A Strange Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus, Part Two – Luke 24:25-35
By: Northern Seminary
As a child I loved the road to Emmaus story, which culminates with two disciples finally recognizing Jesus as he broke bread at the beginning of their meal together. But in those younger years I always felt one quirky detail was unfortunate: no one actually got anything to eat! Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, they recognized him, and instantly he disappeared. The disciples were so excited they immediately got their sandals on and, in the dark, walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell everyone they had met Jesus. So Jesus didn’t eat. And the disciples didn’t eat. No one had dinner!
If there is a serious lesson from my childhood observation, it is this: that sometimes God acts in such a significant way that all ordinary things have to be abandoned because the new thing God is doing is so important there can be no delay. Other things can wait. God’s will is for right now.
With that in mind, now the second half of the story of the walk to Emmaus.
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together 34 and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” 35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
Now we come to the second half of Luke’s account of the meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. There is a cliché often used by sports commentators, that the contest had been a game of two halves. In other words, everything changed in the second half. It certainly did here.
Until this point, Jesus has listened while his two walking companions have poured out their hearts about the events in Jerusalem and their disappointed dreams about the one they had hoped was the Messiah.
Now – still unrecognized – Jesus takes charge of the conversation. That changes everything. And the transformation that follows can be summed up in three words: learning; seeing and sharing.
First came learning for these disciples.
Jesus was honest and direct in what he had to say to them.
He told them two things.
One was that they had not read their scriptures thoroughly:
“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (v. 25)
The other thing he told them was what they’d missed:
“Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (v. 26)
They had not taken into account all that the prophets had said, and in particular they’d failed to realize the scriptures taught that the Messiah would suffer. And, as the journey continued, Jesus gradually explained from the law and the prophets the whole of what was taught about what would happen when the Messiah came (v. 27).
These travelers were not below average in their education. Their understanding was the same as almost every Jew around them. The commonly held view was that God would send a conquering warrior Messiah to defeat all those who oppressed Israel. The Messiah would lead the nation to glorious victory over its enemies. This God-anointed superhero would experience no defeat. He certainly would not die like a criminal in the hands of pagan Romans. How could that possibly be victory?
‘But you missed it,’ Jesus tells his companions on the road. ‘You missed so much that was always prophesied about the Messiah.’
Maybe he reminded them of Psalm 22 with its graphic descriptions of suffering so like what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. And Psalm 118 described opposition:
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.” (Ps. 118:22)
Almost certainly he emphasized Isaiah 53, the ‘Suffering Servant’ passage, and perhaps this verse:
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:6)
This emphasis was news to these travelers. Their teachers talked of the Messiah, but never of a suffering Messiah. Jesus, by contrast, said this is how it had to be (v. 26). The Greek word used meant something was necessary. The suffering of Jesus was not an accident and not an option. It was what had to happen.
When Jesus pledged his life to go about his Father’s business (Luke 2:49), and when he prayed for no will to be done except his Father’s will (Luke 22:42), he committed himself to the plan of God. And the plan of God included the cross. His death was no design of evil people, whether Jewish or Roman. His death was no breach in the plan of God from which Jesus needed to be rescued. It was front and center in God’s purposes. From Genesis where the serpent was told that he would crush the heel of the offspring of Adam and Eve but that offspring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), the evidence was there that the death of Jesus was planned for. He would die for sin, and he would conquer death and defeat Satan by rising again. This is how God always intended it.
Until that journey, these two travelers had not understood. They’d been looking for the Messiah, and they’d believed they’d found him. Now they were confused, but only because this Messiah didn’t conform to what they expected of their Messiah.
The ability to be blind to what we don’t expect to see, or don’t want to see, is in all of us. My mother – who loved God with all her heart – glossed over every reference to hell in the New Testament. She said she didn’t like the idea. So, for her, it wasn’t there.
What we like or don’t like.
What we want or don’t want.
