We left Luke’s narrative of the Lord’s resurrection last Lord’s Day morning with the fact having been announced by the angel but no one yet having seen the Lord. From the other Gospels we learn that this was to change throughout the morning. Mary Magdalene apparently saw him first and shortly thereafter he appeared to some of the other women who had gone to the tomb early that morning. Later in the day the Lord appeared to Peter. But he would not be the last to see him that day.
The two disciples are distinguished from the eleven later in the account, and we learn later that one of them was a certain Cleopas. The other person remains unnamed and otherwise unknown, though many have supposed that the other person was Cleopas’ wife. Nothing in the narrative forbids our taking the other person to be a woman. Indeed, some have suggested that Cleopas is the same man called Clopas in John 19:25, which would make his wife one of the Marys who had witnessed the Lord’s crucifixion. [Caird, 259]
The fact that they were kept from recognizing him suggests that ordinarily they would have recognized him. It required a deliberate act on the Lord’s part to keep them from recognizing him. His appearance was not so different that they would have failed to recognize that this man was none other than their friend and master, Jesus of Nazareth. Why they were kept from recognizing him is not said. Perhaps it was important that they have the lengthy conversation that ensued before the two disciples were overwhelmed with the discovery that they were talking to Jesus. Perhaps a point is being made: no one will recognize Jesus unless the Lord reveals himself to him or to her.
As the Lord came up to these two walking along the road, they must have been lost in an animated conversation. He naturally asked them what it was about.
Cleopas seems to think that virtually everyone in Jerusalem would be aware of these events, though it is doubtful that he meant that everyone would already have heard the rumors of his resurrection. All Jerusalem would know who Jesus was, the miracles he had performed, and what had happened to him, but the news was only now spreading about the empty tomb and, at this point, chiefly among the Lord’s disciples. We learn from Matthew, though, that the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb had reported the appearance of angels and the empty tomb and the religious leadership was already at work attempting to scotch the news.
The Lord bases his rebuke of these two men on the fact that there was sufficient teaching in the prophets to indicate that the Messiah would not only be a glorious figure but that he would suffer for his people’s sake. Think, for example, of Isaiah 53 and how the suffering servant would be punished for the sins of his people. Virtually everyone among the Jews of that time had neglected to take seriously the darker side of the ancient prophesies of the coming Messiah. Both his suffering and his glory were clearly predicted and should have been anticipated.
There is no reason to assume that the Lord was acting here. Had they not invited him to stay, he would have traveled on. In Hebrews 13:2 we are encouraged to offer hospitality because by doing so some have entertained angels unawares. That is almost certainly a reference to Abraham having entertained the three men before the destruction of Sodom. Here too we are reminded that the practice of hospitality may be attended with blessings no one could have predicted beforehand.
The Lord’s commanding presence was such that in someone else’s home he performed the familiar actions to begin a Jewish meal: prayer and the breaking of bread. It was something very familiar in the way he broke the bread, they would later say, that caused them to recognize him, and as they did he disappeared from their sight. These two had not been present at the Last Supper, so obviously they had shared meals with Jesus on other occasions. This is the first indication — there will be others — that the Lord’s resurrection body was not limited in time and place as our mortal bodies are and as his had been.
The Lord’s exposition of the Scripture must have been deeply stirring to them and, looking back on it now, they realized that they had heard the Bible’s teaching about the Messiah explained clearly and powerfully by the Messiah himself.
They couldn’t keep this news to themselves so, no matter the late hour, they hurried back to Jerusalem and found the eleven and a larger group of disciples excitedly talking together. As it happened they weren’t the only ones to have seen the Lord. Peter had seen him and no doubt by now they all believed that the women had seen him as well. So when they told their story it was only further confirmation. And then, the Lord was there among them and all doubts were removed.
The appearances of the Lord Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection form the bridge that joins the Lord’s public ministry to that ministry he continues in and through the church. Jesus will not appear to the general public again; only to his disciples. But his disciples will continue and expand his ministry by the Spirit and the result will prove to be greater than anything the Lord Jesus himself enjoyed during the three years of his ministry in Galilee and Judea. If you want an illustration of how Jesus’ ministry continued in that of the disciples, you have only to compare the case of one of those who came to the Lord for grace and help during his public ministry – say, the paralyzed man whose friends let him down to Jesus through the roof, of whom we read in Luke 5 and to whom Jesus said “Your faith has saved you” – with the case of one of those who came to the Lord after his ascension to heaven – say, the Ethiopian eunuch, of whom we read in Acts 8, who came to faith in Christ and was saved through the ministry of Philip.
