Jesus’ resurrection appearances only to believers

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By Spencer D Gear PhD

Who were those who interacted with the resurrected Christ in his resurrection appearances? Were there any unbelievers among them?

In the Bible study I led on 18 November 2015 here in Brisbane, Qld, a thoughtful believer asked me about Acts 10:41. His question was: Did Jesus only appear to believers between his resurrection and ascension? He mentioned Acts 10:41 as affirming this and he would appreciate my exegetical conclusions about the verse. Acts 10:40-41 states,

‘but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear, 41 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).

That seems to be a straightforward understanding that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were to ‘us’ who were witnesses chosen by God. These witnesses were those who ate and drank with Jesus, the resurrected One. The ‘us’ includes Peter, the apostle, according to the context in Acts 10:34.

Who saw Jesus after his resurrection?

If we go to the evidence in the Gospels, we find that these are the witnesses who saw Jesus. Troy Brooks summarised the biblical evidence:

Jesus appeared 12 times to different group sizes ranging from just one person to 500 people.

1) Mary Magdalene (Mark 16.9-11; John 20.11-18), Peter in Jerusalem (Luke 24.34; 1 Cor. 15.5), Jesus’ brother (insider skeptic) James (1 Cor. 15.7). “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any [man]; for they were afraid” (Mark 16.8). Some of the New Testament authors explicitly claimed to be eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (and transfiguration). Peter said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 2.16). John also said, “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…we proclaim to you what we have seen and heard” (1 John 1.1,3).

2) The other women at the tomb (Matthew 28.8-10).

3) The two travelers on the road (Mark 16.12,13; Luke 24.13-34).

4) Ten disciples behind closed doors (Mark 16.14; Luke 24.35-43; John 20.19-25).

5) All the disciples, with Thomas, excluding Judas Iscariot (John 20.26-31; 1 Cor. 15.5).

6) Seven disciples while fishing (John 21.1-14).

7) Eleven disciples on the mountain (Matthew 28.16-20).

8) A crowd of 500 “most of whom are still alive” at the time of Paul writing (1 Cor. 15.6). This may have been the same group as in Matt. 28.16: the rendezvous was to “to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” Unlike the other accounts which were unexpected and by surprise, and to gather such a large number of people, this meeting was held outdoors. The women were told to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee as well. “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted” (Matt. 28.17) may be a reference to many present, both believers and non-believers. Paul had firsthand contact with them. So it was not a legend. He knew some of the people had died in the interim, but most were still alive. He is saying in effect they are still around to be questioned. You can talk to some of the witnesses. He never could have made this challenge if this event had not occurred.

9) “Then to all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15.7) which includes the Twelve plus all the other apostles.

10) Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24.44-49).

11) Those who watched Jesus ascend to heaven (Mark 16.19-20; Luke 24.50-53; Acts 1.3-8).

12) Least of all Paul (outsider skeptic) with others present and as though he was not living in the proper time (1 Cor. 15.8-9; Gal. 1.13-16; Acts 9.1-8, 22.9, read all of chapters 22 and 26; 13.30-37; 1 Cor. 15.10-20; Gal. 2.1-10).[1]

Who could see, touch or eat with the resurrected Jesus?

Let’s work our way through the Gospel verses applicable to this issue:

  •  Matthew 28:9, ‘And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him’ (ESV).
  •  Luke 24:36-43,

‘As they [the 11 disciples and those with them, Lk 24, 33] were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marvelling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish,[2] 43 and he took it and ate before them’ (ESV).

So, Jesus,

  • Stood among the disciples and spoke to them (Lk 24:36). These were believers in Jesus.
  • The disciples thought they saw a spirit (Lk 24:37) but Jesus refuted this idea by appealing to them to ‘see my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see’ (Lk 24:39). His hands and feet would have had the marks of crucifixion in them. Again, we are dealing with disciples.
  • A spirit does not have flesh and bones (Lk 24:39) which Jesus had and was showing them. Again, he was speaking to his disciples.
  • Then he ‘showed them his hands and feet’ (Lk 24:40). Again, they would have the scars of crucifixion on them. Jesus showed his physical features to disciples.
  • Jesus asked for something to eat and they game him broiled fish and perhaps honeycomb (Lk 24:42). The evidence is that ‘he took it and ate’ it in their presence (Lk 24:43). The disciples again were the ‘they’, but they were in disbelieving mode ‘for joy and were marveling’ (Lk 24:41).

Evidence from John’s Gospel includes:

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin,[3] was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (ESV)

From this passage in John’s Gospel, who saw the resurrected Jesus?

  • Thomas, the Twin (Didymus), wanted to see the physical evidence of crucifixion in Jesus’ hands and side (Jn 20:24-25).
  • The disciples, including Thomas, were inside when Jesus came and stood among them and spoke to them, ‘Peace be with you’ (Jn 20:26).
  • Jesus said to Thomas to put his finger and hands onto Jesus’ hands and side (Jn 20:28). Thomas’ response was, ‘My Lord and my God!’
  • Jesus told Thomas that he believed because he had physically seen Jesus but people would be blessed if they had not seen the physical Jesus and yet believed (Jn 20:29).

But there is more! John 20:30 says that ‘Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book [of John]’. ‘Signs’, in the Greek, refers to miraculous signs for John and the other Gospel writers. But they ‘selected only a small portion of the miracles’ they knew to record in their Gospels (Carson 1991:661).

