Tag Archives: Gospels

The Puzzle of Emmaus

But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Luke 24:16

And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
Luke 24:31

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared many times over a period of forty days, once to over 500 people (1 Corinthians 15). Near his tomb, he appeared to Mary Magdalene, who “did not know that it was Jesus” until he said her name (John 20:11-18). Later, the Eleven remaining disciples received anonymous fishing advice from the shore, and “did not know that it was Jesus” until the advice yielded amazing results (John 21:1-14). Most inexplicably, the disciples on the road to Emmaus walked seven miles conversing with Jesus, about Jesus, yet they didn’t recognize his face or voice until they sat down to dinner (Luke 24). Since the Resurrection is the historical bedrock of Christian faith, we can learn a lot from asking why all of these disciples were slow to recognize Jesus, especially those who were on the way to Emmaus.

These are not all the explanations, but they are some of the simplest.

Supernatural Intervention

First, many readers think supernatural intervention is evident in the text. This is seen in three places:
1) “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (v. 16).
2) “Their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” (v. 31) (As in verse 16, God is not mentioned in the Greek, but it is possible that he is the actor.)
3) “He vanished from their sight” (v. 31). This may mean that he slipped out suddenly, but it may mean that he disappeared (ἄφαντος ἐγένετο) just as miraculously as he re-appeared behind locked doors in other instances (John 20:19, 26).

All three sentences could just be Luke’s idiomatic way of explaining unusual events, as Albert Barnes comments: they simply didn’t recognize Jesus when they should have, and when they did, he suddenly was gone. The NLT takes away the verbal ambiguity, translating verse 16, “God restrained their eyes.” But the Greek doesn’t state how their eyes were restrained, whether by God, their disbelief, or a lack of sunglasses. All three are possible, and the most supernatural-sounding interpretation of a story is not necessarily the most accurate.

Luke 18:31-34 states similarly that—although Jesus explained that the Son of Man would be mocked, flogged, killed, and resurrected—the Twelve “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34, cf. 19:42, Mark 9:32). Here, Luke sandwiches the “hidden saying” between twin statements that the disciples didn’t understand and didn’t grasp what was said. Would Jesus both explain something and hide its meaning? I don’t know. It is safe to be ambiguous where Scripture is ambiguous. Jesus only did one negative miracle, and blinding the eyes of doubting disciples is confusing at best.

That being said, some believe God had very good reason to restrain their physical sight, so that Jesus could build their faith, test their resolve, and provide them a few years’ worth of lively discussion about Messianic prophecy. But if that is not satisfying, below are three more ideas about why Jesus was not quickly recognized by his followers.

Crushed Expectations

It cannot be mentioned too often that Jesus’ disciples were not “in” on his plan to go to a shameful death and afterwards return to life. He told them plainly “that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31-32). Yet not one disciple understood the Cross before it occurred. Peter’s response to Jesus’ plan to die was “far be it from you, Lord!” (Matt. 16:22) How few have understood, even today, that it is a little Lamb on the throne of the universe (Revelation 7:17). The disciples on the road to Emmaus expected Jesus to restore sovereignty to Israel (Luke 24:21, cf. Acts 1:6), which explains why they were “downcast” (24:17)! Their lofty ambition for Jesus’ life was shattered by his crucifixion. Even Jesus’ closest followers did not expect him to die or be resurrected. They simply expected something else.

They had not rejected Jesus’ plan for their life—he had rejected their plan for hislife. He was not playing ethnic favorites, or partisan politics. His mission moved forward, silent and undeterred, more grand—and more painful—than any of them predicted.

Action movies have made it common to see characters come back from death or the edge of death. What could make a storyline more dramatic? In Captain America 2, Nick Fury’s heart stops and he is declared dead, but in classic comic book style, he reappears as a convalescent in a cave. Natasha sees him and says, “it’s about time.” But what would really happen if your close friend was declared dead, but reappeared on a road a few days later? Would you go into shock? Denial? Would you think it was your friend’s doppelgänger, or an elaborate hoax?

