Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast. 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?” “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
The major focus of this final chapter of Luke’s Gospel is without a doubt his account of the journey that two of Jesus’ disciples made that same day from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, and their sudden journey back. While the other Gospels all record the resurrection, only Luke explicitly mentions this incident and only Luke makes it central to his presentation of Christ’s resurrection.
The fact that they were leaving Jerusalem is itself very significant. As mentioned in the introduction, the second half of Luke’s Gospel is built around Christ’s journey toJerusalem. In addition, this final section from chapter 19, as we have discovered, is built around two carefully planned entrances that Jesus made to the royal city. The first was in public, riding on a borrowed donkey, identifying himself as Jerusalem’s true King. The second entrance was to a borrowed room in Jerusalem, where King Jesus established his new covenant with his disciples. But now two of his disciples were leaving the city. The implications are obvious and they are serious.
It is clear from both their body language and their words that the crucifixion of Jesus had devastated them, to the point where they had virtually given up on the idea that he was the Messiah. What high hopes they had had when they had accompanied him into the city! Now, faces downcast, they were headed in the opposite direction, out of the city, away from the scene of their devastation.
As they walked, talking about the events that had just taken place, Jesus drew alongside them just as if he was any other traveller heading in their direction. He wasn’t in disguise but they were “kept from recognising him”. How this was achieved, Luke does not explain. Some have suggested that it was their own dashed hopes and their complete lack of expectation of a resurrection that prevented them from recognising him. And certainly, there was no ‘post-resurrection glow’ around Jesus, no halo to distinguish him from others.
But I think there was more to it than that. In his gospel, John tells us that Mary Magdalene also did not at first recognise Jesus when she saw him in the Garden of Gethsemane and thought simply that he was the gardener. And then when Peter and the other disciples decided to go fishing and Jesus approached them on the shore, again they didn’t recognise him. Yet on other occasions, including here in Luke, Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection in immediately recognisable form.
It seems, therefore, that Jesus was deliberately preparing his disciples to recognise his presence when they could no longer visibly see him. That would soon be important for them. And it is even more important for us who have never seen him physically.
Certainly on this occasion, the two on the road to Emmaus that day began their time with Jesus thinking he was just a stranger and ended it with such a vivid realisation that it was truly the risen Lord, that they reversed their journey and headed back to the city as fast as they could. How did they come to recognise him? And what might we learn from this? Tomorrow’s focus will provide some answers.