William B. Kessler
What is your relationship with the risen Christ? The first disciples believed their relationship with him had ended. These disciples were convinced, on that first Easter Sunday morning, that their relationship with Jesus was cut off, severed—a painful, debilitating, unrecoverable severing, like having your right arm freshly amputated. Grieving the loss of their rabbi and their future dreams, convinced his body was tucked away in some dark, dank, borrowed tomb, certain he died a cruel, shameful death—like a flower cut, fallen, fading, stepped on, and crushed—those disciples believed Jesus was dead. Death, the sharpest and coldest scalpel, severs the most precious relationships we have on earth.
But the Gospels record a most startling historical event—the most profound irony with which the human race has ever been confronted: Jesus was no longer dead, but alive—having been raised, even raised from the dead! The flower that had been crushed had blossomed again, to live forever.
Jesus’ resurrection has cosmic significance. As Adam’s sin affected the entire universe, introducing the principle of death, so Jesus’ resurrection affects the universe, restoring and advancing the principle of life, even eternal life. His resurrection is the genesis of a new creation. It is the fulfillment of the glorious existence originally promised in the Tree of Life.
The resurrection is big in its scope. It is the climax of the big picture: Israel’s destiny reaching its fulfillment, allowing the nations of the earth to be blessed. The resurrection is the fulfillment of big power: raised from the dead, ascended to the Father’s right hand, given all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus is Lord, not Caesar (nor any other earthly power). The resurrection is the accomplishment of big salvation: Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, accepted by the Father, saves the most depraved sinners. The resurrection is the beginning of the big transformation: Jesus is the firstfruits of the new creation, the new humanity. And the resurrection is the inauguration of a big task: the church is now called to proclaim the good news to all nations, testifying to the risen, living Christ.
But as big and significantly cosmic as the resurrection is, it also makes possible a penetratingly deep, personal communion. Yet how can we have communion with the risen Christ? How can we have a relationship when we cannot have face time with him while we are on earth? How can we have a relationship with one whom we do not directly see or hear? How can we commune with the risen Christ since he has ascended and cannot be embraced or seen? Our relationship with Jesus can be easily misunderstood.
The believer’s relationship with the risen Christ and some of the difficulties that are associated with it are highlighted by Luke’s account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24, verses 13–35.
Granted, Luke’s account of Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances over forty days testifies to the fact of his resurrection. But his account also includes a further purpose. Jesus met with the disciples before his ascension in order to teach them about the kind of relationship they would have with him after he was gone. Herman Bavinck gives a reason for Jesus’ postresurrection appearances with his disciples:
Physically and locally restricted, time-and-space-bound contact [with Jesus] will then make way for spiritual, inward, deep, unbreakable, and eternal fellowship. The forty days, accordingly, were of the utmost importance for the disciples. In that period they were introduced to the practice of communion with the—indeed—living but at the same time glorified Lord. They were becoming accustomed to the idea that in the future Christ would exist and work in another mode and another form. (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:443–44)
The disciples would enter into the classroom of spiritual communion, learning how to have a relationship with the risen Christ, being “introduced to the practice of communion with the … living [and] … glorified Lord.”
How does Jesus on the road to Emmaus teach his disciples, including us, the practice of communion with him?
First, he remains incognito. The two disciples walking with Jesus do not recognize him. Why? He was received into their company as though he was an ordinary fellow traveler. Was it the weather that clouded their vision—a cloudy, misty morning? Was it the clothes he was wearing—a hooded garment that, perhaps, shrouded his face? Or could it have been their emotional state—so grief-stricken that they were psychologically blinded?
The text says that their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. It was a sovereign act of God that withheld their ability to recognize Jesus. He remained incognito to teach the disciples that communion with the Savior would not be the same as they had experienced with him during his earthly ministry. Any communion henceforth would be enjoyed only by sovereign grace.
Our communion with Jesus is not a simple, manipulative act that we initiate and control. He is the sovereign Lord, now glorified. He remains opposed to the proud. Although he is accessible, gracious, patient, and kind, and though we are urged to humbly call upon him with the assurance that he will answer, we should not think that he can be manipulated by religious ritual, formulaic piety, or self-centered demands.
