It’s a phenomenon repeated not only in the Bible, but throughout history. And if we’re not careful, we can be guilty of it, too. Jesus can manifest Himself right in front of us, but we can miss it.
When Christ came in bodily form, He was the fulfillment of centuries of prophecy. He performed undeniable miracles. Even so, many did not believe in Him. The Jewish leaders – the ones who studied the prophecies and the law – accused Him of demonic power. Eventually they called for, and got, his crucifixion.
When He performed the greatest miracle of all and rose from the dead, His own followers didn’t always recognize Him. Mary Magdalene mistook Him for the gardener. Some of His disciples spoke to Him on the shore as they were fishing without realizing who He was. Cleopas and another follower of Christ (likely his wife, Mary, the mother of the younger disciple named James) walked and talked with Him on the road to Emmaus without understanding who He was.
Even His own mother didn’t immediately realize what she was witnessing. Sure, she knew He was special. It’s not every day that an angel appears to announce a child’s conception and birth. Yet when the shepherds relayed the message of the angels, “all who heard it were amazed.” It goes on to say, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19). Years later, when a young Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to teach in the temple, she and Joseph chastised Him for worrying them. Clearly, she didn’t understand all that was happening at the time.
Why is it so easy to miss Christ? Scripture doesn’t directly tell us in the cases cited, except that He likely disguised Himself on the Emmaus road encounter in order to test those two. In the other instances, it could have been many things, but the most likely explanations include the distance between Him and the others, failing light, or, especially in the case of Mary Magdalene, the sheer unexpectedness of His presence.
In the case of the many Jews that rejected Him, I would contend that the most dominant reason was because Christ didn’t come in the manner they wanted. He claimed to be their king, but He was not the kind they sought. Instead of liberating them from Roman rule and putting them in charge of an earthly kingdom, He spoke of a spiritual kingdom and willingly gave up His life. He was the fulfillment of generations of promise, but not what they were looking for.
All of which begs the question: Can we, too, easily miss Christ? Obviously, we can. The solution to this very human condition can be found in several truths.
First, we must recognize that knowing Him and His purposes is an ongoing revelation. As with His mother, we don’t understand everything from the moment we enter into a relationship with Him. We must allow Him to reveal Himself daily. We “work out our salvation,” as Paul put it, because God is always at work in our lives (Philippians 2:12-13). It’s a process that we begin at spiritual birth and continue until we graduate from this life to become fully in His presence.
Avoiding unnecessary interruption in this process requires us to avoid the two likely causes of His disciples’ lack of recognition: distance and darkness. James encourages us to “draw near to God” and promises that when we do, He will draw near to us (James 4:8). When we are close to Him, we can better discern His presence and work around us and in our lives. Good light is also critical. John tells us, “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). We must learn to live every moment in His presence, for it is by His light that we will recognize Him.
Finally, we must avoid the fatal flaw of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Christ’s time. We must lay down our preconceptions and expectations and allow Christ to manifest Himself however He wishes. This is not license to accept every human claim of divine activity. We must have discernment, wisdom, and sound judgment. But while Christ will always remain true to His perfect nature, men may misinterpret things (even those rooted in scripture) and create false hopes and expectations. How many people have created scenarios for His “second coming” and proven to be completely wrong? We must not fall into the trap of narrow-mindedness and rigid dogma. We are wise to “be on the alert” and “stand firm in the faith,” as Paul urged (1 Corinthians 16:13). We must learn to see Christ on His terms, not ours.
It is also interesting to note that the moment Christ revealed Himself to Cleopas and his companion was when they broke bread together; that is, they dined with Him. This came after listening to Him explain Himself throughout the scriptures and then inviting Him to stay with them. Certainly there was significance in the symbolism of breaking the bread, but think about the actions on the part of the two followers: they comprehended the scriptures and they invited Christ to spend time with them. This desire to know His word, see Christ in the context of history, and comprehend its purpose cannot be stressed enough. The whole Bible points to Christ and His work on our behalf. Do you read an occasional verse, or do you ask God to open up your eyes to the truth of the entirety of His word?
The second action – inviting Him in – indicates a level of comfort and even intimacy. In a short amount of time, this stranger on the road had become more than a travelling companion. They could have kept Him at arm’s length, but they chose to invite Him in to stay and dine. When we become this comfortable with Christ, engaging in an openness reserved only for intimate friends, we allow our eyes to be opened to His presence, purpose, and work.
Jesus Christ is called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” It was true when He walked the earth and He promised it would be true forever. We need not miss Him. We just need to open our hearts and minds as we learn to live in the light of His presence.