The disciples on the road to Emmaus is a beautiful portrait of our human tendency toward confusion, doubt, and unbelief and Christ’s faithfulness to help us understand those things we so often miss.
In Luke 24:13-35, Jesus had been crucified and had risen from the dead. Despite His clear teaching about the matter, no one expected the resurrection to occur – not even His disciples! Moreover, even an empty tomb, the declaration of angels, and the testimony of eyewitnesses seemed like “nonsense” to the 11 apostles, who were gathered together in fear of the law (vv. 10-12).
“But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (vs. 11).
They could not understand, as the words “appeared to them as nonsense;” but it also says they would not believe. There was a refusal to trust these words. Perhaps it was because of fear, doubt, unbelief, disappointment – or some combination. It is a sad testimony nonetheless that they “would not believe them.”
Yet Jesus pursued them.
The crisis of despair
We aren’t told why these two disciples were traveling to Emmaus, a village 7 miles from Jerusalem. But as the story unfolds, we realize they are distraught over what had happened to Jesus. Everything they thought they knew about life – even about God – seems to have been swept away by wicked men. Evil appears to have triumphed. Their world has collapsed into confusion and fear.
They still believed that the facts about Jesus were true, but circumstances and their inability to understand how this all fit together in God’s plans produced a terrible crisis of faith. Often what we know about God clashes with what we see in our circumstances.
So, as they were forced to continue slogging through life, their minds and hearts were burdened with a spiritual crisis. They proceeded to do what we often do about such burdens – talk about them.
Jesus enters their crisis
The manner in which the Lord entered this crisis and the way He interacted with the two disciples provides a picture of how He does the same with us (through the Holy Spirit). First, we notice that these disciples didn’t recognize that Jesus was there with them. He began to walk with them as they discussed their troubles, “but their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him” (vs. 16).
This is startling. These men did not know Jesus was near, as often happens in our own lives. But with us today, it is a spiritual dullness. In the case of these two men, they did not recognize the appearance of the literal Jesus. It seems unlikely that this was simply a case of not expecting to see Him; it is presumably the activity of God. This happened at other times in the Gospels as well (John 20:15; 21:4).
We are prone to think our blindness to God’s proximity is our own fault – or the fault of overwhelming circumstances. Yet sometimes “fault” is not the issue, because we must remember that God is at work. There was a purpose in hiding the presence of Jesus from the eyes of the disciples. There was a lesson, as we’ll see.
We should not be surprised by this fact. If God’s purposes are served by our being blind for a while, He will allow it. Perhaps we are to walk through a time of testing, like Job, who did not “see” God clearly until his trial neared completion (Job 42:5). Or perhaps God awaits His perfect timing before the light dawns upon us, as in the first advent of the Lord Jesus. The world remained in darkness until the fullness of time (Matthew 4:13-16; Galatians 4:4). He does not even have to blind us; all He has to do is leave us in our natural state of blind stupidity and not open our eyes until the proper time.
This is true of many of the great stories of Scripture: Joseph was sold into slavery and undoubtedly wrestled with the “Why?” of it all until the answer became clear; David was chased for years by Saul, even after the young shepherd boy had been anointed as king; and Saul of Tarsus was left in his blindness and rage to persecute the church – until God called him.
Jesus begins to question them.
On the other hand, spiritual blindness is frequently a self-inflicted malady. In fact, it appears that God prevented them from recognizing Jesus because there was a core problem that needed to be revealed.
So Jesus began the process of showing these disciples the problem. The process started out like any conversation between strangers thrown together – there were the requisite introductory questions. Jesus’s first question might seem quite familiar to us: ‘What are you guys talking about?’ (vs. 17).
Of course, Jesus knew exactly what was happening and what they were discussing. So what was He doing by asking the question? He was doing the same thing God always does when He begins to question us: He peels back the layers in our hearts to reveal what is there.
This is like any good teacher! For example, a geometry teacher might ask, “What theorem are we discussing? How do we use it?” The teacher knows the answer but is trying to get the student to reason it out. This is how a teacher develops in his students a proper pattern of thought. And Jesus is persistent. He repeats: “What things?” (vs. 19) God constantly probes into our hearts so that we can see what is there – and what needs to be done.
Jesus corrects them.
He is always admonishing, exhorting, and encouraging us. It is important to note that these two disciples had the facts right but not the meaning of those facts. They had a faith problem. They understood what their eyes could see, but they could not understand what only faith could see – behind everything in our lives, God is at work. We often cannot see Jesus (vs. 24), but He is there nonetheless.
How ironic! Jesus was standing two feet away and even then they could not see Him. Earlier we noted that their eyes were prevented from recognizing Jesus, and now we know why: These two disciples were being shown that, without faith, it is impossible to see Him. They knew the tomb was empty, but why was it empty? What did it mean? It’s almost as if Jesus wanted these disciples to finish the thought:
OK, all these things you saw Jesus do and the words you heard Him teach – He told you He would suffer and die, and on the third day, something would happen. … Then some disciples went to the tomb and no one was there, except for angels – who said something important. … And the conclusion is …?
But they still didn’t get it. They couldn’t put two and two together. And then they had the nerve to make fun of Him! “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” (vs. 18).
In other words, ‘Are you the only guy who doesn’t know what’s going on around here?’ To which He easily could have said, ‘I think I’m the only One who does know!’
As I said, these disciples had a faith problem. “And He said to them, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?’” (vv. 25-26).
The symptom was that they were “foolish men.” The cause was that they were “slow of heart to believe.” But believe what? Jesus said, “all that the prophets have spoken!” In other words, they should believe all that God has said.
We have a symptom and a cause – so what is the cure? It is this: Jesus taught them and explained to them what the Scripture mean, but more than that, He explained what it says about Him (vs. 27). Not only is Jesus the core message, He needs to be the one who teaches us. We must have a relationship with Jesus Christ in order for us to understand what He is teaching.
Later that day, as the men discussed the day’s events, “They said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?’” (vs. 32).
Their hearts – which had been slow to believe – were now burning within them because Jesus Christ had interacted with them. He is the cure! Do we desire to go from (1) being slow of heart to believe in all that God has said to (2) having hearts that burn with understanding? It requires drawing near to Christ and interacting with Him. If you don’t do that, you won’t attain to the latter, while remaining in the former state.
Being close to Christ
The heart of a true disciple wants Jesus close. Despite being rebuked by the stranger, these two disciples were hungry for the truth. They didn’t recognize Jesus, but they wanted the truth near. “Stay with us” (vs. 29), they plead.
When Jesus is close, our eyes can be opened. He makes us able to see and understand, but we must respond to Him and draw near.
Don’t misunderstand: Jesus initiated this intervention. But they had to respond and open up to Him – i.e., to a discussion about divine truth. They had to say to Him, ‘Please stay.’ They had to stick around even after being rebuked.
It is only after this that they could say to the other disciples: “the Lord has really risen” (vs. 34). Now their eyes had truly been opened!