The Emmaus Walkers Didn't Get It at First
Read Luke 24:13-34 in your Bible. I used the NLT to prepare these remarks.
Bible scholars have difficulty locating Emmaus and have offered several possible sites for the biblical village to which our reading refers. For reasons more historical and traditional than biblical, it has been decided that a site named Emmaus-Nicopolis will serve as the best choice.
I found this out because I wondered if a person could, today, retrace the steps of Jesus, Cleopas, and the unnamed disciple. I was pleased – but not surprised - to find out that there is a hiking trail that has been designated to do this very thing.
The trail opened a little over a year ago. Now tourists and pilgrims can now follow a 20 km (12.5 mile) walking trail, part of which must be where Jesus and His two followers walked. It is called the Emmaus Trail, part of a network of trails maintained by the Jewish National Fund. It begins at the Saxum Visitor Center in Abu Ghosh (the site that the Crusaders identified with Emmaus) and ends at Emmaus Nicopolis. I’ve watched video of the trail and it reminds me of a hike in the Black Hills. You can see the beauty of the Judean Hills and Jewish, Roman, Christian, and Muslim archaeological sites along the way. At the end of the trail are the ruined walls of the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis and the Church of the Breaking of the Bread.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to walk those paths and see those places? It would be a great experience to feel part of the biblical narrative, not just an observer from the outside.
In this case, seeing really was believing.
1. Two disciples were temporarily KEPT from seeing Jesus. (13-16)
These two disciples tried to process the events of the past week while walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. It was a little over 2 hours to walk that distance. It seems they were they returning home. They were dispirited and had probably given up?
Based on verses 8-10, they were likely discussing the report of the women at the tomb, whose testimony was met with disbelief in v. 11. Based on v. 12, they may’ve talked about Peter’s confusion about the empty tomb with the LINEN burial WRAPPINGS left behind.
Jesus joined their discussion when He suddenly appeared and walked with them. Strangely, the text tells us “God kept them from recognizing him.” I wonder why? it implies these two followers were familiar enough with Jesus to recognize Him on sight, as they would’ve recognized Him without a divine disguise.
I believe the reason is a practical one. How much listening do you think they would’ve done after they recognized Jesus? (In most of the other post-Resurrection accounts, once somebody recognized Jesus, the conversation was about that only and was rather brief. Being incognito was the only way Jesus could simply converse with them.
Some interpreters have put themselves through some imaginative gymnastics to make their ignorance of Jesus’ presence a kind of psychological trick. The text, however, allows for no such materialistic nonsense. They were KEPT from seeing Jesus, they did not overlook Him.
2. Jesus helped them see the truth. (17-31)
As usual, Jesus did not ask a question to get information, but to elicit a response. He got one: they were dumbfounded and distraught; “They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.” Assuming Jesus had come from Jerusalem, Cleopas added, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.”
Cleopas’ answer to Jesus’ question, “What things?” sets forth what they believed about Jesus. First, that “He was a prophet” whose “powerful miracles” validated His claim to speak for God. Second, that “He was a mighty teacher in the eyes of God and all the people.”
In spite of these facts, their “leading priests and other religious leaders” handed Jesus over to be crucified. The religious authorities’ rejection as much as His death may have crushed their hopes that Jesus ”was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel.” (Notice they spoke in the past tense. This implies they’d given up hope.)
Three days after Jesus’ death, there was an alarming confusion of information. They had heard the testimony of the women who said his body was missing, and angels had told them Jesus was alive. Of course, these were only women and not reliable witnesses (v. 11). Still, when some of the men ran to the tomb, they found his body was gone, they were confused, not convinced.
Their unwillingness to believe drew a rebuke from Jesus and He proceeded to set them straight. He said, “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures.”
2) He taught them what the should’ve learned from the Bible. It was predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer before entering his glory. This was contrary to the popular Jewish expectation of a military conqueror. From the Old Testament He drew forth all the things predicted about Himself.
When their journey ended, the walkers wanted the conversation to continue, so they begged Him to stay the night with them. It was later, while they were at table, with the blessing of the bread, that they were allowed to recognize Jesus.
Every gospel writer except Matthew has Jesus appearing to His disciples at mealtime. What’s the significance? In the short term, it was an emotional connection. Jesus’ followers, especially the twelve, had eaten many meals together. Perhaps Clopas and his companion had attended the feeding of the 5000 and there was something in Jesus’ blessing that reminded them of Him.
In a larger sense, it points to Jesus’ identification of Himself as the “Bread of Life” and looks forward to the service of Communion shared in the Church. Ultimately, it anticipates the Wedding Banquet of Lamb, the celebration of the New Creation.
Perhaps, as they watched His hands break the bread, they were allowed to see the scars that the nails left in His wrists. However it happened, it happened “Suddenly.” God instantly opened their eyes, and they recognized him. Instantly, He disappeared.
The purpose of the encounter had been achieved. These two disciples – whom Jesus had deemed worthy of a post-Resurrection visit, had been encouraged and instructed. Time to go. This fits with Jesus’ instruction to Mary Magalene in John 20:17 to not CLING to Him. He wasn’t making a permanent return to earth, only a temporary one, prior to His Ascension to Heaven. To remain would only delay the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
3. They got it and acted on their new understanding. (32-34)
Recognizing Jesus caused them to reconsider the whole conversation: “They said to each other, ‘Didn’t our hearts burn within us as he talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?’” With faithfulness fitting their new-found faith, they were soon on their way back to Jerusalem.
Once there, they reported to the disciples who had gathered, presumably for mutual defense and to try to figure this out. Someone agreed with them and said, “The Lord has really risen! He appeared to Peter.” This is apparently a reference to a post-Resurrection appearance that is not recorded in the Gospels. It must have happened sometime during the four and a half hours since they’d left Jerusalem. In 1 Corinthians 15:5, Paul referred to Jesus having a post-Resurrection meeting with Peter/Cephas alone, then the rest of the Apostles together.
In this case, seeing really was believing.
It must have seemed like a dream to the two disciples whom Jesus accompanied to Emmaus. Maybe that’s part of the reason it took them an HOUR to decide to return to Jerusalem. They needed that time to process the experience, to convince each other they hadn’t been dreaming, and decide what to do next.
We all know what it’s like to awaken from a dream or nightmare. The emotions evoked by the experience hang with us even after awakening. It takes time to recover, to convince ourselves it was “only a dream.”
Based on the text, I imagine Cleopas and the other disciples had an ironically opposite experience; something real had happened to them, and they had to undertake to convince themselves it wasn’t “just a dream.” No wonder they were filled with joy and excitement when they discovered Jesus’ Resurrection was not a dream! No wonder they rushed to tell the Eleven and tried to set their minds at ease!
It may be said that we go through a similar process to find faith. Generations and miles removed from the sites and culture in which Jesus and Luke walked, we must rely on faith, not sight. We must work to convince ourselves that all the wonderful works of God recorded in Scripture are not just a beautiful dream, but are a welcome, gracious reality. They are historical, reasonable, and strong enough to be the basis for our most deeply held values. These truths are dependable enough to serve as the foundation for all of life, steadier and more certain under our feet than the path connecting Emmaus and Jerusalem.
Emmaus walking trail information retrieved from https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/the-emmaus-trail/ on 11 March 23.
Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, The Gospel of Luke, 2006, Allison A. Trites
Retrieved on 8 March 23, http://laketrailschurch.org/2020/04/the-lord-has-appeared-to-simon-luke-2433-34-1-cor-154-5-april-13/.