Both encountered the Lord Jesus himself, both were granted the forgiveness of their sins, both were saved. But one met the Lord visibly, saw him with his own eyes; the other met him, by the Spirit, through the witness of one of his followers. The same Christ; the same salvation. That is what the resurrection means. You and I and others can know Jesus Christ today as really as they knew him who were with him in the days of his ministry.
But this fact draws our attention to the interesting fact: that the Lord appeared only to his own disciples after the resurrection. No doubt he needed to appear to them, but why not to others? Wouldn’t the gospel have advanced more swiftly and with still greater success had the Lord appeared to Herod, or to Pilate, or to Caiaphas, or to the Sanhedrin that had condemned him, or to the Roman Emperor. We can easily find ourselves wishing that he had – it would show them, serve them right! And wouldn’t those appearances have proved the gospel to the world. Imagine if we could read some history of Tacitus or Suetonius giving an account of the appearance of Jesus to Tiberius or to the Roman Senate!
It makes sense to us to think that had the Lord appeared to Pilate, for example, the news of the resurrection would have gained immediate and widespread credibility. The writers of the apocryphal gospels — the made-up gospels — that began to appear in the several centuries after the biblical Gospels were written apparently thought so too, for they invented a number of such post-resurrection appearances. The critics of Christianity in the Roman world apparently thought so too, for they discounted the report of the Lord’s resurrection, in part, because the people who claimed to be witnesses of it were no-accounts; even women, “hysterical females” as Celsus sneeringly put it. If he wanted his resurrection to be believed, they thought, he would have appeared to people who mattered.
The appearances were part of the proof that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he was, as he had claimed, the Son of God. Paul argues this way in 1 Cor. 15. And, all told, the Lord did appear, after his resurrection, to a significant number of people. Not only the disciples on a number of occasions, including even that resurrection evening to a larger group than the eleven, but to many others, more than five hundred at one time in Galilee, as Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:6. But, only to believers, never to unbelievers, and certainly never to any prominent or influential figure in the unbelieving church or the government. Why is that? Well, the Scripture furnishes several different reasons why the risen Lord appeared only to his disciples.
- In the first place, his not appearing to the Jewish people in general was an act of judgment.
In Matthew 23:38-39 we read that the Lord said concerning the Jewish church that had rejected him: ‘Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” They had rejected him and their punishment was that they would not see him again. They had wanted him to go and he went.
They had rejected the word of the Lord once too often; they had passed the point of no return by rejecting the Messiah himself when he came among them. And now, as a consequence, they had been rejected by God. The die was cast. And so, the Lord who had been among them for those three eventful years and had done so much to demonstrate to them that he was their Messiah now refused to show himself to them again. His refusal to show himself to them after his resurrection was the first act in the drama of judgment that was to fall upon that rebellious generation, a drama that would reach its climax forty years later when Jerusalem would be laid waste by Roman armies.
- In the second place, his appearances to his disciples set them apart for the work of bearing witness to Christ and his resurrection in the years that would follow.
In Acts 10:41-42, in explaining the gospel to the household of Cornelius, the God-fearing Roman centurion, Peter said, “…God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people…”
In other words, the Lord had planned all along that the great work of carrying the gospel, which in one respect is the message of his resurrection, to the world would not be his directly, but rather the work of his disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit. The work of the salvation of the world is being shared out among the three persons of the Godhead and among all of those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ. He intended to leave room for their witness and for ours; he intended for the news of his salvation to be spread by his people. The limitation of his resurrection appearances to them amounted to their calling as witnesses to the world. If Christ were not to show himself to the world, they would have to show him to the world, and that is in fact what they did.
- In the third place, the Lord’s appearances were limited to his disciples because — strange as it may seem — appearances to unbelievers wouldn’t have made any difference.
We naturally imagine that they would have. We suppose that had the risen Lord shown himself to Pilate, or Herod, or the Jewish priests or people, they would have thrown themselves at his feet, plead for forgiveness, and confessed him Lord and Savior. But that way of thinking betrays how little we really understand or appreciate the unbreakable chains of unbelief and the nature of faith as a divine gift and a supernatural work performed in us by God himself.
In the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar, which we read in Luke 16:19-31, the Lord made this point explicitly. The rich man, if you remember, now in hell, plead that he be permitted to return to his brothers, sure that if only someone were to return from the dead, they would believe. “No,” Abraham told him, “they would not. If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
But, perhaps you are thinking: what of Thomas? He didn’t see the Lord on that first Easter Sunday and when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord he told them that he would not believe unless he saw the Lord, and touched his wounds. And when, the following Sunday, he saw the Lord, he did believe. But, you see, while the Lord was kind to Thomas and met his request, which he certainly didn’t need to do, – and in doing so provided the world with a grand demonstration of his resurrection – Thomas was already a believer. The sight of the risen Lord didn’t, in fact, make Thomas a follower of Christ; he was that already. It only put his doubts to rest.
Listen, the people who put Jesus to death already had seen themselves or heard of miracle upon miracle that he had performed. Evidence aplenty had been given them. They even knew he had raised the dead! Lazarus just a few weeks before his crucifixion. But they had not believed. Evidence is never the issue! People who become Christians never believe because the evidence is persuasive and people who refuse to believe in Jesus never do so because of a lack of evidence.
Now, it may sometimes seem that they do, because often when people are becoming Christians the evidence that Christianity is true seems suddenly convincing, persuasive, and intellectually satisfying to them. And, after they are Christians, they cannot understand why unbelievers are not persuaded by that same evidence. For them the case is closed. Why can’t the unbeliever see how utterly inconsistently and desperately he clings to his denials in order to escape the facts that stare him in the face? And so we Christians resonate with statements concerning the evidence for the resurrection like this one from an English lawyer, Sir Edward Clark, writing in the middle of the twentieth century.
“As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class, and as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.” [Cited in Stott, Basic Christianity, 42]
Now, don’t mistake me. I believe that Sir Edward was exactly correct about the strength of the evidence for the resurrection. That evidence is so persuasive that men and women are accountable for not believing that Jesus rose from the dead. But, the fact is, the evidence itself does not make anyone a Christian! The unbeliever wishes to believe that the evidence is not good enough; the Christian thinks it is so good that it should compel faith. But the fact is unbelievers will not believe even if they see the risen Christ. At the second coming they will all see the risen Christ, but that will not make them his followers. They will rise up, however futilely, to rebel against him once more.
No! Human beings are in bondage by nature to an unbelief whose grip they cannot break and do not wish to break. This is what Paul meant when he said of the people of this world, “there is no one who really seeks for God.” He may imagine himself a seeker; she may call herself a seeker; but, at the last, they are interested only in a god of their own making. How often has it happened that when a supposed seeker has come face to face with the living and true God, he or she has instead turned away, uninterested in that God.
And, how often, to the contrary, has it happened that someone who does not seem to be seeking God at all, who has objections of every kind, suddenly is found believing at the Savior’s feet. Such a man was Paul himself and there have been multitudes like him ever since.
No, God must soften the hard heart; he must illuminate the darkened mind; he must bend and even break the defiant will. As Luke will later explain in the case of Lydia coming to faith in Christ in Acts 16: “the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message.” What she had not seen before she saw now as clear as day. Now she saw so clearly she could not believe that others could not see, but, then, she never saw it either until the Lord opened her heart.
We have the same idea in this beautiful narrative of the Lord’s appearance to the two disciples. In the lovely words of v. 32, reflecting on the exposition of the Scriptures that the Lord had given them while they were walking toward Emmaus, the two disciples said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Why? What made their hearts burn? It was faith; it was light shed abroad in their hearts. It was a God-given conviction that the things they were hearing were both true and wonderful. The same lessons had been given and could have been given again by the Lord himself to the crowds who had crucified him a day and a half before and they would have responded with a mixture of irritation, indifference, boredom, or open hostility. The great divide is not an intellectual one, as if some people are smart enough to read the evidence and others are not; there are very clever people on both sides of this fence. Intellect has nothing to do with it and never has. The great divide lies elsewhere.
