Scripture: Luke 24: 13-35
Next month marks a special day in the life of Methodist and Wesleyan churches around the world. Indeed, even in the Church of England, this day is celebrated as a “feast day” for John and Charles Wesley. I’m referring to Aldersgate Day, May 24. Two-hundred-and-eighty-three years ago, in 1738, John Wesley attended a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London.
He wrote about it in his journal as follows:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.1
Prior to this date in 1738, Wesley had already started a small “Methodist” movement while he was a student at Oxford, he had gotten ordained in the Church of England, he had gone to this British colony called “Georgia” in America as a missionary. No one would accuse Wesley of not even being saved… Well, no one except Wesley himself!
Wesley lacked an assurance of his salvation, which the Bible promises that God’s children will have2. So he was worried: Months earlier, on his way back from missionary work in America, he wrote in his journal, “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?”3
But all that changed when he attended this Bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. His heart was strangely warmed. And this took place because Martin Luther, and the people who attended this class, “opened the scriptures” to Wesley!
And speaking of one’s heart being strangely warmed, something similar happened to these two disciples on the road to a small village called Emmaus. After their conversation with the resurrected Lord, in verse 32, “They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’”
So who are these two disciples? While they weren’t among the Twelve disciples who had lived with Jesus and worked alongside him for the past three years, they may have been part of that larger group of 72 disciples whom Jesus commissioned in Luke chapter 10 to go into neighboring towns of Israel, teaching, preaching, and healing. If so, they not only witnessed plenty of Jesus’ miracles, they had even been empowered to perform miracles in Jesus’ name.
Regardless, neither of them believed at this point that Jesus had been resurrected.
And this is the point at which Jesus meets them on the road… except, oddly enough, verse 16 tells us, “[T]heir eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
Were kept from recognizing him… That’s called the passive voice, if you remember English class. Who or what kept them from recognizing Jesus?
This is what Bible scholars call the “divine passive.” In the Bible, when an author uses passive voice to avoid identifying who’s doing something—in this case, preventing these two from recognizing Jesus—that usually means God is the One who’s doing it. And this is why the New Living Translation, in the interest of clarity, comes right out and says it. It translates verse 16 as, “But God kept them from recognizing him.”
This is really strange. If Jesus’ point is simply to prove to these two disciples that he’s been resurrected, isn’t this the last thing he’d want to do… prevent them from recognizing him? It doesn’t make sense.
Unless… maybe Jesus doesn’t want to just prove to them that he’s been resurrected. If that were the case, he would have just said, “Hey, guys! It’s me!” No… While he certainly intends to convince them that he’s been resurrected, he wants something more: he wants to convince them from scripture that he was supposed to be crucified and resurrected—that the cross wasn’t some unforeseen tragedy, but that it was part of God’s plan for rescuing the world from its sins from the very beginning. In other words, before God created the universe, before he made the first human being, he knew that he would need to redeem the world through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Jesus wants to convince them of that. And he wants to show them that all along, the authors of scripture and the prophets of the Old Testament were pointing to Christ’s atoning death on the cross—and the way in which his death would be vindicated through his resurrection!
He wants to show them that the Bible is telling the truth, and that they can trust it!
Gosh, five years ago now, pastor Andy Stanley preached a controversial sermon in which he told his congregation at Northpoint Church that if they didn’t like the Old Testament—if they had problems with it, if it didn’t make sense to them, if they had a hard time believing it—that’s okay… because they can just “unhitch” the Old Testament from their Christian faith.
He got a lot of flack for saying it, and he tried to explain himself. He assured everyone that it’s not that he himself doesn’t love and believe in the Old Testament—he does—but it’s okay if would-be Christians don’t because the most important thing to know, the most important fact, is that Jesus was resurrected.
And like me, Andy Stanley believes that there’s plenty of historical evidence to prove the resurrection. But he goes much further than I would and says that you don’t even need the Old Testament!
“So if the Old Testament is a stumbling block to you, just forget about it!”
“If you don’t believe in parts of the Bible, that’s okay… Just don’t let it prevent you from believing in the resurrection. Because the resurrection is what’s most important… Not the question of whether or not the Bible is telling the truth. That’s no big deal.”
I have great respect for Andy Stanley, but that’s what he was saying.
And I simply can’t reconcile that point of view with what Jesus says and does in today’s scripture. In other words, if Andy Stanley were right, why wouldn’t Jesus simply say, “Guys, it’s me. I’m resurrected! Just like I said I would be. Remember? Just set aside the Bible. I know it can be difficult and confusing. You may not understand it, or you may not agree with it. You may not like it. So just… unhitch it. You’ve got me. Don’t worry about that book.”
