Jesus’s Post-Resurrection Appearance in Galilee
The gospels tell us that on the morning of the Resurrection, Jesus was planning to go to Galilee. Matthew relates that an angel told Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, “he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.” Not long after, the women saw Jesus, who directed them to “go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee.”
Why was Jesus going to Galilee, and why did he want the disciples there, too? We know that the Ascension occurred on the Mount of Olives, just between Jerusalem and nearby Bethany. Why travel 120 miles to Galilee and then turn around and come back to Jerusalem?
Jesus had two very good reasons. One, he understood the tumult and fear that had filled the disciples after his crucifixion. Returning to Galilee, where they had first been chosen to be fishers of men, would help to reaffirm their mission and their relationship with him. And two, Jesus wanted to dispel any notion of a conspiracy about his death and resurrection, and this could only be accomplished in Galilee, far from Jerusalem.
The Forty Days
While it was immediately known that the resurrected Jesus was going to Galilee, it did not happen right away; in fact, it would be more than two weeks before Jesus and the disciples would meet in Galilee. If we look at an abbreviated timeline of the events of the forty days from the Resurrection to the Ascension, it would look like this:
Day 1 (Sunday) – The Resurrection. Jesus appears to the Virgin Mary (presumably); Mary Magdalene; Peter; Cleophas and Simon on the road to Emmaus; and ten of the eleven remaining disciples in the upper room.
Day 8 (Sunday) – Jesus’s second appearance in upper room. When Jesus appears a second time, the apostle Thomas is present and, upon seeing Jesus, proclaims him, “My Lord and God.”
Day 9 (Monday) – Disciples leave for Galilee. The disciples most likely left Jerusalem the morning after Jesus’s second appearance in the upper room. As there were many men in their group, they would have been to travel the direct route through Samaria rather than the longer, safer route east of the Jordan. With women in the group, they were likely able to travel no more than twenty miles a day.
Day 15 (Sunday) – Disciples arrive in Capernaum. The distance between Jerusalem and Capernaum, where Peter, Andrew, James, and John had all lived, was approximately 120 miles. Hence, the journey would have taken six days. However, the disciples most likely did not arrive in Capernaum until Sunday, as they would have rested on the sabbath.
Day 33 (Thursday) – Disciples leave for Jerusalem. Jesus instructed the disciples to return to Jerusalem. In all likelihood, he timed their arrival in Jerusalem to be on the day before he planned to ascend, so as to minimize any risk. As evidenced by his elaborate precautions to protect the Last Supper, minimization of risk rather than foolhardy bravado was Jesus’s style.
Day 39 (Wednesday) – Disciples arrive in Jerusalem. The disciples again assembled in Jerusalem, most likely in the upper room at John Mark’s home. Those gathered included not only the eleven apostles, but also “the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”
Day 40 (Thursday) – The Ascension. Jesus leads the apostles to the Mount of Olives, and before ascending instructs them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
What we are concerned with are the seventeen days that Jesus and disciples were in Galilee—Day 16 through Day 32—for it is during this time that Jesus would show forgiveness to the apostles by sharing a breakfast meal with them, test Peter on his love for him, and appear before a crowd of disciples to prove that he had indeed risen from the dead.
Jesus Appears along the Shore
Three years earlier, Jesus had begun his ministry on the shores of the Sea of Galilee—also called Lake Tiberias or the lake of Gennesaret—by asking Peter, Andrew, James, and John if they wanted to be fishers of men. While his decision to meet in Galilee post-Resurrection was likely driven by safety concerns and his plan with the 500, Jesus must also have recognized the importance of the apostles reconnecting with their roots and, ultimately, their mission with him.
It is interesting to note that the post-Resurrection appearance in Galilee included two reenactments, of sorts, of the earliest days in Jesus’s ministry: the miraculous catch of fish and the Sermon on the Mount. In the catch of fish story, Luke tells us that Jesus “…was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake.” Simon (Peter) and his brother, Andrew, and James and John (sons of Zebedee) had been fishing all night long with no luck. Jesus appears and tell them to cast their nets; when they do, a great shoal of fish ends up in the nets. The miracle triggered the discipleship of Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
Similarly, when Jesus appears along the shore after the Resurrection, a parallel story unfolds. Having arrived in Galilee, Peter decided to go fishing, and James, John, Thomas, Nathanael, and two other disciples accompanied him. As day broke, and their nets lay empty, a figure on the beach called to them: “‘Children, have you any fish?’ They answered, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.” Even though the disciples were expecting Jesus to appear, they did not recognize him. This was not due to their being one hundred yards distant or to the early morning light. When they were face to face with him, they still were not sure. It was John who identified him, perhaps from his having addressed them as “children” as well as the re-enactment of the great draft of fish.
After breakfast Jesus took Peter aside and walked apart. What followed was a conversation that, when juxtaposed against Peter’s denial of Jesus just a few weeks before, had Jesus asking Peter three times if he loved him. When Peter answered affirmatively the first time, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” When Peter answered affirmatively the second time, Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.” Upon the third confirmation, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Every distinction in the Gospel has a purpose, and so it is no slip of the tongue that Jesus directs Peter to look after both his lambs and his sheep. The lamb is the offspring of the sheep. The distinction drawn is between Jesus’s “sheep”—the apostles, their successors, the bishops, and their agents, the priests and deacons—and their offspring, the laymen. Jesus directed Peter to feed both the lambs and the sheep, but to “tend” the sheep. His first duty is to “feed,” to nourish with his teaching office, both clergy and laity. His next duty is to give direction, to “tend,” the bishops and other clergy. Jesus gave Peter his Petrine ministry and primacy on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.
The Appearance before the 500
The second parallel to earlier days in the ministry occurred when Jesus directed the apostles to gather 500 disciples. Jesus knew that talk in Jerusalem was ripe with a conspiracy theory that some of the disciples had lied about the Resurrection. The best way to disprove any such claim was for Jesus to appear to a large crowd. However, that was not possible in Jerusalem, the city that had been the site of his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Assembling a crowd of any size would have put the apostles in great danger.
It was possible, however, to assemble people to hear Jesus in Galilee. Jesus presumably told the disciples to gather a crowd during their morning encounter on the beach. The most likely spot for the appearance of Jesus before the 500 was Et Tabgha, an uninhabited, uncultivated “mountain” about two miles outside of Capernaum. This hillside would have been already identified with Jesus’s ministry, as it is also the traditional location of the “Sermon on the Mount.” It was a location to which the apostles could have urged his disciples to go at the specific time designated in advance by Jesus.
Jesus appeared in his recognizable form, and those gathered could see the marks of his Passion; hence, there could be no argument as to who it was. Still, there were doubters among the 500. As Jesus foretold in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” The Lord does not compel belief, but always leaves a means to justify disbelief to preserve free will. Even some of those who saw the resurrected Jesus on Et Tabgha did not believe.
Back to Jerusalem
As earlier noted, on the thirty-third day the apostles left Capernaum for Jerusalem. Six days later they would arrive in the city that had killed their teacher. The day after that, Jesus would be physically gone from their lives forever. However, those seventeen days in Galilee had helped the apostles recommit to their apostolic mission to spread the good news, to go and make disciples of all nations. Ten days after the Ascension, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, the Church was born.