaiah 52-53.
Another prophetic passage implies that Jesus allowed his beard to be pulled out, which would be a great dishonor for a Jew (Isaiah 50:6). A friend of mine grew a beard after he left for college, and his own mother had a hard time recognizing him when he went home for the first time. We can see how after suffering brutal torture and execution, possibly losing part of his beard, and returning from the dead, Jesus might appear quite different than the disciples would have thought, even if they hadbelieved that he was going to rise from the dead.
Interestingly, in the appearance involving the miraculous catch of fish (John 21), John is the first to surmise it to be Jesus. He is also the only disciple that we are specifically told was present at the Crucifixion, and may have had the best idea of Jesus’ disfigurement.
Jesus’ New Body
An important addition is that Jesus had a new body, but this doesn’t imply a total change of appearance. Thomas touched the wound in Jesus’ side after the Resurrection, so Jesus still retained some evidence of his recent torture and execution. We don’t know to what extent this is true since we don’t know what Jesus’ new body really entails, nor our future bodies for that matter (1 John 3:2, also 1 Corinthians 15:35-58). It appears that in the afterlife we will recognize each other, since the rich man recognized Lazarus (Luke 16:23). If anything, we will know identities better than we do now, since the rich man also recognized Abraham, whom he had never met (compare 1 Corinthians 13:12).
Did Jesus’ face change after his resurrection, as it did during his transfiguration (Luke 9:29)? His resurrection body might be free of any genetic limitations or skin imperfections. Or he could choose to appear in a new form if he wanted to, as George MacDonald speculates in his story The Princess and the Goblin. If he can walk through walls, we don’t know what his new body is capable of, nor what our new bodies will be capable of. Whatever it is like, it will be, as Jesus’ death-to-life mission was to the disciples, unexpectedly better than whatever we request or dream—even to the exclusion of some of our paltry expectations.