(Illustration: Description of seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time.)
Have you ever had an experience where things didn't turn out as you had expected? Who hasn't had at least one experience like that? Maybe it was a restaurant that didn't live up to the hype. Maybe it was a vacation that turned out to be a bust. Maybe you've experienced that in your career or in your marriage—it's not all you expected it to be.
For many, that describes their experience with Christ and the church. What they thought Christianity was going to be is not what they've experienced it to be—and disappointment and despair have settled in.
That was the experience of two people who were traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus the first Easter. They were distraught and disappointed by the events they had witnessed. So what changed their perspective? An encounter with the resurrected Christ.
What this story does for us is that it shows us how easy it is for us to try to make Jesus fit in our "box"—to conform to our preconceived ideas. The truth is, when we can't see Jesus for who he really is, the problem is always on the receiving end, never on the revealing end.
Do you want to see the resurrected and living Jesus for who he is in your life? If so, let's ask a couple of vital questions about this story.
What prevents us from seeing Jesus?
Why were these two kept from recognizing Jesus? I think the answer to that question is why this passage is important to us. Jesus doesn't just want these two to see that he is resurrected and alive; he wants them to understanding why his death had to happen, and that requires taking the time to address their faulty perspective. The two on the road to Emmaus were unable to see Jesus walking right beside them for the same reasons that we often are unable to see Jesus in our own circumstances.
One of these reasons involves unrealistic expectations.
The conversation starts off with Cleopas and his companion basically asking Jesus: "Are you from another planet or something? How can you not know what has been happening this week?" Everything they say is true—Jesus was a prophet, and more than a prophet. He was "powerful in word and deed" (v. 19). Notice they say Jesus was known this way to both God and "all the people" (v. 19). Then in verse 20, they make it clear it was the religious leaders who wanted Jesus dead, not the majority of people who were amazed by his life and his teaching. But verse 21 is where we see their problem: "[B]ut we had hoped … " So much is contained in that small phrase. How many times have we said the same four words to begin a sentence about our relationship with God?
These two people on the road to Emmaus were followers of Jesus who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, that he was going to redeem Israel. They expected the glory of the Messiah's promised kingdom, fulfillment of all the promises given to Abraham and David. But what they didn't expect was the death of the Messiah. When Jesus died, he was immediately disqualified: especially when he was sentenced to death by the leaders of Israel. Surely they must know. That he was actually killed by idolatrous enemies is beyond comprehension. The whole nation has rejected the idea of considering him as Messiah.
They use the word "redeem" in verse 21. It only appears this one time in Luke, but it appeared at least 150 times in the Old Testament. Everybody knew that to "redeem" something, you had to pay a price, buy it back. They should have known something about what that price was because they had just finished with Passover, and they all knew that at Passover, you sacrificed an animal whose life was given as a price for forgiveness. They should have understood the price of forgiveness, but until they really understood that the Messiah was going to be the final sacrifice, they couldn't process that.
There was just no place in their messianic theology for a dying Messiah. It wasn't that the Old Testament didn't say it; the Old Testament said it in detail. It was that they weren't interested in believing it. They didn't follow Jesus and the disciples because they thought they were going to get persecuted; they followed Jesus because they thought they might get to sit on his right and left hand in the kingdom. They really didn't want to die with him. They wanted to reign with him.
What is it that you have no place in your theology for? Experiencing hardship and suffering, even when you are seeking to follow Jesus? Being misunderstood or rejected by those who call themselves Christian? We won't see Jesus when we have unrealistic expectations.
Another reason we're unable to see Jesus is incomplete knowledge. These two, on that road to Emmaus, only had a partial understanding of what had happened to Jesus. Partial knowledge often leads to unrealistic expectations. How often do we take some Bible truth and think we have it down and run with it, instead of continuing to follow closely after Jesus? Mike Yaconelli, in his book Dangerous Wonder, says it this way: "The Christian life is more than just finding Jesus; it is following Jesus."
There is a gap in their knowledge, and that gap is that dying and rising again was part of the plan of God all along. The writers of the four gospels continually make the point that none of Jesus' followers expected a resurrection. They didn't even believe that the Messiah would die, let alone rise again. Bottom line: They didn't see him.
These two are thinking, If Peter and John were right, and he's out of the grave at six in the morning, and it's two in the afternoon, then where is he? They're referencing the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who came back and just saw the open grave but didn't see anything else. This is convincing proof to them that the whole thing has collapsed. Nobody's seen him, and it's already late on the third day.
