June 25, 2017

Providential Dullness? Luke 18:34

Layton Talbert

The writers of the synoptic Gospels record three occasions on which the Lord Jesus explicitly forewarned his disciples of His approaching betrayal, death and resurrection. (See a harmony of the Gospels to compare the exact parallel passages.)

The first occasion prompted Peter’s rebuke of the Lord and the Lord’s rebuke in reply (Mt.16/ Mk.8/Lk.9). Soon after, the Lord repeated the prediction on a second occasion (Mt.17/Mk.9/Lk.9). With the stinging rebuke of Peter still fresh in their minds, it is no wonder that, though the disciples “did not understand” His statement and “were deeply grieved,” nonetheless “they were afraid to ask Him.” Their lack of understanding at this point is not particularly mystifying. “Their views of a reigning Messiah made His words utterly enigmatical to them” (Hiebert on Mk. 9:32). But on this occasion, Luke alone adds that the Lord’s statement “was hid [concealed, parakalupto, perfect passive participle] from them,” literally “in order that they should not perceive [aisthanomai, aorist subjunctive] it.” Was hidden? By whom? In order that they should not perceive it? Why? Plummer underscores the grammatical force of the verbs: “they were not allowed to understand the saying.”

The third occasion is even more puzzling (Mt.20/Mk.10/Lk.18). After Jesus again explicitly spelled out His approaching death and resurrection, Luke pens a three-fold statement of the disciples’ utter incomprehension of Christ’s unambiguous prediction: (1) they did not understand (suniemi) these things, (2) this saying was hidden (krupto, perfect passive participle) from them, and (3) they did not know (ginosko) these things.

Which word did they not understand? Most commentators appeal to the context of the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark to support their explanation that the disciples were distracted by the anticipation of their part in the glory of an earthly kingdom. Their preoccupation with the earthly and physical made them insensitive to spiritual truth.

But that explanation is not fully satisfying here for two reasons. (1) Luke himself does not offer that context to help explain his unusual remark. (2) Even that explanation does not adequately account for the full grammatical force of these three expressions of incomprehension piled on top of one another.

So what does this statement mean? A key that helps unravel what is going on in Luke 18:34 is Luke 24:45ff., when Christ finally “opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures” that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day.” How is it that Jesus’ own disciples, who heard such predictions repeatedly, did not understand or remember them, yet Jesus’ enemies did understand and remember them (Mt. 27:62)? The inspired phraseology of the text seems to assert that the disciples failed to comprehend this truth because, even though Christ revealed it to them, it was simultaneously “hidden from them,” as Luke says. By whom? By God! Only God, then, could remove that dullness and incomprehension— which is exactly what Luke says happened in 24:45ff.

But why would God reveal something so crucial yet, at the same time, “hide” it from the very ones to whom it was revealed? Plummer suggests a partial answer: “Their dullness was providential and it became a security to the church for the truth of the resurrection.” The words and deeds of Christ’s enemies who remembered supplies the rest.

It seems that God revealed yet hid this from the disciples to insure that they would do nothing to cast any suspicion on the authenticity of the resurrection. Any confident anticipation of the resurrection on their part could be misconstrued as casting some suspicion on the disappearance of the body. So Plummer also rightly notes that “the theory that they believed [in the resurrection] because they expected Him to rise again is against all the evidence.”

Yet, it was not “hidden” from the enemies of Christ. They understood and remembered. Why? God not only prevented the disciples, through their providential dullness, from doing anything that might compromise the integrity of the resurrection. God also actually employed the unbelief and hostility (and understanding and memory) of His own enemies to help establish and validate the authenticity of the resurrection. By securing the tomb and setting the guard (Mt. 27:62-66), and by having to concoct such an implausible alibi (Mt. 28:11-15), God’s enemies actually helped Him validate the very truths they themselves rejected (see Psalm 76:10).

On a final practical note, this episode underscores the truth that God Himself holds the gift of understanding even what He plainly reveals. He is free to hide from us, for His own reasons, even the most obvious of Biblical truths. Without His illumination, we are prone to error, to insensitivity, to dullness. May He help us never to become confident in our ability to decipher eternal, spiritual, God-given truth but, beyond the sacred page, to seek Him.

Dr. Layton Talbert teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC and is a Frontline Contributing Editor.

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