KILLED FILM DIRECTORS develop it; successful comedians build on it; and stories that “live” depend on it.
What is it? Anticipation. But thoughtless use of this necessary commodity can result in pointless suffering.
Who could tolerate a physician toying with the emotions of those waiting critical test results? What teacher builds up a student’s hopes only to reveal a failing grade? Good news or bad news, the facts have to surface. But when the news is good, when it can remove doubts or turn sadness to joy, the sooner the better!
For this reason, the story of Luke 24 seems odd and in some ways incomprehensible. Here we find two discouraged travelers heading home after a most disappointing weekend. Beside them we find a loving and merciful Savior. Yet, rather than bringing immediate relief and joy to this sandal-clad pair, we find Him concealing the good news of His resurrection for an entire afternoon. What possible reason could He have for such delay and seeming insensitivity?
Early in the story we are told the reason for their discouragement. After joining the two, Jesus had asked the reason for their distress. They’d replied, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days? . . . [how] Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, and how the chief priest and our rulers delivered Him up to the sentence of death and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (verses 18-21).*
“We were hoping”!
Indeed, a good many had been hoping. At this time, and for some time prior, Israel had been under Roman control.Roman occupation was in every way a reminder that they were not their own. Jews in general, and this pair in particular, were tired of the arbitrary tax codes and outside interference in their religious lives. Not only were they tired of the abusive external controls, but equally so of the ineptitude and indifference at work in so many of their own religious leaders.
But three years earlier, something strange—yet wonderful—had begun to take place. From near and far, reports of a new and dynamic liberator had begun to make their way to the small Emmaean village. At first, the pair dismissed the reports as but another inept visionary’s short-lived attempt to garner popular support under a popular banner. But with time, the two could not help noting–and even admiring—the peculiar nature of His work. Here was One telling stories with great insightfulness—a visionary, indeed! Additionally, it was said He performed miracles on a par with the prophets of old. Most significant, however, was His apparent sensitivity and concern for the most urgent need of all—freedom. He spoke of a “new kingdom.” He told of a new kind of life. Casting aside their initial doubts, the friends found new life in their new hope, the hope that He was “the One.”
But with His death now three days old, these two are found describing their faith in the past tense. The trip home was not only painful (in so many ways), but each step carried them farther from this victory turned failure, and closer to the misunderstanding and ridicule certainly awaiting them in their hometown of Emmaus.
The two had originally made their way to the annual Passover with expectations of kingly ascension. Early on, things had seemed to support their hopes, with Christ entering the city amid joyful celebrations and triumphant song. But it simply was not to be. Rather than see their leader seated upon a throne, they had watched in utter disbelief as He was placed upon a Roman cross instead. The irony was more than their hearts could bear. How alone and disappointed they must have felt!
Yet in the vastness of time, they are not alone, for we have kept their company at various times in our own lives. Once held captive by a foreign power, we longed for a freedom we’d been powerless to obtain. But somewhere along the way a message of hope found its way to us, as well. And like this pair, we took up the journey, the search for the One who could bring us the joy and freedom our hearts longed for.
The sad part of it is, we not only join these two in their bright-eyed trek to Jerusalem but also plod the heavy-hearted trip back home. We begin the spiritual life with great expectations. But when that life takes unexpected turns, or faces difficulties greater than bargained for, we head back to “Emmaus.”
In this sense “Emmaus” represents that which is common or comfortable. Ironically, while our “Emmaus” portends comfort, it also represents things known to be ultimately unsatisfying. Familiarity is a hollow victory, for we know our “Emmaus” remains a small town in a country still under enemy control.
In such times we, like this pair, are in need of a Savior. We need a Messiah who can stand up and rid life’s land of enemies far too strong for us to fight alone. But what can we do? And what could they do? All hope for a Savior was gone.
Or was it?