But that’s not what Jesus said… Instead, he talks to them for a long time about the ways in which the Old Testament points to him—his atoning work on the cross, and his resurrection. And keep in mind, it would have taken these two disciples probably two-and-a-half hours or so to walk the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. If Jesus caught up with them at the beginning of that journey, which seems likely, he obviously had a lot to say about all the ways in which the Old Testament pointed to Christ and to the gospel and to the cross and to the resurrection!
And I’m tempted in this sermon to talk about some of the things that Jesus undoubtedly told these two disciples. But I’ll save that for another sermon. Suffice it to say, I believe the entire Old Testament is ultimately about Christ, his gospel, his atoning work on the cross, and those who find their life in him!
And notice verse 25: Jesus says, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”
Isn’t that weird? These two disciples, whoever they were, were close to Jesus, as I’ve said. According to verse 24, they’re even connected to the women who went to the empty tomb that morning. It’s possible, if not likely, they heard Jesus predict that he would be crucified and resurrected three days later—or surely they had at least heard about it. But oddly enough, Jesus doesn’t say, “Why didn’t you believe me?” He says, “Why didn’t you believe ‘all that the prophets have spoken’?” In this book. That’s shorthand for saying, “Why didn’t you believe the Bible?”
He scolds them, ever so gently, for not believing God’s Word!
My point is, Jesus wants his disciples—no, he requires his disciples—to believe the Bible! This is a non-negotiable part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus! He wants us to believe in the truthfulness of God’s Word! And I want you to as well! And listen, if you’re struggling right now to believe it, or parts of it, I want to help you. I think I can help you answer your most difficult questions… I’m probably already familiar with questions you have!
Does this relate to the division in our denomination, and what we’re going through right now?
You better believe it does! While no one talks about “unhitching” the Old Testament, it’s close enough… They want to “unhitch” large portions of the Old Testament, and even plenty of parts of the New Testament as well!
If you don’t believe me, consider this: Adam Hamilton is by far the most famous and influential United Methodist pastor and author around. He pastors one of only a handful of United Methodist “megachurches”—although his church has lost at least hundreds of members over the last decade… But in 2014 Hamilton published a book called Making Sense of the Bible. Some of you know all about it, I’m sure. He offers a couple of deeply troubling, unbiblical, and unorthodox ideas about the Bible.
I blogged about this book years ago, and he said he told me he was going to respond what I’d written. He never did. I don’t blame him. I mean, who am I?
Anyway, he said that we can divide all of scripture into three “buckets”4: Into bucket Number One, he says, you can put most of the Bible: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket Number Two: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, purity laws—which Jesus and the New Testament authors tell us are no longer binding on Christians; these would fit in Bucket Number Two.
So far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket Number Three: There are parts of the Bible, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” In other words, the Bible got it wrong.
But I’m sorry… This is completely against what scripture teaches… 2 Timothy 3:16 doesn’t merely say “all scripture is inspired by God,” the way older versions often translated it. The Greek word is theopneustos, which literally means “breathed out by God”: “all scripture is breathed out by God.” This means that God the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ himself, guided the authors of scripture to write what they wrote; God superintended what they wrote; God ensured that scripture says precisely what God wants it to say.
But forget about what Paul wrote for a moment. Listen to Jesus:
Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…5
In John 10:35, Jesus said that “Scripture cannot be set aside.” Or “altered.” Or “broken.”6
Or… getting back to John Wesley…
He said that this scripture from 2 Timothy implies that the Bible is “infallibly true.7” Indeed, in a journal entry dated July 24, 1776, Wesley was complaining about a writer who said that not all of the Bible was inspired by God, and some of its writers made mistakes. Wesley said, “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.” 8
Because of his strong convictions about the truthfulness of scripture, Wesley wrote the following in his preface to a book of his sermons:
I want to know one thing: the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri.”9
Which means “a man of one book.” Wesley aspired to be a man of one book—the Bible. Not that he didn’t read plenty of other books—he was an Oxford scholar, for heaven’s sake. But he built his life on God’s Word, the Bible. And he wanted us Methodists to do so as well.
And that’s what I want. I aspire to be a “man of one book”… a person of one book. I want you to be, as well. Sometimes people will say, “Brent, you preach with such passion!” Where do you think it comes from? It comes from my belief in the complete truthfulness of this book! I aspire to live and die by the words of this book. Because this is God’s Word!
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, you’re going to hear a lot about issues that are dividing our denomination… It’s no secret, I suppose, that I am what’s often called a “traditionalist” or sometimes a theological conservative—and that’s fine, but just know that when I say “theological conservative,” I’m not talking about partisan politics. It has nothing to do with who we support for president or what party we belong to. From my perspective, both Democrats and Republicans need Jesus equally. Based on my conversations with lots of people in this town, our fair city of Toccoa is both overwhelmingly Republican, and also, overwhelmingly lost and in need of Jesus. Ask me which of those two facts I care about. My passion is to tell people about Jesus!
