It seems to be almost taken for granted nowadays (July, 2010) that when Jesus rose again from the dead, he was transformed and glorified. The evidence for this in the face of texts like 24:39, John 20:26-29, Acts 1:3 and 1 John 1:1-3 hardly seems strong. Perhaps Jesus’ sudden appearances and disappearances, especially the former, provide the most powerful support for the idea, and it may be freely conceded that on the face of it they are somewhat perplexing. So what can be said in response?
Regarding our Lord’s general manifestations of himself to his disciples, we are told in Luke 24:16 that the disciples’ eyes were kept from recognizing him (cf. John 20:14). Even if we grant that God was active in this, the mere fact that Jesus had undergone an appallingly traumatic experience, which included both scourging and crucifixion, failure to recognize him was hardly surprising. When we add to this their assumption that he was dead and buried, they would have been psychologically predisposed not to accept his re-appearance.
In Acts 10:40-41, however, we read that “God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (ESV).
First, if the disciples were to be witnesses to his resurrection, it would seem that it was necessary for Jesus to appear to them. How could they proclaim a resurrection without visible evidence (cf. Acts 1:22; 2:32)? At a later date Paul also became a witness (Acts 9,22,26), but in his case it was clearly the glorified Lord whom he claimed to have seen (1 Cor. 9:1). At this point we need to note that the intense light which temporarily blinded him presumably served to protect him from the death that was normally the result of seeing God (Gen. 16:13 NRSV, cf. 32:30; Ex. 33:17-23).
Second, in light of Jesus’ comment to Doubting Thomas in John 20:29 that those who had not seen him were blessed, the suggestion is that all later disciples would be justified by faith (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; 1 Pet. 1:8). This is important for another reason. Jesus’ disciples who constituted his chosen witnesses (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:2) were obviously justified by faith before his death but had their faith confirmed and broadened by his resurrection. If he had shown himself to all the people, that is, including those who were not his disciples, they would have been compelled by sheer weight of evidence to acknowledge him. For them seeing would have been believing, but this is against Scriptural principles. God has never left this option open either then or since. Throughout Scripture, as Hebrews 11 in particular shows, faith in God’s promises, even when they remain to be completely fulfilled at a much later date (Heb. 6:15; 11:13,39), is imperative if justification by faith is to operate. We either accept Jesus on the basis of credible evidence by faith or we do not accept him at all. Jesus himself virtually said this in his dialogue with the Jews who claimed to be the disciples of Moses: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46f., cf. 12:48). And again with specific regard to his resurrection he said on another occasion when he put words into the mouth of Abraham, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31, cf. Rom. 10:17).
In support of this point, it is well worth bearing in mind that though Paul actually persecuted Jesus through his disciples (Acts 9:4; 22:8), he was nonetheless a true OT believer as references like the following make clear: Acts 22:3, 24:14-16, 26:4-7. Many who claimed to be the children of Abraham (cf. John 8.) and the disciples of Moses (John 5) were in the same mold as their forefathers who we are told perished through unbelief and consequent disobedience in the wilderness. They did not really believe at all (Heb. 3:7-11). Paul’s problem was, as he said in his letter to Timothy, ignorance and unbelief in Jesus (1 Tim. 1:13f.). Until the exalted Christ revealed himself to him, he genuinely thought that Jesus was undermining Moses. And it was precisely Paul who was later to write significantly that faith (in Christ), far from being contrary to the law of Moses, in fact upheld it (Rom. 3:31).
No Salvation Outside the Church
It is worth taking this point a little further. While many Christians (used to) go around telling people that anything short of specific faith in Christ or failure to be born again signifies damnation, it is quite obvious that those like Abraham who lived long before the coming of Christ could not have had such a specific faith despite what might be falsely deduced from what Jesus says in John 8:56. If it is true that only faith exercised specifically in Christ brings eternal life (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 5:12), then the OT saints were clearly not born again. In that sense they were not saved, and in that sense only may we hold that outside the church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam non salus). But many of them believed unequivocally in the promises of God to Abraham and David (Luke 2:69-75, etc.) and endeavoured to keep the law (Ps. 119; Luke 1:6, etc.). They thus earnestly believed in their Messiah’s coming and lived lives which demonstrated that faith. Normally, when he eventually did come, those waiting for him accepted him. Good examples of these were Simeon and Anna who were looking for the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:22-38).
