"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" (John 11:25).
The apostle Paul tells us that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 15:50). So Christ's resurrection to eternal life was to a glorified spirit body (Philippians 3:21), of the same divine essence as the Father. Yet Christ's resurrection appearances took a wonderful variety of forms. The Gospel accounts show us that no one recognized Him unless He wanted them to.
Mary of Magdala was the first person to see Jesus after His resurrection. John records that she went to Jesus' tomb while it was still dark and realized that it was empty (John 20:1-2). She immediately became anxious and despaired because she believed Christ's body had been stolen.
Mary Magdalene's remarkable experience
Mary went to tell Peter and John, who then rushed to the tomb. But the only things they found there were Christ's burial wrappings. When God resurrected Jesus to spirit life, He apparently passed right through them as though they were not there.
We pick up the account in John 20:14: "She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus." Mary Magdalene did not recognize someone she knew well. She assumed He was the gardener. What followed next was a startling recognition.
"Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' She turned and said to Him, 'Rabboni!' (which is to say, Teacher)" (John 20:16). The impossible dream came true—the unbelievable had happened!
This particular moment of recognition is perhaps unsurpassed in all of history. A weeping, distraught woman who thinks everything is lost suddenly realizes Her Savior is alive and well and standing before her! The wave of emotion that swept over her must have been indescribable. Jesus simply addressed her in the same way He had so many times before while He was still a human being.
Most of us have had the experience of unexpectedly seeing someone we know well whom we have not seen for a long time. The emotion we experience is difficult to adequately describe. But imagine if it were a loved one over whose brutal death we had just been mourning!
And much more than that, this woman—out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons—was the first human being in history to see the resurrected Christ in person and recognize who He was. What an honor!
But why her? Perhaps it was because she trusted in and was devoted to Jesus in a way that few human beings have ever been. She was also always demonstrably grateful for what Christ had done. Before her incredible healing, her life must have been one of sheer torment.
Christ's resurrection body
The resurrected Jesus passed right through thick walls and could suddenly appear and then vanish at will (Luke 24:31; Mark 16:12). Some argue that Christ's resurrected body was the same physical body that had died, equating these abilities with His miraculously walking on water while human. The Bible, however, assures us that Jesus was now again spirit, as He had been before in heaven with the Father (John 17:5)—unhindered by the limitations of physical human beings.
Paul explicitly states that, although "the first man Adam became a living being ... made of dust" (1 Corinthians 15:45-47), "the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:45).
Indeed, He was once again "the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity" with the Father (Isaiah 57:15). So how do we explain the variety of humanlike post-resurrection appearances recorded in the Scriptures? Let's read and study a few.
Later in Christ's conversation with Mary Magdalene in John 20:17, He said, "Do not cling to Me ['Touch me not,' KJV], for I have not yet ascended to My Father." Apparently Mary could have touched Jesus Christ as though He were any normal man. Obviously, Jesus appeared here in the form and shape of a normal human being.
That evening Christ appeared to a group of the original apostles. "He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord" (John 20:20). But Thomas was not there on that occasion, and he would not accept the word of the others.
When Jesus next appeared to them eight days later (John 20:26), Thomas was present. "Then He [Christ] said to Thomas, 'Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.'" Thomas's reaction? "And Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God'" (John 20:27-28). Thomas now knew beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ was God!
It may have been these incredible occasions (and others like them) that prompted the apostle John to write in the opening words of his first letter, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1, NIV).
Remember, the Word became Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Again, it may be that, in the verse just quoted, John had the resurrected Christ even more in mind than the earlier human Jesus.
Appearing in physical form
Later Christ appeared to them again. "After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself" (John 21:1). On this particular occasion He cooked breakfast for them (John 21:9) and afterwards told Peter three times to "feed My sheep" (John 21:17).
This chapter does not say whether Jesus ate breakfast with them, but other Gospel accounts show that He did eat after His resurrection. "They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence" (Luke 24:42-43). Peter later affirmed Christ's appearances to the apostles, "who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead" (Acts 10:41). And He will yet eat and drink with His newly born family at the great marriage supper after the resurrection of the faithful at His return (Matthew 26:29).
Such passages have convinced many that Christ must still have His physical body. Yet it should be pointed out that in the Old Testament, long before the Word came in the flesh as Jesus, He, "the Lord," appeared to Abraham in physical form and ate a meal with him (Genesis 18). It is obvious from these narratives, then, that God can manifest Himself in physical, tangible form. It is also clear that He can eat for celebration and enjoyment, though He does not need food and drink to sustain His eternal spirit life (John 5:26).
On the occasion when the risen Jesus ate with His disciples, He had stood in the midst of them and they were frightened because they "supposed they had seen a spirit" (Luke 24:37). Christ then said: "Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have. When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet" (Luke 24:39-40).
Yet again, many contend that this proves Christ's risen body was physical. But we've already seen from 1 Corinthians 15:45 that He was and is now spirit. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved when we consider why Jesus' disciples were frightened. It seems likely that they initially thought He was an evil spirit, or demon, which evidently can't assume physical form. In fact, this explanation is given in a letter attributed to the early church leader Ignatius of Antioch, written around A.D. 110 (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1:10). Christ, however, proved by His appearance in fleshly form that He was not a demon. It was really Him.
The apostles were to be witnesses of the resurrection and give proof of Jesus' messiahship. Jesus made doubly sure they knew He had been resurrected to eternal life—and that it truly was Him, the same person they had been with for the last 3 1⁄2 years.
We cannot casually dismiss all these passages as having no significance in terms of the nature of God. We may not fully understand them, but these events occurred (John 20:30-31; John 21:24). We dare not limit God or what He can do. Again, we understand His nature and being through the Holy Scriptures—not through ancient philosophical concepts.