The Emmaus Road Story and What It Reveals about How Jesus Heals

In this excerpt from Suffering & Glory: Meditations for Holy Week and Easter, J. I. Packer takes readers on a journey with Jesus on the Emmaus road and explores how like the two disciples, we too can find help in our time of need.*

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On Friday afternoon they took him down from the cross, as dead as a man can be. On Sunday afternoon he walked most of the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two of his disciples. He had broken through the death barrier and was alive and well once more on planet Earth. 

For 40 days before withdrawing to the glory where now he lives and reigns, he appeared to those who had been his followers and friends. Why? Because he loved them and wanted them to have the joy of seeing him alive; because he had to explain to them his saving achievement and their role as witnesses to him; and, last but not least, because some of them were in emotional and spiritual distress and needed the therapy that was uniquely his. All this is reflected in the Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13–35).

Jesus’ ‘patients’ on the Emmaus road

Who were the patients to whom the Great Physician ministered there? One was Cleopas (v. 18). The other, not named by Luke, lived with Cleopas, and it is natural to guess (though not possible to prove) that it was Mary, wife of “Clopas” (John 19:25) and mother of James (Mark 15:14), who was at the cross when Jesus died. (In that case, Cleopas was Alphaeus, James’ father.) I shall assume that it was husband and wife trudging home that day. They went slowly—most people do on a long walk—and they were sharing perplexity and pain at Jesus’ death. Their spirits were very low. They thought they had lost their beloved Master forever; they felt that the bottom had fallen out of their world. They were in the shock of a bereavement experience and hurting badly.

Now picture the scene. Up from behind comes a stranger, walking faster, and falls into step beside them. Naturally, they stop discussing their private misery, and there is silence. When we know that grief is written all over our faces, we avoid looking at other people because we do not want anyone to look at us, and I imagine this couple swiveling their heads and never facing their traveling companion at all. Certainly, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16), so that had anyone asked them, “Is Jesus with you?” the reply would have been, “Don’t be silly, he’s dead, we’ve lost him, we hoped he was the one to redeem Israel but clearly he wasn’t; we shan’t see him again—and nothing makes sense anymore.”

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Stop! look! listen! Here is a perfect instance of a kind of spiritual perplexity, which (I dare to affirm) every child of God experiences sooner or later. Be warned: it can be appallingly painful, and if you are not prepared to meet it, it can embitter you, maim you emotionally, and to a great extent destroy you—which, be it said, is Satan’s goal in it, every time. What happens is that you find yourself feeling that God plays cat and mouse with you. Having lifted you up by giving you hope, he now throws you down by destroying it. What he gave you to lean on he suddenly takes away, and down you go. Your feelings say that he is playing games with you: that he must be a heartless, malicious ogre after all. So you feel broken in pieces—and no wonder.

Examples are easy to find. Here is a Christian worker, maybe a layperson, maybe a minister, who takes on a task (pastoring a church, leading a class, starting a new work, or whatever) confident that God has called, and who expects therefore to see blessing and fruit. But all that comes is disappointment and frustration. Things go wrong, people act perversely, opposition grows, one is let down by one’s colleagues, the field of ministry becomes a disaster area. 

Or here are a couple who marry in the Lord to serve him together, who dedicate their home, wealth, and in due course children to him, and yet find nothing but trouble—health trouble, money trouble, trouble with relatives and in-laws, and maybe (the bitterest thing of all), trouble with their own offspring. What hurts Christian parents more than seeing the children whom they tried to raise for God say no to Christianity? But do not say that these things never happen to truly faithful folk; you know perfectly well they do. And when they do, the pain is increased by the feeling that God has turned against you and is actively destroying the hopes that he himself once gave you. . . . 

See it in Scripture. Teenager Joseph, the youngest in the family, is given dreams of being head of the clan. Furious, his brothers sell him into slavery to make sure it never happens. Joseph is doing well in Egypt as right-hand man of a leading soldier-politician. The lady of the house, perhaps feeling neglected by her husband as wives of soldiers and politicians sometimes do, wants to take Joseph to bed with her. Joseph says no, and this put-down from a mere slave turns the lady’s lust to hate (never a hard transition) so that she lies about him, and suddenly he finds himself languishing in prison, discredited and forgotten. There he stays for some years, a model convict we are told, but with no prospects and with nothing to think about save the dreams of greatness that God once gave him. “Until what [God] had said came to pass the word of the Lord tested him” (Ps 105:19). “Tested him”—yes, and how! Can we doubt that Joseph in prison had constantly to fight the feeling that the God who gave him hopes was now hard at work destroying them? Can we suppose that he found it easy to trust God and stay calm and sweet?

The heartbreaking perplexity of God-given hopes apparently wrecked by God-ordained circumstances is a reality for many Christians today and will be the experience of more tomorrow—just as it was for Joseph and for the Emmaus disciples. Back to their story, now, to watch the Great Physician at work with them.

The Great Physician at work on the Emmaus road

Good physicians show their quality first by skill in diagnosis. They do not just palliate symptoms but go to the root of the trouble and deal with that. What did Jesus see as the root cause of this couple’s distress? His dealing with them shows that his diagnosis was of unbelief, caused by two things.

First, they were too upset—too upset, that is, to think straight. It was beyond them to put two and two together. They had slid down the slippery slope from disappointment to distress, through distress to despair, and through despair into what we call depression, that commonest of twentieth-century diseases for which one in every four North Americans has to be treated medically at some point in life. . . . That is exactly what we find here in Cleopas’ narrative concerning the empty tomb. (It has to be Cleopas at this point; Mary would not be talking to a strange man, and the story is told in a very male manner.)

