Christians tend to get really excited about Easter morning, and for good reason. In the long run, however, what Jesus’ followers saw and did on Easter evening may have had greater long-term significance for the future of their faith.
For those who might be interested, I offer an “Easter evening” look at Luke 24:13-35, a story that is unique to Luke’s gospel, but at the heart of the church’s faith.
Two confused disciples (vv. 13-16)
The account begins late in the afternoon of the first Easter day. Two disciples were walking away from Jerusalem and toward Emmaus, their apparent home. They had been present with the others when the women came to report that the tomb was empty and that angels had proclaimed Jesus alive. Peter and John had gone to confirm their story. They found the empty tomb, but not Jesus. Perhaps this was the last straw for these two disciples. With the loss of Jesus’ body, their hopes were vanquished. They decided to go home.
One of these disciples was named Cleopas (v. 18). Some writers have suggested that he is the “Clopas” mentioned in John 19:25 (a variant spelling for the same name). This Clopas was the husband of Mary, who stood with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross. Some have imagined that it was Cleopas and his wife Mary who were walking that dusty Emmaus road. The exact location of Emmaus has been lost, but Luke tells us it was 600 stadia from Jerusalem. Since a Greek stadion was about 600 feet, the distance was about 6.8 miles.
Whatever their identity, the two disciples were engaged in a heavy conversation about the crushing events of the previous week (v. 14). They had placed their hope in Jesus, and their hope had been decimated by his betrayal and crucifixion. The curious story of the empty tomb seemed to confuse them more than to encourage them. Luke portrays the two as being so engrossed in their conversation that they did not notice when Jesus began walking along with them (v. 15).
When they became aware of Jesus, they did not recognize him. This is in keeping with other post-resurrection appearances, in which Jesus remains incognito until he chooses to reveal himself. Luke does not suggest that the travelers were not paying attention, but that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16). Perhaps Jesus wanted them to think through their theology without being distracted by the knowledge of his identity. Like Thomas, he wanted them to believe in his word, even when they couldn’t see his face.
Two surprised reactions (vv. 17-27)
Jesus’ question: “What are you discussing with each other?” means literally, “what are you throwing back and forth to each other?” (v. 17). The disciples were surprised and amazed that Jesus seemed unfamiliar with the events of the past few days, for he had also come from Jerusalem. Incredulously, Cleopas replied: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (v. 18). Again, Jesus pressed for more, asking them to express their own understanding of what had happened. Only then could he help them to grow in their discernment of his purpose.
The travelers responded with a quick review. The events concerned Jesus of Nazareth (“Jesus” was a common name, so the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth” was often used to set Christ apart from others). They understood Jesus to be a prophet who had demonstrated himself to be powerful in word and deed before God and all the people (v. 19). Only with God’s approval, they reasoned, could this Jesus have done the mighty works that characterized his life and made such an impression on the people.
Others had not been so pleased with Jesus. The chief priests and rulers (a reference to the Jews’ ruling body, the Sanhedrin) perceived him as a threat, and had engineered his death (v. 20). The following contrast is emphatic: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (v. 21a). Faithful Jews expected a Messiah, but they commonly expected him to be a military messiah, one who would deliver Israel from the power of Rome. The death of Jesus had put an end to their hope that he was the promised one.
Even the evidence of the empty tomb had done little to encourage them. The travelers spoke with amazement concerning the women’s report (vv. 22-24), but they did not speak with conviction. They were not yet convinced that Jesus was risen–or that he was the Messiah.
Jesus responded to their news with absolute amazement, as if he could hardly believe they had misunderstood the scriptures–and his own teaching–so thoroughly. His response was surprising for one who appeared to be a new acquaintance: “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (vv. 25-26).
Like most of their contemporaries, the two disciples had been quite selective in their study of the Hebrew scriptures. They preferred to skip over the parts that suggested the Messiah would suffer. Shifting into a “rabbi mode,” Jesus offered his own interpretation of the scriptures that spoke of a suffering Messiah. The Hebrew Scriptures are divided into three parts: the Torah (the “Law,” or “the Pentateuch”), the Nevi’im (“Prophets,” including both the historical books and the more classical prophetic books), and the Kethuvim (“writings,” containing the Psalms, wisdom literature, and a few other books). Jesus began with the Law and moved through the Prophets (v. 44 also mentions the Writings), helping the confused disciples to perceive the real truth about the Messiah.
The gospel record does not name the passages Jesus used, though we can imagine some that would be appropriate. From the Law, he might have used what has been called the “protoevangelicum” of Gen. 3:15, or the scapegoat ceremony of Lev. 16:1-34. In Deut. 18:15, Moses (who suffered greatly) predicted the coming of another prophet like himself, which Acts 3:22-23; 7:37 identifies as Christ.
Several texts from the Prophets could have been appropriate. Jesus may have quoted from the last two “Servant Songs” of Isaiah, for these predicted a coming servant of God who would suffer willingly, and vicariously, for his people. Though cut off from the land of the living, he would rise to see life again (Isa. 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). These texts, more than any other, are quoted elsewhere in the New Testament to show why it was necessary for Christ to suffer. Jesus may also have referred to Zechariah, who spoke of a king who rides a donkey (9:9), a pierced victim (12:10), a wounded friend (13:6), and a smitten shepherd (13:7).
The Book of Psalms belongs to the Writings. Jesus may have referred to Ps. 69:21 (“for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink”), or from Ps. 22, which speaks of one forsaken by God (v. 1), who is mocked by the crowd and taunted to pray for deliverance (vv. 7-8) as others cast lots for his clothing (v. 18). Jesus’ own cry of dereliction from the cross is widely regarded as a quotation from Ps. 22:1. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Two amazing events (vv. 28-35)
As the travelers drew near to Emmaus, the author suggests, Jesus continued walking as if he planned to go on, but his companions insisted that he stop for the night and lodge with them (vv. 28-29). Jesus agreed, and they were soon reclining about the dinner table. Since the “stranger” had taught them like a rabbi on the road, the disciples invited their guest to offer the blessing. In traditional Jewish fashion, he took a small loaf of bread, broke it, and passed it to the others while reciting the traditional blessing. An old blessing still used today goes like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringeth forth br
ead from the earth.”
In that moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (v. 31a). Was it the sound of those familiar words, or did they saw the nail prints when he passed the bread? It matters not. The Lord had veiled their eyes before, and now he had uncovered them. No doubt, it is significant for Luke (and the early church) that Jesus became known through word and sacrament, as Jesus expounded the scriptures and broke the bread.
Luke’s story takes on a sudden and unexpected twist: in the very moment that the amazed disciples recognized Jesus, he disappeared (v. 31b; literally, “he became unseen”).
In retrospect, the two disciples were amazed that they did not recognize him earlier. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (v. 32). Memory plays an important role in understanding, and now the two disciples were beginning to understand.
A part of being a faithful disciple is the willingness to share what one has learned of Christ. Thus, the two friends immediately got up and hurried back across the seven miles to Jerusalem and shared the good news with the other disciples. They discovered that the Lord had also appeared to Peter, and he had convinced them that it was true: the Lord was risen (vv. 33-34). Cleopas and his companion then shared with them all they could remember of their conversation with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
This text is a charming story, but it is more than charming. We cannot underestimate the importance of this report: much of the early church’s understanding of Christ, and thus, much of our own theology, may have had its roots in what the gathered disciples learned on that first Easter night.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.