The true experience of the Resurrection in Luke 24 involved controversy (v. 11), denial (v. 25), fear (v. 37), awe-stricken disbelief (v. 41), Old Testament study (v. 44), revelation (v. 45), worship, and great joy (v. 52-53). If a friend of mine rose from the dead, I think that at first I would rationalize that this was a total stranger, and the resemblance coincidental. This could be what the disciples of Emmaus did.

Disfiguring Torture

Jesus’ face had changed. The most conspicuous Scripture on this is Isaiah 52:14: “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.” Isaiah 53 then follows by exhausting the Hebrew language’s expressive capacity for suffering: despised, rejected, sorrows/pains, grief/sickness, stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded, bruised, oppressed, cut off, travail. In his resurrection glory, the battle-worn champion was stronger than ever, but he still bore the marks of his sacrifice, as Thomas tested empirically. Some speculate that when he broke bread, he exposed his wrists to the disciples of Emmaus, revealing that he was the disfigured servant of Isaiah 52-53.

Another prophetic passage implies that Jesus allowed his beard to be pulled out, which would be a great dishonor for a Jew (Isaiah 50:6). A friend of mine grew a beard after he left for college, and his own mother had a hard time recognizing him when he went home for the first time. We can see how after suffering brutal torture and execution, possibly losing part of his beard, and returning from the dead, Jesus might appear quite different than the disciples would have thought, even if they hadbelieved that he was going to rise from the dead.

Interestingly, in the appearance involving the miraculous catch of fish (John 21), John is the first to surmise it to be Jesus. He is also the only disciple that we are specifically told was present at the Crucifixion, and may have had the best idea of Jesus’ disfigurement.

Jesus’ New Body

An important addition is that Jesus had a new body, but this doesn’t imply a total change of appearance. Thomas touched the wound in Jesus’ side after the Resurrection, so Jesus still retained some evidence of his recent torture and execution. We don’t know to what extent this is true since we don’t know what Jesus’ new body really entails, nor our future bodies for that matter (1 John 3:2, also 1 Corinthians 15:35-58). It appears that in the afterlife we will recognize each other, since the rich man recognized Lazarus (Luke 16:23). If anything, we will know identities better than we do now, since the rich man also recognized Abraham, whom he had never met (compare 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Did Jesus’ face change after his resurrection, as it did during his transfiguration (Luke 9:29)? His resurrection body might be free of any genetic limitations or skin imperfections. Or he could choose to appear in a new form if he wanted to, as George MacDonald speculates in his story The Princess and the Goblin. If he can walk through walls, we don’t know what his new body is capable of, nor what our new bodies will be capable of. Whatever it is like, it will be, as Jesus’ death-to-life mission was to the disciples, unexpectedly better than whatever we request or dream—even to the exclusion of some of our paltry expectations.

The Color of the King

The language of color, the blood of Jesus, and why we argue about what pink is.

“Is that bag pink?”
“No, it’s red.”
“It looks pink to me.”
“I hope it’s not pink.”

My friend and I went on to discuss how we had problems identifying certain colors. One of us may have a mild color blindness, which is common in men. But the more likely culprit is a concept called linguistic relativity.

Language is based on convention, but colors usually have loosely defined conventions. Put another way, any given color is actually a range of specific pigments, which explains why we can disagree: in each person’s brain, those ranges are slightly different, whether or not they are color blind. This is why we can argue about whether something is pink or not.

Translating Colors

Color words are also difficult to translate. Some languages in New Guinea have no colors—only words for “dark” and “light”—while the Hanuno’o Language of the Philippines only has four colors (or color groupings): black, white, red, and green. Even European languages use almost identical words for different colors!

The French color pourpre is much closer to crimson:


The German color purpur is shown in this logo:


If you search Wikipedia for the modern Greek color porphyro, from which the other words come, the site redirects to kokkino, which is their word for red!


