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Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 9:45

Oct 6, 2020

Does God hide certain divine truths at times?

This passage has to do with the bigger and always rather difficult matter of how divine sovereignty can coexist with human responsibility. The verse speaks about how the disciples were left in the dark as to what Jesus was teaching them concerning his coming death. The question is, was this all their own fault, or was God behind their lack of understanding?

The verse, in its larger context (Luke 9:43-45), is this:

While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.

That was the NIV rendition. The ESV is similar, although it seems to more clearly imply some sort of divine concealment:

But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

How are we to understand this hiddenness or concealment? Did God specifically blind their eyes to what Jesus was saying, or was this just their own inability to really grasp what Jesus and his mission were all about? Or is it perhaps a bit of each?

In a sense it is like what we read about with Pharaoh and his hardened heart in the book of Exodus. There the mystery may be somewhat less problematic, because we have three different takes on what actually happened. A number of verses simply say that his heart was hardened. But a number of other verses say Pharaoh hardened his heart. Finally, various other verses say that God hardened his heart.

So, which is the correct view then? All three! Again, we have a situation of God being sovereign, yet humans being responsible. God may have simply rubberstamped what Pharaoh was already involved in. God may have caused it, yet Pharaoh was nonetheless responsible as well.

So do we have a similar thing happening here with the disciples? It could well be the case. Some commentators think the disciples are primarily responsible for their lack of understanding. Others believe it was divine veiling or hiddenness at work. But as with the case of Pharaoh, there may be a bit of each going on here.

We find further discussion of these matters by Luke in chapter 8 where Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the sower and then discusses the purpose of the parables. In verses 9-10 we read: “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand”’.”

There Jesus states that God can either hide or reveal various truths to various people. To help us get a grasp of all this, let me appeal to one quite new and useful commentary on Luke written by F. Scott Spencer. I find his discussion of both passages to be helpful, so let me quote from him at length here. As to Luke 8, he says this:

Luke stresses that the fruitfulness of God’s word in this world depends on vigilant, faithful cultivation of the individual heart “ground” that receives this “sown” word in contested territory, a battleground with the devil, no less, littered with casualties (8:12)….

Further tension comes into play between divine revelation and human responsiveness. No one can “get” God’s word – in parable or otherwise – without being “given” understanding by God. While God’s faithful people receive the key to unlocking divine “mysteries,” they do not forge some secret gnostic society with only a select inner circle in the know and everyone else in the dark. Consider two points.

First, those given the key of knowledge must use it or lose it (cf. 8:18); they must persistently engage with the word and cultivate it toward fruitful ends….

Second, while many do not “get” the message on the first round, that doesn’t condemn them to permanent outsider status….

Image of Luke (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary)
Luke (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary) by Array Amazon logo

As to the text in Luke 9, he comments:

How can the disciples hope to hear the crux of Jesus’s message if their perceptual ears are plugged by God (implied in the divine passive)? More to the point, why does God not want them to perceive now? What purpose does concealment serve?

We tackled some of this taut tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility in discussing 8:4–21, taking considerable comfort – after Jesus’s jolting assertion that he speaks in parables “so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (8:9-10, citing Isa. 6:9-10) – in his overriding claim that every “hidden” or “secret” mystery will be uncovered (Luke 8:17). God ultimately aims to reveal, not conceal. But that doesn’t preclude intermittent phases of divinely imposed blindness on the way to fuller insight. Saul of Tarsus provides the most dramatic example in Luke’s writings. After being struck by the lightning blast of the risen Christ, Saul “could see nothing” for three days (Acts 9:3-9). The confusion, helplessness, and fear of blindness overwhelm Saul until the Lord directs a Damascene disciple named Ananias to instruct and lay healing hands upon Saul (9:10-18). And even then, he still has much to learn about his new vocation….

Notions of Saul’s instantaneous, full-grown conversion, common in some popular theologies, do not fit the narrative of Acts or the nature of human experience. Spiritual knowledge does not come in some preformed, easy step-by-step module. One often has to go through some “dark night of the soul” to gain perspective and readiness to understand God’s truth.

Back to Jesus’s disciples in Luke. While the behavioral change they need doesn’t approach Saul’s violent extremism, the attitudinal change they require is just as dramatic: in their own way, they would have found the concept of a crucified Messiah and Son of Humankind as alien and repugnant before Jesus’s death as Saul does afterward. In both cases, that of the original apostles and of Saul/Paul, spiritual knowledge unfolds in personal encounters with the risen Christ after a period of imposed deafness/darkness preparing them for radically new perception.

Application

I think Spencer offers us a helpful theological understanding here, and we can get some application of these truths to our own lives. For example, Christ does not usually show us early on in our Christian life all that we will go through, all the sacrifices we will make, or all the opposition we will face.

Sure, all of that is clearly presented in the teachings of Jesus, and it is true that Saul was told early on about all that he would have to suffer for the sake of Christ (Acts 9:16). But divine truths are generally revealed and embraced bit by bit. As an infant takes only small and safe amounts of food, so too the new Christian convert.

And our ability to grow in awareness and understanding of biblical truths is in part dependent on our willingness to obey what we already know. Only as we appropriate what we already have been taught will we be in a place to get new insights and understanding of other biblical truths.

Finally, such a view on things should help keep us humble. If some Christians seem to have great understanding and insight into God’s word and divine truth, that is just as much – if not more – because of God’s graciousness to us as it is any hard work in study and research that we may be involved in.

Indeed, we all know of people who know heaps of theology yet seem to lack basic biblical understanding and lack a biblical lifestyle. And others may be rather unlearned when it comes to theological training yet seem to have real insights into the heart of God and what his word teaches.

As usual, we have a combination of divine sovereignty and human responsibility at work here. We must do all we can – in this case, to read, to study, to learn – but we give God the credit for any good fruit that comes out of it.

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7 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 9:45

  • I think they key to unlocking that difficult passage is to understand the meaning of the title ‘Son of Man’. That was Jesus’ preferred self designation. He was comfortable referring to Himself as the Son of Man. What does it mean? Well, briefly – and it’s complex – it comes out of the Book of Daniel – and it kind of, more or less ( I said it was complex) means a man who comes with the authority of God at the end of time to pronounce God’s judgement on humanity – and within that judgement would be condemnation – yes – but that condemnation would fall, not on humanity but on that man and humanity would be saved. The Son of Man will be the Judge who will be judged in our place, found guilty, plead our cause and bear our punishment. That’s the scandal of the cross. It defies human comprehension. God’s ways are not our ways. The Cross is the symbol of love. Love? Does the world understand what God’s love is? In this age of pornography, abortion, the sexualization of children and unrestrained birth control and the destruction of the family – do we even know much about human love? There are two pieces of wood out there – called the Cross – and we need to go and knock our heads against them to get a bit of sense into our noggins.

  • Thanks Phillip. Yes the Son of Man issue is also key. Which is why the otherwise good remarks of Spencer were spoiled when he went with “Son of Humankind” instead! It seems he is just pushing a PC agenda here, causing undo problems with such a key biblical phrase.

    And we have related matters such as what is referred to as the “Messianic Secret” especially as found in Mark’s gospel. Why did Jesus keep telling folks he healed not to tell anyone about it? I speak to this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/10/06/miracles-and-the-messianic-secret/

  • “The disciples were afraid to ask…” Here, I thought of times in recent history where people do not want to ask what will happen, such as living in Europe immediately prior to WW2, or immediately prior to the depression of 1929. These are extreme examples to illustrate, perhaps, how the disciples just did not want anything to upset their wonderful time in the presence of their Lord. God concealing it from them could arguably mean that, by His arrangement, no other prophet, seer or wise elder had any input to the comparatively naive disciples mindset; eg “We didn’t even think to ask!”
    Thanks for another thoughtful article.

  • The use of the PC “humankind” translation is a corruption that, as far as I have been able to determine, was resisted by Bible translators until about 1954 and became more common post 1970. The key verses are Genesis 1:26 and 1:27 where corrupt translations tend to have disingenuous notes that ‘mankind’ is permissible in translating the Hebrew [a’dam] in 1:26 while they ignore the fact that in 1:27 the Hebrew is explicitly ‘a man’ or ‘the man’ [Hebrew ha a’dam] and not ‘mankind’ or ‘humankind’ as corruptly translated.

    This is all part of an apostasy denying that Genesis is true history in a vain attempt to claim that the Bible is compatible with the current science fashion of evolution. But all that does is destroy the foundation of the Gospel, and give illogical credence to the creation myth of evolution.

    Evolution is totally incompatible with the Bible. It relies on illogical myths – miracles such as: nothing turning into everything for no reason via a process, the Big Bang, that defies known laws of science; dead stuff becoming simple life for no reason via an unknown process that defies known laws of science; simple life becoming complex via processes known to reduce complexity; with all such miracles being against all known laws of science and logic.

    In contrast the Bible tells us that God is the all sufficient cause who did create the universe, life, Adam and Eve in six days, and it’s not that hard to calculate that creation was about 6,000 years ago. That’s logical, consistent, and agrees with known science that nothing happens without a cause.

    Now while scholars and translators succumbed to error relatively recently, the cancer of Darwinian evolutionary ideology first corrupted science, then theological colleges and academia, then clergy, then laymen and now Bible translations. Is it any wonder then, that the church in the West is in decline? Too many Christians fail to defend Genesis, the foundation of the Gospel.

  • Thanks Bill for all the research and hard work you do in bringing these articles to us. I should reread your article fully again before commenting but what comes to mind after one read is that God knows everyone’s DNA/makeup and knows how we think and do things by what we have experienced so knows how to handle each one of us individually including the Pharoah in Moses’ time and the people in Jesus’ time including the disciples and I agree, sometimes it’s best not to know the future as we wouldn’t be able to handle it/ it will freak us out what is coming to this earth for example. Also, we don’t fall asleep in church or reading the Bible if there is a curious situation like a parable to get us thinking. But you have commented on these reasons so thank you and bless you.

  • As to your second to last paragraph I often say too many Christians, especially in the Bible belt, know what the Bible says but not what the Bible means.

    “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing but ignorance is bliss.” Too many believe this because with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know a injustice is happening you need to do something but if you know nothing you need do nothing. So many want ignorance because it is safer and God is willing to oblige. We have a generation of Sgt Schultz’s!

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