The two disciples walk slowly. Their journey today is not long, but their hearts are heavy with sorrow and confusion. They were sure that Jesus would be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel, the one who would bring restoration and peace to the world, so that all nations would know the one true God.
And now he was dead. All the promises, all their hopes, seem to have died with him. There was no substitute given, as there was for Isaac when Abraham had offered him long ago. God did not intervene at the last second. They had watched him die. And they speak of these things as they walk back home to Emmaus.
A stranger joins them on the way, and asks them what they are talking about. They stop briefly, surprised that anyone would be ignorant of the events of the last few days. It’s hard to relive those horrible hours, but nonetheless they tell the stranger what happened to Jesus, and how all their hopes have been dashed.
To their surprise, he begins to tell them why it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die, explaining it to them from the scriptures, beginning with Moses…
The Crushed Disciples
This wonderful story is found in Luke 24:13-35. It isn’t often that we speak of Jesus’ death without also speaking of his resurrection. Sometimes, however, it can be illuminating to absorb the crushing despair that his disciples must have felt between the two events.
The Messiah was expected to bring peace to the entire world, so that all nations would come to know and worship God. How could he do this if he was dead? Such a promising life and ministry, all the miracles, all the teaching—all was lost. It was over. The best they could hope for was not to be delivered to the same fate.
Theologian and professor Jeremy Begbie of Duke University has this to say:
We are invited to view the crucifixion in the light of the blazing daybreak of Easter; Sunday morning vindicates the Jesus who was crucified, announcing that he was indeed God’s chosen one, that the world’s sin has been defeated in him. This is to view the cross from the outside, as it were, with the synoptic gaze we attain when we know the ending: Good Friday is seen to be a saving initiative, ‘Good.’ Yet along with this, we are also invited to read the story from the inside, from the perspective of those who live through the shadows of Friday and Saturday without knowing the ending, for whom the Friday is a catastrophic finale to the would-be Messiah’s life, a day devoid of victory, a day of shredded hopes, drained of goodness.
The Diluted Gospel
It is more pleasant to focus on the result of Jesus’ death than the actual event, or to focus on the resurrection instead of the crucifixion (disclaimer: I am not downplaying the resurrection here; please bear with me!). It may be nice to imagine a world without the Fall of Man. But if we do not engage with pain as pain, if we deny or trivialize the evil that Jesus overcame, then we dilute the gospel message itself.
If we speak only of the apparent defeat, then we speak as those who have no hope. But if we speak only of the victory of the resurrection, we deny the evil, the pain, and the suffering of Jesus and of those who followed him. That is sentimentality at its worst.
Consider a time of suffering in your own life. Were you ever truly lifted from it by some pithy axiom like “every cloud has a silver lining,” or “when God closes a door he opens a window?” Probably not. More likely you were helped by someone who was willing to enter your pain and walk through it with you, rather than someone trying to cheer you up right away.
We must be willing to absorb the horror of the depths to which the love of God will descend in order to redeem. We need to live in the moment of the scriptural narrative instead of constantly indulging our desire to “fast-forward to the good stuff.” Why? Because that’s life. That’s reality. That is the world that Jesus Christ came to save.
If we do not engage with and understand our need for him, and the world’s need, then how can we properly value what he offers?
The Challenging Cross
He offers life in abundance! How can we grasp how wonderful that is if we turn a blind eye to sin and death, and to the seemingly unbreakable grip in which the world is held? What good is it to say that the Lord of life entered death, that the sinless one bore our sin, if we refuse to look at sin and death for what they are?
Yes, sorrow gives way to victory. But to grasp the victory, we must grieve the sorrow.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)
A great work of art is not always enjoyable, but it is always challenging—it changes those who encounter it. We think beauty is something pleasing to the eye. It is not. Beauty has nail-holes in its hands and feet. Blood runs down the face of beauty, beaten beyond recognition. Beauty is not that which is pleasant and easy, but that which transforms.
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