Theology in 3D

Providential Dullness

Layton Talbert | June 23, 2021
New Testament, Theology

God’s providence encompasses a surprising array of human actions. Rehoboam’s predictably dumb decision to listen to the advice of his peers rather than the wisdom of his father’s counselors (we’re talking Solomon’s counselors here!) resulted in a loss of most of the kingdom. The text remarks that “this turn of events was from the Lord” (1 Kings 12:15). Granted, there were other factors at work here, but the bottom line is that Scripture includes even human stupidity within the span of divine providence. (I can’t tell you how many times I have taken personal comfort in that.)

No surprise, then, that the apparent obtuseness of the perceptively-challenged disciples also falls within the compass of God’s providence. (Again, that’s really good news for some of us!) To put it plainly, why on earth were the disciples so clueless about what was happening when Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified and so shocked by his resurrection three days later?

It’s easy enough to criticize from this distance. But forget the advantages of Scripture and hindsight. Jesus told them all this was going to happen. Multiple times. Not in symbolic language or parabolic pictures, but in plain old everyday Aramaic. This was more than mere lack of faith. So what was the problem?

My last post raised that question from a different angle. Amid all of Jesus’ arguably ambiguous forewarnings — “a little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me” — which we know confused the disciples (John 16:16-19), couldn’t he have been a bit — well, a lot — more specific? Wouldn’t that have eased much of the mental and emotional chaos he knew they would experience (John 16:20) over the next couple of days?

You may be tempted to reply, “But Jesus was a lot more specific. He already told them in no uncertain terms what was going to happen.” Exactly. So why were they so clueless? That, too, was providential. The secret lies with Luke.

How Many Times Did Jesus Predict His Crucifixion (and Resurrection)?

The Gospel writers record seven different occasions on which the Lord predicted his approaching death and resurrection (John 2:19-22; Matt. 12:39-40; 16:21; 17:9; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32).* In five of those seven predictions, Jesus even specified the three-day timeframe of his resurrection!

Three of those occasions occur in all three Synoptic Gospels. After the second of those three predictions, Luke alone adds some remarkable terminology. Jesus’ statement, he says, “was hidden (concealed) from them in order that they should not perceive it” (Luke 9:45). Concealed? By whom? In order that they should not perceive it? Why? The grammatical force of the terms unmistakably implies that “they were not allowed to understand the saying,” that “this ignorance of the disciples was specially ordered for them” (Plummer).

Again, after the third occasion when Jesus explicitly spelled out his approaching death and resurrection, Luke alone adds another remarkable assertion (Luke 18:34) — a threefold statement of the disciples’ utter incomprehension of Christ’s plain-spoken prediction: (a) they did not understand these things, (b) this saying was hidden from them (another perfect passive participle like 9:45), and (c) they did not know these things.

What is Going on Here?

Which word did they not understand? Who was hiding these clear predictive statements from their comprehension? Some commentators appeal to the parallel passages (Matt. 20:17-28; Mark 10:32-45) to explain that the disciples were too distracted by visions of the glory of an earthly kingdom; their preoccupation with the physical made them spiritually insensitive to the grave truths that Christ was trying to impress upon them.

But that explanation falls far short of the wording of Luke’s narrative. Luke’s language does not imply distraction or inattentiveness, but bald incomprehension — a total communicative disconnect — along with a subtle implication of an outside dynamic at work (the passive participles describing Jesus’ plainspoken predictions as being “hidden from them”).

How Could this Happen?

How can we account for the disciples’ incomprehension of the Lord’s unambiguous words? Luke himself, and Luke alone, later provides the key that unlocks this mystery. When the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, he said, “These are the words that I spoke to you while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written . . . concerning me.” At that moment something supernatural happened: “then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures” that “it was necessary for Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day” (Luke 24:44-46).

The disciples failed to comprehend Jesus’ explicit and repeated predictions of his coming crucifixion and resurrection because, even while he was revealing it to them, it was being “hidden from them” by the Lord Himself. And only the Lord could remove that incomprehension — which is exactly what Luke says happened.

Christ was simultaneously revealing the information and yet concealing it from their understanding. If that strikes you as contradictory or nonsensical, ask yourself whether there is any truth revealed in Scripture that yet remains concealed from you.

Why Would Jesus Do This?

Why would the Lord reveal something so crucial to the disciples and at the same time “hide” it from them? And how is it that Jesus’ own disciples, who heard these predictions repeatedly, did not understand or remember them, yet Jesus’ enemies did understand and remember them (Matt. 27:62)?

Part of the answer is to protect the integrity of the resurrection. The disciples’ “dullness was providential and it became a security to the church for the truth of the resurrection” (Plummer). If they had understood and expected the resurrection, they would surely have wanted to see it in person, their presence raising suspicions about the disappearance of the body. By revealing his resurrection to the disciples ahead of time, Christ was pre-stoking their faith so that when it did come to pass, they would remember his words and believe (cf. John 2:19-22; 13:19; 14:29). But by simultaneously concealing it from their understanding, Jesus insured that they would do nothing to compromise the authenticity and integrity of the resurrection.

At the same time, God employed the unbelief and hostility of Christ’s enemies, who did understand and remember his words, to help establish and validate the authenticity of the resurrection. How? By securing the tomb and setting the guard (Matt. 27:62-66), and by having to concoct such a dubious alibi (Matt. 28:11-15). God’s fiercest enemies helped him authenticate the very truths they themselves rejected (Ps. 76:10). It was a double-edged divine masterstroke.