In the case of those travelers, there was hope—for Jesus was alive. And it is precisely this point that brings us back to our original question. Knowing their disappointment stemmed from the thought that He was dead, why didn’t Jesus simply tell them He was alive? What good could possibly come from such delay? This essential question can be answered only by considering what happened between their revealing their burden and His revealing Himself.
Jesus’ first response came in the form of an impassioned plea: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (verses 25, 26). Instead of immediately revealing Himself, Jesus instead chose to reveal the Scriptures. I believe He did so because He knew a bolt of lightning, or a miraculous appearing, would only resurrect the savior they had buried three days prior. But raising that savior was the last thing Jesus wanted to do.
That messiah had not brought freedom or deliverance, but only frustration and defeat. There was a simple reason for the inadequacy of that kind of savior: he was a savior of their own making. As such, that messiah must remain entombed. In his place, Christ hoped to raise a real Savior; the real Savior. The last thing Jesus wanted to do was to reveal Himself. The first thing He wanted to do was to teach them how to recognize the Savior when they saw Him.
So Jesus allowed these two disciples time to search their own hearts and expectations in light of the Scriptures. His silence was not abandonment, but a means of allowing the Scriptures to speak for themselves. Christ knew they could understand His resurrection correctly only when they rightly understood His death. It was not that their thinking wasn’t well reasoned. Their logic was impeccable. How, they had asked, could this Messiah have possibly saved us from further mishandling by the Romans? He couldn’t even save Himself from our own religious leaders. Perhaps He had been a prophet, but He was no Savior!
In fact, the priests and scribes had voiced the same ideas at Christ’s crucifixion. They had declared, “He saved others, He cannot save Himself. If He is the king of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross and we will believe in Him” (Matt. 27:42). But in Jesus’ response to these two misguided travelers, He showed the same compassion shown those who surrounded His cross. For while walking and talking with them, He showed the Emmaus pair that He forgave their poor vision; for they, too, knew not with whom they spoke.
Christ’s concern for these travelers was more than a desire for theological accuracy. He was ultimately and intimately absorbed in their experiencing victory and vitality in their everyday lives. Christ knew human-made saviors lack power because they’re ill-equipped for the task at hand. We tend to minimize and simplify our problems. As a result, we produce imaginary saviors, perfectly suited for our imaginary selves. The problem is, our imaginary saviors can produce only make-believe victories in our everyday lives. Real-life problems require a real and living Savior. Such a One we cannot produce.
Knowing this, Christ based His own life upon the Scriptures. What’s more, He instructs us to do the same. The Bible tells us both who we are and who He is. And these are the very things we cannot see on our own. When Jesus asked His disciples who He was, Peter replied, “‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Jesus answered, “‘Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you’” (Matt. 16:16, 17).
Jesus so very much cared for these disciples. He saw that they had no Savior. He knew they longed for one. Jesus cares for you and me as well, and wants to save us from similar disappointment and wandering.
We may create our own messiahs, or we may allow others to make them for us. But unless our savior conforms to the One foretold in the Scriptures, we hold only myths and empty dreams. The death of Jesus was a low point in the spiritual experience of these two; it was proof to them that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah after all. They had come to this conclusion because they knew one thing for sure: their messiah would never have allowed himself to suffer so. But this was their thinking before their Emmaean walk.
After spending that day in the Scriptures, they finally understood that the promised Messiah would indeed suffer so—if He found good cause. As Jesus raised His hands to bless their evening meal, they saw the nail prints and knew that He had found good cause. They were the cause and He was the Messiah. The scars in His hands were exclamation points that said, “It’s true, all true! And I did it just for you!”
The Emmaus story tells us much about life, bondage, freedom, and faith. Perhaps more than anything, it reminds us that the true Messiah can be found only through the presence of His Word and the leading of His Spirit—walking and talking with Christ through His Word. Their experience is our invitation. Why not begin the journey today?
*All Scripture passages are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Joel Ingram writes from Glendale, California, where he serves as director of chaplaincy, bereavement, and volunteer services for St. Ann Hospice.