Justin Taylor asks:
Can your theology account for the consistency of all three of these verses from Luke 24—divine veiling, human culpability, and divine revealing?
- v. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
- v. 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!”
- v. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
Good question! I think Justin is getting at the mysterious interaction of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. However this raises a related question: What do these verses say about the disciples’ spiritual condition?
Here are the options as far as I can see:
1. The disciples were unbelievers until verse 31.
They were simply spiritually blind unbelievers who, though they had seen Christ with their eyes, had never seen Him by faith. This is possible, but it doesn’t really explain their burning hearts on the road, their previous hope in His redemption, their place in the inner circle, and Christ’s choice of them for this encounter.
2. The disciples were only Old Testament believers until verse 31.
Some say that prior to the coming of Christ, those who had saving faith merely had faith in God in general, and not in the Messiah in particular. To be saved, all they had to do was put their “Amen” to God’s Word, trust in God’s promises of salvation, and demonstrate their faith by complying with the law.
Some even take this argument to the extreme that Old Testament believers knew only the Father – that they had no personal knowledge of the Messiah nor any personal experience of the Holy Spirit. However, the Bible does not put any substantial difference between Old Testament faith and New Testament faith. There is a difference in the degree but not in kind.
Old Testament believers had personal knowledge of Christ.
For example in John 5:45-47, Jesus told the Jews of His day that Moses, their great hero, would one day accuse them of failing to understand the Messianic meaning of the books he wrote. As Michael Rydelnik says in The Messianic Hope: “Moses had to understand that he wrote of Messiah in the Torah or he would not be qualified to accuse those who did not correctly interpret the messianic hope in the Torah” (86).
Old Testament believers had personal experience of the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:27; 1 Peter 1:11).
As every Old Testament believer was “dead in trespasses and sins” they could not begin to believe or repent without the Holy Spirit. And, just like us, (unless they were less depraved than us) they could not continue one second in saving faith without the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:5; Rom. 8:9). The difference between Pentecost and the Old Testament, again, was one of degree not kind. The Holy Spirit was given in deeper and wider measure.
3. The disciples were believers in Christ but were temporarily and partially blinded by God.
Some take “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him” and “their eyes were opened” as divine passives. In other words, God alone blinded them and God alone opened their eyes.
However, this does not sufficiently account for Christ’s rebuke of their foolish ignorance of all that the Old Testament had prophesied. If God was to “blame,” then why these rather sharp words heaping responsibility on to the disciples in v. 25.
4. The disciples were believers in Christ but were temporarily and partially blinded by their own foolish ignorance and misunderstanding.
Like us, the disciples sometimes grasped the person and work of Christ with clarity, while at other times they at least partially lost sight of who He was and what He came to do. Jesus told them that His life and death exactly matched the predictions of the Old Testament prophets. The disciples had believed some of the prophets’ writings – the parts that spoke of the Messiah’s glory. But they had not believed all that the prophets had spoken – especially the parts that spoke of the Messiah’s sufferings and death.
Certain factors contributed to this ignorance. First, there was the cultural and political situation of Roman oppression which tended to generate a desire for a military conqueror rather than a submissive sufferer.
Second, the disciples ignorance was also a fulfillment of Messianic prophecy (Isa. 53:1-4) and a painfully significant contributing factor to Christ’s own sufferings.
Third, in some ways I think it was perhaps harder for the disciples to believe than the Old Testament believers like Moses (Heb. 11:26). The Messiah in theory may have been more believable than the Messiah in reality. What do I mean by that? Well, in some ways it was a disadvantage to be so familiar with the humanity of Christ. He was just so human, so flesh and blood, so lowly, so Nazareth, so “ordinary.” Many seemed to stumble over this.
Willful refusal to believe the Old Testament’s consistent message that the Messiah’s path to glory lay through suffering, temporarily and partially blinded the disciples in verse 16.Christ removed that ignorance and misunderstanding by graciously and patiently showing them this theme of suffering then glory throughout the Old Testament, resulting in the “opened eyes” of verse 31.
As J C Ryle said: “Let us bless God that there may be true grace hidden under much intellectual ignorance. Clear and accurate knowledge is a most useful thing, but it is not absolutely needful for salvation and may even be possessed without grace.”
How comforting for us that buried under all our own spiritual confusion, ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice, and folly, true grace can still be present! May we also experience day by day the Savior’s gracious and patient instruction of us by His Word and Spirit, resulting in spiritual heartburn and enthusiastic witness.