Just days prior to the predawn raid on Gethsemane, Jesus mounted the foal of a donkey, a recognized symbol of peace and an unmistakable identification with Messiah, and rode into Jerusalem to the cheering of thousands. Willing subjects of the King paved His path with their cloaks. Others cut palm branches, laid them along the stone pavement, and shouted, “Save us! Save us!”
He was their Messiah. He had promised abundant life. His followers fully expected He would become their king and that Israel would again be prosperous and free. But less than a week later, as the sun fell behind the horizon toward the end of an unforgettable week, the Son of God hung cold and lifeless on a Roman cross just outside the city walls.
His most faithful followers sat in dejected wonder as the sun set and the Sabbath began. In light of the prophecies, which Jesus had fulfilled, in light of the promises He made, and given the complete confidence they had placed in Him, nothing made sense. Not only had Jesus failed to improve Israel, but the nation’s future seemed even bleaker than before. Discouragement and desperation reigned supreme.
Perhaps you can identify with the pain of Jesus’ followers. Perhaps you have experienced the death of a dream or had the bridge to your ideal future crumble beneath your feet. Maybe you’re suffering that difficult, disillusioning situation right now. If so, you have the opportunity to experience abundance like no other time in your life.
Does that surprise you? I mean, isn’t spiritual enlightenment supposed to be enthralling? Isn’t divine wisdom the result of an ecstatic encounter in which God’s Spirit mystically touches ours? Many television and radio preachers make the spiritual life sound so exciting, like a miracle a day will drive all our problems away. Some talk of “victorious living” and the “the good life” in which all our dreams will come true if we’ll only choose to live by faith and claim God’s best!
That’s not abundant living. That’s nothing more than a spiritualized spin on “the power of positive thinking.” It’s the same talk you’ll hear from any motivational speaker in the country with the addition of a few Bible verses tossed in (usually out of context) to give it a sanctified shine.
Thanks to blockbuster movies, thrill rides and Madison Avenue ad campaigns, we have come to expect that if life isn’t “sensational,” something must be wrong. We must be skinny and beautiful, pursue a career that’s continually challenging and rewarding, become rich and famous and enjoy a family life that’s dynamic and fulfilling. If we’re not careful, we can apply those expectations to our spiritual journey and fail to see the hand of God in the ordinary events of life. Even more tragic, we might fail to recognize His gentle teaching in the midst of life’s most painful trials.
Many years ago, I was invited to speak at a small Bible college. The new president was fighting valiantly to help the school overcome its most recent troubles, and they were serious. I wanted to help however I could. He greeted me with great enthusiasm as I walked into the airport terminal, and when I asked, “How are you today?” he replied loudly with a huge smile, “Fantastic!” I stuck out my hand and he shook it so hard my shoulder hurt.
“Well, that’s good,” I said. “How’s the school?”
“Outstanding! Just outstanding!”
I thought to myself: OK, nothing’s that good. But I have to admit, his enthusiasm was infectious. He was exactly what motivators and leadership experts tell you to become. While I wholeheartedly believe in choosing to approach every challenge with a great attitude, I don’t mean we should abandon authenticity and live in fantasyland.
A year later, I returned to speak and he met me again. Like the year before, everything was “Fantastic!,” although, the student body had dwindled noticeably and worry hung in the air like a haze.
Sometime after my second trip and before my third, his world had come apart. The new president’s wife had left him, his children were adrift, the school struggled financially, and enrollment had sunk to an all?time low. The place was on the verge of closing its doors. When I stepped into the now?familiar terminal, I didn’t see him standing in his usual spot. He was sitting on a bench with his head down, clearly distracted until I walked up and stood right in front of him.
He looked up without a word. I took him by the shoulders, stood him up, and embraced him. “How are you?” I asked.
He hugged me in silence. Tears hung heavy from his eyelids as he said, “I’m growing and I’m learning. But I’m no longer fantastic.” Pain had enrolled my friend in a very difficult curriculum that would earn him an advanced degree in reality and brokenness.
The Road to Disappointment
As the sun rose on Sunday morning and the Passover feast came to an end, two of Jesus’ followers left for home, clearly disillusioned and resolving to leave their foolish dreams in Jerusalem forever. Even as rumors of resurrection circulated, the dejected pair began the 7?mile walk to the village of Emmaus.
They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. While they were talking and debating these things, Jesus himself approached and began to accompany them (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him). Then he said to them, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” (Luke 24:14-17)
Luke describes the disciples’ conversation as bantering ideas back and forth with great emotion in a shared search for answers. When Jesus asked, “What are these matters you are discussing?” (Luke 24:17), Luke uses the term antiballo, which literally means “to throw back and forth.” The disillusioned followers desperately wanted to know why their expectations of the Messiah had come to such a tragic end, and so they were exploring a number of theories.
Interestingly, the eyes of the two disciples were divinely prevented from recognizing Jesus. To them, He was just an ordinary man, a stranger out of the shadows joining them on their journey. As Luke recorded the story, he employed a clever narrative device called literary irony, in which the reader is aware of important facts that are hidden from the characters. (It makes for fascinating reading.) Note the delightful paradox we enjoy as one of the Emmaus?bound disciples responds to Jesus’ question.
