I don’t always recognize people that I’ve met before. It seems like my memory for names and even faces is well below average. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. About once a year I get surprised when I happen to recall one obscure name, but that’s a rarity. I’m old enough to occasionally meet somebody I went to school with 20 or 30 years ago. Sometimes they have changed so much that I don’t recognize them at all. Other times I spot an old classmate immediately— and still I simply cannot remember his or her name!
This raises an interesting question I’ve been pondering lately. The Bible says that at the resurrection we’ll all be changed. So which way will it be in heaven? Will we recognize the people there that we’ve known here, or will all of us have changed so much that we won’t recognize anyone? I don’t know for sure, but from what the Bible says, I think we’ll know our friends and loved ones in heaven.
What the Bible Says
A couple of texts in the Bible speak of our being changed at the resurrection. First Corinthians 15:51, 52 says, “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” The other text is Philippians 3:21, which says that at Christ’s second coming God will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his [Christ’s] glorious body.”
Will we play “get-acquainted” games when we get to heaven? Will we need to wear name tags during our first millennium there until we get to know everyone?
We have little to go on when it comes to recognizing people who’ve been “changed” by God in the way the Bible suggests, because only a few have experienced that change. However, from these few accounts, it seems that we will recognize people in heaven that we’ve known here. Consider the following examples.
Probably the most obvious Person is Jesus. After His resurrection, His disciples recognized Him when He appeared out of thin air. According to John 20:20, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” For Thomas and others who were frightened that Jesus might have been a ghost, it wasn’t that they didn’t recognize Him. They found it hard to believe that He was alive! We’ve got to admit that it was unusual.
Not everyone recognized Jesus right off, though. At first, Mary Magdalene mistook Him as possibly the gardener when she went to put spices and perfume on His dead body the Sunday after the Crucifixion. According to John 20:14, Mary “turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.” Verse 15 reveals her thoughts: “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.’ ”
The recognition came right after this when Jesus called her name, “ ‘Mary’ ” (verse 16). There must have been something in the way He called her name that gave it away, because she turned and cried out to Him, “Teacher!”
After that Jesus said, “ ‘Do not hold on to me’ ” (verse 17). It could also be translated “Stop clinging to me,” which is quite believable based on the circumstances! Mary didn’t want to ever let Jesus go again!
Friends on the Road
The Gospel of Luke records the story of Jesus walking to Emmaus with two men who had been followers of Jesus. According to Luke 24:16, “They were kept from recognizing him [Jesus].” Their dialogue with a Jesus they didn’t recognize resulted in a new look at Scripture for a fresh understanding of the Messiah.
After the two men talked Jesus into spending the night with them instead of walking on in the dark, they sat down to eat. “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:31). Evidently, Jesus was able to make it so they couldn’t recognize Him, and then He was able to make it so they could. That makes me wonder if having people recognize others can happen with a snap of the fingers from Jesus.
Then there’s the strange story called “the Transfiguration,” in which Jesus was changed to look like a heavenly being, yet Peter, James, and John still recognized Him. They also recognized Moses and Elijah— two people they’d certainly never even seen before!
In Matthew 17:2–4 we read, “He [Jesus] was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ ”
The earthlings—Peter, James, and John—still recognized Jesus, even when He was changed. And they also recognized Elijah, the one who represents those who will go to heaven without ever dying, and Moses, the one who represents those who will go to heaven even though they have died.
Meet You in Heaven!
I’ve gone on a number of short term mission trips to Spanish speaking countries. Toward the end of these trips, it’s common to hear the nationals say through a translator, “If I don’t see you again on this earth, I’ll see you in heaven.”
I nod in agreement and say something like, “En el cielo” (in heaven). I expect to see many of these people in heaven, but I doubt that I will recognize them, or even be able to identify in which country we had seen each other. But we’ll recount the experiences we shared, and we’ll get reacquainted.
Of course, there will be lots of people in heaven that I never met on earth. If Daniel doesn’t have a pet lion by his side, will I recognize him? If John the Baptist isn’t dressed in a garment made of camel’s hair, will I know who he is? If Paul isn’t preaching or in an argument, how will I know it’s him?
My body is past its prime, and my face could use some improvements. When God gives me a new body “at the last trumpet,” will the immortal Steve Case be such an improvement that nobody will recognize me? I don’t know, but based on the previous stories from the Bible, I don’t think it will be a problem.
Of course, the most important question is this: when Jesus comes, will He recognize you and me? In the parable of the ten bridesmaids (five wise and five foolish) recorded in Matthew 25:1–13, it’s the foolish ones who don’t have enough oil (Holy Spirit) to last until Jesus comes. When they try to get some at the last minute, they miss out on the Second Coming. Their pounding on the door after the fact results in that horrible sentence from Jesus, “I don’t know you.”
As long as Jesus knows me, I’m not too worried about anyone else recognizing me. I’ll let Him introduce me to everyone, and we can take it from there.
See you in heaven!