It’s a sweet and satisfying story; one full of lingering charm and delight; it has elements of comedy along with a touch of mystery. 

Two disciples are heading along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a distance of sixty stadia, which is about eleven kilometres. They are distressed at the death of Jesus, even though they’ve heard rumours of His resurrection. A stranger comes up to them.

Let’s pick up the story as Luke tells it in the 24th chapter of his gospel:

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus Himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognising Him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him; but we had hoped that He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find His body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said He was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if He were going farther. But they urged Him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them.

When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised Him, and He disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.

Isn’t that just a lovely story? I’m a sucker for a happily-ever-after, but I’m also a sucker for an unexpected twist in a story. This story has both. But… and this is my big BUT, for all its overtones of quiet victory and understated joy, there’s nothing natural about it. It is supernatural, sure, but mostly it’s unnatural.

Unnatural in the sense that — well, really, Jesus acts out of character. But that’s so utterly improbable that it doesn’t make sense. Jesus can’t possibly act out of character, yet what He does is psychologically so implausible it seems inhuman.

I mean: come on, Jesus has just come back from heaven, following His ascent to the Father and His top priority is taking a walk to the ’burbs. Like what? You know, if it was me — or almost anyone I know — my top priority on being raised from the dead would be to reassure my grieving family and friends.

You know, we know the specific details of only four incidents that occurred in the life of Jesus during the forty days after He was raised from the dead. We have no idea what He was doing most of the time.

Or do we?

Maybe we can take the clues from what we do know to discover what the agenda of Jesus was during this time.

Now, we know, that while Jesus appeared to five hundred people at one time, we don’t know where or when or what He said.

The incidents for which we have specific detail are:

Number 1: He appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden

Number 2: He appeared to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus

Number 3: He appeared in the Upper Room to His disciples at a time when Thomas was missing. Then a week later, He appeared to them again when Thomas was with them. (Now, I have to tell you I have an inquiring mind and inquiring minds want to know: what on earth was Jesus doing for an entire week while His disciples were still hiding away from the authorities?)

Number 4: He appeared to Peter and six other disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The meeting of Jesus and Mary in the garden is complex — the dialogue echoes that of another, more ancient, garden. Once, long before, God the gardener came looking for mankind, calling: ‘Where are you, Adam?’

Here mankind comes looking for God, calling: ‘Where is He, Gardener?’ 

The encounter between Jesus and Mary is Eden reversed. It is the curse overturned; it is the meeting of the Second Adam with His newly-birthed Bride.

It is also a threshold moment: not just because the resurrection is the pass over of the greatest of all thresholds, but also because Jesus speaks these words: ‘Do not touch Me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’

This reflects the words of the high priest on Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement, the day of the cornerstone, the day of passing over the threshold — ‘Do not touch me because I have not yet ascended.’

I could talk for another hour or two on what’s happening here but I want to look at a far wider pattern. So let’s just note at this point: in the garden outside the tomb where Jesus was buried, God reversed the curse of a threshold moment in Eden in a conscious, deliberate way.

Another well-known post-resurrection story is that of Jesus meeting His disciples in the Upper Room. Judas is dead and Thomas happens to be absent. As a result, Thomas is the representative of doubt as he is pitted against his ten fellow-disciples. Now the irony here is that the name Thomas is related to the Greek name, Ptolemy, and both go back through Talmon to Talmai. You may not recognise this name: it belongs to one of the giants — one of the sons of Anak — who caused doubts to assail ten of the twelve spies sent into the Promised Land.

Way back, on the threshold of the Promised Land, twelve representatives of the tribes of Israel were divided ten against two. Ten doubted, two were faithful. Now, in the Upper Room, we see that situation reversed. Ten are faithful — two have succumbed to doubt; Judas so severely he has killed himself.

Here again, a curse of a threshold moment is reversed. The defilement of doubt which has afflicted the nation of Israel for nearly 1400 years is overturned in a deliberate, conscious way.

Let’s move on to the story of Peter’s restoration. Three times, just after dawn on a shoreline around a fire, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. Three times, just after dawn at a gateway around a fire, Peter had denied Jesus. The story is recounted in John chapter 18 where, between verses 15 and 27, there are 17 words that refer to thresholds. See, this story is about Peter’s name which means ‘threshold stone’ and the choices he makes when his identity collides with his destiny.

But, all that to one side for the moment, Jesus is reversing the curse that Peter was due to have befall him because of his fall at a threshold. It’s deliberate, it’s conscious, it’s Jesus overturning a threshold moment.

So, when three of the four post-resurrection stories feature reversals of curses which take place at threshold moments, is it likely that the last one does too? Of course!