And it helps explain a great deal about the upper room discourse and the behavior of Jesus’ disciples during Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

*I have cited only Matthew’s references, since he includes six of the seven occasions; five of them are also in Mark, and three of those five are also in Luke.

11 responses to “Providential Dullness”

  1. Geon Kang says:

    Dr. Layton Talbert,

    I enjoyed reading the interesting topics, and I have a question about God concealing X.
    First, what kinds of X does God conceal? (e.g., knowledge, glory, etc.)
    Second, it seems like to me there are several cases of X God conceals human beings in different degrees/categories.
    Case1: conceal to both unbeliever and believers
    Case2: reveal believer conceal unbeliever
    Case3: conceal believer reveal unbeliever
    Third, how about concealing aspect/perspective to other beings like angels/demons, even impersonal beings?

    Thank you in advance.

    In Christ,
    Geon Kang

  2. Hey Geon, I’ve never made a thorough study of what God conceals, but just mentally scanning Scripture, I’m sure it’s quite a lot (which stands to reason, given his infinitude and our finitude), including aspects of both knowledge/facts and his own glory. I think your case categories stand up to scriptural example as well (Case 1: Rev. 10:1-4; Case 2: 1 Cor. 2; Case 3: resurrection; these are just suggestive examples). Not sure what concealing from “impersonal beings” would look like or include; seems you have to have some level of sentience for “concealing” to have meaning. But I’m sure things are concealed from angelic beings since they, like us, are non-omniscient (cf. 1 Pet. 1:12; Eph. 3:10; etc.). LT

  3. Normand Lavoie says:

    WOW! Great article! Do you recommend any books or other material that treats the topic of God concealing what He also reveals? I am both humbled and thrilled by this fascinating topic!

  4. Thanks, Normand. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any books or studies on this topic, though there may be an article or two out there. One other passage that comes to mind, though it’s in a slightly different category, is Revelation 10:3-4; part of God’s revelation to John comes in the form of seven thunders which John clearly understands because he’s about to write it down when God commands him not to write it. It’s a humbling reminder that revelation is only partial, and of divine discretion; God could have communicated much more to us than he has, but he wisely withholds what he chooses. The resurrection example in the post is a vivid reminder too, that we must rely on God himself to give us understanding of even what he has plainly revealed in Scripture.

  5. Bill Knipe says:

    Wonderful and spiritually insightful article.
    As you said, I surely can’t judge His disciples for their dulness to comprehend what was revealed to them but yet concealed from them. When I see articles like this, they remind me that there are so many truths that the Lord has revealed and has not concealed from me. I am thankful He uses instruments like you to write articles like this to help my dulness comprehend yet another glorious aspect of our Loving Lord and His Word.
    Thank you!

  6. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment, Bill! Blessings on all your labor for Christ’s church and glory in South Africa.

  7. John Morgan says:

    Dr. Talbert,

    Do you see any connection between the predictions of the resurrection being concealed from the disciples and their “visions of glory of an earthly kingdom” and “preoccupation with the physical”?

    Thanks for writing this post. It helped me praise our sovereign Lord.


  8. Hey John, good to hear from you. Personally, no. I would not, of course, deny that the disciples entertained such expectations; but as an explanation for their incomprehension of Jesus’ plain and repeated announcements of his third-day resurrection, it falls flat. The text seems to me quite clear that the problem wasn’t that they were so distracted by such preoccupations that they simply failed to grasp the import of Jesus’ words; that could have been adequately communicated by simply saying that they failed to hear or understand what Jesus was talking about. Luke’s addition of the passive verbs, however, indicates more than inadvertent human inattentiveness; those verbs (along with the explanatory key in Luke 24:44-46) suggest that the disciples were the objects of active divine concealment. I also find the preoccupation explanation unappealing because it is the same explanatory lens through which non-premillennialists view the disciples’ allegedly ill-advised question in Acts 1:6 (and Jesus’ answer). But that’s a discussion for another post:)

  9. Geon Kang says:

    Q1) Are there biblical examples of concealing due to distraction of perception?
    What I mean is that we can’t fully appreciate one [thing] if we have too many [things].
    Like we can’t fully appreciate Bach’s music while mowing a lawn.

    Assumption1) There is a biblical example of multi-tasking.
    Q2) How should we differentiate when to multi-task or single task?

    Assumption 2) There is no biblical example of multi-tasking.
    Q3) Why our perception can only focus single task at a time?

    Thank you in advance.

  10. Geon Kang says:

    Corollary question will be: Can it dullness possibly because of too much good?
    Case 1: good + good = (greater/greatest) good
    Case 2: good + good = (lesser) good or bad/worst(?)
    Case 3: good – good = (greater/greatest) good
    Case 4: good – good = (lesser) good or bad/worst(?)
    For example, we all know from the experience of cooking that some combination of ingredients produces good food but not in other times it’s not.

    Remark 1:
    The weakness of the previous example is not ethical/morale good and bad cases but the case for disciples were ethical/morale case.
    Moreover, we could argue that the previous example can be subjective depends on a person’s subjective taste.
    Remark 2:
    I’m not approaching from Augustin’s perspective of privation of evil.
    Remark 3:
    I think there are also cases for bad + bad and bad – bad can produce both good and bad.
    Remark 4:
    I think not only a subjective case, but we do have an objective case from a biblical perspective.
    Our perception can’t acknowledge perhaps greatest to recognize that there is the canonical limitation for human subjective/objective perception leaves a place for the objective faith.

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