The meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24

The lectionary readings for the Third Sunday in Easter ignore the particular gospel for the year, and instead cycle round Luke 24 and John 21: in Year B we have the second half of Luke 24, Jesus meeting the group of frightened disciples; in Year C, the miraculous catch of fish in John 21; and in this Year A the story in the first half of Luke 24 of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. The narrative is long and detailed, and (like the long detailed narratives at the start of Luke) contributes to this being the longest of the four gospels, a good 1,000 words longer than Matthew (even though it has fewer chapters).

But it is also wonderfully engaging, not only beautifully structured, but full of irony and humour as well.

The story of the road to Emmaus is one of the most powerful stories in the Bible and certainly one of Luke’s greatest achievements as a storyteller (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia commentary, p 349).

The story has a clear sense of movement, which we can see by noting how many times travelling, walking, stopping and journeying on is mentioned; the idea of the disciples being on a journey fits with a large theme of Luke’s gospel, in which he has organised the whole central section of Jesus’ teaching and ministry as part of a journey to Jerusalem from Luke 9.51 to 19.48. But there is an implied ironic reversal: in the main part of the gospel, Jesus is on a journey, and the question is whether the (potential and actual) disciples will join with him; here, the disciples are on a journey, in many sense in the wrong direction, and it is Jesus who joins them, the result of which is a change in their direction of travel.

Most commentators notice the chiastic structure of the story (a pattern of inverted parallelism), but Joel Green’s (in his NICNT commentary) is the most detailed:

If Green is right, then though the recognition by the disciples is a key moment for them, the story in fact pivots around the fact that Jesus is in fact alive and comes to join them on the road.

For many readers, the story seems to bring together the classic pairing of word and sacrament, as Jesus both opens the Scriptures and then is ‘recognised in the breaking of the bread’. But reading the story carefully, in the context of Luke’s whole narrative, suggests something different.

The previous episode, in the first 12 verses of Luke 24, correlate quite closely with the account of the empty tomb in John 20, though with different emphases. Luke and John agree that women went to the tomb first, that they reported what they had found to the male disciples, that Peter ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the linen strips. But Luke emphasises the role of the group of women (as he has done earlier in his account), and the negative response of the men; they think that what the women say is ‘utter nonsense’ using the very strong word leros, and they ‘disbelieved them’, using the verb apistueo that is cognate with the description of Thomas’s response in John 20.27.

Luke is quite careful in his identification of the time and the place. The journey takes place ‘on the same day’ as the previous events, that is, on the Sunday when Jesus was raised. The village of Emmaus has never been confidently identified from either archaeology or manuscript evidence, but Luke specifies that it is 60 stadia, or about seven miles, from Jerusalem. It is perfectly possible to imagine that, for disconsolate disciples, wearily trudging along, this journey could easily take the best part of the day—but that the return journey could be completed in less than two hours by them when excited and motivated.

The story unfolds carefully. The two disciples are unnamed at the beginning, and then, as the story progresses, we learn in Luke 24.18 that one of them is called Cleopas. This appears to be the same person whose wife (or possibly daughter, ‘Mary of Cl[e]opas’) remains at the cross in John 19.25, and that has led to speculation that the other disciple is indeed this Mary. This would fit with Luke’s repeated use of male-female pairs throughout his gospel—but he does not specify this, which would be odd if it were the case. Perhaps the second person remains unnamed deliberately, so that you, the reader, can put yourself in the story alongside Cleopas.

We are told that they were ‘talking and discussing’ ‘all the things that had happened’. The emphasis here is that they are debating with each other, and trying to puzzled out what they cannot yet make sense of. It is only in the conversation with Jesus that we learn the content of ‘all the things’ in summary form.

Luke is emphatic: it is ‘Jesus himself’ who draws near; interestingly, the language of ‘drawing near’ is exactly the same language Jesus has used about the ‘drawing near’ of the kingdom of God at the beginning of his own preaching (Mark 1.15). That they ‘were kept from recognising him’ doesn’t suggest that Jesus changed his form in any sense; again, it is a common theme in Jesus’ resurrection appearances (compare Mary Magdalene’s experience in John 20.14).

