Gospel Bookends: The Pilgrim Teacher

We’re continuing our study of bookend themes in the Gospels by considering Christ now as the Pilgrim Teacher. We’ll turn again to Luke for our two bookend passages. Each of them describes a pair of pilgrims traveling from Jerusalem after Passover. Interestingly, in both cases, they were mistaken about whether Christ was traveling with them. Mary and Joseph, at the start of Luke, were certain that He was with them, but He wasn’t! Cleopas and his companion, at the end of Luke, were certain that He wasn’t with them, but He was! Once they discovered their error, both sets of travelers rushed back to Jerusalem. And in each story we see how Christ’s love for Scripture left an indelible impression on their hearts (2:51; 24:32).

Two Pilgrims, Unknowingly Without Christ (2:44)

Both of these passages are very familiar, but each is a special text that deserves careful consideration. This first story is the only glimpse we have of the Lord Jesus from the thirty years between His infancy and public ministry. The Holy Spirit gives it to us as a summary of His life during those hidden years.

Mary and Joseph were traveling home from Jerusalem after Passover. They had taken Jesus with them, and, at twelve years of age, this was a very significant time in a Jewish boy’s life. It’s the last time we see Joseph with his family. He likely passed away before the Lord’s ministry began, but his brief appearances in Scripture reveal him to be a godly man. We learn here that he took his family to Jerusalem every year at Passover.

As Joseph and Mary returned home, they assumed that Jesus was somewhere in the large company of friends and relatives traveling together. Perhaps it wasn’t until they unpacked for the night that they discovered Him missing. Rushing back to Jerusalem, they found Him on the third day, not with other boys His age but with the teachers and scholars in the temple. Even more surprising was where He was sitting – not as a bystander on the outer edges, but right in the middle of them. People were listening to Him as He asked – and answered! – questions. His understanding of Scripture astonished them.

All the emotions Mary felt while searching for Him bubbled over: “Son, why …? thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing” (2:48).[1] She was speaking straight from the heart. But she misspoke in calling Joseph His father. He gently corrected her in His reply, “I must be about my Father’s business” (v49).

And what a startling statement it was. No one had ever dared to speak like that before, not even the heroes and holy men of Israel’s history. Yet here was a boy standing in the temple and calling God’s things “My Father’s things.” Mary never forgot those words; she treasured them in her heart. And even though she and Joseph were imperfect parents, the Lord humbly went home with them and obeyed them. In time, He took over the carpentry work, as expected, but His eye was always focused on His heavenly Father’s will. Most of those thirty years we know nothing about, but the Father who saw them all said at the end of them, “I am well pleased” (3:22).

Two Pilgrims, Unknowingly With Christ (24:16)

Who would have thought that one day those temple leaders would do everything in their power to put this Boy to death? Who could imagine that the temple floors would ring out from the clattering coins they had paid to His betrayer? Who could envision that they would try Him at night – illegally – to coordinate their lies against Him, threaten the governor into condemning Him, stir the crowd to choose a murderer instead of Him, and welcome the blood-guilt of His death upon themselves? But they did all that – on this same Passover week, some twenty years later.

And in the aftermath of that awful crime, Luke brings us back to this exact same setting again: a pair of pilgrims traveling home from Jerusalem after Passover. This time, their hearts were sorrowful right from the start. They knew that Jesus wasn’t with them. His recent death had dashed all their hopes in pieces.

So Cleopas and his companion hardly noticed the Stranger walking by them, until He asked why they were sad and what they were discussing. They thought, Has he not come from Jerusalem? Doesn’t everyone know what happened this weekend? They explained about Jesus of Nazareth, how He “was” a prophet, how they once “trusted” in Him. They said it all in the past tense, because He was gone now and so was their hope.

But then the Stranger opened the Scriptures to them. And isn’t it interesting that He didn’t reveal Himself right away? He didn’t say, “Look, it’s Me!” He wanted their confidence to rest in God’s Word, so that when He left again, they would still have an unshakeable resource to drive away their doubts. He showed them how Scripture, from beginning to end, foretold all these things. It was such a wonderful conversation that they urged Him to stay the night with them when they reached home. And even though they were the hosts, He was the one who took the bread at supper, broke it, and gave it to them, just as He had fed them with living Bread along the way (4:4).

And then He opened their eyes. They recognized Him! In the next instant He was gone, but His words were not. With burning hearts, they rushed back to Jerusalem to tell others what they had learned from Him.

Like both these sets of pilgrims, our path is full of joys and sorrows. The secret of endurance is found in walking each day with Christ. His presence and His Word make all the difference. Mary and Joseph were sad because they had taken His presence for granted and journeyed on without Him. But once they realized it, they stopped immediately and went back to where they had left Him. They dared not travel on alone.

Cleopas and his companion were sad because they had neglected Scripture. Their hearts had been slow to explore, understand and believe all that the prophets had written. But as they journeyed with Christ, He unfolded to them God’s Word. Their sluggish hearts began to warm, then burn, then overflow, until they had to share it with others. And it can be the same for us. If we will travel together with Him, His presence will be our comfort, and His words will be the treasure and flame of our hearts.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV.