Luke composed his gospel account primarily for a gentile audience. The main indicators that Luke intended his writing for gentiles include the relabeling of Jewish customs and theology as well as explanations of the same. Moreover, Luke was a physician who did not regularly stay in Judea but accompanied Paul of Tarsus during his evangelism missions around the Mediterranean region. He was probably from Syrian Antioch, and therefore accustomed to gentile cultures and their concerns. Luke’s narrative also includes a special emphasis on proselytes and “God-fearers,” or gentiles who acknowledged the authority of Yahweh alone but who were not yet full members of the covenant community. He wrote about a new covenant community, one that is open to both Jews and gentiles under the lordship of Jesus. To that end, Luke expressed the innocence of Jesus before the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, to say that the gentiles do not condemn the Jewish messiah, but recognize his authority over the entire world. Luke addressed his gospel to a certain Theophilus, which may be a placeholder description for anyone who happens to love God—the meaning of the name from the Greek Theos (God) and phileō (love). In other words, Luke’s writing invites everyone to insert themselves into the text and become a type of “Theophilus” who receives eternal life.
Luke, a physician, had a firm grasp of the Greek language and often employed Semitic devices in his writing to persuade a Jewish audience. In several cases, Paul differentiated Luke from his Near Eastern counterparts, an indication that he was certainly not from Judea. Luke did not write his gospel in Aramaic or Hebrew but in common Greek. He alluded to the grammar of the Septuagint, the Old Testament translation for Greek-speaking Jews. Furthermore, the identification of Luke as a physician derives from Paul’s letter to the Colossians as well as the evangelist’s use of medical vocabulary and examples. Luke’s gospel is only the first of his writings, the second being the Acts of the Apostles. From the time he started penning his narrative, Luke intended for his gospel and Acts to be two parts of a congruent story. The geography mentioned in both Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles coincide, whereas the other three gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, John) do not. Luke’s knowledge of culture, language, medicine, and geography altogether express the narrative he intended for the audience he intended. This was why he introduced his account by justifying the purpose in the light of other witnesses to Jesus Christ. Theophilus is a stand-in for anyone who reads the gospel according to Luke, especially those of gentile status.
The Road to Emmaus
Jesus appeared to two disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, a seven-mile trek. However, these two men fail to recognize Jesus as they relay the events of passion week and a rumor about his resurrection. The road to Emmaus passage is one of Word and sacrament, that God reveals himself in conscience as well as in material symbols. When Jesus asked the two disciples about why they ignored the Hebrew prophets who testified about him, he was referring to God’s revelation through Word. In this sense, “Word” expresses God’s discernible communications with humankind as opposed to what people must hypothesize. Yet the disciples walking to Emmaus could not discern who Jesus was through reading or learning. They only understood Jesus’ identity when God showed them via an object of his own sovereign choice. Sacraments are not material symbols that human beings choose, but ones that God reveals. In this case, God reveals Jesus Christ through the breaking of bread, an otherwise common thing. Oftentimes, people understand wisdom and knowledge through everyday customs, like eating, rather than from an abstract education.
That God revealed Jesus via the breaking of bread at Emmaus provides a sign of resurrection and new creation. Luke indicated how Jesus’ resurrection occurred on the first day of the week, with the walk to Emmaus taking place sometime later on the same. If God created the world in seven days and the resurrection took place on the first day of a week based on that belief, then the symbol “eighth day” identifies a new creation. The main reason the disciples could not recognize Jesus was because they only had eyes for the frail, pre-resurrection version. They had to become new creatures in order to see Jesus for the new resurrection they saw later. God’s revelation of Jesus at Emmaus is synonymous with the parable of the wedding feast, where God invites the whole world to dine with him. Yet, he learns that not all people want to commune with God, but would rather linger in injustice. The consumption of food is a political activity for humankind; a harsh reality of inequality and turmoil. On the other hand, God provides for all people out of his abundance, without pitting them against each other. In fact, the resurrection is a new sabbath, a perfect rest from work and competition.
The road to Emmaus was not just a Eucharistic event, but also a pilgrimage. As the two disciples walked, they were asking theological questions and simply trying to make sense of events surrounding Jesus. These men were trying to know God and, ironically, traveled away from Jerusalem to find the answers they were looking for. After the Sanhedrin and the Roman prefect killed Jesus, Jerusalem was too mad of a place to seek God. Yet, the two disciples did not yet understand why they were walking to Emmaus, but only knew they were. Likewise, when pilgrims travel along the Way of Saint James of Compostela (Spanish: Via de Santiago de Compostela), they have no idea what they will eventually encounter along the route or at their final destination. For the men who met Jesus on the way to Emmaus, they did not just receive answers to their questions, but an experience. The reality of a pilgrimage is not material nor philosophical, but divine and existential. One does not become a pilgrim to discover the wisdom and knowledge of the sages but to experience the mystery of God that supersedes such categories. Once the disciples met Jesus and recognized him in the breaking of bread, they knew they had gained an understanding too vast for the philosophers of Greece and Rome.
The two disciples traveling to Emmaus sinned by abandoning Jesus and leaving Jerusalem. While they sought answers to the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, they were not loyal in staying with him. Jesus chastised them for failing to understand how the Hebrew prophets described the suffering of the messiah. The walk to Emmaus was not about God rewarding the righteous who always do right, but having mercy on those who disbelieve and assume they know best. Likewise, modern Christians celebrate the Eucharist, but do not receive Jesus Christ because of their deeds or beliefs. God reveals Jesus according to his mercy, which believers must receive by faith.
The road to Emmaus is a relevant Bible study for all Christians. In this context, an adult church study with open-ended questions is the format. Questions include: 1) Why did Jesus chastise the disciples for misreading the prophets? 2) Why did the disciples only know Jesus Christ in the breaking of bread? 3) What aspects of ancient Near Eastern rules of hospitality are in view in the Emmaus passage if any?
The walk to Emmaus passage in Luke’s gospel connects to modern churches. Christians continue to learn the Word and celebrate in the sacrament. The main lesson is for churchgoers to understand how Jesus reveals himself through teaching and in communal meals. Because of the unconditional nature of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before the ascension, Christians must welcome all people to the communion table without exclusion. However, it is imperative for believers to study christology, to know who Jesus Christ really is in order to avoid idolatry. The disciples near Emmaus failed to understand that Jesus was supposed to suffer. Likewise, his followers are never exempt from suffering and must rely on God for strength.
Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.
Karris, Robert J. Eating Your Way through Luke’s Gospel. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2006.
New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.
Olsen, Glenn W. On the Road to Emmaus: The Catholic Dialogue with America and Modernity. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2012.
Wells, Samuel. Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.