(An ex-missionary acquaintance of mine tells me that frequently, despite apparent total ignorance of the gospel, some “heathen” men and women will respond to the preaching of the word when they hear it almost as if they have been waiting for it.)
All this points to the fact that the presently and sadly neglected doctrine of recapitulation is pivotal for understanding the plan of salvation that pictures world if not universal salvation (cf. John 3:16; 1 John 2:2).
The physical reality of Jesus’ presence after his resurrection is supported by his eating with his disciples. This is mentioned twice as if to emphasize the fact (John 21:13; Acts 10:41). But what does it signify? In light of Jesus’ teaching in John 6:22-59, it underlines his continued physical corruptibility, for those who eat perishable food are themselves perishable. If this is denied, then we are getting close to arguing that Jesus was in the business of deception! But there is another point worth making. It can hardly be without significance that when Jesus raised the ruler’s daughter he (Jesus) directs her guardians to feed her (Luke 8:55). If this does nothing else, it proves her fleshly physicality. If so, surely the same holds true with regard to Jesus himself. He was still flesh (Luke 24:39) and had not yet ascended (John 20:17) and been transformed (glorified, 1 Cor. 15:50ff.).
The more deeply we probe the evidence the more unlikely the resurrection glorification of Jesus becomes. The mere fact that he was visible implies his physicality as Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:18 suggests. (See further my Faith and Invisibility – Seeing the Invisible.) Some writers attempt to argue that Jesus was glorified at his transfiguration but his visibility puts this out of the reckoning. Again others might appeal to 1 John 1:1-3, but this move is undermined by Hebrews 12:18-21 where visibility, tangibility and audibility (cf. the physical, visible and ritual terms alluded to by James Dunn, Romans, p.124) are all clearly connected with the old covenant which relates to creation and the flesh. As Professor Dunn has so decisively demonstrated in his commentary on Romans 2:28-29 (pp.123f.) and in his essay in Covenant Theology, the law written by hand on stone and symbolized by surgical circumcision was visible and hence temporary (see my essay on faith referred to above.)
Over the years attention has been drawn to the grave clothes left neatly arranged in the tomb after the resurrection. It has been seen by some as evidence of Jesus’ transformation which enabled him to pass through physical objects including the boulder guarding the entrance to the tomb. If one insists as I do that the Jesus that was raised was one and the same as the one that was buried (cf. Geisler, pp.49f.,65), questions are doubtless prompted. For example, we may ask where he got his clothes from and where he stayed for most of the time when he was not revealing himself to his disciples (see further below). Of course, since we not specifically told, we can only speculate on these issues. But they should not cause us undue heart-searching. After all Jesus knew full well that he was going to rise again and would doubtless have prepared for future eventualities as the evidence suggests he had before he died. For a start, since he had raised Lazarus, he would have been well aware of the difficulty arising from (lack of) clothes (cf. John 9:44) and could easily have taken steps to circumvent his own problem. Though it might not convince those whose docetic views virtually reduce miracles to magic, the evidence suggests that his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:1-5) and the place he used for celebrating the Last Supper (Luke 22:7-13) were the result of preparations made ahead of these events. This explanation is not only plausible but becomes all the more convincing when we recognize that Jesus was always reluctant to resort to miracles without adequate reason. He was not a wonder worker but one who did what he saw the Father doing. Furthermore, we must never forget that he was truly human and in the ordinary run of events he would have acted as a normal human being would.
Persecution and Salvation
I noted above the persecution of Jesus by Paul (Acts 9:4). The same sort of thing occurs to day. The fact that Jesus himself is spatially (and in a sense chronologically) removed from us is beside the point. Such persecution as Paul indulged in still occurs today. I wonder sometimes about certain Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who begin as persecutors but end up as converts when light dawns on their minds. On the other side of the ledger we need to recognize that Jesus may still be received by those who exercise faith in him in less than specific or mature form or, as the Bible puts it, by those who are far off (cf. John 8:56; Acts 2:39; Heb. 11:13). In the OT faithful Jews continued to faithfully re-enact the exodus in the Passover (Ex. 13:8) as they may do today. While it may well be true that some simply accept the ritual of their culture apart from faith (cf. Isa. 1), others may be completely sincere and have a veil over their hearts (2 Cor. 3). Now in the same way we Christians remember the death of the Lord Jesus in the Supper long after it has actually occurred. In other words, the gospel is always contemporary. We are in effect no worse off or better off than actual eyewitnesses. We all see him by faith and actually experience death and resurrection (cf. Rom. 6:1-4) every bit as much as Paul’s readers experienced it while he was still alive. The golden chain of salvation (Rom. 8:30) may not be complete in many cases but this was so in OT times (cf. Heb. 11:39f.).