On one side are human beings as they are by nature: rebels against God and determined, however many innocent facts must be murdered along the way, to deny and reject the truth of God. Had Jesus appeared to such after his resurrection, they would have tried to kill him again. If you don’t think so, consider this: when, in fact, he does return to earth and shows himself to them again, that is precisely what the Bible says they will attempt to do, kill him again!
On the other side are those whose hearts burn within them. They know Christ rose as surely as they know they themselves exist. Don’t ever minimize this, brothers and sisters. To believe, to know the truth and to embrace it is the greatest thing in the world and it is a sheer gift of God to you, a gift he has not given to multitudes, but has given to you! He gave it to those two disciples before they had recognized the risen Christ!
I know people, and you do too, whose lives are, in many respects, in ruins. Christians though they be, they are weighed down by personal loss or pain or tragedy of the deepest and heaviest kind. They struggle with a sense of the Lord’s distance from them, the weight of their trials, the darkened view they have of the world. But, though there seems to be precious little “evidence” that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been “good news” for them, they are as sure that it is true as the disciples who met in the upper room that fateful and wonderful night were sure that Christ had risen from the dead when he appeared in their midst brim full of life.
One believes, it can seem because of the evidence and another believes in defiance of the evidence which proves, again, that it is not the evidence itself, but the God-given sight of Christ that makes a person a Christian. Every day, all over the world, people who have been kept from recognizing the Lord Jesus Christ see him and it all becomes clear, their hearts burn within them when the gospel is read, when someone explains it to them, while others remain utterly unaffected and unpersuaded and defiant in their unbelief. The problem is spiritual bondage, not ignorance or faulty logic, and the solution is not evidence – however appropriate and necessary it is for Christians to argue the case for the resurrection – but the illumination of the heart by the Spirit of God.
Only a few of you now will remember the Rev. Bill McColley, Dawn Darby’s father and for some years before his death a minister in our presbytery. One of Bill’s favorite books, a book he gave me and ordered me to read, was the Stuart Jackman’s, The Davidson Affair. The book is an imaginative retelling of the history of the Lord’s appearances from the point of view of a television news anchor, Cass Tennell, who is sent by his network to cover the story of the purported resurrection of Jesus Davidson, whom, at network headquarters in Rome, they take to be a minor political provocateur in one of the outlying colonies of the Empire.
Tennell interviews Pilate and Herod and hears them say that there is no truth to the rumor. They give him the grave-robbing story. He interviews Thomas, before he had seen the Lord, and finds him dejected and unimpressed by the reports he has received. But then come electrifying interviews with Mary Magdalene and Zacchaeus and then Cleopas himself. The story begins taking on a completely different character. Try as he might, the hard-bitten reporter cannot keep himself from being persuaded by the testimony of these artless people, obviously as thunderstruck by these utterly unexpected developments as anyone else would be.
And so he begins to piece together his program, in the style of “60 Minutes” or “20/20.” He intersperses his own commentary among the interviews. And he puts it together intending to persuade and thinking that when people hear his witnesses they will begin to believe it too. But he is sadly mistaken. The TV higher-ups are as cynical as ever; delighted with his ratings, but uninterested in the subject. The book ends with a conversation between Tennell and an associate.
“’Even if Davidson has come back to life, Cass, [these people] don’t have a chance.’ ‘I think they do.’ ‘No, Cass. You know they don’t. You can’t change the world – with a handful of wise sayings, a seasoning of compassion and a miracle or two.’
“’Even if one of the miracles is a dead man coming back to life?’ ‘Not even then.” … He got up and held out his hand. ‘Come on, Cass. It’s been a long day. Time we went home.
“I said hopelessly, ‘But the world he promised them. The freedom and…’ He smiled, a small, tired smile. ‘It’s no use, Cass. We like it in prison. We don’t want to be rescued.’”
And so the book ends. Everybody who has read the book remembers how it ends with those words, “We don’t want to be rescued.”
If you are a Christian today, bless God from the bottom of your heart that you don’t think like that, which is the way vast multitudes of human beings think. You would have, you know, always and forever, had he not made your heart burn within you at the sound of his voice and his truth. And if you are not a Christian or are not sure you are a Christian, plead with God to give you eyes to see him, to recognize him, and a mind to understand what he has done and what it means for you, and a will to embrace him as your Lord and Savior and trust your life to him, and a heart to love him and all the truth about him, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Pray that someday soon your own heart will burn within you at the sound of his voice!