Luke 24:32, "our hearts burning within us," and the Mormon testimony

by Luke Wayne

Mormon missionaries often claim that one can know that the Book of Mormon is true by praying about the Book of Mormon and feeling an inner experience, sometimes described as a "burning in the bosom," which they claim is the testimony of the Holy Spirit. This experience is said to transcend all logical, rational, or biblical evidence and to allow one to "know" that the Book of Mormon is true on the basis of what is supposedly the direct testimony of God Himself. While this is a wholly unbiblical approach to determining truth, one place Mormon's point in an attempt to biblically validate this claim is the account of the two men on the road to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke. Having seen the risen Jesus, the men say to one another:

"Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

This, some Mormons claim, is an example of the Spirit confirming the truth of an extraordinary claim through exactly the kind of inner, subjective, personal revelation that Mormon's prescribe to confirm the claims of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. When one looks at this verse in context, however, the Mormon claim does not hold up.

Heart Burning Within

Before walking through the narrative, it is important to briefly note what the term "our hearts burning within us" would even mean to these Jewish disciples of Jesus. How was that language used? We actually see this kind of terminology in the Old Testament. The Psalmist, for example, declared:

"I said, 'I will guard my ways That I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle While the wicked are in my presence.' I was mute and silent, I refrained even from good, And my sorrow grew worse. My heart was hot within me, While I was musing the fire burned; Then I spoke with my tongue," (Psalm 39:1-3).

As one can see, the heart "burning within" was an intense, emotional experience, but it was not the voice of the Holy Spirit nor a source of revelation. It is a description of the strong compulsion of human emotions, not of the verifying voice of God. A similar passage occurs in the Book of Jeremiah. The prophet was suffering a great deal for his preaching. Caught between the truth and importance of his message and yet his desire to escape persecution, Jeremiah writes:

"But if I say, 'I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name,' Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it," (Jeremiah 20:9).

Such language is even used to describe the passions of evil and ungodly desires. The prophet Hosea describes wicked men by saying:

"For their hearts are like an oven As they approach their plotting; Their anger smolders all night, In the morning it burns like a flaming fire," (Hosea 7:6).

Similar kinds of language are used of very intense but normal human emotions throughout the Old Testament, in phrases such as:

"Then the king became very angry and his wrath burned within him," (Esther 1:12).

Such expressions are also used in the New Testament, such as when Paul urges:

"But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion," (1 Corinthians 7:9).

He also, in describing human depravity in Romans 1, speaks of those who "burned in their desire," (Romans 1:27). Such "burning" within was obviously not the Spirit of God. It was strong human passion or emotion. We see this even outside the Bible in early Jewish literature. For example, in the historical narratives of the Maccabean revolt, we read phrases like:

"When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar," (1 Maccabees 2:24).

"But among the Jews there was incessant mourning, lamentation, and tearful cries; everywhere their hearts were burning, and they groaned because of the unexpected destruction that had suddenly been decreed for them," (3 Maccabees 4:2).

There is, then, no inherent connection between the heart "burning within" and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. The phrase simply reflects the idea of intense human emotion, passion, or conviction.

Luke 24 in Context

Understanding this, let's look at this account in Luke 24 in context. Jesus had already been crucified. He was buried in the tomb, and three days later had risen. His followers discovered that his body was missing and His resurrection was made known to the women, though many of the disciples still did not yet believe. Two such disciples were walking down the road to the city of Emmaus. Luke then tells us that:

"While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him," (Luke 24:15-16).

Note that they were not merely unobservant. They were supernaturally prevented from recognizing who Jesus was. Far from trying to tell them, during the events that followed God was actively hiding Jesus' identity from these men. The two disciples explain to the man on the road with them (whom they do not know to be Jesus) all that has happened. Jesus then replies:

"And He said to them, 'O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?' Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures," (Luke 24:25-27).

Jesus turns them to the Scriptures. It is by the truth of the Scriptures that they are to know and understand, and Jesus opens the meaning of the Scriptures up to them through verbal explanation. He does not beam a supernatural commentary directly into their minds and hearts, nor does He tell them to pray about these things for new revelation on the matter. He points them back to the revelation God has already given, as Jesus said earlier in the book of Luke:

"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead," (Luke 16:31).

The two disciples invited the man (Jesus, though they still do not know this) into their residence to have dinner with them. When Jesus broke the bread, He revealed Himself to them only at that moment and then miraculously vanished before their eyes. It is then that we reach the passage:

"They said to one another, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?' And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.” They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread," (Luke 24:32-35).

Luke constantly mentions the work of the Spirit explicitly throughout his gospel and the Book of Acts, yet here he gives no indication whatsoever that the burning in their hearts was the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead, the natural way to read this passage is that Jesus' expounding of the Scriptures provoked great emotion and conviction in them as they listened. The emphasis here is not on the importance of their emotions but rather on the power of the biblical testimony to which Jesus had pointed them. They went on to testify to the other disciples of their eyewitness experiences and said that Jesus was made known to them through the breaking of bread, not in the burning of the heart. They make no appeal to personal revelation from the Spirit. Immediately afterward, Jesus appears to the whole group and says:

"Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.' And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?' 42 They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them," (Luke 24:38-43).

Jesus addresses the doubt in their hearts not with inner experiences or emotional subjectivity, but rather by showing His body to them and eating food. Again, He makes Himself known by their eyes and hands and at the dinner table, not through the feelings in their hearts. Jesus goes on to say:

"'These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.' Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high," (Luke 24:44-49).

Once again, it is through the Scriptures that Jesus removes all doubt. He also mentions at the end that the Spirit has not yet come upon them and that they are to wait on Him. The Spirit will empower them to testify to that which they have seen. The Spirit will not burn emotions in their heart so that they can finally believe. This passage is not in any way offering subjective inner experience as a reliable means to acquire spiritual knowledge. Instead, it points us to the authority of the Old Testament Prophets and the eyewitness testimony of the New Testament disciples. That is how we are to know the truth. This is all fitting in the context of Luke's whole gospel. The book opens:

"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught," (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke tells Theophilus that he can know the exact truth through the reliable written testimony he has received, not through burning bosoms, emotional experiences, or private "revelations" through the subjective inclinations of our own hearts.


Inside the Bible

The Prophets say
Jeremiah 17:9, "The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?"

Paul says
Galatians 1:8-9, "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!"

Jesus says
Matthew 7:15-20, "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits."


Inside CARM

James 1:5 and praying about the Book of Mormon
James 1:5 is improperly used by Mormons to justify praying about the Book of Mormon to see if it is true.  What they do is not biblical.  It is counter to Scriptural truth, and it essentially subjects truth to a feeling.

Moroni 10:4, Alma 32:27-28, and the Mormon testimony
Mormons often offer several passages in the Book of Mormon to reinforce their claim that, if one prays about the Book of Mormon, the Spirit of God will give you a unique revelation (consisting of inner feelings) which will supposedly confirm that the book is true. There are, however, numerous biblical and logical problems with these passages and with the advice that is drawn from them.

Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit, and the Mormon testimony
The Mormon will turn to this passage and explain that these are the feelings that the Holy Spirit uses to speak to us. They say that when we pray and feel peace, joy, gentleness, and love, we can know that it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us and not a deceitful Spirit. But is this really what Paul was saying to the Galatians? Hardly.