The Physical Reality of the Resurrection
Some argue on the basis of the Greek in Acts 10:40f. that Jesus having been glorified at his resurrection made his appearances from heaven and remained hidden or invisible the rest of the time. If that is so, his ascension was rendered redundant or at best reduced to mere drama. This is intolerable for it also reeks of deception and docetism. However, if it was true and Jesus really had achieved his permanent glorified state when he rose again from the dead, he would have been invisible (2 Cor. 4:18) and eyewitnesses along with their necessary evidence would have been lacking. At least two basic facts testify against this idea. First, in Acts 2 and 13 great stress is laid on the fact that Jesus did not experience corruption. This can only be because he was still corruptible flesh who though he had really died had nonetheless avoided decomposition in accordance with prophecy (Ps. 16). Furthermore, if he was not flesh but had been transformed, this stress on his non-corruption is pointless. It would be stating the obvious. Second, Jesus explicitly declares that he is still flesh (Luke 24:39) in almost the same words as he had used when he walked on water (Mt. 14:26). In the latter instance, transformation was as much out of the question as it was in Peter’s case, so by parity of reasoning it is in the former.
The Hidden Jesus
If we assume then that Jesus underwent a genuine physical resurrection and was still corruptible flesh as he claimed (Luke 24:39), there is a much better explanation for his being kept hidden apart from the need to maintain justification by faith as mentioned above. First, however, we do well to remember Judas’ question in John 14:22. Jesus was hidden from the world even before his crucifixion (cf. 14:9). Physically, he was just one man among many and his appearance was unremarkable to the extent that we are given no description of him.
Next, despite the fact that according to Romans 6:9 (cf. Rev. 1:18) Jesus will (1* The tense is actually present suggesting that Paul is talking about the now glorified Jesus.) never die again and that death no longer has dominion over him, if he was still flesh, he was still both mortal and corruptible. After all, having kept the law he became personally immune to death at his baptism before his crucifixion, but he was not immortal or he could not have freely given his life as a ransom for his sheep. This being the case, having already been done to death by his enemies once, they would have had a vested interest in making a concerted attempt to kill him again if they could find him. (Failure to find the presumed dead body by the authorities was a major factor in establishing the truth of the resurrection.) As still mortal flesh he would have remained vulnerable. Even from birth, though God’s natural Son but a true human being, Jesus had been involved in evasion, for example, from Herod. (See also John 7:1, 8:59, 11:54 and 12:36.) So after his resurrection in the flesh, apart from the reasons advanced above, what better way did God have of keeping him safe from attack until his ascension than by continued evasion or by deliberately keeping him incognito and/or out of sight from potential assailants.
If it is replied that God keeps his people safe despite their vulnerability in a hostile world today (John 10:28), we need to be aware that our situation is different from that of Jesus. He, having kept the law, had life (Lev. 18:5). So, once he had freely died as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of his people, he was no longer susceptible to death (Rom. 6:9, cf. Heb. 9:28). By contrast, we as sinners are still subject to it (Rom. 8:10, cf. John 11:25).
All in all, I believe that the hiddenness or apparent disappearances of Jesus after his resurrection were a necessary feature of the gospel and do not require his glorification till his ascension. After all, to all intents and purposes he finished the work his Father had given him to do (John 17:4) on the cross (John 19:30). As I have argued elsewhere (e.g. Did Jesus Rise Physically From the Grave? At www.kenstothard.com /), his ascension glorification as opposed to his resurrection glorification was fundamentally important for three reasons: first, it established the reality of his ascension and avoided reducing it to mere drama, second, it eliminated the charge of deception, and third, it served as the paradigm of the transformation and glorification of the saints at the end of history when Jesus returns in glory (1 Cor. 15:51f.).
J.D.G.Dunn in Covenant Theology, ed. M.Cartledge and D.Mills, Carlisle, 2001.
J.D.G.Dunn, WBC Romans, Dallas, 1988.
N.Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, Nashville, 1992.
Note: Faith brings into the present the reality of that which is past and future, presently unseen and heavenly. Cf. Lane, p.99.