The Queen’s former protection officer, Richard Griffin, shared an amusing story about when the Queen was walking in her grounds at Balmoral and met two American tourists who failed to recognise who she was.
‘The American man asked her if she lived in the area to which she replied that she did indeed have a house nearby. She said that she lived in London but had a house just over the hill, and he asked how often she had been coming up here. She said she’d been coming up for more than 80 years and you could see the cogs were ticking. He said: ‘Well if you’ve been coming up here for 80 years, you must have met the Queen?’ As quick as a flash, she said: ‘Well I haven’t but Dick here meets her regularly.’ So the guy asked me what she was like. And, because I was with her a long time, I could pull her leg, so I said she could be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humour.’
On the afternoon of the first ever Easter Sunday, there’s another conversation full of irony and perhaps humour, based on the failure of two disciples to recognise the most famous man who ever lived. One of the disciples is called Cleopas but the other is unnamed. To be fair to them, verse 16 tells us that they were ‘kept’ from recognising Jesus. This is the divine passive. Jesus deliberately keeps his identity hidden from them in some supernatural way. Why? In order to talk with them so that he could strengthen their faith and ground them in Biblical truth.
1. Fading hope
Make no mistake, these two followers of Jesus are downhearted and dejected. Before the crucifixion, they were full of hope that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, and that he would soon establish the Kingdom of God on earth. It is hard to overstate how excited and hopeful they must have been, living at a time when Jesus was teaching with such authority, performing miracles, and making extraordinary claims about himself. They had loved and followed Jesus, believing that he was the Christ. However, their high hopes are shattered as Jesus is handed over to be crucified. As Jesus died on the cross, the hopes of these men also died. They are shell-shocked, gutted and confused. They are walking home from Jerusalem back to Emmaus with these recent events dominating their minds. They are not just trying to process the crucifixion itself, but also the reports of the women who claimed that the tomb was empty and that angelic beings told them Jesus was alive! They have many questions swirling around their heads but no answers for them.
Verse 15 says they are ‘discussing’ the happenings, and this word might even mean they were arguing about what it might all mean. They have no categories for making sense of the situation, even though they should have had. I think G Campbell Morgan summaries their mindset rather well:
“We see in their attitude a wonderful revelation of what the cross had done for the disciples of Jesus. It had not destroyed their love for Him, nor their belief in Him, and His intention, but it had slain their hope. In the cross they saw failure.”
How does the risen Jesus respond to these confused and perplexed disciples. And how does he respond to us today, when we go through times of confusion, doubt, darkness, unbelief and disappointment? He responds in a wonderful and gracious way. He does not leave them in their despair. He does not ‘write them off’. He comes close to them and walks alongside them. He is going to strengthen them in their weakness. He begins by asking questions so that they can unburden their hearts to him. Jesus already understands their grief and confusion. He knows and he cares.
The words of verse 21 are so moving: ‘… we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.’ Cleopas and the other disciple had pinned their hopes on Jesus to deliver them from their earthly and spiritual enemies. As we eavesdrop into their conversation, we can see the struggle between hope and fear that battled within their hearts. Yes, Jesus needs to rebuke them for their unbelief, but he does so lovingly and in order to reignite their faith. What is Jesus’ method? How does he reignite their faith? By turning them back to the Bible and by focusing on himself. This is hugely instructive for us today, so let’s pause here for a moment.
Isn’t it true that often we are so like these disciples? We go through times of disappointed hopes. Perhaps we had great expectations for a job, a relationship or a house move, and things just haven’t worked out even nearly as we hoped. Our hopes lie in ruins. We are saddened and full of unanswered questions and ‘if onlys’. Where is Jesus in it all? If you are a follower of Jesus, then like in the passage, Jesus might well be very close to you, beside you even, but you don’t recognise him yet. He understands your doubts, fears, anger and sadness. And he cares about these things more than you think. Sometimes, like the disciples in the storm, we think, ‘Jesus, don’t you care if I’m drowning in all this mess?’
What’s the solution to our difficulties? The solution is to prayerfully open our Bibles again, and listen to the voice of Jesus. We need to believe his promises, and focus on him, rather than on our circumstances. We need to seek satisfaction through our relationship with him, and come to realise that none of us are guaranteed an easy life this side of glory. Here’s the challenging question- do you seek Jesus’ presence and advice in the Bible when you are heartbroken and disillusioned? Do you believe he is close by and will meet with you through his Word?
‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ (James 4:8)
2. The reason for their despair
We know why they are saddened and upset, but what is at the root of their despair? Like most in Israel, they failed to understand that the Messiah had to suffer first before being glorified. The Old Testament is full of such teaching, but they just didn’t read it in a balanced way. They read it selectively. They liked the parts about the Messiah reigning as King from shore to shore and bringing blessing, but their eyes seemed to glaze over passages about being crushed for our iniquities and assigned a grave with the wicked. They liked the idea of spiritual blessing, and being freed from Roman power and Israel returning to the glory days of King David, but sacrifice and the shedding of blood and death was not on the agenda at all. The wanted the crown without the cross. In a nutshell, they fail to believe what the Bible taught about the Messiah, seeing just half the picture. For them, the Messiah’s glory and great suffering simply did not mix. They lack Biblical understanding and this leaves them in despair.
Once again, I can easily be like this. I can be selective when reading the Bible and enjoy the bits about adoption, forgiveness and justification. But what about Jesus’ promise that we will be persecuted? What about the constant warring of the Spirit and the flesh in our hearts? What of the attacks of Satan on our church, our families and on us as individuals? What about not being moulded into the thinking of society around us? Do we pay as much attention to those parts, or do we have a truncated faith? Sometimes I am all at sea because I haven’t listened properly to Jesus’ teaching in the Scriptures. I just look at the wind and the waves and stop looking at Jesus in his Word, and I start to sink. Here’s the warning: failure to believe in the Bible leads to despair.
3. The solution to their despair
Jesus’ solution isn’t to alleviate their sorrow straight away by saying, ‘It’s me, Jesus! I’m alive!’ For Jesus, grounding them in Biblical truth is far more important than everything else. This will give them an enduring foundation of truth for their faith. He wants them to know that the cross, which they see as a barrier to redemption is actually the most important ingredient of our redemption. Jesus had to die for our sins. There was no other way for the Lord to be both just and loving: ‘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.’ (Luke 24:25-27)
We often say it, but it is true – wouldn’t we all have loved to have heard Jesus explain how the Old Testament points directly to himself? It was the most magnificent Bible Study ever given. I love imagining what passages he turned to. I don’t want to spend too much time doing that now, but let me give a few suggestions.
Perhaps Jesus went all the way back to Genesis chapter 3, and the first promise of redemption for a lost humanity when God said: ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.’ (Genesis 3:15) In this promise, Satan will be destroyed by a human victor. But we also notice that the victor’s heel will be struck, pointing to a degree of significant suffering.
Perhaps Jesus spoke of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21, which was lifted up on a pole so that all who looked in faith would be healed of their poisonous bite. Jesus might have explained that likewise he had to be lifted up on the cross in order to deal with the poison of sin. Most agree that Isaiah 53 would have been part of this Bible study. This chapter gives us such a clear description of the necessity of the cross – Christ is crucified for our sins, in our place, to bring us peace: ‘But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5)
My mind goes to Psalm 22, where we see both the suffering and the glory of the Messiah. The Psalm begins with the words Jesus cries from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ But it ends with the glory which the cross brings about: ‘All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.’ (Psalm 22:27-28) Jesus might have spoken of what the Old Testament sacrifices pointed to, or what the temple signified, or how the Messiah was the ultimate prophet, priest and king, or the meaning of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement. It all points to Jesus. Again, I wish I had been there to hear first-hand. It reminds me of the words in John’s Gospel: ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ (John 5:39-40)
Their hearts are ‘burning within them’ as Jesus walks beside them explaining the true order of the plan of God: the Messiah’s suffering for sinners comes first, and after that comes glory. ‘Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.’ (1 Peter 1:10-12)
This is the pattern for Jesus and for our lives too. This life involves much suffering, but afterwards, in Heaven, comes the glory and the fulness of the blessing. When we grasp this truth, it saves us from many of our disappointed hopes. It grounds us in the plan of God, and helps us to see from the perspective of eternity. Life might seem chaotic for us now, but in the end, Christ bring good from it all. Never despair. Keep looking to Christ. Keep listening to his promises. Keep meeting with him in the pages of Scripture.
4. Hope regained
Jesus chooses to reveal himself to them at an ordinary place – at the kitchen table. Suddenly, their spiritual fog clears and they can see clearly. Their transformation from despair to delight is complete, and they rush back to Jerusalem to join Simon Peter as witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus really is alive and that changes everything. We can entrust our lives to him. He really can forgive our sins. He must be the Son of God. Their newfound certainty fills them with joy and they naturally want to share this joy with others.
Think about their state of mind at the beginning of the journey.
“What grief they would have been spared if they had only known and believed God’s Word to begin with.” (Kent Hughes)
But Jesus, who loves to strengthen the weak, walks with them and using the Bible, fortifies their faith. If you are going through times of disappointment, doubt, or fear, then know this, Jesus most often will bring about transformation to us using the same method – he himself will meet with us, not in the pages of an ordinary book, but in the living and powerful Word of God. That’s where we meet Jesus. That’s where we will find what we need, whether we realise it or not.