The Politics of the Unlocking of History’s Meaning—Luke 24:13-35 (Peter Leithart)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

For the disciples on the Emmaus Road, the resurrection was the key to unlocking the meaning of Israel’s history. As a master key, however, its power extends further, opening up our eyes to the one in whom all of human life and history holds together.

13Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. 18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ 19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24Some 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.’ 25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ 27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. 30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Easter is good news, the best news. New life for Jesus means new life for his disciples, and new life for the disciples means new life for the world.

Death renders life futile. I start projects but can’t complete them. Death will finish my efforts to master German or to learn the violin. Just when my grandchildren are reaching their stride, their lives will be briefly interrupted by my funeral. Death is the great obstacle to human fulfillment. If Jesus is risen, though, he has broken through this barrier, and we can hope to become truly and fully human.

That is what the apostle Peter calls a “living hope” (1 Peter 1:3). Hopelessness is a living death, a static present with no future. To hope is to come alive again, and the resurrection of Jesus is the source of hope.

Great good news, but for those who were living through it, Easter isn’t so obviously good news. For Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish leaders, a risen Jesus is very bad news. Improbable as Jesus’ resurrection was, it must have haunted them. If the rumors proved true, Jesus’ enemies would come to the dawning realization that they placed themselves in opposition to a power stronger than death. That is a frightening prospect. For them, Jesus’ resurrection is something from a horror movie.

For Jesus’ disciples too, Easter is more perplexing, confusing than good. The two men on the road to Emmaus aren’t cheered by reports of resurrection. Already bewildered at Jesus’ death, they are more bewildered by rumors of resurrection. Fearful and weak in faith, they flee Jerusalem, the rest of the disciples, and Jesus’ mission. They need to be born again to a living hope.

Ironically, they aren’t ignorant about the resurrection. They know the entire gospel story, from Jesus’ prophetic ministry of powerful words and deeds, through his crucifixion, to his resurrection. They tell Jesus the whole story. But that data doesn’t overcome their fear and confusion. They need something more before they recognize Jesus. They have the history, but they can’t see what it means.

Rebuking them for their slowness of heart, Jesus leads them in a Bible study. He reviews Moses and moves through the Former Prophets (history books) to the Latter Prophets, teaching them that the entire Scripture is about the suffering and glory of the Christ. Jesus gives these fearful disciples the key to Scripture, the key that is Jesus’ own history. As Irenaeus famously put it, the Bible is a treasure of bright jewels that, rightly assembled, form the beautiful image of the face of a king.

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost gives us a hint of what Jesus’ Bible teaching might have been like. Peter cites Psalm 16’s promise that God will not allow his holy one to see decay. This cannot, Peter argues, refer to David, since he died and decayed long ago. The Lord’s commitment must be to another holy one, and Peter announces that Jesus is this other. In the Psalm, David plays a role, slipping on the mask of the Son, whose Father will not leave him in Sheol.

Scripture records the political history of the people of God, and if Jesus is the key to the Scripture he must also be the key that unlocks its political history. From this, we can draw several inferences. If Jesus’ suffering and exaltation are foreshadowed by Israel’s political history, then Jesus’ suffering and exaltation are themselves political events.

Further, Israel’s exaltation as a nation is the climax of Israel’s history, accomplished in the exaltation of the Christ who embodies Israel in his own Person. Israel’s history moves toward the political goal articulated in promises to Abraham: “Kings shall come from you” and “in your seed all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

We may be permitted a final inference, though it isn’t explicit in the text. Israel’s history is exemplary, a micro-history that typifies the macro-history of all peoples and nations. Jesus isn’t simply the key to Israel’s politics but to politics as such. Jesus’ history has to be understood in the light of the political history of Israel, and it is only in the light of that double-layered history of Israel and Jesus that we can discern the significance of the history of nations. Like the two on the road to Emmaus, we may have all the data at our fingertips, but we can see no pattern in the carpet unless we see the pattern of Jesus.

That sounds preposterous. How can the life, death, and (reported) resurrection of a first-century rabbi be the clue to history’s meaning? Preposterous it may be, but it’s a preposterousness inherent in Christian orthodoxy. In Christ all things hold together; he is the word of the Father who speaks all things into being, things that are first realized in the word the Father speaks. As John Milbank has said, if theology doesn’t serve as our master framework and story, everything will be framed and narrated by the oracular voice of some idol.

Making this claim specific is a tall order, and here I can do no more than offer a crude illustration. Tracing the causes of “fall of the Roman empire” has taxed historians since Rome fell, but there is a good historical case for saying that Rome’s authority eroded because of the witness of Christian martyrs. Following Jesus to the cross, martyrs exposed the impotence of Roman power, the arbitrariness of Roman justice, the hubris of the Roman pax. The story of the martyrs was, like the story of Jesus, suffering witness that led to exaltation.

According to Luke, Scripture, read allegorically as a narrative of the Christ, is essential to political insight, but it is not sufficient. The disciples on the road to Emmaus need something: They must sit at table and break bread with Jesus. When they do, their eyes, like the eyes of Adam and Eve, are opened. Having received sight from Jesus, they become as gods, knowing good and evil. Eyes are organs of judgment, and the disciples come to share in Jesus’ own insight by listening to his word and breaking bread.

If we take Luke 24 as our guide, churches that are not deeply immersed in the history of Israel are sensorially deprived. However much data they possess, their eyes and ears are closed to the order within the political whirl. Churches that have the word but rarely break bread are similarly deprived. If the church is to be a place of political insight and transforming political witness, she needs both the whole Bible and the table, both word and bread. Only then can she see the suffering and glory of Jesus everywhere in Scripture, in the fabric of history.


Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute and an adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). He blogs at https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart.

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