During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he often had a hard time being understood. The Gospels record numerous moments in which he made cryptic remarks that either made no sense to his hearers or, worse, were completely misunderstood at the time he made them.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) was taken by his enemies as some sort of terrorist threat and, in garbled form, used as evidence against him at his trial (“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).
Jesus told parables that were not understood and often scandalized even those who loved him. Even his plain speech was hard to grasp. When he straightforwardly told his disciples he would be rejected and crucified, Peter tried to argue Jesus out of it, earning Peter the remarkable rebuke of being named “Satan” (Matthew 16:23).
Jesus three times warned his disciples of the destiny awaiting him in Jerusalem, and three times they did not get it. Even when he performed miracles such as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, his words ended up losing almost all his disciples when he told them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
And on the night he was betrayed, when he was the most plain-spoken of his whole ministry, understanding remained elusive for his followers. Despite his extremely clear warnings about what would happen to him and how they would betray, abandon and deny him, it all happened as he said — and they were all as surprised as if he had never prophesied a word.
Indeed, so thick were they that John tells us, “They did not know the Scripture: that he must rise from the dead” even when they were standing in the mouth of the empty tomb (John 20:9).
In fact, even when the Emmaus disciples saw the risen Christ with their own eyes and received from him the first Christian Bible study in history, Luke reports that they still had trouble understanding it was him — and that the Old Testament he was teaching them about was actually all about him.
“And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
The story of the Emmaus disciples is instructive because it makes clear that something more than a facility for metaphor and simile and other figures of speech is necessary to “read between the lines” of Revelation and receive the gift of understanding. Even when the Son of God himself is leading the study of Scripture, the Emmaus disciples do not get it — until he takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and their eyes are opened to recognize him.
As Paul said of his unbelieving countrymen, so the same is true of the Emmaus disciples and of each one of us till the gift of understanding is given: “Their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the Old Covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:14-16).
This is where understanding as a sanctifying gift begins to come into the picture. It builds on natural understanding as grace always does build on nature. But it is more:
“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written: that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:45-47).
Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.