And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:17-19)
His question was laughable, given his audience. If anyone understood what had happened, it was Jesus! If anyone was clueless, it was Cleopas! Nevertheless, Jesus encourages the disciples to talk, not to humiliate or chastise them, but for a very different purpose. He plays along with them by asking, “What things?”
“The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied, “a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:19-21)
And with that statement, Cleopas revealed the source of his trouble. His noble expectations for a social, political, and economic Messiah had failed to materialize. His limited perspective would not allow him to embrace the Messiah’s true agenda, of which economic prosperity and political liberation were only a tiny fraction. Cleopas’ expectation yielded another tragic consequence.
(Cleopas continued,) “Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened. Furthermore, some women of our group amazed us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back and said they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” (Luke 24:21-24)
In the first century, Christian gatherings customarily read this and other writings aloud. So, when the audience heard Cleopas putting all the clues together without understanding their meaning, the tension must have become unbearable for the audience. I imagine someone in the congregation finally reaching a breaking point and blurting out something like, “He’s risen, you fool!”
Cleopas and his companion saw everything clearly in the sense that they had all the facts; nevertheless, they lacked the ability to see what should have been plainly visible. Three faulty perspectives coated their eyes like layers of dark film, shielding them from the truth and keeping them perpetually groping for answers in a despairing darkness. Jesus came to them to peel away the faulty perspectives one layer at a time until they could see clearly.
First, their viewpoint lacked a spiritual dimension, leaving them with a merely human understanding of the events. Take note of how Cleopas characterized the death of Jesus. Don’t miss the lack of any divine involvement. He saw Jesus as “a prophet before God and all the people,” but the chief priests and rulers “handed Him over” and “crucified Him.”
Jesus, however, didn’t see the events that way. In His trial before Pilate, He said, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). The disciple Peter would later declare to the same “chief priests and rulers,”
“Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know C this man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles.” (Acts 2:22-23; emphasis added)
Peter then added, “The things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18).
Shortly after this, the community of believers identified with the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus Christ. While enduring persecution, they praised God saying, “Indeed both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, assembled together in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed to do as much as your power and your plan had decided beforehand would happen” (Acts 4:27-28 NET).
Now, that’s viewing the world from a divine perspective! They recognized that the people who thought they were playing such a significant role in history – people like Pontius Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas – were nothing more than pieces of lint on the page of prophecy. While God is not the author of evil and He never prompts or condones sin, nothing occurs without His sovereign oversight. Others may choose to do evil deeds and God’s people may suffer in the short term, but He will transform the evil intentions of evil people into opportunities for the enrichment of those in His care.
What happened to Cleopas’ divine perspective? Before we start criticizing Cleopas and his partner, let’s acknowledge a principle. When life is no longer “fantastic,” when our expectations crumble and dreams fade, it’s easy to slide into a funk. Circumstances become our taskmaster. People – especially those who took pan in causing our pain – stand taller than God. Our vision becomes earthbound, horizontal. Our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, and God seems far removed from our pain. Let’s face it: that’s a natural response we’re all guilty of choosing when our carefully constructed futures collapse under their own weight.
Let me point out that in the case of the two disillusioned disciples, God could not have been closer or more involved. But for reasons I’ll point out later. He prevented their seeing Him. Still speaking as an anonymous stranger, Jesus peeled away the first layer.
So he said to them, ‘You foolish people – how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures (Luke 24:25-27).
Peeling back the first layer, He then exposed the second. Their own agenda determined their expectations. Cleopas wistfully added, “We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
As I said earlier, the people of Israel made the mistake of thinking the Messiah would merely recapture the glory days of King David and victoriously lead Israel to become a Jewish world empire. Throughout His ministry, Jesus combated this limited perspective and tried to help people appreciate the much grander designs He had for the world. But as long as someone clings to his or her own agenda, he or she will remain blinded to the reality that God is in the process of creating.
God had a new covenant in mind. The new would build upon the old in order to provide His people much more than temporal power and material wealth. The King of Israel will indeed liberate the nation, and He will indeed rule the whole world. But not before liberating all people from the bondage of sin and not before recreating the world anew, all the way down to its atoms. It would be a new kind of kingdom, one in which material abundance would come as a result of having a right relationship with God, not in spite of being estranged from Him. After all, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Pause for a moment and consider a few questions: To what expectation are you clinging? What future have you determined for yourself? What perspective will you choose if your plans come unraveled or someone shatters your dreams?
We typically view circumstances, especially those involving loss, as difficult because reality does not fulfill our expectations. Moreover, the impression that God has abandoned us to our suffering only intensifies the pain of loss and the frustration of difficulties. The two followers on the road to Emmaus undoubtedly felt God?forsaken as they mourned the death of their dreams. Ironically, the very perspective that caused their pain kept them from seeing Jesus in their presence.