So translating color words is fishy business. And any two people can tell the same story accurately but describe the colors they saw differently. This partially explains why the gospels disagree about the royal color that Jesus’ torturers gave him before his execution:

They stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. (Matt. 27:28)
They clothed him with purple. (Mark 15:17)
They unclothed him from purple … (Mark 15:20)
They put on him a purple robe … (John 19:2)
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. (John 19:5)

Why Four Gospels?

When it comes to the gospels—especially the accounts of the Resurrection—many inconsistencies are solved by one simple principle: If the stories were exactly the same between the four Gospels, it would imply collusion, just as it would in a court case. However, the stories could also be so different as to be irreconcilable. Instead, they share the most important narrative elements but vary when it comes to the non-essentials. This alleged argument against the Gospels shows that the four writers used different firsthand sources, inasmuch as they differ. Yet the picture they paint of Jesus as a person, the attitudes he represents, the places he went, the phrases he used, is consistent.

Why Two Colors?

In modern Greek these two words (κόκκινο and πορφυρό) are actually synonyms (as mentioned above), and they may have been near-synonyms in ancient Greek. But even if they differed at the time, varying testimonies could improve the accuracy: the color Jesus wore during his humiliation was purplish crimson. Since colors are relative, the Gospel sources disagreed slightly on what the royal color was—and yet they all told the truth! John pairs the same two colors, purple and scarlet, multiple times in the Book of the Revelation, and says that the prostitute of Babylon wore them both.

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour … (Rev. 17:4)

John may have paired the two colors to get as close as possible to the actual color, as we do when we say reddish orange or bluish green.

Hast Thou Purpled?

Lastly, the meaning of purple in English has changed dramatically since English Bible translation began. (Not to mention, it was also used as a verb!) Translating Matthew in the 1520s, William Tyndale rendered our Greek word for scarlet as purple, apparently showing he saw no discrepancy at all between the colors in Greek. Perhaps more importantly, John Donne, a poet contemporary with King James, saw no discrepancy between crimson and purple in English:

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?

The color of blood was, at that time in England, within the range of hues recognized as purple. The Oxford Dictionary even says that the word “purple” comes “from Greek porphura, denoting molluscs that yielded a crimson dye”—again, equating the color, both in English and ancient Greek, with crimson.

What Is the Royal Color?

Linguistic evidence provides many interesting reasons that the two colors are not inconsistent. But I think the most interesting point of all is what Jesus actually wore. It could not have been a pansy violet color as some suppose, but, according to the combined testimony of the Gospel writers, was undoubtably much closer to the color of blood. The color of the King is not a color of florid gentleness, but the color of a royal sacrifice.

He was not just killed, but rejected, tortured, humiliated, and murdered. But the crimson garment they mocked him with became in their hands the clothing of Christ with a greater destiny: He would see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9, ESV)

Stones That Speak

The whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice … saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!“ …

And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.”

He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.“ (Luke 19:37,39-40, ESV)

The passage in which this quote appears is a knot of contradicting characters: the unknowing worshippers; the angry rebukers; and Jesus, who seems unmoved by all the attention.

First, he rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey that no one had ridden. People wave branches and lay their clothes for him as a royal carpet. He is honored so extravagantly that the resident Stick-in-the-Mud Party, unable to hush the crowd, asks Jesus himself to calm them down. Jesus responds, somewhat cryptically, that if his disciples hold their peace, the stones would cry out. In the very next verse, he himself begins to cry over Jerusalem.

In Western pulpits there is one typical way of reading this verse, but there are at least three viable ways of understanding what Jesus meant when he said the stones would cry out. I’ll start with the most familiar to me.

1. The earth praises God.

The first interpretation is that the stones would cry out in worship, in answer to the silenced worship of Jesus’ followers. This connects Jesus’ statement to the preceding context in the story of the Triumphal Entry. Even if the disciples don’t worship, rocks, the most inflexible members of God’s creation, will replace their voices.

