Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

Duccio di Buoninsegna,
Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Jesus’ Appearance Behind Locked Doors,” 1308-11.

Q. Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?

I’m assuming you mean to ask why the disciples were afraid when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection. Luke explains in his gospel that they were frightened and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. This was even after they’d gotten several independent reports that Jesus had risen from the dead, and even though he said to them, as soon as he arrived, “Peace be with you.” But fear is actually not an unusual reaction when someone in the Bible encounters a visitor from the spiritual world.

Gideon, for example, realizes that he’s been speaking with the angel of the Lord when the angel first sets on fire the food he has served him, just by touching it with tip of his staff, and then vanishes. God has to tell Gideon, “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.”

Similarly, when a mighty angel appears to Daniel, he collapses on the ground, and then gets up “trembling.” (Understandably, because the angel’s “body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.“) Daniel, too, is told, “Do not be afraid.”

When the angel of the Lord comes to tell Zechariah that his prayers have been answered and he and his wife are about to have a son (John the Baptist), even though this is good news, Zechariah is “startled and gripped with fear.” The angel reassures him, “Do not be afraid.”

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he once walked on the Sea of Galilee to join the disciples in their boat far out on the water. Matthew records that “when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.'”

And in the book of Revelation, John reports an experience similar to Daniel’s. He says that when he first saw Jesus in his exalted glory, “I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid.‘”

I think it would only be natural for us humans to be startled and alarmed if we encountered a heavenly visitor. But it’s very encouraging to read in the Bible how God always reassures each frightened person by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  This helps us realize that whenever God steps into our lives—even if we don’t experience a supernatural appearance, but instead sense a divine hand at work in our circumstances—we can be confident that God has come to bring about good, not to harm us. So even if we’re startled (and maybe it’s good for us to be shaken up by the reality of spiritual things from time to time), we don’t need to be afraid.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Why were the disciples afraid when Jesus appeared?”

    1. I haven’t studied the early history of Mormonism in detail so I can’t respond on that basis, but one very obvious difference is that even if we grant that an angel named Moroni appeared to groups of the first Mormons, he still wasn’t a human being who had lived on earth, died an indisputable and public death, and then appeared again alive to those who’d known him best and so could verify that he was indeed the same person, risen from the dead. In other words, if the Moroni appearances are genuine, they’re like other angelic appearances recorded in the Bible. But the appearances of Jesus are a unique phenomenon, the “first fruits” of the resurrection, the beginning of the new creation breaking into our world.

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