A Strange Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus, Part One – Luke 24:13-24
By: Northern Seminary
Some things get right inside your head. There isn’t a moment day or night when your mind doesn’t turn over those events. I have known someone so in love who said, “I just think about her all the time.” There are also people who have gone through a deep tragedy and sad thoughts and feelings dominate every moment.
Two people on a journey had only one subject on their minds. They had put their hope in Jesus, only to see him arrested, put on trial, and crucified. Then – earlier that day – women who had believed like them had burst into where they were meeting with a story that Jesus had risen from the dead. Now they were walking home to Emmaus from Jerusalem, and nothing but nothing else was on their minds. The events of the last three days were what they thought about at every single moment, and the only subject they talked about as they travelled down the road.
13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them;16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19 “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
One of the strange things is that this encounter happened at all. Why would the risen Jesus meet with just two believers walking along a road? And why these two? They’re clearly not from among the apostles, so why them? And why would Luke include this story in his gospel?
The answer to all these questions is that this was a significant moment, one of the very special evidences of Jesus’ resurrection. He met very personally with just two people, believers but not part of his inner circle, spent an extended time with them, taught them key truths they had missed or failed to understand, and made himself known during the intimacy of a meal together. Luke recognized the significance of that appearance and knew the impact it had had on the believers, and therefore included the story. He puts a lot of detail into his report, and we will study it in two parts. Today, the concentration is on how the disciples were feeling and what they were thinking when Jesus first met with them.
No one today knows exactly where Emmaus lay, other than Luke’s comment that it was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Given the roughness of the track, and the likelihood that these sad travelers would not walk quickly, their journey was going to take at least two and perhaps three hours. That was plenty time to talk.
What they were thinking becomes very clear as Luke describes their walk home to Emmaus. There are several evidences of their state of mind.
First, they were preoccupied.
I’ve had many conversations with people whose mind can’t be shaken off a subject. Something dominates their thinking. So, I’m driving along the road with my friend, Vince, alongside. I don’t know the route but he does. Except he’s telling me about his wife’s big promotion at work.
“That’s fabulous,” I say. “I’m sure she deserves it.”
“She’s worked so hard for years,” Vince replies.
“I’m glad she’s getting her reward, then,” I reply.
“And if they hadn’t given her promotion now she might have moved on,” he says.
“Left or right at the next lights?” I ask.
“But,” he continues. “I’m glad she’s staying with the same firm – it keeps life settled.”
“Left or right Vince?”
“And she’ll be getting a much bigger salary in her new job. Bigger office too, and her own executive assistant. And wait until I tell you about the great car they’ll give her…”
“Vince,” I say firmly. “I’m now about to turn this very ordinary car around because we just missed taking either a left or a right at the lights. Please give me your attention for a moment to let me know which way we should go!”
The two travelers to Emmaus – one of them called Cleopas – had their minds on nothing except Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and what had been told that morning to all the followers of Jesus.
Luke describes their preoccupation several times. Verse 14: “They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.” Verse 15: “…they talked and discussed these things with each other.” And when Jesus joined them, his question highlights the intensity of their dialogue: “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” (v.17). In the last of these – the question of Jesus – Luke uses the verb antiballó which means ‘to throw in turn.’ In the modern world, it would almost describe tennis players hitting a ball back and forth over a net. That’s how these two travelers were talking. One would make a point, then the other would make a point, and the first would add an idea and the second would add another. And so on.
They were so caught up in their agitated discussion, that until Jesus spoke they hardly seemed to have noticed that someone else had come alongside and was keeping pace with them. If they glanced over, they didn’t recognize who it was. They should have. These people knew Jesus. They were followers. They were part of the crowd who had been with him, and very probably they’d been among those who watched from a distance when he was crucified (Luke 23:49).
Why did they not see that this was Jesus?
- It could be they were so absorbed in their conversation they simply didn’t realize it was Jesus.
- It could be that they had so little expectation of seeing Jesus – in fact, no expectation at all – that their brains didn’t compute this was the one they’d followed.
- It could be that his resurrection body was so transformed from the battered and bloody body they’d last seen, they didn’t recognize him.