You know, this is the ending to one of the most tragic stories in Scripture. It is the beauty-from-ashes finale to an episode so horrific that most preachers instinctively avoid it. Yet it ranks as the second greatest tragedy in all history, at least according to the importance that Jesus gave it in making it first on His agenda after returning from the Father.

Let’s look at the facts of Emmaus critically.

Two disciples, one of whom is named Cleopas, set out on a journey from Jerusalem in the late afternoon. They walk about 11 km, have a bit of conversation on the way, and seek lodging as evening falls. Early church historians maintained that Cleopas was the brother of Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus and that the other disciple was Cleopas’ wife. From John’s gospel (John 19:25 where for ‘sister’ we should understand ‘sister-in-law’), we know her name was Mary — and she was one of the three Marys who stood at the foot of the cross.

Now if Cleopas was the brother of Joseph, this makes him of the line of David. His home town is Bethlehem.

Is there a story in Jewish history about a man whose home town is Bethlehem who travels with his wife about 11 km past Jerusalem in the late afternoon, having a bit of conversation on the way and who seeks lodging just as evening falls?

Yes. The story is in the book of Judges.

  • Tick, man and his wife.
  • Tick, home town is Bethlehem.
  • Tick, travelling about 11 km past Jerusalem.
  • Tick, late afternoon.
  • Tick, conversation.
  • Tick, they seek out lodging just as evening falls.

The early church was so convinced the story in Judges 19 was related to the story of Emmaus they actually changed the Greek translation of this section of the Hebrew Scriptures so the wording exactly matched the Greek description given in Luke’s gospel. Just so no one would be in any doubt!

While you’re rustling with your Bible to check Judges 19, let me summarise it.

A Levite, his servant and his concubine set out from their hometown of Bethlehem late one afternoon. Keep this in mind: hometown of Bethlehem.

They are heading for a new home in the hill country of Ephraim. Keep that in mind: hill country of Ephraim.

They go past the fortress of Jebus — later to become David’s capital Jerusalem — and reach a town, Gibeah of Benjamin, at nightfall. Keep that in mind: Gibeah of Benjamin.

After some difficulty they secure hospitality for the night. However, some men surround the house and demand the Levite is sent out so they can have sex with him.

If you’re hearing echoes of Sodom, you know what happens next. The host proposes to send out his daughter. You may wonder at the parallel with Sodom. The fact is the moment the Levite stepped over the threshold into the host’s home, the two of them came into threshold covenant with one another. It was an automatic understanding in ancient times — you passed over the cornerstone and the pact was sealed. This included a mutual obligation to defend each other to the death. This is why Lot, when his house was attacked by the men of Sodom, offered his daughters — he was simply fulfilling the obligations of the threshold covenant.

As it transpires at Gibeah, the host and his guest, the Levite, don’t have a pair of angels come to defend them. Things turn pear-shaped when they throw the concubine out and she is gang-raped. As she dies, at first light, she does something that will change the course of Israelite history. She reaches out to touch the untouchable: the sacred threshold stone where the blood of sacrifice would normally drip down from the lintels and doorposts. Her action speaks beyond death, accusing all the men involved in this shameful episode: it says, louder than words could ever do, ‘I am the threshold sacrifice.’

Instead of defending her to the death and giving their lives to protect her, her husband and the host have sacrificed her to save themselves.

Now her husband does something even more unspeakable. He cuts her body up, like that of an animal, and sends it around the tribes of Israel to call them to war. Maybe this is the moment to reveal the Levite’s identity. He’s the grandson of Moses — and in one swift blow, he’s about to destroy everything his grandfather worked towards for forty years: to build a tribal brotherhood. The call to war was never meant to pit one clan against another — it was there in the event of attack by external enemies.

Let me short-cut the story. The tribe of Benjamin is almost totally wiped out — except for 600 men who flee into hiding. The other 11 tribes are horrified at what they’ve done, but that doesn’t stop them adding to the catastrophe: they go wipe out an entire town by the name of Jabesh Gilead and kill everyone except the young unmarried girls, so they can give them to these 600 guys who are left after the almost total annihilation of their tribe.

Last bit of important geography to keep in mind: the town of Jabesh Gilead, on the far side of the Jordan.

Jonathan, the grandson of Moses — the Levite who started all this — skives off to the far north where his descendants set up an idolatrous sanctuary with a golden calf.

Now of course anyone born in the little town of Gibeah after this disaster had serious psychological problems. That child will be fathered by a man who has only just survived a genocide and will be mothered by a woman who was a trophy of war.

That child is… Saul, Israel’s first king.

He may not be the first generation after this tragic event but the point still holds. The serious psychological problems will include bitterness, anger, violent rage and a desire for revenge.

One thing I’ve noticed that goes completely unremarked by commentators is this: if you carefully examine the more famous genealogies in Scripture, you’ll notice a remarkable tendency for children to be named for the unresolved issues in the family line. Here we see a remarkable instance of it: Saul names his son Jonathan because the unresolved issue in his family line is hatred of a Levite named Jonathan. It’s no coincidence that the family of David has the same problem — or that David has an uncle named Jonathan.

Saul has generational issues that make ours look comparatively trivial. He has a call on his life, and it’s a very clear one:

  • He’s called to reconcile the people of Israel with the people of resettled Jabesh Gilead.
  • He’s called to reconcile the people of his hometown Gibeah with a priest who hails from the hill country of Ephraim.
  • He’s called to reconcile the people of this hometown Gibeah with the people of Bethlehem.

Remarkably he achieves the first two calls. It’s a staggering achievement — make no mistake about it. His first action as king is to save the people of Jabesh Gilead from the brutal Ammonites. He achieves the second call on his life through his friendship with Samuel, a priest whose family hails from the hill country of Ephraim.

But faced with a kid from Bethlehem who could sing like an angel and kill giants like they were ants, he cracked. All that generational hatred — all the clan warfare between these implacable enemies, Gibeah and Bethlehem, surfaced once more.

Now when we’ve judged others in condemnation, we will reap that judgment in like kind. We will either become just like those we’ve judged, repeating their hateful actions over and over OR we will continue to draw similar people into our lives through bitter root defilements.

So, since the issue is genocide combined with threshold covenant violation, Saul’s lack of forgiveness pushes him into committing a genocide combined with a threshold covenant violation. He virtually wipes out the Gibeonites.

Decades later, there’s a famine that is destroying land and people. David inquires of the Lord and he’s told it’s because Saul killed the Gibeonites. But the truth is — it didn’t start with Saul. And it didn’t end with David. Because David, in turn, violated his covenant with Saul and Jonathan by handing members of their families over to the Gibeonites. He was obligated to defend them to the death… but, unlike Saul, he repents of what he has done. But does it end with him?

No. It doesn’t. The defilement goes on for another thousand years. Until Jesus steps up to a couple on the road to Emmaus… He’d just got back from heaven and top of his to-do list was to heal the spiritual wound that tore the tribal brotherhood apart and pitted them against each other when they were supposed to be family.

Jesus breaks bread: symbolic not just of His own broken body but echoing the body of the concubine, cut up as a call to war.

This is world-mending. It’s taking the mutilated pieces of the past and producing beauty from ashes.

And the amazing thing about it is: Saul was called to this, David was called to this — and it wasn’t an enormous task God put before them. All God asked of them was to invite someone to dinner: to share the table which had been spread in the presence of their enemies.

Now how does this story relate to us today?

Well, every one of us is called to world-mending. Now let me tell you, broad brushstroke, about threshold covenants. When they go right, they’re simple. When they go wrong, they are complex, unwieldy and dangerous to undo. How do you know when a threshold covenant has gone wrong? By the constriction and wasting experienced as you try to come into your destiny. This is true for people as well as nations.

Sacrifice and thresholds are synonymous. But there are right sacrifices and wrong ones. Three and a half thousand years ago a concubine put her hands on the threshold to indicate she was a sacrifice that should never have been offered.

You see, what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus wasn’t simply world-mending — it’s wrapping up the healing of the land that Saul only partly completed and that David could have sealed but instead somehow flubbed after him.

Is it for us to heal the land? At the end of the day, no. One of the sayings of the Jewish sages is this: It is not your responsibility to finish the work of mending the world but neither are you free to ignore it.

Look into your history and see where you personally fit into the pattern of it all.

Sure the disciples on the road to Emmaus may have been the aunt and uncle of Jesus. But we are His brothers and sisters. We are royalty. Maybe there’s someone He wants you to invite to dinner; it doesn’t matter how simple it is, from a cup of coffee to a full-on feast—it’s a royal banquet.

Because, as the Emmaus story shows, sometimes that’s all that’s needed to heal the land. The theme of every post-resurrection story in the Gospels is ‘we can heal the wounds of history’. Jewish people have a phrase ‘tikkun olam’: mending the world. That’s what God calls each one of us to do.

All that is needed is for the Holy Spirit to tell you the right person, the right time and the right place. And then for you to fall in with Jesus and His agenda for the day.

More on the story of the road to Emmaus and the great healing Jesus worked there is found in Silk Shadows, Rings of Gold, the third book in the series, Jesus and the Healing of History. There is no ebook for this title.