There is more that we can learn from the fact that Christ appeared incognito. There may be times when we feel that Jesus is far from us in our disillusionment, grief, and despair. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus are described as sad, and the narrative indicates that they were disillusioned with the promise of the redemption of Israel and skeptical about the rumors generated by the women that Jesus was alive.
The irony was that Jesus was alive, and very close to the disciples, having accomplished an even greater redemption than they could have imagined. The further irony is that he is close to us today. In fact, we are mystically united to him, a union that cannot be severed, even though we may “lose sight of him.” And we have a communion with him, a communion in grace and glory, that assures us that he is with us always. To use Luke’s language, Jesus is walking with us, though our eyes are prevented from seeing him.
Another point that we can take from the narrative is this: though he is incognito, Jesus converses with his disciples. He initiates a conversation with them while they are talking and discussing the circumstances of the crucifixion. Jesus asks what they are talking about. Cleopas issues a mild rebuke: “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” (v. 18). (Jesus a mere visitor to Jerusalem? Jesus unaware? Hmmm. Interesting irony.)
Who was most aware of the things that occurred during those days? Who understood in greatest depth the things that occurred in Jerusalem? Who knew the shame of being falsely accused, beaten, bound, brutally stripped, slashed with thorns, publicly slandered, crucified, forsaken, dead, buried—“all for sinners’ gain”? Who but the very one who receives Cleopas’s rebuke. Jesus asks the follow-up question to gauge, and engage, the misunderstanding and unbelief of his disciples: “What things?” (v. 19). Both disciples answer, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene” (v. 19). Answering Jesus’ question, they remain in the dark, not realizing that they are conversing with the risen Lord.
The narrative continues with their discussion of Jesus’ crucifixion, their hope of redemption, and a rumor spread by some women that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive. Now Jesus issues the rebuke: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (vv. 25–26). Luke continues: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (v. 27). And their hearts burned within them as he spoke (v. 32).
How does Jesus relate to his disciples that they might know him? Does he converse with us as he did with the disciples on the Emmaus road? Not exactly. But what is similar, what Jesus is teaching all his disciples, is this: communion with him is mediated through his Word. The fact that Jesus teaches the disciples from the Scriptures while remaining unrecognizable seems to be a central point in Luke’s narrative. The importance of Scripture is stressed as providing the way we know the Lord.
Earlier in Luke’s narrative, Jesus reports a conversation between a rich man in Hades and Abraham. When the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent from the dead to warn his brothers, Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man tries again: “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” But Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:29–31). (Note the emphasis on speaking and especially on listening.) Through Scripture—opened up, displaying Christ, listened to—the Lord communicates with us.
But not only the Old Testament speaks. Unlike the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we have the testimony of the New Testament writers (including the gospel of Luke!). Does Jesus not converse with the church down through the ages? Does he not converse with each of us? Does he not speak from heaven, his voice mediated by ministers opening his Word from Moses and all the Prophets, and now from the apostolic witness? We are told that there is a voice from heaven to which we must give heed (Heb. 12:25), that God speaks to us now in his Son (Heb. 1:2), that there is a fellowship with the Father and the Son through a message proclaimed (1 John 1:3), and that there is a blessing to one who reads the Word and to those who listen (Rev. 1:3).
Jesus, incognito but conversing, also teaches his disciples how communion is accomplished by disclosing his presence at a meal. The disciples urge Jesus, who still remains unrecognized, to stay with them as night approaches. As they share a meal together, he reclines at the table with them. And taking bread and blessing it, and breaking it, he gives it to his disciples. Luke then informs us, “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31).
The way in which Jesus reclined and served the disciples sounds like the Lord’s Supper. It is at this meal that he discloses himself. The disciples’ eyes are opened; they recognize Jesus. Their immediate response is to recall and express how their hearts burned when he was conversing with them, explaining the Scriptures (v. 32). It is as though the meal and the recognition become the seal of the scriptural message.
We believe that when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated, Jesus is not only represented by the bread and cup, but spiritually present. We also believe that the Supper is a sealing ordinance, confirming the promises given to us in the Word of God. Further, we believe that the Supper is an act of communion and fellowship with our risen Lord. By his Word and sacrament, with the blessing of the Spirit, our relationship with Jesus is (repeating Bavinck’s words) a “spiritual, inward, deep, unbreakable, and eternal fellowship.”
The author is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. His Bible quotations come from the NASB (Updated Edition). New Horizons, April 2016.