Jesus had been seeking to prepare his disciples for the shock of his death that would occur in the near future. The problem was that the death of the Messiah had no place in the disciples’ understanding, nor in the understanding of anyone who looked for his coming in the first century AD (cf. John 12:32-34). Each time the Apostles showed any sign that they were listening to the voice of God within them (cf. Matthew 16:17), Jesus revealed that he would be taken from them, tortured, killed and rise the third day. Such was the case in Matthew 20:17-19 (cf. Luke 18:28-30 and 31-33).
Luke tells us that the Apostles simply didn’t understand what Jesus said, although Jesus’ words couldn’t have been more clear. Neither Matthew nor Mark are as clear as Luke, but their accounts cannot be construed to mean that the Apostles understood Jesus, because, immediately following Jesus revelation about his death, they record how James and John asked Jesus to give them a place of authority next to his in the Kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 20:20-22; Mark 35-39). Scheming for authority behind the backs of the other Apostles (cf. Matthew 20:24; Mark 10:41) expresses the hardness of their hearts with respect to Jesus’ words about his own death.
Luke also tells us that, not only didn’t the Apostles understand Jesus’ revelation about his soon coming death, but the meaning of Jesus’ words was hidden from them (Luke 18:34). This has led some to believe that God withheld the meaning of Jesus’ words from them. However, consider what this idea means. Why would Jesus (God in the flesh) seek to warn the disciples about his death, if God (the Father) withheld the meaning of his Son’s words from those to whom he spoke? Wouldn’t God (in heaven) be undoing the work of God (on earth)? If Jesus can do only what the Father does (cf. John 5:19), why would Jesus seek to get the Apostles to understand what he knew the Father didn’t want them to understand? Therefore, it is illogical to believe, from a scriptural point of view, that Jesus and the Father were working against one another.
Why, then, couldn’t the Apostles understand Jesus’ plain words about his death and resurrection? If the proposition is logical that Jesus and the Father always work together as one, who or what withheld the meaning of Jesus’ words from the Apostles (cf. Luke 18:34)? One of the big surprises in my studies has been the spiritual power of false doctrine. False doctrine is not similar to an error in math. An error in math can be easily recognized and corrected once it is explained to the one who made the error, not so false doctrine. People are willing to believe a lie, if they truly believe the lie is correct or, conversely, if they don’t wish to believe the truth. Neither telling them they are wrong, nor explaining to them how they are wrong helps them to see their error. They have to have “ears to hear” (cf. Matthew 13:9; Mark 7:14-16; Luke 14:35). It is not a matter of understanding with the mind, but a matter of the willingness of the heart (Matthew 13:15). One must desire to truly understand the truth (Matthew 13:16), not merely seek to substantiate his own ideas. This understanding came not only as a surprise to me, but a glaring self revelation of my own inclination to believe what either I or others think we have figured out on our own.
Although the Apostles did have eyes to see and ears to hear (Matthew 13:16), this did not mean believing came easily for them. If they believed a lie, and the lie hid the truth. As I said above, one simply doesn’t reject lies in favor of the truth by having the truth explained like one would explain a math problem. When one trusts darkness as his light (i.e. a lie for the truth), the darkness has great power over his understanding (cf. Matthew 6:23). This was no less true for the Apostles. If they rejected Jesus’ words (which they did) in favor of another teaching (cf. John 12:32-34), which, no doubt, came from the Pharisees (cf. Matthew 16:6-12), then the truth had no power over them. They simply didn’t understand Jesus, because the false idea they embraced as truth hid the truth of Jesus’ words.