Let me encourage you to release your expectations. Hand them over to God, and open your hands to receive whatever He chooses to place in them. Here is a simple prayer that I recently discovered and have found to be of great help in recent days:
Lord, I am willing
To receive what You give;
To lack what You withhold;
To relinquish what You take
To suffer what You inflict;
To be what You require.
It was this mentality those two disciples lacked. Jesus helped them gain a divine, eternal perspective by teaching them from the Scriptures. Starting with the story of Genesis, applying the lyrics of the poets, and expositing the words of the prophets, He demonstrated how the sacrificial death of the Messiah was required to defeat evil. He very likely reminded them of the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah, one of their favorite prophets. These songs feature a recurring figure called “the Servant of the Lord,” who will bring justice to the world (Isaiah 42:1-4), lead His people into a right relationship with God (Isaiah 49:5), enlighten the nations and bring salvation to everyone (Isaiah 49:6), endure unjust humiliation (Isaiah 50:6), and bear the divine punishment others deserve (Isaiah 52:13-15 ? Isaiah 53).
The final song applauds the Servant for His sacrifice and extols His path to glory through His own humiliation. He is portrayed as a lamb led to an altar and slaughtered upon it as a sin offering. In the Hebrew temple, the brutal rite of animal sacrifice taught the worshiper that sin is costly and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God established the practice as a means of giving His people grace. In the case of the Servant, unlike the Hebrew sacrifice in which one lamb was received by God as a token for one person’s sin,
He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well?being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:5-6).
As they approached the town of Emmaus, the two disciples find themselves so intrigued, they urged the stranger to stay the night in keeping with ancient Near Eastern rules of hospitality. Jesus accepted the offer, while maintaining His anonymity. The disciples were not yet ready. One final truth?obscuring layer remained on their eyes: they failed to acknowledge the resurrection.
They had heard the reports; they had all the facts. They simply refused to believe with their whole hearts. And their lack of belief affected everything. If these two disciples had believed that Jesus was alive, they would have behaved differently in at least two respects. First, they would have been walking toward Jerusalem, where Jesus was last seen, not away. Second, they would have accepted the trials, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus as the fulfillment of all He had promised, not as the end of their hopes.
As the afternoon sun drifted closer to the horizon, Jesus and the two followers prepared the evening meal and, no doubt, continued their discussion about the need for the Messiah to die. Of course, the death of Jesus begged an obvious question. “How, then, will the Messiah establish His kingdom and reign over it if He’s dead?”
When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Then he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:30-31 NET).
The Greek phrase translated “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him” literally means “their eyes were completely opened and they came to fully comprehend Him.” This was more than a passive, casual recognition of His features. They came to recognize Jesus in all His significance as the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, the Son of God, and their risen Lord!
Luke doesn’t tell us why or how the breaking of bread opened their eyes. Maybe they saw the nail prints on His hands when He held up the bread to offer thanks. Perhaps they were present at the feeding of the 5,000 men and their families in the wilderness and recognized the manner in which He broke the matzo. We can’t be certain the final meal in the Upper Room on Passover didn’t include more disciples than the inner Twelve. All we know for certain is that the scales fell from the eyes of the two disciples, and they saw everything clearly for the first time.
The Road Home
That’s how it happens today. You’re working your way through life, walking whatever path – school, work, home, ministry – and then something happens to upset the routine or, worse, something reduces your life to rubble. If God’s presence seems far removed from you, be assured that He remains close by. However, you may have one or more faulty perspectives blocking the light from your eyes. Let me suggest three practical decisions that will help you cope with daily struggles as well as recover from life?altering circumstances.
First, choose to view life through God’s eyes. This will not be easy because it doesn’t come naturally to us. We cannot do this on our own. We have to allow God to elevate our vantage point. Start by reading His Word, the Bible. If you don’t know where to begin, start at the front. I have found that reading truth from the Bible – even when it doesn’t seem to have direct application to what I’m going through – gives my perspective a vertical dimension.
Pray and ask God to transform your thinking. Let Him do what you cannot. Ask Him to give you an eternal, divine perspective. Ask Him to replace your way of thinking with His. He delights to respond to prayer.
Second, surrender your expectations. Stop trying to change the universe to work the way you think it should. Grief is essentially the process of adjusting your mind to accept a radically new situation. The sooner you accept that you will not get your way, the sooner you’ll heal. When you give up wishing things were different, you will start to change within. Let go of those resentments. Release your grip on what you want, no matter how good or right you think it is. Isn’t it exhausting, anyway?
As you surrender your expectations, ask the Lord to show you His plan. Again, you can find it written in the 66 books of the Bible, our only reliable source of absolute truth. Pray. Ask Him to open your eyes to the future He desires, and determine to join Him in whatever He has chosen to do. Take your time with this. Transformation is a slow and sometimes tedious process.
Third, acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus Christ and stake your future upon it. A genuine belief in the fact of His resurrection will radically transform how you approach life. The death of Jesus conquered sin and overcame death’s finality, but it’s His resurrection that gives us life, hope, and reason to continue when everything appears hopeless.
Reprinted by permission from Great Lives: Jesus, by Charles Swindoll. Copyright © 2008 Thomas Nelson Inc. Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.