- It could be that at that moment God kept them from knowing who this was.
Almost certainly the answer lies in all these possibilities, but especially the last two. Other gospel writers also show that people didn’t immediately realize the risen Savior was the Jesus they had been with for months and years. They were seeing the same Jesus they’d always known and yet his body was different.
Matthew describes how the disciples met with Jesus in Galilee. Some worshipped him; some doubted (Matt. 28:17). John describes Mary talking with the person she thought was the gardener, not realizing at first it was Jesus (John 20:14-15). In Galilee Jesus stood on the shore and called to the disciples who were out fishing. Again they didn’t realize it was him (John 21:4). This was the same Jesus, but at first they didn’t know that. Now his transformed body could apparently enter a room even when the doors were locked. And he did that at least twice (John 20:19; 26). But he was no ghost. Jesus had no problem showing Thomas his wounds, inviting him to place his finger where the nails had gone and his hand where the spear had pierced his side (John 20:27). This was Jesus with the same body, but somehow, now raised from the dead, not immediately recognized.
If the disciples on the road to Emmaus had known instantly it was Jesus who had come alongside, what would have been different? Answer: they’d have been overwhelmed with both fear and joy, and all normal conversation would have come to an end. There would have been no more questioning, none of the urgent seeking for answers. God’s purposes in that meeting would not have happened. But, not recognizing, they were open to dialogue and to a wise teacher showing them from the scriptures why the Savior had to suffer for God’s plan to be fulfilled. God hid their eyes from seeing who this companion was. For a little while longer it was important they kept seeking answers.
Second aspect of their state of mind: they were bewildered.
They really didn’t understand what to think about the events of the last few days. They made no sense to them. The disciples’ puzzlement comes through in several ways.
First, they were amazed that anyone who had been in Jerusalem wouldn’t be fully aware of what had just happened there. Cleopas asks their new companion: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (v. 18).
Jesus answers very simply: “What things?” (v. 19). It’s a delightfully innocent reply, and probably it amused the readers of Luke’s gospel because of course Jesus knew exactly the things they were talking about. He had not missed any of it. But Jesus wanted them to spell out what they knew and what they were thinking.
Second, they were bewildered because a whole range of emotions were pummeling their minds.
There was sadness. When Jesus spoke to them, “They stood still, their faces downcast” (v. 17). The death of Jesus had broken their hearts. Like any grief-stricken person, they couldn’t think straight.
There were unfulfilled dreams. I listened while my friend Chris told me he’d reached forty-five years of age, and realized his career would never go higher than where he was right then. He’d wanted so much more. He’d believed he could reach the top. But he was an upper middle manager with a big oil company, and now he knew he’d never be more than an upper middle manager. I tried to help Chris see that the work ahead of him was still great work, but he couldn’t take it in. His lost dream had left him with only confusion.
These disciples were like that in relation to Jesus. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people,” they said (v. 19). They’d believed in him. They’d seen a future in which God redeemed his people through this man. But he was gone. And with him their dreams were gone.
They were angry, seriously angry because of what the rulers of Israel had done with Jesus. “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him” (v. 20). They knew that the Romans had done the actual crucifying, but it was a death that would never have happened without the deliberate actions of their leaders. Anger confuses the mind; it never clarifies thinking.
And above all they were disappointed. Verse 21: “…we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.”
There were probably many ways in which these disciples had misunderstood the mission of Jesus. Perhaps they still saw him through the Jewish lens for the Messiah, as the great conqueror who would triumphantly sweep all enemies away from God’s people. But God had not done that. He’d not done what they wanted him to do.
But even at the end, maybe they’d remembered Jesus’ promises of resurrection on the third day. “It’s now that day,” they’re telling their companion. But they’d seen no Jesus. They were crushed. Even though they may have had a wrong conception of the Messiah, they had believed Jesus was the Messiah. But the Messiah could not be dead. And, as best they knew, Jesus was dead. So they were disappointed, desperately disappointed.
Everyone was excited when Gary and Julie got engaged. There could hardly have been a more perfect couple. He was a handsome man, and she was a beautiful woman. They’d taken time to know each other, and the more they knew each other the more love grew. The first I learned that they were engaged was when I met Julie in the street, and she held out her left hand to show me the sparkling diamond on her finger. It was great news.
Gary had volunteered for mission work in Africa. So, not long after their engagement, off Gary went on a six month project. I didn’t meet him until a few weeks after he came back. I asked him about the mission, but Gary was strangely quiet. His answers were short, a minimum of words spoken with no enthusiasm.
“So how’s Julie?” I tried. “You must be excited to be back together.” Gary looked at me with blank eyes and the saddest look I’d ever seen. There was a long silence. Then, his voice trembling, he told me the story. He’d been in a very remote place in Africa, so there was never any chance for phone calls. But they’d written letters almost every day. Except, after a month or two, Julie’s letters had become fewer and stranger. He’d written asking what was wrong, but there was no clear answer. And just before he came home, her letters stopped. “I don’t know everything that happened,” he told me now. “But someone else came into her life, and there was a final letter for me when I got back saying she was leaving with her new ‘friend’ and she’d never be back.”
Of course Gary had tried to reach her, but she wanted no contact. And a broken-hearted, dispirited, and disappointed man was left behind. Everything he’d hoped for the future was now gone.
Two broken-hearted, dispirited, and disappointed disciples stood on that road to Emmaus. Totally bewildered, they’d seen their dream of redemption disappear over one sad weekend.
And now something else had happened. It had affected their state of mind in one other way: complete confusion.
“In addition, some of our women amazed us,” reported the disciples. “They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus” (Luke 24:22-24).
In those words, the disciples told two things to their new companion.
First they explained about the women’s testimony. The women had reported that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb; that they saw angels; and the angels gave them a message that he was alive. That was their story, and, on the whole, the wider body of believers thought the whole thing was “nonsense” (Luke 24:11).
But, there was more. The rest of the believers had at least done something other than dismiss the women’s evidence. Even though their story seemed impossible, the believers had looked for themselves. Luke had already told how Peter went to the tomb (v. 12), but he was just the first. The Emmaus road disciples now reported that several had gone there. The tomb was empty, but they didn’t see Jesus. And they had no idea what to make of that.
All of this left these travelers in a state of deep confusion.
But we want to shout back to them through history: “Listen to your own words! How could you not know what to make of this? You’d heard Jesus promise he would rise from the dead. You’d been told by women that angels had announced he was alive. You’ve sent your own inspectors to the tomb and they found it just as empty as the women did. Can’t you see what’s happened? Can’t you believe the good news?”
But standing on that road, half way to Emmaus, they could neither see nor believe. There was an abundance of evidence. They had the facts. Jesus wasn’t telling them what had happened; they were telling it to Jesus! But, at just that moment, they were stuck. Perhaps they couldn’t get past the horrible reality that they’d seen Jesus die. Perhaps they didn’t dare to believe again in case their faith proved wrong. Perhaps the mishmash of raging hope and dreadful disappointment in their heads simply overwhelmed them.
Often that’s also how it is for us, at least for a time. We experience dreadful tragedy. We suffer deep disappointment. The future we saw before us is snatched away. The ambition we always cherished will never be fulfilled. The love we offered is rejected. The trust we invested is spurned.
So we cry out:
“How could God let this happen?”
“What is God doing with my life?”
“How could I have been so wrong?”
“How will I ever make sense of this?”
“What do I do now?”
Questions like these fill the mind during the dark night of the soul, during times of deepest darkness, cursed confusion, even appalling anger. We feel so let down.
But those confused disciples were only a short distance from Emmaus, and therefore only a little time from seeing Jesus and in a moment every loss and every doubt would be turned into good news. It is the same for us. In our darkest night, the dawn of God’s goodness is only a short distance away. Our journey is not yet finished, and the best is yet to be.
 It does not appear in any of the other gospels.
 Luke 9:22; 18:33
 They were brave to do so, because they were increasingly identifying themselves as believers in Jesus which was far from a safe status.
 In verse 4 of this chapter, Luke had simply referred to men at the tomb. But clearly he didn’t see any difficulty in interchanging between ‘men’ and ‘angels,’ and that keeps his account in harmony with other gospel records.