I think most Christians assume that when Jesus returns as promised that they are going to recognize him, but I wonder.
I’m sure a lot of that assumption comes from the statement that the return of the Lord will be heralded by the sound of a trumpet, which will alert us that something pretty spectacular is happening. But his first advent was heralded by signs in the sky, wise men from the east, miraculous healings and feedings, water-walkings, storm-stillings, and the resurrection of a friend, and still people didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, so it makes me wonder what effect a trumpet call is going to have. I’m guessing that a lot of people are going to say, “Hey, what’s that noise?” and then go about their business.
Palm Sunday marks the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, an event that has come to be called the Triumphal Entry, a term that is not found in the Bible. It is a term that can only make sense on this side of the Resurrection; on the day it occurred it was a tragic and ironic case of mistaken identity. The people of Jerusalem were hailing Jesus the way you would a conquering hero, one who had (or would) vanquish a foe by achieving military victories. This is what they expected, and so this is what they saw, and what they saw was wrong. Jesus planned to confront the Romans, but he was going to win by allowing himself to be crucified. It was a strategy no one would have advocated or anticipated. No one recognized its genius, and therefore no one recognized the genius who crafted the strategy.
This is evident by the crowd’s reaction after Jesus had been arrested and put on trial. No conquering hero allows himself to be arrested without so much as a fight, ordering his followers to sheath the swords, so the people turned on him. When Pilate offered to set him free, having found him to be no threat to Rome as he was accused of being, the people shouted that they wanted Barabbas, a known revolutionary who was under arrest for having committed murder in the course of rebelling against Rome. The people knew exactly who Barabbas was and what he had tried to do, and he was exactly what they wanted—someone who would kill Romans.
Pilate is an interesting case. He examined Jesus, questioned him thoroughly, and concluded that Jesus was no threat to Rome, and in that he was exactly wrong. No one who traveled the countryside talking about the Kingdom of God could have been considered a friend of the Kingdom of Rome. Pilate’s mistake was two-fold. First, he didn’t understand that the Kingdom of God was a real kingdom that would replace all earthly kingdoms, including that of Rome. (Modern Christians do the same thing when they over-spiritualize the Kingdom of God, making it synonymous with heaven or considering it to be an earthly variation limited to a literal thousand-year period followed by a spiritual, heavenly kingdom that would be ongoing and eternal.) Second, Pilate failed to recognize how dangerous a king without a sword or an army is. All he cared about was whether Jesus either had an army or was trying to gather one in order to throw the Romans out of Israel. He assumed that was the only way that Rome could be defeated, and since Jesus specifically disavowed the use of force, Pilate dismissed him as no threat. But Jesus was very much a threat to Rome and any other kingdom that would use cruelty and violence to oppress and subjugate people. Pilate assumed that a man who would go silently to his scourging and crucifixion was no threat, yet the cross proved to be Jesus’ most powerful weapon.
Some still have not learned this lesson—even some Christians.
Yes, even followers of Jesus fail to recognize him. Perhaps the most famous such incident occurred to two of his followers on the day of his resurrection. They were defeated and distraught over his death, and bewildered by reports that his tomb was empty and some had reported seeing Jesus alive again. As they were traveling to Emmaus, Jesus came to them and asked what they were talking about, and these two people did not recognize him, even while he walked and spoke with them, interpreting the scriptures to help them see that it was necessary for the messiah to suffer. Actually, one might call it a reinterpreting, for prior to Jesus no one really read the scriptures that way. The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah were always taken to refer to the entire nation of Israel, not to the messiah. It took Jesus to help them reinterpret these passages and see them in a new light. It was the way they should have been seen all along, but weren’t, and consequently no one recognized the messiah when he finally showed up.
So I guess whether you recognized him depended on what you were expecting to see, and I’m guessing that holds true today. If we’re expecting Jesus to return wielding a sword in his hand, ready to kill all who oppose him, then we probably won’t recognize him when he comes and the sword he wields is the word of Truth (cf. Revelation 19:15) which conquers nations not by killing their soldiers but by converting their minds and hearts (Romans 12:1-3), much like Saul was “slain” on the Damascus Road when confronted with a new and undeniable reality that contradicted everything he knew to be true.
Ultimately, when you conquer the hearts and minds of nations and their leaders, you conquer their armies. That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God. The people of Jerusalem didn’t see it, nor did Pilate, and they failed to recognize the true power that Jesus had. After the resurrection, his disciples recognized it, and they put away their swords, every one of them. They too were killed for their faith in Jesus and his Kingdom. And the more they died, the more converts they won.
The more we recognize this, the more likely we’ll be able to recognize Jesus when we see him.