One of my favorite stories from the Gospels is found in Luke 24:13–35. Two disciples were walking the seven-mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday. As they talked to one another about Jesus’ death and about that very morning’s reports of His resurrection, Jesus himself walked up alongside them.
Curiously, Luke notes, “they were kept from recognizing him.” From this point on, what drives the story forward is a burning question: Will the disciples see Jesus?
Jesus inserted himself into the disciples’ conversation by asking, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They responded: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
Consider the irony of this question. Of course Jesus knew the things that happened in Jerusalem! They happened to Him.
Jesus played dumb, however, and asked, “What things?”
The disciples then narrated the high points of Jesus’ ministry, arrest, and crucifixion, adding, “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” Finally, they told Jesus — not realizing, remember, that it was Jesus — about rumors of His resurrection.
All in all, they were two dejected and confused disciples.
Luke describes Jesus’ reaction: “He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
Eventually, Jesus and the disciples reached Emmaus. “Jesus continued on as if he were going farther,” but the disciples invited him to stay with them because the hour was late and the roads were dangerous. As they sat down to dinner, Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.”
Luke describes what happens next: “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight” (emphasis added).
Despite the lateness of the hour and the dangers of the road, the two disciples immediately returned to Jerusalem to report the news, telling the others “what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread” (emphasis added).
Why did Luke include this story in his Gospel?
Some commentators argue that Luke did so to ground Christian faith in eyewitness testimony. That fits well with what Luke himself writes about the purpose of his Gospel: “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4). Paul may have had the Emmaus disciples’ testimony in mind when he listed Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to over 500 eyewitnesses in 1 Corinthians 15:5–8.
I think Luke has a larger purpose than mere historical testimony, however. From a literary point of view, the burning question at the heart of this story is whether the disciples will see Jesus. What’s interesting to me is that the disciples do not see Jesus after “he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
And yet, having heard the Author explain His own story, the disciples still did not see Jesus. Oh sure, the Bible study had a powerful effect on them: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Burning hearts were not seeing eyes, however.
Instead, the disciples saw Jesus when they invited Him into their house and broke bread with Him. Luke 24:30 uses four verbs to describe how Jesus ate with the two disciples: take, bless, break, and give. These same verbs appear in Luke’s account of the Last Supper: “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them” (22:19). The first three verbs also appear in Paul’s instructions about Communion in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26, where the giving of the elements is implicit.
In other words, the Emmaus disciples saw Jesus when they communed at the Table with Him, not when they studied the Bible with Him.
The story of the Emmaus disciples is a spiritual lesson, then, not just a history lesson.
We mistakenly believe that spiritual growth is the result of more information. As a lifelong student of the Bible, I don’t want to underplay the importance of Bible study. Jesus certainly didn’t. He took time to explain how everything in “Moses and all the prophets” (i.e., the Old Testament) pointed to Him.
But I don’t want to overplay the importance of Bible study either. After all, the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus even after He explained Scripture. Instead, they saw Him when they offered hospitality to the Stranger, welcoming Him into their homes and breaking bread with Him.
Spiritual transformation takes place when we put the Word of God into practice, not merely when we study it. It happens when our individual faith leads us into neighborly fellowship. So, let us resolve to live hospitably, for when we welcome others into Christian communion, we welcome Christ.
And in welcoming Christ, one day, like those disciples on the road to Emmaus, we will see Him “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.