At this point, the text is full of vivid detail, pathos and irony. Jesus’ enquiry appears to the discussion which is holding their sense of grief, and it all pours out—so much so that they are stopped in their tracks and look downcast. And the wonderful irony is that they ask ‘Are you the only one who does not know…?’ when of course they are addressing the only one who really does know!

The summary of what has happened is characteristic of Luke; throughout Acts we find a range of summaries of the events around Jesus and the meaning of the gospel. This summary has several interesting features.

First, Jesus is described as ‘of Nazareth’, which is his consistent title when referred to as a miracle worker. The language of ‘powerful in word and deed’ expresses the common expectation of a leader in the Roman world—but also expresses Luke’s particular interests in describing Jesus. He has a distinctive interest in questions of the exercise of spiritual power in ministry, and consistently emphasises the combination of words and deeds. His second volume summarises the gospel as the account of ‘what Jesus began to do and teach’ (Acts 1.1), and then offers an account of Jesus’ continuing action and teaching through the apostles and the early Christian community.

Then this summary is clear that Jesus’ death is the responsibility of the leaders, and not of the people as a whole, whose response to him was divided. There is a consistent focus on the redemption of Israel, something that marked the beginning of Luke’s gospel (‘the glory of your people Israel’ Luke 2.32; ‘the falling and rising of many in Israel’ Luke 2.34, ‘the consolation of Jerusalem’ Luke 2.38) and continues into the beginning of Acts (‘Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ Acts 1.6). The women went to the tomb, found it empty, and saw angels; the men went, checked for themselves, but saw no-one.

Jesus’ response and rebuke to them is key: he does not refer to the evidence they have seen; nor does he refer back to the predictions he himself made that this would happen. Instead, he turns to the Scriptures of Israel. Although many English translations simply say ‘He explained to them all that was in the Scriptures concerning himself…’ as if either his name was somehow hidden, and just needed pointing out, or that his listed the supposedly 365 prophetic texts that he fulfilled (as I was once told), something more profound is going on here. The verb used is diehermeneuo, a compound verb from which we get our term ‘hermeneutics’. Jesus is interpreting the Scriptures of Israel in the light of his own story. The gospels are consistently emphatic (in their different ways, as is Paul) that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Scriptures of Israel—something that sets them apart from the other, non-canonical and ‘gnostic’ ‘gospels’. So the Scriptures make sense of Jesus—but Jesus is also the only way to make sense of the Scriptures. His own life calls for a reinterpretation and a re-reading of the Old Testament. Joel Green puts it like this:

Evident above all, then, is the need for revelation, which comes for Luke not so much via angelic intervention (but this is hardly out of the question—v 23), but through a hermeneutical process of comprehending the purpose of God in the correlation of Jesus’ career with the Scriptures of Israel. What has happened with Jesus can be understood only in light of the Scriptures, yet the Scriptures themselves can be understood only in the light of what has happened with Jesus. These two are mutually informing. (NICNT p 844)

And it is this revelation—not just of Israel’s story, but of the way that Jesus fulfils it (as he first claimed at the synagogue in Luke 4)—which has caused their ‘hearts to burn within’ them (Luke 24.32).

There is further irony and drama in the next section of the story. Jesus makes as though he is travelling on, as though perhaps testing the reaction of the two disciples. They invite him to stay, meno, to ‘abide’ or remain, an idea that is present all through John’s Gospel which begins with disciples asking ‘Where do you abide’ (John 1.38) and ends with Jesus inviting the disciples to ‘abide in me’ (John 15.4). It is widely suggested that the events at the meal table have strong ‘eucharistic’ overtones, and that Jesus being ‘made known in the breaking of the bread’ is a pointer to Jesus’ continued ‘real presence’ in Communion (the Eucharist, or the Mass).

The different emphasis of Protestant and Catholic readings is expressed well in this post, contrasting the depiction of the story in the art of Robert Zund and the better-known picture of the supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio:

Caravaggio’s incomparable painting captures that precise instant of the disciples recognizing Jesus just before he vanishes, that sudden astonishment. They have had a supernatural experience. Christ himself is present.

Robert Zund’s painting depicts the experience of a Protestant worship service: a sermon, a teaching from Scripture. It has a certain careful comfort to it. Caravaggio depicts the experience of the Mass.

He captures the sacrament, the miracle of the Eucharist.

It was not Christ’s teaching about himself as the fulfillment of Scripture that astonished the disciples, even though they admitted that their hearts burned within them while he spoke. It was his presence. But they did not recognize his presence in the Scripture teaching. They recognized it “in the breaking of the bread.”

But is that really what Luke is suggesting? Luke does not show very much interest in eucharistic theology within his gospel, and the actions of taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it and giving it to them corresponds not to Luke’s account of the Last Supper, but to the feeding of the five thousand in Luke 9.12–17. It is striking that, for Luke, it is that event which is associated with the recognition of Jesus’ identity; immediately after it, Peter makes his declaration ‘You are God’s Messiah’ (Luke 9.20).

That ‘their eyes were opened’ parallels the action of Jesus on the road in ‘opening the scriptures’, and it is back to this that they immediately refer. When Jesus meets them again in Jerusalem, the same pattern is repeated: ‘He opened their minds so that they could understand the scriptures’ (Luke 24.45). Seeing here a theology of eucharistic revelation is to read later theological concerns back into the story.

Immediately, they leave the place they were intending to stay, and return to Jerusalem. The impulse to share good news needs no command or training, but simply flows from the excitement of their new discovery; ‘the inward journey must always lead outward’ (Parsons, Paideia, p 357). Malcolm Guite expresses the transformation of the encounter beautifully in his two sonnets on Emmaus:

Emmaus 1

And do you ask what I am speaking of
Although you know the whole tale of my heart;
Its longing and its loss, its hopeless love?
You walk beside me now and take my part
As though a stranger, one who doesn’t know
The pit of disappointment, the despair
The jolts and shudders of my letting go,
My aching for the one who isn’t there.

And yet you know my darkness from within,
My cry of dereliction is your own,
You bore the isolation of my sin
Alone, that I need never be alone.
Now you reveal the meaning of my story
That I, who burn with shame, might blaze with glory.

Emmaus 2

We thought that everything was lost and gone,
Disaster on disaster overtook us
The night we left our Jesus all alone
And we were scattered, and our faith forsook us.
But oh that foul Friday proved far worse,
For we had hoped that he had been the one,
Till crucifixion proved he was a curse,
And on the cross our hopes were all undone.

Oh foolish foolish heart why do you grieve?
Here is good news and comfort to your soul:
Open your mind to scripture and believe
He bore the curse for you to make you whole
The living God was numbered with the dead
That He might bring you Life in broken bread.

(The picture at the top is the remarkable ‘Supper at Emmaus‘ by Caravaggio which can be seen at the National Gallery in London.)

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31 thoughts on “The meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24”

  1. We tend to read the bible with eyes that miss input from women and from those who are disabled. If I was directing this as a movie I would definitely put the pair as male and female. I would also have their dispute as a growing argument. Luke shows that they are discussing (v14 & 15) and disputing (v15) and then Jesus asks “what words are you throwing at each other” and so sullen. This looks like a growing argument (“We should have stayed” .. “No, I said we’re leaving and that’s final”). Sadness, confusion, anger, and arguing. Grief and disharmony in the family. Then Jesus joins them. And this changes everything.

    As a side note: I think it does no harm to consider if Lazarus was deaf and couldn’t speak (Jesus has to yell at him to come out of the tomb, and Lazarus is never recorded as speaking). And potentially Izaac had a form of autism. Disabled people aren’t othered in the community, but key players in the story. They;re not just as foci of healing but as key participant in who they are. Lets include them in our reading.

    • I think youre stretching things a little there.

      I think Jesus raised his voice more so that those around were without doubt what he was doing. Though if you were stuck in a stone tomb you would probably only hear someone outside if they shouted too.

      And I dont think Lazarus not saying anything has any implications. He was wrapped head to foot, and was probably rather disorientated to say the least. And if he was deaf, given Jesus’ track record it is highly likely he would have healed him from that.


      • Yes, the reasons to say Lazarus may have been deaf are a bit stretched. But …
        … This was 30AD. Infant mortality was at 10%. Appendicitis and tonsillitis killed people. There was no antibiotics for ear infections. Lots more than today would have been deaf. We can assume almost half of people that Jesus engaged with were affected/scarred/left damaged by illness. So, where are the deaf in the gospels?

        But Jesus would have healed him? Really?? Does Jesus heal everyone? Maybe Lazarus is a model of someone not healed but who knew a loving, intimate relationship with Jesus, and knew the power of his resurrection.

        Maybe Lazarus wasn’t deaf. Maybe he was. But by not seeing disabled people with Jesus except as being healed we give no place for disabled people who aren’t healed to be disciples.

        I think its important to have our actors as disabled, rather than insist they don’t have a disability unless proven otherwise.

        • Some excellent points there, Colin.

          It’s just possible that the earthly Jesus Himself, was physically disabled in some way. Early Christian scholar Tertullian claimed that Jesus’ outward form was despised and ignoble. Ireneaus said that Jesus was a weak and inglorious man. Ephrem Syrus claimed Jesus was small of stature (as too, did Celsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia), while Andrew of Crete believed Jesus was physically bent or crooked (cf. Luke 4:23? ). One reason why the ‘vertically challenged’ Zaccheus may have been so eager to see Jesus, may be due to him hearing reports that this famous powerful Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was physically just like himself, a small man.

          Whatever Jesus’ physical appearance was exactly like, it is more than possible that He wasn’t physically considered by many as ‘natural Messiah material’ (cf. 1 Sam. 16:6-7; John 7:3-5).

        • These are fair points, and you may very well be right that many then had illnesses in the way that we dont. On the other hand, many would have been involved in physical work and activity that would have kept illness at bay – many today have illness and disease directly because of our sedentary lifestyles (says he typing from his computer in his lounge…).

          Regarding Lazarus I should have said Jesus would have healed him from deafness if he had asked – Jesus never forced healing on anyone. Of course perhaps Im presuming on Jesus.

          ‘But by not seeing disabled people with Jesus except as being healed we give no place for disabled people who aren’t healed to be disciples.’

          I take your point, though Im not convinced that is how most Christians today view those with disabilities. I dont think I have looked at a disabled person and thought, well they cant be a Christian because theyre disabled.

    • “They’re not just foci of healing but a key participant in who they are. Let us include them in our reading,” to which I truly agree. It would be wise and inclusive if those persons with disabilities’ perspectives are heard instead of assuming their thoughts on the gospel. I hope this can be a platform where they can share their perspectives.

  2. Thank you again for this. It took me back to look again, with benefit, to “Reading Backwards” by Richard B Hays.
    The two sonnets by Guite would draw a sermon to an affecting and God exalting, Christ adoring, God embraced close.
    (And a movement from narrative doctrine and Christology, to doxology.
    Thank you.

  3. Ian, why do you think they were ‘kept from recognising Jesus’? At least until he broke bread. Ive never understood that.


    • Probably because, P.C. (Peter), the informative events recounted Luke 24:13-32 (which are recorded for the great benefit of all Christians throughout the Church Age; cf. John 17:20) would never have taken place – since Cleopas and his colleague would have been rendered totally speechless and bewildered, with sheer joy, surprise, and wonder.

  4. It would make an interesting job to get AI to paint a picture of the same scene, used here, one second later. Each person has turned away or covered their eyes in wonder. Jesus has vanished but the bread has not quite hit the table top.

    • Of course, the original painting would have to be modified to show both Jesus hands holding up the bread for them to see the nail marks as his sleeves slipped.

    • It was a real MIRACLE !

      When Claudio Ranieri was seriously asked in 2016, whether what was happening to Leicester City F.C. was a miracle, replied :

      “No – real MIRACLES are something else !”

      Thank God for MIRACLES !

      • Did Jesus go along with the two back to Jerusalem? Were they unaware of His presence because they were overcome by joy? Did Jesus slip in through the door with them as they entered the room? No walking through walls required…this time, just blinded by joy.

        • I think, Steve, that after Jesus supernaturally left Cleopas and his colleague, He may then have gone to appear to others – such as Peter (Luke 24:34), and perhaps even his brothers, and mother, et al. By the time of Acts 1:14, Jesus’ brothers, although at one time firmly non-believing in Him (John 7:5), were now fully converted !

  5. I’m thankful that these speculations were not the employed methodoly of the Gospel writers, though some skeptics and Higher critics may think it proves their case, their cause.
    We are never satisfied with what God has been satisfied to leave us with.
    Are there no limits to sanctified imagination.
    Even with full sensory faculties I doubt that I would have recognised risen Jesus.
    Does he not always have to reveal himself, open our eyes, the eyes of our hearts/ understanding, otherwise we, none of us, would recognise any encounter with him?
    How did he reveal himself to you? Suddenly, gradually, through his voice, his word, His Spirit, introduced by others? How?

      • The assumption Steve, was that the imagination of a Christian is both sanctified and limited or, in modern jargon, scoped,
        by sanctification.
        To be clear, I wasn’t implying that the speculations weren’t sanctified. Certainly being imbude with joy in the presence of Jesus would be sublimely sanctifying.
        Perhaps would set in motion an undignified dance in the manner of David, redolent of Jesus as the true ark of the Presence of God.

          • now forgive me for spoiling the moment.
            I think the reason it took so long to get to Emmaus was because of Jesus’s sore feet. On the way back Jesus went ‘in the Spirit’.
            I’m just going to make myself invisible so PC1 can’t find me.

          • Some doubted.
            Till at Pentecost when more believed, unseen, through Holy Spirit.
            And this is to fulfill a new end- of- life- ministry beatitude with a new life giving, and adoptive ministry of Holy Spirit.
            John 20:29

    • Geoff –

      I had a good Christian friend at Bible College called Cynthia, from Montego Bay, Jamaica. I said ” Cynthia – how did you become a Christian ?” She said “I became a Christian when I was praying, and I had a supernatural vision of the Lord Jesus.” Then she asked me, “What was your supernatural vision of Jesus, like?” I said, “I’ve not had a supernatural vision of Jesus.” She replied “Why do you believe, then?” “I said “I’ve got my own reasons for believing.”
      Anyway, about a week later, the Bible College Principal gave a little talk before his regular daily lecture. He said “I understand that some of you students have been comparing and contrasting Christian conversion stories. I just want to tell you one thing – and that is, however the Lord has done it within your own individual lives, the Lord has brought you to a position of faith and trust, in Him. Now rejoice in that fact – and keep going,”

      • Thanks P. A wise Principal, methinks.
        I was 47 and a solicitor at the time. There were many factors, throughout life, some of which could have and did foster unbelief.
        I suppose the word *encounter* gives an impression of voice or vision, but wrestling intellectually, emotionally, with reasons over who Jesus is, I have seen over the years has been the steadfast ballast of older saints kept faithful.
        The church I’m now part of is Anglican, but is multi generation and nation, Iran, Hong Kong. Canada, Chinese, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Irish, Scot, Welsh, English, from Catholic, Charismatic, Methodist, Reformed, atheist, Buddhist, backgrounds. Not all *sign up* to the 39 Arts, but the leaders do and the teaching is unwavering orthodox creedal, biblical.

        • Thanks for your interesting comments, Geoff.

          Two Anglican authors I would give a very big thumbs up to are N.T. Wright, and A.E. Harvey.

          God bless you, Geoff.

          • Thanks, P.
            Some of Wright yes. To be read with discernment.
            Not heard of Harvey however.
            An Anglican OT scholar whose writings and in person lectures at Keswick, I have appreciated and benefitted from is Alec Mother, and of course some Packer, some Stott, some Ryle, Ovey&Sachs
            Others, while possibly not considered to be scholars, are David Pytches and David Watson. And of course, CS Lewis.
            Forgive my ignorance, but have Richard Stibbes and John Owen been adopted into the Anglican fold?

            My reading material is somewhat circumscribed these days, too much time on here perhaps.
            But for more than a decade the whole Counsel of God as cross pollinated in the longitudinal canonical Bible has been beneficial as has been material from Messianic Jews ( too much neglected my view).
            It started with the road to Emmaus passage on which a now moribund web site,”Beginning with Moses…,” was based. Seeing Jesus in the OT, continuity and discontinuity, themes, figures, types, anti-types, patterns, shodows, substance.
            The book by. Richard b Hays, I mentioned above is but one example.
            Perhaps this lectionary reading could be s launch pad for such further study by many of us.
            Beale and Carson are other authors and editors in a similar vein. There is much more as you will know.
            Yours in Christ,

          • (Actually reply to Geoff) I guess auto-correct hit with “Alec Mother”, and you intended Alec Motyer.

          • Thanks, David,
            While I thought I’d made sure I typed Motyer on my phone, it was only after it was posted (and I rarely proofread before or afterward -poor form, I know) that I noticed it had been autocorrected to Mother. I had assumed that, rather than correct it with yet one more comment from me, Pellegrino would deduce who it was meant to be.
            But I do take full responsibility for my far too many errors. They belong to no one else.
            I’d have hoped that Motyer, with his twinkling sense of humour, might have seen the funny side, rather than being slighted. He was recommended by a long retired CoE minister friend.

        • Thanks, Geoff;

          I’ve read a few books by N.T. Wright (but he can be very verbose !), including his translation and commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which I found useful – especially with regard to the expression “the righteousness of God”, which can function as a Hebraism, and mean “the saving activity of God”. A.E. Harvey wrote an excellent one volume commentary on the New Testament, according to the ‘New English Translation’. He also Edited a book called “The Constraints of History”, in which he which he contributed an exceedingly interesting chapter called “The Constraints of Monotheism”. Harvey contended that the Christianity of the New Testament is still controlled within the parameters of Jewish, Unitarian Monotheism. The classic expression of this is contained in Jesus’ own words, when He called the Father “The ONLY TRUE GOD”- with ‘ONLY’ being a translation of the Greek word ‘monos’, meaning :

          ‘alone (without a companion)’.

          Harvey contended (as have quite a few Trinitarian scholars) that the ‘Trinity’ doctrine is essentially, a post-New Testament development. The first Christians were therefore, genuinely ‘Messianic Jews’ – i.e. they were normal Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, as well as being the ‘lord’ (Hebrew : ‘ adoni ‘) mentioned in Psalm 110:1 :

          ” Yahweh [the personal name of God] said unto my lord [Hebrew : adoni = a non-Deity title, meaning ‘Master’, or ‘lord’].

          Hence Peter says in Acts 2:36b :

          “God [the one God of the Jews; John 17:3; 20:17; 8:54] has made Him [Jesus] both lord and Messiah, this Jesus Whom you crucified.”

          As regards some of the Anglicans you mentioned :

          James Packer wrote an excellent book called ‘Keep in Step with the Spirit’. Interestingly, Packer didn’t generally believe that genuine gifts of the holy Spirit were being operated today, in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. I’ve also in the past, read a few books by C.S. Lewis, and David Watson – who I once went to hear preach.

          God bless you, Geoff.

  6. redacted testimony from the original draft:
    “I knew it”, said his wife! “A man his age wearing socks with sandals is a bit odd!”


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