January 16, 2018

Providential Dullness: An Easter Meditation

Layton Talbert

Matthew, Mark, and Luke record three occasions on which the Lord Jesus explicitly forewarned his disciples of His approaching betrayal, death, and resurrection.

The first occasion prompted Peter’s rebuke of the Lord and the Lord’s rebuke in reply (Matt.16; Mark 8; Luke 9). Soon after, the Lord repeated the prediction (Matt.17; Mark 9; Luke 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). But on this second occasion, Luke alone adds some remarkable terminology when he records that the Lord’s statement “was hid [concealed] from them,” literally “in order that they should not perceive it.” Was hidden? By whom? In order that they should not perceive it? Why? The grammatical force of the verbs unmistakably implies that “they were not allowed to understand the saying” (Alfred Plummer).

The third occasion (Luke 18:31-34) is even more puzzling. 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 these things, (2) this saying was hidden from them, and (3) they did not know these things.

Which word did they not understand? Who was hiding these clear predictions from their comprehension? Most commentators appeal to the context of the parallel passages in Matthew (20:20-28) and Mark (10:35-45) to support their explanation that the disciples were simply 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. First, Luke himself does not offer that context to help explain his unusual remarks. Second, 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 of the disciples’ incomprehension of the Lord’s clear words mean? Luke later offers the key that helps unlock what is going on here. In Luke 24 he records that, after His Resurrection, Christ showed Himself to the disciples and said “These are the words which I spoke unto you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written . . . concerning me.” It was at that precise moment that Christ Himself 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” (24:44-46).

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 (Matt. 27:62)? The inspired phraseology of the text indicates that the disciples failed to comprehend this truth because even while Christ was revealing it to them, it was simultaneously being “hidden from them.” By whom? By the Lord Himself! Only the Lord, then, could remove that dullness and incomprehension—which is exactly what Luke says happened! Clearly, it was Christ Himself who was suspending their understanding even while He was revealing predictive truth to them. And it was Christ alone who could then open their understanding to finally comprehend the truth they had previously heard. But why?

Why would the Lord reveal something so crucial yet, at the same time, “hide” it from the very ones to whom He was revealing it? Plummer suggests a partial answer when he observes that the disciples’ “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 of the answer.

The Lord revealed yet hid this from the disciples to ensure 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. In spite of Christ’s repeated and unambiguous prediction that He would rise from the dead the third day, none of His followers actually expected or anticipated such an event. So Plummer again correctly 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. How? And why? God not only prevented the disciples, through this “providential dullness,” from doing anything that might compromise the integrity of the Resurrection. But 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 (Matt. 27:62- 66), and by having to concoct such an implausible alibi (Matt. 28:11- 15), God’s enemies actually helped Him validate the certainty of the very truths they themselves rejected (see Ps. 76:10). With all the precautions taken by His enemies to keep Him in the grave, there could be no other explanation than that He really had risen from the dead! It was a divine masterstroke.

One final note of illustration and personal application. John Owen, the brilliant theologian who relished the simple but powerful preaching of the unlearned John Bunyan, once warned:

For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of any portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one who thus proudly engages in a work so much above his ability.

This episode of “providential dullness” underscores the truth that God Himself holds the gift of comprehending even what He plainly reveals in the Word. 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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