Our story begins with two dejected disciples on the road out of Jerusalem back to a little village called Emmaus. They are sad because they thought they were going to an inauguration in Jerusalem, but they had instead witnessed the crucifixion of their hoped-for king. They thought, verse 21 says, that Jesus was the “one to redeem Israel.” Now, as Christians we read that verse and think, of course he did! Jesus redeemed Israel by his death and resurrection. But that’s not the way these two disciples were thinking. That’s not the way that their fellow disciples thought of Jesus either.
They weren’t thinking about the cross and resurrection at all. They thought he was the one who was going to redeem Israel by reestablishing the Mosaic theocracy. The disciples clearly had gotten that wrong just as they had misunderstood Jesus all along the way. Every time Jesus brought up the cross and the resurrection as they got closer to Jerusalem, Peter tried to dissuade Jesus. “What are you talking about,” he says, “what’s all this negative thinking?” The disciples think that they’re about to make it in the big time. “This is Jerusalem. We’re going to crown you Messiah. You’re going to drive out the Romans and we’re going to establish the kingdom. If you can make it in Jerusalem, you can make it anywhere!”
They thought they were going to an inauguration, and they were, but Jesus was to be enthroned on a cross. They didn’t get it. They were confused. They weren’t expecting it. And that’s why Jesus blames them in verse 25. He does so gently but he rebukes them when he says, “how slow you are to believe everything that the prophets have said.”
By drawing out the reasons for their disillusionment, Jesus was drawing out the misunderstandings of the kingdom that they were relying upon. Then, he goes to work teaching them a new plot, a new story. “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” verse 27 says, Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” What a wonderful sermon that must have been! Jesus walked these two dejected disciples through the unfolding plot of Scripture showing how it congeals around the coming Messiah. He showed them how the Scriptures said that the Messiah would be crucified and rise again on the third day.
Jesus’ Bible study lesson lasted all the way to Emmaus, and the disciples urged him to stay with them because “the day is now far spent” (v29). This was a hospitable thing to do in ancient Near Eastern culture. Even today, people will invite you in for dinner and perhaps give you a bed to sleep in so that you can start your journey fresh in the morning. Jesus, knowing the rules of hospitality, allows himself humbly to be a guest in their home. Right after his resurrection, right after he is crowned King of kings and Lord of lords, he allows himself to be a needy guest in someone’s home.
Can you imagine what the disciples are doing as their dishes are clanking around and they’re sort of scrambling? We know that they’re not really thinking about the meal because in verse 32 it mentions that their hearts and minds were filled with everything that this stranger had spoken. But then something very odd happens in verses 30-35: Jesus reveals himself. He doesn’t do it all at once; he does it slowly, and as he does it he becomes a very inappropriate guest.
First, he is a humble guest, receiving the invitation to stay kindly and accepting it. But then he does something that you just never did in Middle Eastern culture. The guest became the host. He started taking over the meal! He becomes the host of the meal, just as he had been in the upper room. In doing so their sorrow is turned to joy and their unbelief is turned to recognition. They recognized him in the breaking of the bread, verse 31 says.
The verbs used in verse 30—he took, he broke, and he gave—are the same form that you find in the upper room in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It’s unmistakable. What’s happening here is the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper after the resurrection of Jesus. And that’s when they recognized all that he had spoken was about himself. That’s when their eyes were opened and they recognized him.
God is never revealed. God always reveals himself. He is never passive in his revelation. He is always in charge of the event. All through this narrative we’re told that he kept them from recognizing him. It’s not because he was unrecognizable. It’s not because he was a phantom. No, miraculously, Jesus kept them from what naturally they would have done namely recognize him. Only now he allows them to recognize Him.
Our story began with two dejected disciples. It ends, however, with two witnesses. In verse 33 we’re told that they rush to the eleven in Jerusalem with good news. There, in the upper room, which had been a place full of fear, these two disciples come back with the announcement: Jesus is alive. The two men told the eleven what had happened on the road, and how Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Now, at last, in the very room in which Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of the bread made sense as the breaking of Christ, sacrificed for the life of his people and risen again in glory. And these gathered first in fear now in joy will be made his witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, even to the uttermost parts of the earth. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they will turn the world upside down with their message of Jesus, the Lord of the feast.
Jesus still meets us on the road, as it were. We come to Jesus with our own problems, and therefore, with our own vision of what kind of king we think we need. The important thing that we learn from this story is that Jesus tells us who he is; he tells us who he is as we hear his word preached from Genesis to Revelation. This king still joins us for dinner, making himself the host of a heavenly banquet. In the bread and the wine of Communion, we have a foretaste of that bread and wine we will share with him in our resurrected flesh when he comes again in glory. The table is set. The Lord is risen. He has risen indeed. Amen.
Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido and the Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine.