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.