Neither of those are the issue. The issue is always and only what God has willed, because what God has willed is what God will do. Closing our eyes to the Father’s business doesn’t change his business. He calls us to surrender our preferences and join him in his plan. That begins with being open to all that the scriptures say, being a learner like these travelers to Emmaus.
Second came seeing for these disciples.
A journalist could have written the dramatic account that follows. Journalists don’t normally witness events, but they get the story from those who have. Luke may have done exactly that. What Luke wrote could be precisely what the travelers to Emmaus told him.
The three travelers reach Emmaus. For two it was the end of their journey, but apparently not for Jesus. He seemed to be going further. But it was almost evening. Light was fading and so was energy. So the two disciples invited their companion to stay the night. That was typical middle eastern hospitality, but they had another motive. Luke says they “urged him strongly” to stay (v. 29). Why? Because they wanted to hear more of what he had to say.
Interestingly, they never got more teaching. Instead they got something better. It happened during the evening meal. Some church traditions see the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the breaking of bread that followed. Luke had already described that special Supper (22:14-20), and reports nothing about the meal in Emmaus that is different from any account of three people eating their evening meal together.
Except this was very different. For some reason, the guest took charge. He lifted the bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to hand it out. At that moment – that exact moment – the others suddenly knew who this was. It was Jesus. Their crucified Savior was not dead but alive, and not just alive but the one who had walked the road with them and who was now serving bread to them in their evening meal.
Why did they recognize him at that moment? These two were not part of the eleven remaining apostles (as Luke makes clear in verse 33), so they had not been present at the Last Supper. But they were followers of Jesus and therefore this was not the first time he broke bread in their company. Perhaps there was something very distinctive about Jesus’ prayer or the way the bread was broken and shared that suddenly helped them see who this was. Many speculate that that’s what happened.
They may be right, at least partly. Certainly those Emmaus disciples knew it was Jesus when he broke the bread, which Luke mentions in verse 35. But Luke doesn’t say they knew him because he broke the bread or because of the way in which he broke the bread. These disciples saw this was Jesus because at that exact moment “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (v. 31). The technicalities of the grammar are that the verb is an aorist passive indicative, so Luke is saying that their recognition of Jesus was something that happened in a moment of time, and that it was something which happened to these disciples and not something done by them. On the road they had been kept from recognizing him (v.16), but now the Lord who had shut their eyes opened their eyes and they knew it was Jesus.
Then Luke writes the strangest thing:
“They recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.” (v. 31)
It was as if everything that needed to be accomplished – the learning on the road and the seeing during the meal – had been accomplished. There was nothing else to be done at that moment. So Jesus disappeared.
A little later he would suddenly appear right in the midst of the whole gathering of disciples in Jerusalem (v. 36). Jesus’ risen body seemed to know no physical boundaries, and yet he could tell the assembled believers to see his wounded hands and feet and be sure it was really him. And he said: “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (v. 39). Certainly it is a mystery how a very solid, fleshly Jesus could appear or disappear, but certainly he could.
And, back in Emmaus, two disciples were left trembling with excitement.
“They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’” (v. 32)
The words used by these disciples have a strange parallel to the conversion account of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.
On May 24, 1738, Wesley went to a meeting house in London. In his journal he described what happened next.
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.”
And in that moment it all changed for John Wesley.
My own experience at age eighteen was lying wide awake in bed at 2:40 in the morning, wrestling to understand about Jesus, and suddenly a light greater than anything I’d ever seen flooded my mind and I knew, deeply and convincingly, that Jesus had died for me. What had been an idea was now a certainty, and in that moment my life became his.
No two experiences are the same. Yet, whether suddenly and dramatically or slowly and carefully our hearts are set on fire, and the burning of truth and love about Jesus never goes out.
Third came sharing by these disciples
The disciples never ate their meal. Nothing but nothing was more important than what they now knew, and they had to tell others.
Luke writes that the very same hour as they recognized Jesus, they set off back to Jerusalem. No one would have advised them to make that journey. In Uganda, as light was fading, I set off with two friends to get back to the city from a remote village. Within minutes the whole countryside around us was dark. As we drove through that countryside, nothing at all lit the landscape. Our car’s lights picked out the road, but I was acutely aware that deep darkness can hide very bad people on a road like that, or if we had an accident no one would find us until daylight. We should have stayed where we were.
These disciples couldn’t stay where they were. It must have been near impossible to see anything of the track on which they walked, but they were determined to cover those seven miles in as short a time as possible and share their news.
In Jerusalem it was late in the evening when they arrived but they found the apostles and many others in a very excited state. The two who’d come from Emmaus were not the only ones now who had seen Jesus. “It is true!” people said. “The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon” (v. 34).
Somehow, finally, the two very weary travelers managed to make themselves heard. Luke reports:
“Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.” (v. 35)
Two things are important to notice at the end of this Emmaus journey account.
One was the imperative to share the good news of Jesus. Sometimes preachers use the Great Commission passage of Matthew 28:19-20 as the basis to urge people to tell the gospel to others. Certainly Jesus commanded all believers to make disciples from all nations. It is something that must be done.
But a command is not as great a compulsion as a conviction. To know that Jesus Christ died for you and for others; to know he is raised from the dead and present with us today; to know that forgiveness of sins and eternal life is there for all who will believe – that conviction drives us out and to go everywhere with the good news.
Within a very little time of giving my life to Christ I was making clumsy efforts to tell others. They really were poor efforts. Perhaps the only thing that might have won people over was my sheer passion for others to understand and believe. But I could never have kept quiet. I knew the most important news anyone could have. I had to tell.
These disciples had to tell. It was unthinkable they would have recognized Jesus, known that he was alive, and then eaten their meal and lain down for the night. They walked miles through the dark to tell others. The imperative to share the good news lies deep and strong in the hearts of those who are convinced about that good news.
The other thing of importance is to see who Luke records as those who first knew Jesus had risen from the dead.
His reporting began with women hearing about the resurrection from angels at the entrance to an empty tomb (24:1-8). Initially, their report was dismissed by others as nonsense (24:11). But what the women said did make them wonder where Jesus’ body had gone (24:12, 22-24).
Then Luke gives a great deal of space to the two people joined on a journey to Emmaus by a stranger they did not recognize. Yet, when he gave thanks and broke bread as they sat down for a meal together, suddenly they saw that this was Jesus and they knew he was risen (24:13-35).
And then, without details to the story, Luke reports that everyone back in Jerusalem was excited because the Lord had appeared to Simon (24:33-34).
What’s interesting is that Luke lists these people as the first to discover the resurrection truth: women, two ordinary disciples, and an apostle. In first century Jewish society women didn’t rank high as witnesses. The travelers to Emmaus had been followers of Jesus, but not part of the eleven remaining core apostles. Then there was Simon, one of the most senior of that close-knit apostolic group. Those were the people who got the news. Why did it not begin with Simon? And why weren’t the next in line people like James, John, Andrew, Philip, or Matthew, rather than the two more distant believers who were on the Emmaus road? And why the women?
The answers? There are at least these. One, God was not interested in sequencing the news release about his Son according to any human definitions of rank or importance. Two, the good news of the gospel, including the news that Christ is risen, is equally available to all people. No one is above or before anyone else.
He is risen. Women knew it. Ordinary disciples knew it. An apostle knew it. And before long hundreds more, and then more and more and more right down the ages to people just like us. It’s news. It’s life-giving, life-changing news. And it’s for every single one of us.
 But it became an important part of the message of the first Christians. For example Paul – steeped in the Old Testament – emphasized it strongly. Luke (in Acts) records that in Thessalonica:
“As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead.” (Acts 17:2-3)