On Friday afternoon they took Him down from the cross, as dead as a man can be. On Sunday afternoon He walked most of the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two of His disciples. He had broken through the death barrier, and was alive and well once more on planet Earth. For forty days before withdrawing to the glory where He now lives and reigns, He appeared to those who had been His followers and friends. Why? Because He loved them, and wanted them to have the joy of seeing Him alive; because He had to explain to them His saving achievement and their role as witnesses of Him; and, last but not least, because some of them were in emotional and spiritual distress, and needed the therapy that was uniquely His. All this is reflected in the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24:13–35).
Now picture the scene: Up from behind comes a stranger, walking faster, and falls into step beside them. Naturally they stop discussing their private misery, and there is silence. When we know that grief is written all over our faces, we avoid looking at other people because we do not want anyone to look at us. I imagine this couple swiveling their heads and never facing their traveling companion at all. Certainly, “they were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16), so if anyone had asked them, “Is Jesus with you?” the reply would have been, “Don’t be silly, He’s dead, we’ve lost Him. We hoped He was the one to redeem Israel but clearly He wasn’t. We shan’t see Him again, and nothing makes sense anymore.”
The heartbreaking perplexity of Godgiven hope apparently wrecked by God-ordained circumstances is a reality for many of us today, just like the Emmaus disciples. What did Jesus see as the root cause of this couple’s distress? His dealings with them show that His diagnosis as the Great Physician was of unbelief, caused by three things.
I. THEY WERE TOO UPSET TO THINK STRAIGHT
It was beyond them to put two and two together. They had slid down the slippery slope from discouragement to distress, and through despair into what we call depression. This is the most common of twentyfirst-century diseases, for which one in every four North Americans has been treated medically. Folks in depression are marvelously resourceful at finding reasons to not take comfort, encouragement, or hope from anything you say to them. They know you mean well, but they defy your efforts; they twist everything into further reasons to be gloomy and hopeless (“It’s all right for you, but it’s different for me,” and so on). They are resolved to hear everything as bad news. That is exactly what we find here in Cleopas’ narrative concerning the empty tomb.
“It is the third day since all this took place,” says Cleopas. Continue reading verses 22–24. The implication is that there is nothing in this wild talk of Him being alive; someone must have desecrated the tomb and stolen the body, so as to deny it decent burial. Thus Cleopas announces the empty tomb as more bad news, despite Jesus’ repeated promises that He would rise on the third day (Luke 9:22; 18:33; Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19). Straight thinking about the empty tomb, in the light of these predictions, would have evoked the response, “He said he would rise; the tomb’s empty; he’s done it!” But both were too upset to think straight.
Jesus diagnosed this as their root cause of their unbelief—namely, they were ignorant of the Scriptures. Read verses 25–26. As ignorance of Scripture was the basic trouble on the Emmaus Road, so often it is with us. What does Jesus do?
II. JESUS EXPLAINED THE SCRIPTURES
He showed them that what had been puzzling them—the death of the one they thought would redeem them in the sense of ending the Roman occupation—had actually been prophesied centuries before as God’s way of redeeming in the sense of ending the burden and bondage of sin. He must have gone over Isaiah 53, where the servant who dies for sins in verses 1–9 appears alive, triumphant, and reigning in verses 10–12. He produced many passages that depict God’s Messiah traveling to the crown via the cross, and kept them in a state of dawning comprehension and mounting excitement (their hearts “burned,” v. 32) till they reached home. Thus healing proceeded.
The principle here is that the most healing thing in the world to a troubled soul is to find that the heartbreak at the root of isolation, hopelessness, and hatred of all cheerful cackle is actually dealt with in the Bible—and in a way that shows it making sense after all, in terms of a loving, divine person. So if you are hurting because of what you feel God has done to you, and you do not find Scripture speaking to your condition, like these disciples, you do not know it well enough. Ask wiser Christians to open Scripture to you in relation to your pain, and you will find it so.
III. JESUS REVEALED HIS PRESENCE
“Stay with us,” they said to Him on reaching Emmaus. At the table they asked Him to give thanks, and as He did so and gave them bread “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him” (v. 31). Whether recognition was triggered by seeing nail prints in His hands, or by remembering the identical voice and action at the feeding of the four or five thousand, we do not know. Now, as then, Jesus’ ways of making His presence known are mysteries of divine illumination about which you can rarely say more than that something was said, read, or remembered—it happened. So it was here; and thus healing was completed.
To be sure, the moment they recognized Him He vanished. Yet plainly they knew that He was with them still. Otherwise, would they have risen from the table in their weariness and hurried back to Jerusalem through the night to share their news? Sensible Palestinians did not walk lonely country roads at night, fearing thugs and muggers. But it is evident that they counted on their Lord’s protecting presence as they went about their business. “Stay with us,” they had said, and inwardly they knew He was doing just that. Thus their broken hearts were mended, and their sorrow replaced by joy.
Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, is the same today as yesterday, and it belongs to true Easter faith to take to our own hurts the healing of the Emmaus Road. How? First, by telling Jesus our trouble, as He invites us to do each day. He remains a good listener, with what the hymn calls “a fellowfeeling for our pains,” and only as we lay aside prayerless resentment and self-pity and open our hearts to Him will we know His help. Second, by letting Him minister to us from Scripture, relating that which gives us pain to God’s purpose of saving love, which means regularly looking to the Lord’s human agents in ministry, as well as private Bible study. Third, by asking Him to assure us that as we go through what feels like fire and floods He goes with us, and will stay with us till the road ends. That prayer He will always answer (see Heb 4:15–16).
The Emmaus Road story urges us to do as He says, and it also shows us how. How many of you would like to accept the company and guidance of Jesus in your life?
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.