Creation is often spoken of as praising God in Jewish worship language. First, the desert can “rejoice” (Is. 35:1) and the fields can be “jubilant” (Ps. 96:12). Then mountains and hills can “burst into song” (Is. 55:12). The meadows and valleys “shout for joy” (Ps. 65:13). The trees of the field and rivers “clap their hands”  (Is. 55:12, Ps. 98:8).

In Psalm 148 we reach fever pitch, and all Creation is catalogued in one giant exhortation to join in: heaven, angels, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, lightning, hail, snow, clouds, winds that do his bidding, cattle, birds, trees, kings, nations, men, women, and children. At the end, we’ve reached the most disorderly bunch of all: humans. We seem the least likely in the whole list to willingly praise God. But we are assured that if we stay silent, the stones will lift their voices, and God will have no lack of praise in the universe he created. Righteousness will always be the majority in his universe.

2. The bedrock of reality testifies about God.

E. Stanley Jones makes a totally different application about the stones. On his preaching, he says, “if I held my peace, the stones—the hard, bare facts of life—would cry out.” Jones emphasizes in many of his books the ring of truth that the Gospel has because it is founded on reality itself. The truth we find in the Bible constantly resonates with the truth we find in life.

Creation testifies to its King, along with Jesus’ disciples. But Jones does not just limit this testimony to a vague concept of God’s nature; he applies it to Christian missions. He says in The Christ of the Indian Road that even if Jesus hadn’t made the Great Commission the punchline of his entire speaking ministry, we would be compelled by all the other factors. The facts of Christ’s character, his atoning work, and the rebellion of humanity would demand that the rescue mission go on. It would be anti-reality to stay silent about Jesus.

Nature has a limitation though. For all that Nature can say about God’s unity, majesty, and worship, “it is silent about His love for sinners. It is only at Calvary that we learn that He loves us without stint and reserve.” (H. Lockyer) Reconciliation with God through the Gospel is a message which cannot be ‘hunted and gathered.’ It must be preached.

3. The ground cries out for justice.

The third way of understanding stones that speak connects them with the closest Old Testament cross-reference, in Habakkuk:

For the stone will cry out from the wall,
and the beam from the woodwork respond.
Woe to him who builds a town with blood
and founds a city on iniquity! (Hab. 2:11-12, ESV)

If Jesus was referencing a Scripture, my money would be on Habakkuk. The prophet speaks of a building built on injustice. In Jesus’ case, this could be the temple which he cleansed. The entire metaphor of “the stones crying out” is changed if we re-orient around the context that directly follows it:

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44, ESV)

Here we have a totally different tone. Jesus prophesies here the siege of Jerusalem which happened just four decades later. In one way, it was the prophecy of the crying stones come true: Jerusalem did hold its peace, and did hold back worship when it was owed, and in due time the stones of the temple crashed in grief, crying out for justice for the ignored testimony of Jesus. The judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was God’s megaphone, trying to rouse a stifled people to praise.

Injustice always leave behind a cry, long after its’ victims have passed on. God told Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10) The Christian martyrs in John’s heavenly vision “cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?‘” (Rev. 6:10) Moses’ law says that spilled blood pollutes the land, so Creation groans under the injustice.

Even as Jesus laments Jerusalem’s future, he speaks of the day when all cries for justice will be fulfilled. And he recalls the exact words of his worshippers (from Psalm 118):

For I tell you [Jerusalem], you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matt. 23:39, ESV)

The greatest injustice in history is that Jesus came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But even if God’s people again reject him, the stones will cry out, and justice will be had. Jesus’ disciples may cry ignorantly, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”—though he still reigns only as a King in exile in his own kingdom, betrayed in the house of his friends. But this same hymn that was shouted ignorantly—by those who little knew Jesus’ path to the cross—will be sung in full chorus when Christ triumphantly enters Jerusalem a second time, this time on a horse. And when that happens, no one will be able to ignore the world’s unjust silence toward its God.