Volume 16, No. 4 (April 2021)
How small and distant God can seem when we’re discouraged! Two of Jesus’ disciples faced that kind of disappointment and discouragement as they wearily made their way from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus on the Sunday afternoon after their Master had undergone a horrible execution on a Roman cross, as related to us in Luke 24.
Two disciples—apparently not two of the 12 disciples, but two of the larger group mentioned, for example, in 24:9—had left the gathering of disciples; they had seemingly given up hope and were returning home. They were “unemployed disciples,” so to speak; as one writer puts it, they were “walking home from a funeral.” As they go, they are discussing the recent events in Jerusalem, and it is clear from the narrative that they are disheartened and discouraged (see 24:14,18-21).
But then Jesus overtakes them and walks with them. They don’t recognize at this point that it is Jesus who is walking with them. Various and sometimes fanciful theories have been advanced for this lack of recognition: He was unrecognizable from the beatings and the crucifixion; He looked so different in His resurrected body (but later they would indeed recognize Him); the two were so upset they didn’t look up; they were walking west and the sun was in their eyes!
But verse 16 in fact tells us why they didn’t recognize Jesus: “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.” This is most likely an instance of what is termed in biblical studies a “divine passive”—where a passive verb is used without attribution to show that it is God who is acting. And certainly seems to be the case here: God is supernaturally keeping them from realizing until later who is speaking to them as they walk down the road to Emmaus.
In 25-27 we have an account of the greatest Bible lesson ever given! As Jesus relates to the disciples what they should have known and understood about the necessity of Christ’s death and glorification from the Old Testament Scriptures. Undoubtedly He covered many areas of prophecy, types, and foreshadowings of His person and ministry in the sacrificial system and other parts of the Old Testament. What an amazing privilege to hear the Old Testament expounded by the One whom it foretold!
The disciples invite Him to stay with them, and then at table prevail upon Him to say the blessing, probably in recognition of His status as a teacher, which they had just experienced. And we read: “their eyes were opened” (31). Here again is the divine passive: God had prevented their eyes from recognizing Jesus, and now He opens their eyes. He closed their eyes, and now He opens them. And then and only then, when God decides to make it possible again, do the disciples recognize Him. But Jesus immediately vanishes from their sight.Excitedly they ask each other: “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (32)
And so the two disciples hurry back to Jerusalem, to learn that Jesus has appeared to Simon (Peter) also; they tell their story as well (33-35).
Luke is probably writing sometime after around A.D. 60, long after the Ascension and the ceasing of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. He is writing to a generation that no longer has the opportunity to physically see the resurrected Christ. His readers are just “ordinary” disciples, not apostles or eyewitnesses. Ordinary disciples, like us, who live by faith in a risen Lord whom we have not seen, but which we believe we one day will see in all His glory.
Even though the two disciples do get to see the risen Christ, actually the most significant and lasting thing happens to them before they realize who is talking. This may well be why Luke (and the Holy Spirit through Luke) is relating this incident to us.
To see this point, let us consider the obvious structure of the passage; there are two contrasting parts, characterized by contrasting directions, atmospheres, attitudes and moods. One writer has recognized this fact by entitling the story: as one writer has titled this account, “A Solemn One-Way Trip Becomes a Joyous Round-Trip.” The two halves look like this:
1. the disciples are going from Jerusalem to Emmaus, slowly and sadly
2. Jesus appears
3. their eyes are prevented from recognizing Him
Part 2 (the reverse)
3. their eyes are opened and they do recognize Him
2. Jesus disappears
1. the disciples rush back from Emmaus to Jerusalem, quickly and joyfully
The centerpiece and pivot of the account is of course the Bible lesson that Jesus gives to the disciples. And it is crucial to see that God does not allow them to recognize Jesus until after they have received His instruction in the Scriptures about Himself. Their eyes, having been closed, are not opened until the Scriptures have been opened to them (the same Greek word is used in verses 31 and 32 of these two “openings”).
Jesus wants their faith in Him and His resurrection to rest upon the Scriptures’ witness to Himself, not upon a fleeting experience of His risen presence. His gentle upbraiding of them leading up to His lesson revolves around their failure to understand what the prophets had taught in the Old Testament (25); and it was this deficiency that His explanation was intended to address (26). They were discouraged because they were “foolish” and “slow of heart to believe” that what had transpired in the last few days had all been part of God’s plan (“it was necessary that the Christ should suffer,” 26), and that events had not spun out of His control.
This is what He wants them to understand, so that they then might stand firmly on God’s Word as a firmer foundation for future faith than an exhilarating, but ephemeral, experience with Him. Their experience would then serve to reconfirm the truth of Scripture—not the other way around. They have only a split second of experience with the risen Christ once their eyes were opened and they recognized Him—He vanishes immediately. But their hearts are now full of God’s predictions and promises concerning His Messiah. They were beginning to understand the need for, and the sense of, Jesus’ death and resurrection—and they understood that from the Scriptures.
Seeing the risen Christ was an important witness to His victory over death, but more importantly it was an affirmation and confirmation of the truth of God’s promises—we see this later at the very end of Luke 24 again: Jesus appears to all the disciples and “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (45-46; same Greek verb again). The Scriptures were to serve as the foundation for their faith and their ministry (47-48).
Paul’s preaching likewise was founded in the Scriptures. He says in 1 Corinthians 15, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you. . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. . . .” (3-4) God has provided a sure and steady foundation for faith in the witness of the Scriptures: the Old Testament, and now the New Testament as well.
And this is the significance of the passage for Luke’s readers as well. Hardly any of them would have seen Christ in the flesh, before or after the resurrection. Luke was writing in a time when there were no more resurrection appearances. Believers’ relationship with Christ could not be built on an experience of seeing Him. The significance of Luke’s account here is that there is a foundation for faith which is even more important than seeing the risen Christ, and this foundation is still available for believers: the foundation of God’s revelation in the Scriptures. As Jesus said to Thomas in John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And this faith comes through the Scriptures.
We need to acknowledge the secondary role of experience. Our spiritual experience is important, but must always be informed and guided and channeled by the Word. It’s because of the testimony of Scripture that we understand who Christ is and what He has done and how we can join the family of God through faith in Him.
The two disciples in this account got to physically see the risen Christ and have all their doubts, fears, and disappointment instantly swept away by the glory of His physical, resurrected presence. But that is not likely to occur in our situation; the normal pattern for ordinary disciples (like you and me) is to build our faith on the witness of the Scriptures, whose testimony to God’s sovereign control over all things is the cure for discouragement.
LESSON FOR OUR WORSHIP
There is a clear implication for our worship as well. We must strive to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in us” (Colossian 3:16) by making sure that our worship times are based on, structured around, saturated with and enriched by the Scriptures (see Worship Notes 1.5 and 1.6). That will ensure a true and deep experience of God in both our private and our corporate worship.