Actually, they have—in their own words—clearly articulated their problem. They have defined their need to know, their need to understand reality. They need to know that Jesus arose. They need to know that he is alive. They need to know that this is part of the plan; this is not a violation of the plan, as if God is just reacting to whatever may happen. They need to know the facts. They need to have their misunderstanding corrected, and so Jesus is in the position now to give them the answers they need.
It wasn't that they didn't believe the Scriptures; it's that they didn't believe the part of the Scripture they didn't know. The problem was they had a selected, limited, partial understanding of Scripture, which is very dangerous. Were they right to expect Christ to reign in his glory? Absolutely. Does the Old Testament teach that the Messiah will reign over Israel, fulfill all his promises, and rule over the world? Absolutely. All of that is promised in the Old Testament, and they knew and believed that. But like the rest of the Jews in their culture, they had fixed their expectation only on the partial truth of Messiah's triumphant glory and had not believed all that was written in the Prophets. Partial knowledge is dangerous.
What are the gaps in your knowledge that have led you to disappointment? If we are unable to see Jesus at times, does that mean he is not there? No! It means we have stopped short of truly following and have decided that we know enough. How many people claim to know Jesus and yet don't even talk to him once a day in prayer? How many "Christians" have settled for knowing what they thought was enough to get them into heaven, so they don't take time each day to listen to Jesus as he speaks through the Scriptures by the power of the Holy Spirit? Our inability to see the risen Christ in our lives is for the same reason these two were prevented from seeing: unrealistic expectations that grew out of incomplete knowledge.
But the good news is this: Jesus offers to do for us exactly what he did for them.
How can we recognize the resurrected Jesus?
Let's look at how Jesus helped these two be able to see, and let's trust that he wants to do the same for you and me today.
First, we must admit our lack of understanding. These two are confused because they only understand part of the Old Testament. They only understand part of the prophecies regarding the Messiah. Jesus explains to them that they have a limited view of the Messiah. They weren't interested in that; they were swept up in this kingdom fever. They had this system of belief that blinded them to the parts of Scripture that talked about suffering. So Jesus begins with a rebuke.
Notice Jesus doesn't blame Scripture. He doesn't say, "Well, the Old Testament is a really hard book." He doesn't do that. He doesn't say, "I feel your pain; it's so hard to understand the Old Testament."
Are you willing to admit that what Jesus says here in verse 25 is true of you? This is what keeps us from seeing Jesus: refusing to admit we don't know the whole story. The fault is not with the Scripture. He never says the Scripture lacks clarity. Scripture is never to blame. Jesus says things like this: "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God" (Matt. 22:29). Or, positively, he says, "You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39).
The Scriptures are clear. What blinds them is the unrealistic expectation that has dominated them so that they don't want to see anything but that. They have read the Scripture very selectively. Now Jesus is going to give them the full story.
This is where we have to begin if we are going to see the resurrected Christ: We have to admit there are gaps in our knowledge. We have to admit we have a lack of understanding, and that has led us to have unrealistic expectations about Jesus and about Christianity.
Maybe you expected following Jesus to be easier than you have found it. You had this idea that it was all happiness and joy, and then you found out that following Jesus is messy, grueling, uncomfortable, and requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, effort, and grace. Christianity is often perceived as an escape, a crutch, a way to avoid the harsh realities of life, but it's the exact opposite—it's a journey that embraces truth and confronts the world in brave, honest, and often painfully difficult ways.
Maybe you thought that becoming a Christian would solve all your problems. But sicknesses don't always go away. Broken relationships don't always get better. Your income doesn't improve. Simply put, troubles don't just disappear. Christian faith is more about creating a relationship with God than finding a magic solution to all of life's difficulties.
Maybe you thought that once you prayed a prayer or walked an aisle, that was all you needed to do, and you were done. But you have come to realize that was really only the beginning and that God expects you to grow and to change and to serve, and that just wasn't on your radar.
Maybe for you, the problem comes in how other believers treat you. You had expected that you would be loved and accepted by all, and when you have been criticized and judged, you have given into despair and disappointment. Maybe you didn't realize that being like Jesus meant laying down your life in serving others, not being continually served by others. Or maybe you had the expectation that being unified as Christians meant that everyone would agree on everything, and then you discovered that other people who love Jesus as much as you have different views and beliefs, and that confuses you.
The key is this: Are you willing to admit that your unrealistic expectations were wrong? Are you willing humbly to acknowledge that maybe you didn't have all the knowledge you thought you did, and that you still have much to learn in order to fully recognize Jesus? That's the first step!
Then, allow Jesus to reveal himself. Can you imagine what it must have been like to experience Jesus himself explaining the whole Old Testament and how it related to him? One thing that may seem obvious, but I can't just assume that you see it, is this: Jesus is the theme of Scripture! He's the theme of the Old Testament. All 39 books look at him, either explicitly or implicitly. As they walk along the road, Jesus goes through the whole Old Testament and speaks about himself.
What he wants to communicate to them is that before the glory comes the suffering: "Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" Leviticus 17:11 spelled it out: "[I]t is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." They knew that sin caused death and that God would accept the death of a substitute. But they also knew that no animal ever offered would satisfy God completely, because they had to offer another animal and another one and another one. No Day of Atonement sacrifice satisfied for the nation because the next year they had to do it all over again. Every Jew knew that sin brought death. Every Jew knew that God would provide a substitute.
But there had never been a final substitute, never been a sufficient sacrifice, never been satisfaction on God's part. That's the part they needed to know. They needed to know that, having suffered, the Messiah could enter into his glory. There wouldn't be anybody else in that glory if the Messiah didn't suffer! That's what Jesus had to help them see.
Have you come to the point of seeing that? That it is only through the death of Jesus that you can enter heaven? We could spend a lot of time looking at the passages in the Old Testament that look forward to that final substitute the Messiah had to suffer. I don't know what all Jesus told them that day, but I am certain he eventually got to Isaiah.
This is the final substitute. This is a biblical picture of the Messiah, the one who lays down his life for our sin. Jesus had to help these two see that sin was the real enemy, not the Romans or any human enemy.
That is what Jesus has to reveal to us: that sin and Satan are the real enemies, not other Christians, not other religions, not other races, not other political parties, not other viewpoints. "[O]ur struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Eph. 6:12), which means people are not our greatest problem. Jesus called us to love our enemies, and quite frankly, there are too many systems of belief today that have no place for that! Have you allowed Jesus to reveal himself to you?
Once he does, here is how we respond: We abandon ourselves to follow Jesus.
I think it is significant to mention that when they ask Jesus to stay, they still don't know who he is yet. They still don't know this is Jesus. What is firing up their hearts is not seeing Jesus; what fires up their hearts is to understand the Scriptures. For the same reason that Jesus had asked questions, he wants them to initiate what happens next, to demonstrate their hearts had been so fired up that they wanted more. Jesus is wanting them to move beyond just knowing to following—to abandon themselves to God.
Why did they invite him in? This isn't just about hospitality. This is about more teaching. They've had enough to know they want a lot more. "Stay with us," they say (v. 29). They don't even put a time limit in there. For the night? For the evening? For an hour? Stay. "So he went in to stay with them" (v. 29). Then Jesus does the unusual thing of breaking the bread, blessing it, and beginning to give it to them. This was unusual because Jesus was not the host.
In verse 16, it said their eyes were "kept from recognizing him." Nobody who saw Jesus after the resurrection really recognized him unless God opened their eyes.
They had hoped he would be their Redeemer, and it turns out he was: "Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight" (Luke 24:31).
I love that they don't comment afterwards, "Wow! Wasn't it neat to see a glorified body? Wow, amazing. He vanished. Never seen that before. And by the way, where did he come from when he showed up on the road?" That's not what they talk about. They talk about something we can talk about today: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (v. 32).
What lit their hearts on fire was that the Scripture came alive. What was that burning in their hearts? It was the burning of joy, and the joy was so overwhelming and overpowering that they jumped up from the table when Jesus disappeared, turned right around in the pitch black, and headed back seven miles to Jerusalem to declare that he is alive!
Jesus is alive, and the Scripture is alive. Their fired-up hearts came from Jesus explaining, opening up the Scriptures. Jesus opens our eyes in the same way he did for the two on the road to Emmaus: through the Scriptures.
Two things happen when Jesus opens our eyes to recognize him. One, you have an internal passion and joy because you know it's the truth, and your salvation is secure. Two, you can't contain it, so you run to spread the fire.
Why does this story matter? Because it shows us that lives can be transformed today in the same way they were then—through the power of the Scriptures. You can know the resurrected Christ as he reveals himself through his Word. Today, he does it by the power of the Holy Spirit rather than physically walking with us, but the result is still the same: a burning desire to know him more and a passion to tell others. Are those present in your life?
If so, awesome—go out and tell someone this week. If not, here's what you need to do: Admit your lack of knowledge and your unrealistic expectations, and, starting today, spend some time every day reading God's Word and asking Jesus to open your eyes to his presence. I am confident he will answer that prayer.
Steve Abbott is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Siloam Springs, Arkansas.