How small and distant God can seem when we’re discouraged. Two of Jesus’ disciples faced that kind of discouragement, as they wearily walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the Sunday afternoon after their Master had undergone a horrible execution on a Roman cross.
Two disciples—apparently not two of the twelve, but of the larger group (see 24:9—had left Jerusalem; 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 went, they discussed recent events, and it is clear from the narrative that they were disheartened (24:14,18-21).
Jesus overtook them and walked with them. They didn’t recognize him, and wide-ranging theories have been advanced for this: he was unrecognizable from the beatings and 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 tells us why they didn’t recognize Jesus: “their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.” This is most likely what is termed in biblical studies a “divine passive“—a passive verb used without attribution to show that it is God who is acting. It seems that God supernaturally kept the two from realizing who was speaking to them.
In 25-27 we have an account of the greatest Bible lesson ever given. What an amazing privilege to hear the Old Testament expounded by the One whom it foretold!
Upon arrival, the disciples invited Jesus to stay with them, and at table prevailed upon him to say the blessing, probably in recognition of his status as a teacher, which he had just demonstrated. And we read: “their eyes were opened” (31). Here again is the divine passive: God had closed their eyes, and now He opened them. The disciples recognized him, but he immediately vanished from their sight.
The two excitedly hurried back to Jerusalem, learned that Jesus had appeared to Simon (Peter) also, and told their story (33-35).
Even though the two disciples eventually recognized the risen Christ, the most significant and lasting thing happened to them before they recognized him. This may well be why Luke (and the Holy Spirit through him) related this incident to his readers (including us).
To see this point, let us consider the two chiastic, contrasting halves of the passage:
A the disciples going from Jerusalem to Emmaus, slowly and sadly
B Jesus appears
C their eyes are prevented from recognizing Him
C their eyes are opened and they do recognize Him
B Jesus disappears
A the disciples rushing back from Emmaus to Jerusalem, quickly and joyfully
(One writer entitles the account: “A Solemn One-Way Trip Becomes a Joyous Round-Trip“)
The centerpiece and pivot of the account is of course Jesus’ Bible lesson. And it is crucial that God did not allow the disciples to recognize Jesus until after they had received his exposition about himself. Their eyes were not opened until the Scriptures had been opened to them! (The same Greek word is used in verses 31 and 32 of these two “openings.”)
Jesus wanted their faith in him to rest upon the Scriptures’ witness, not upon a fleeting experience of his risen presence. He gently upbraided them for their failure to understand the Old Testament (25), and then supplied that understanding (26). The events of the last few days were part of God’s plan (“it was necessary that the Christ should suffer,” 26); events had not spun out of his control.
Jesus knew that God’s Word would be a firmer foundation for future faith than an exhilarating, but fleeting, experience of him. The two’s experience reconfirmed the truth of Scripture—not the other way around. They experienced only a split second of recognition of the risen Christ; but their hearts were now burning with God’s Word (32) and its testimony, which gave meaning to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
We see this dynamic again later in Luke 24: Jesus appeared to 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 looked to the Scriptures: “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. . . .” (1 Cor 15:3-4). God has provided a sure and steady foundation for faith in what are now two Testaments.
This was the significance for Luke’s readers (including us) as well. He wrote sometime around A.D. 60, long after the ascension and the end of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, to a generation that had no opportunity to physically see the resurrected Christ. His readers were (and are) just “ordinary” disciples (not apostles or eyewitnesses), who live by faith in a risen Lord whom they have not seen (1 Peter 1:8). Jesus told Thomas in John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This belief comes through the Scriptures.
Experience plays an important, but secondary role. It must always be informed and guided by the Word. Through the testimony of Scripture we understand who Christ is, what He has done and how we can join the family of God through faith in him.
Implication for Our Worship
We must strive to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in us” (Colossian 3:16) through worship times that are 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.
What Ron does here in prose, D.A. Carson and I attempted to do with poetry and music for the Songs for the Book of Luke album, which can be accessed here.