“It is now the third day since this happened,” says Cleopas. “Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and [surprise! surprise!] found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see” (vv. 22–24). (Implication: there’s nothing in this wild talk of him being alive; someone must have desecrated the tomb and stolen the body, so as to deny it [a] decent burial.) Thus Cleopas announces the empty tomb as more bad news.

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Yet over and over before his passion, Jesus had foretold not only his death but his rising on the third day (Luke 9:22; 18:33; Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19). Straight thinking about the empty tomb, in the light of these predictions, would have made their hearts leap. “He said he would rise; now the tomb’s empty; he’s done it, he’s done it, he’s done it!” But both were too upset to think straight.

This was due to the root cause of their unbelief, which Jesus also diagnosed—namely, the fact that they were too ignorant, too ignorant, that is, of Scripture. “O foolish ones”—Jesus’ tone is compassionate, not contemptuous: “O you dear silly souls” would get the nuance—“and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (vv. 25–26). Jesus spent maybe two hours showing them from Scripture (memorized) that it was in fact necessary. That shows how he saw their fundamental need.

As ignorance of Scripture was the basic trouble on the Emmaus road, so it often is with us. Christians who do not know their Bible get needlessly perplexed and hurt because they do not know how to make scriptural sense of what happens to them. These two disciples could not make sense of Jesus’ cross. Many do not know the Bible well enough to make sense of their own cross. The result is a degree of bewilderment and consequent distress that might have been avoided. . . . 

How Jesus healed their souls

1. He focused on relationship.

First, [Jesus] did what all counselors must do: he asked questions, got them to talk, established a relationship, and so made them receptive to what he had to say. His opening gambit (“Tell me, what were you talking about?” v. 17) drew from Cleopas only rudeness (“Don’t tell me you don’t know!” v. 18). Hurting folk often act that way, externalizing their misery by biting your head off. But Jesus was unruffled; he knew what was going on inside Cleopas, and persisted with his question (“Do I know? You tell me, anyway; let me hear it from your own lips”). Had they declined to share their trouble, Jesus could not have helped them. But when they poured out their hearts to him, healing began.

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2. He explained Scripture.

Then, second, Jesus explained Scripture—“opened” it, to use their word (v. 32)—as it bore on their perplexity and pain. He showed them that what had been puzzling them, the death of the one they thought would redeem them in the sense of ending the Roman occupation, had actually been prophesied centuries before as God’s way of redeeming in the sense of ending the burden and bondage of sin. He must have gone over Isaiah 53, where the servant who dies for sins in verses 1–9 appears alive, triumphant, and reigning in verses 10–12; he produced many passages which pictured God’s Messiah traveling to the crown via the cross and kept them in a state of dawning comprehension and mounting excitement (their hearts “burned,” v. 32) till they reached home. Thus healing proceeded.

The principle here is that the most healing thing in the world to a troubled soul is to find that the heartbreak that produces feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and hatred of all cheerful cackle is actually dealt with in the Bible, and in a way that shows it making sense after all in terms of a loving, divine purpose. And you can be quite certain that the Bible, God’s handbook for living, has something to say about every life problem involving God’s ways that we shall ever meet. So if you are hurting because of what you feel God has done to you, and you do not find Scripture speaking to your condition, it is not that the Bible now fails you but only that, like these disciples, you do not know it well enough. Ask wiser Christians to open Scripture to you in relation to your pain, and I guarantee that you will find that to be so. . . . 

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3. He revealed his presence. 

“Stay with us,” they had said to him on reaching Emmaus. (What a blessing for them that they were given to hospitality! What they would have missed had they not been!) At the table they asked him to give thanks, and as he did so and gave them bread “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (v. 31). Whether recognition was triggered by seeing nail prints in his hands, or by remembering the identical voice and action at the feeding of the five thousand or four thousand, as some have wondered, we do not know; nor does it matter. Now, as then. Jesus’ ways of making his presence known are mysteries of divine illumination about which you can rarely say more than that as something was said, seen, read, or remembered—it happened. So it was here, and thus, healing was completed.

To be sure, the moment they recognized him, he vanished. Yet plainly they knew that he was with them still. Otherwise, would they have risen from the table in their weariness and hurried back to Jerusalem through the night to share their news? Sensible Palestinians did not walk lonely country roads at night, fearing thugs and muggers (that was why Cleopas and Mary urged the stranger to stay with them in the first place). But it is evident that they counted on their Lord’s protecting presence as they went about his business. “Stay with us,” they had said, and inwardly they knew he was doing just that. Thus their broken hearts were mended, and their sorrow replaced by joy.

Jesus Christ, our risen Lord, is the same today as yesterday, and it belongs to true Easter faith to take to our own hurts the healing of the Emmaus road. How? First, by telling Jesus our trouble, as he invites us to do each day. He remains a good listener, with what the hymn calls “a fellow-feeling for our pains.” And only as we lay aside prayerless resentment and self-pity and open our hearts to him will we know his help. Second, by letting him minister to us from Scripture, relating that which gives us pain to God’s purpose of saving love: this will regularly mean looking to the Lord’s human agents in ministry, as well as private Bible study. Third, by asking him to assure us that as we go through what feels like fire and floods he goes with us and will stay with us till the road ends.

That prayer he will always answer.

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4:15–16, NIV)

So wrote an apostolic man long ago to ill-treated, distracted, and depressed believers. 

The Emmaus road story urges us to do as he says—and it also shows us how.

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Emmaus road story in the book with this cover Suffering and GlorySuffering & Glory: Meditations for Holy Week and Easter contains some of the best Holy Week and Easter articles from half a century of Christianity Today with contributions from J. I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, Nancy Guthrie, and more. 

Deepen your understanding of the meaning of Easter—get your copy of Suffering & Glory today. 

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