But to be a traditionalist in our denomination means that I support our United Methodist Book of Discipline, and the time-tested doctrines that it contains. Eleven years ago, when I was ordained as an elder in full connection, I stood up and told the North Georgia Conference, my bishop, and my God that I sincerely believed in the truth of these doctrines—because I was convinced that they represented the truth as revealed in God’s Word. Everyone who was ordained alongside me said the same thing, made the same promises.
My convictions have not changed one iota since then—and I’ve heard no arguments from God’s Word that have shaken these convictions—and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard all the arguments on all sides of the issues that divide us as a denomination.
So I haven’t changed, but our North Georgia Conference has… and it continues to do so at an alarmingly fast pace…
Not to be dramatic, but when the first Protestant, Martin Luther, was put on trial by his church in Germany, the question he faced was this: “Would he be faithful to his church and its leaders, or would he be faithful to the truth that was revealed in God’s Word?” And literally five hundred years ago today, he famously said, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God… Here I stand. I can do no other.”
I could say the same thing. Because make no mistake, despite what you’ll hear, the main question confronting our United Methodist Church is not related to marriage or physical intimacy or anything like that… The main question is this: “Do we believe that God is telling the truth in these words that his Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of Christ, breathed out in holy scripture?”
I do! So here I stand. I can do other. I suppose it would help my career if I could. I invite you to stand with me.
I believe God is telling the truth in his Word—completely—nothing but the truth. And if I didn’t believe that, I would have a hard time applying today’s scripture to my life.
Because notice what Jesus does: Look at verse 17: “And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.” Jesus doesn’t need to ask that question. He knows the answer. But by asking it, it’s almost as if he goes straight to their place of pain. You know how they say a surgeon has to first injure a person in order to heal that person? That’s what Jesus is doing. It hurts! It hurts these two disciples to talk about the pain, the grief, the disappointment, the sorrow, the sense of failure, teh sense of futility they’ve experienced over these past few days. The ESV says, “And they stood still, looking sad.” But I like the way the NLT puts it better: “They stopped short, sadness written across their faces.”
This is heart wrenching stuff Jesus is asking them to dredge up. But Jesus wants them to tell him about it… to tell him all about it. And since they’re talking to Jesus, they are quite literally doing what? They are praying. Jesus wants us to pray like that too!
And when they finish speaking to him, in verses 19 to 24, what does Jesus do? He speaks back to them. He talks to them.
And maybe you’re thinking, “Lucky for them! They had the luxury of having Jesus right there, in the flesh, speaking in an audible voice. Imagine hearing the voice of Jesus when you pray! By contrast, when I’m in the midst of a crisis, and I tell Jesus about it, it’s a one-way conversation!”
But don’t you see…? That’s not true! It doesn’t have to be!
Because notice how Jesus speaks to these two disciples in verse 27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” And then later, in verse 32, they say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
See, I think this is why he kept those disciples from recognize him at first… Because his lesson to them was his lesson to us, as well. It was as if Jesus were saying this:
I’m with you in the flesh right now, and you’re among only a handful of people in the history of the world who will have the privilege of listening to me speak to them directly.
But notice the way in which I’m speaking to you. I’m opening the Scriptures to you. I’m showing you how these God-breathed words apply to your particular situation right now. Through the words of scripture, I’m giving you precisely what you need to cope with this difficult trial that you’re enduring. And guess what, even when I ascend to be with my Father, and I won’t be physically present to speak to you in an audible voice, you’ll still have this book. And best of all, as I promised my disciples in the Upper Room during the Last Supper, I’m giving you my Spirit—the very One who breathed out the words of this book. And he will show you how these words apply. He will remind you of things I said in this book. He will guide you to understand what it means. And he’ll help you find the right words you need when you need them.10
See, I will speak to you when I’m no longer here in the flesh… I’ll speak to you in much the same way I’m speaking to you now: through the words of scripture—the words of this book.
Some sarcastic preacher said one time that if you want to hear God speak to you in an audible voice, you should read the Bible out loud. That may not be pastorally sensitive, but it’s true enough. I would only add that Jesus is God. His Holy Spirit breathed out these words in order that we could hear Jesus speak to us. And when Jesus does speak to us, his voice will usually sound an awful lot like… the words of this book.
Will we listen to him? Will we believe him when he speaks?
I hope so!
- Steve Manskar, “I Felt I Did Trust in Christ, Christ Alone for Salvation,” umcdiscipleship.org. Accessed 15 April 2021.
- See Romans 8:16
- “The Voyage to England,” Journal of John Wesley,cel.org. Accessed 15 April 2021.
- Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 273-4.
- Matthew 5:17-19a
- See John 10:35 in NIV, NLT, ESV.
- John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition. Accessed 16 September 2017.
- John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, Vol. 4(New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1922), 83.
- John Wesley, John Wesley, ed. Albert Outler (New York: Oxford University, 1964), 89.
- See John 14:17, 26; 16:12-15