R C H Lenski considers that the ‘signs’ of John 20:30 include more than the miraculous and I consider his point is valid. He wrote:

It would be misleading to regard [signs] as in any sense being in contrast with “the words” of Jesus…. The ethical term “signs” always points to what lies back of these signs, what these signs manifest and display to men’s minds and hearts…. It is John’s Gospel in particular which connects the signs with the discourses of Jesus…. “signs,” of course, embraces all the miracles but extends beyond them to every significant action which revealed Jesus. Jesus did these signs “in the presence of his disciples”; the preposition [presence of] is weighty…. John has in mind: in their very presence so that the disciples were able to see them in the most perfect manner…. Jesus had selected the disciples as his chosen witnesses, and his purpose was to have them see his signs so fully as to be able to function as his witnesses indeed (1 John 1:1)….

The term [signs], too, is hardly the one to use if only the appearances are referred to. It fits admirably if John is speaking of the entire Gospel. Furthermore, the phrase “in this book” certainly has in mind the entire “book” not merely its small closing section (Lenski 1943:1394-1395).

Yes, Jesus appeared only to believing witnesses

Concerning the interpretation of Acts 10:41, part of Richard (R C H) Lenski’s commentary is available online HERE. Lenski takes the view that Acts 10:41 teaches that

people, who in spite of all that they had seen and heard of Jesus had, nevertheless, refused to have faith in him, were unfit to be witnesses of his resurrection, and appearance of Jesus to them would have increased their unbelief by that much. God thus chose his own witnesses. The participle states that he selected them with his own hand, for they had to be prepared and qualified properly to attest the resurrection (Lenski 1934:426).

I find Lenski to be a very helpful commentator (you need to know Greek to understand some of his explanations). He was a conservative Lutheran.

What about the witnesses from 1 Corinthians 15?

Take a read of the list of people that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection from 1 Cor 15:4-8 (ESV) and you will find that they were all Christian believers:

  • Cephas (who was one of the 12 disciples) (15:5);
  • The twelve (i.e. 12 disciples) – all believers (15:5);
  • More than 500 brothers and sisters (in Christ), at the same time, and most of these were still alive – so anyone could check with them, the eyewitnesses (15:6);
  • James (15:7), who is probably ‘one of “the brethren of the Lord” (cousins, as we may take it, of the Lord, sons of Clopas and the Virgin’s sister), 9:5, the later permanent head of the congregation at Jerusalem. We have no other record of Christ’s appearance to him. His prominence in the church accounts for the fact that Paul mentions him in this list of witnesses. He ranks next to the apostles themselves, Gal. 1:19’ (Lenski 1937:637). Gordon Fee agrees that ‘this James is the Lord’s brother, who, along with other brothers, “did not believe in him” during Jesus’ earthly ministry (John 7:2-9) but who appear with the disciples after the Resurrection. At some early stage he became a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul’s first contact with him occurred on his first brief visit to Jerusalem as a Christian (Gal. 1:19), in which passage he also refers to James as an “apostle”’ (Fee 1987:731). So here we have James, the Christian believer.
  • ‘To all the apostles’ (15:7), obviously refers to apostles who are believers, but it is perplexing to know which group this refers to. See Fee (1987: 731-732) for an attempt to unravel possible solutions. Fee concludes that these ‘apostles’ included the Twelve but it was a larger group that Paul understood had seen the risen Lord and were commissioned by the risen Lord to proclaim the Gospel and found churches (see 1 Cor 9:1-2) (Fee 1987:732). The facts remain that this larger group of apostles were believers.
  • Then there was the unusual appearance to Paul, as of ‘one untimely born’, ‘least of the apostles’ and ‘unworthy to be called an apostle’ (1 Cor 15:9).

So, all of the people in this list who saw the risen Christ were Christian believers.

Other support for only believers witnessing the risen Jesus

The other verses given to me by the person in the Bible study group were John 14:19, 22, which also point to this understanding. John 14:19 reads, ‘Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live’ (ESV) and John 14:22 states, ‘Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”’ (ESV).

I am blessed to be in a seniors’ Bible study group where people study and think about the Scripture.


In my brief investigations so far, I have concluded that those who witnessed the risen Christ were all Christian believers. They did not see apparitions (i.e. ghostly figures)[4] of the risen Jesus as John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar tries to demonstrate.[5] He explained resurrection as apparition, ‘which involves trance, that altered state of consciousness’ (Crossan 1994:160-161). He used ‘vision and apparition interchangeably’ (Crossan 1999:6).

But, as demonstrated above, these eye-witnesses were exposed to the bodily, resurrected Jesus on earth who could be seen, touched, spoken with, and food could be eaten with him.

Works consulted

Carson, D A 1991. The Gospel according to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Crossan, J D 1994. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco.

Crossan, J D 1999. Historical Jesus as risen Lord, in Crossan, J D, Johnson, L T & Kelber, W H, The Jesus Controversy : Perspectives in Conflict, 1-47. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Fee, G D 1987. The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The new international commentary on the New Testament, F F Bruce gen ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Lenski, R C H 1934. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (assigned in 1961 to Augsburg Publishing House).

Lenski, R C H 1937. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (1937 and 1963 by Augsburg Publishing House).

Lenski, R C H 1943. Commentary on the New Testament: The Interpretation of St John’s Gospel. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers (assigned in 1961 to Augsburg Publishing House).


[1] Troy Brooks n d. 12 groups saw Jesus resurrected (online). Available at: (Accessed 19 November 2015).

[2] A footnote in the ESV at this point stated, ‘Some manuscripts add and some honeycomb’.

[3] The ESV footnote read, ‘Greek Didymus’.

[4] For a definition of ‘apparition’, see the Merriam-Webster Dictionary 2015. S v apparition. Available at: (Accessed 19 November 2015).

[5] My PhD dissertation with the University of Pretoria, South Africa (graduation in 2015) investigated the presuppositions of Crossan around his conclusions concerning Jesus’ resurrection.


Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 14 April 2016.