And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken (Luke 18:34).

I have a wonderful text. It opens up the counsels of the Trinity, the mysteries of redemption and the glories of heaven. Would I had the tongue of an angel to declare it. It is the truth of redemption by the cross. It, not the virgin birth, not the miracles of Christ, not the second coming of the Lord, is the very center of the Christian message (1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2).

Calvary was plainly foretold by Jesus, repeatedly and understandably. Yet the apostles did not grasp what he said. A strange incomprehensibility rested upon these disciples so that they could not understand plain language. Luke 9:31 says of Moses and Elias, “Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem”; Luke 9:51 says, “When the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem”; and now we have this plain statement of Luke 18:31–34. Matthew is just as plain in his record of the statements of Jesus concerning the inevitability of Calvary (Matt. 16:21; 17:12b; 17:22, 23: 20:18, 19). In spite of these clear statements, the disciples did not understand.

Calvary was foreseen and foretold by the prophets. No doubt is left by the writers of the Old Testament concerning the suffering servant of the Lord, the Messiah. Every sacrifice according to the law looked forward to this; the precepts concerning blood anticipated this; the Passover and the Day of Atonement forshadowed this; Psalm 22 and Psalm 69 described the sufferings of the Messiah; Isaiah 52:12 to 53:11 delineated these sufferings; Daniel 9:26 and Zachariah 13:6, 7 referred to it; yet no one in the time of Jesus understood the Old Testament prophecies concerning the suffering servant in the Messianic sense. Only at a later time did some of the Jewish rabbis teach that there would be a suffering Messiah (Messiah ben Joseph) and a triumphant Messiah (Messiah ben Judah). Not even the prophets themselves understood what they wrote (1 Pet. 1:10). The fact that the prophets searched to ascertain the meaning of their own prophecies which the Spirit revealed unto them is evidence that it was given to them by revelation. But this in itself is a proof that they did not understand Calvary.

Calvary was foreordained of God, and yet our text says that the meaning of Calvary was hid from the apostles. Did God deliberately hide it from them? If so, why? Was the hiding of this due to their own blindness because of sin, or was it a blindness sent from God? It was hid from them for several reasons: First, that God’s eternal plan might be fulfilled, namely, to make Christ Jesus our substitute in the satisfaction of the law. From eternity God the Father decreed the death of Jesus on the cross. He was the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Second, it was hid that men through wicked hands might slay the Prince of Life. Peter declared that if they had known the identity of Jesus, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. Their decision was an independent one, but it was embraced in the plan of God. Third, it was hid from them that God might turn their evil actions to good. God’s love matched man’s sin. The fall of the Jews was to be the riches of the nations, and it was embraced for this purpose.

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Why They Couldn’t Understand Calvary

Luke declares that this was “hid from them.” A veil was over their eyes so that they could not understand. It is strange about our capacity to understand. This capacity changes with different ages. What you could not grasp as a child, or as a youth, you now may understand. At one time you did not understand the value of music and you refused to have any part of it, but now you understand and regret your decision. At one time you did not understand the value of financial thrift and resultant security; now you understand and regret your prodigality of youth. Once you did not understand fidelity in human relationships, but now you understand and possibly with deep regret.

When the Lord told his disciples of his impending suffering, crucifixion and death, understanding was hidden from them. Peter cried, “Far be it from thee, Lord.” He could not believe that Christ would be delivered up, mocked, shamefully treated, scourged and killed. For this reason he attempted to defend Christ in the garden of Gethsemane for he did not understand the inevitability of Calvary.

Calvary was hidden from those who put him to death. For this reason Christ prayed, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Pilate asked him, “Art Thou a king?” and when he condemned him to be scourged and crucified, he did so in ignorance. The Pharisees cried, “Come down from the cross,” but they did not understand why he could not come down. The soldiers and the thief mocked him and ridiculed him because they did not understand the meaning of his claims.

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Only God the Father and Christ understood what was occurring on Calvary, with the possible exception of Mary of Bethany, who broke her alabaster box against the day of his burying and also of the penitent thief who caught a glimpse of heaven when he was on the cross and asked to be remembered.

The understanding of Calvary was granted to the apostles through the postresurrection interpretation by Christ and through Pentecost. As the resurrected Christ explained the necessity of his sufferings from the law, the Psalms and the prophets, their eyes were opened and their hearts burned within them. When the Holy Ghost came upon them at Pentecost and they were guided into the fullness of truth, all the strands of truth fell together into an harmonious whole. From that time on the apostles were in unanimous agreement on the necessity of the death and resurrection of Christ which constituted the Gospel.

Calvary can be understood and known only by regenerate persons (1 Cor. 2:14). Because of this, men do not understand Calvary today. For God to die on a cross seems ridiculous to the unregenerate. Natural reason cannot comprehend this. It wants to earn salvation. But these things are hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes. The human mind must be renewed in regeneration by the Holy Spirit if it is to understand Calvary. With such regeneration the problems concerning the cross vanish from the human mind. Students who are filled with questions concerning the goodness of God, predestination and freedom, the problem of human suffering, the dual nature of Christ, the understanding of the Trinity find that when their central question is answered, many of their other questions disappear. In my own Christian counseling I listen to the problem or the question that an inquirer has and then I turn the conversation to Calvary and the knowledge of salvation. Once this question is settled, it is easy to face other questions. When a person is regenerate, the mystery is no longer hidden but open.

How Believers Understand Calvary

Calvary must be understood in the framework of theology. There is a Divine reason for the cross. The cross must be understood in the light of God’s justice. The Bible declares that God spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all (Rom. 8:32), that Christ Jesus “abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances … that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (Eph. 2:15, 16), and that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). Justice had to be satisfied and God reconciled. What this meant is beyond description and understanding of man. Holiness is an attribute of God. Holiness in motion against sin is wrath. This wrath of God was expended upon Christ on Calvary.

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Mercy is an attribute of God. Because God loved, he was moved with compassion and mercy so that he gave his son, he sacrificed himself, and he suffered an indescribable anguish in the place of those he loved. Love found a way which could not be found by justice or by wisdom.

Wisdom is an attribute of God. Wisdom dictated that justice and mercy, holiness and goodness should both be satisfied and it found a way for them to meet in the cross (Psa. 85:10). There was no other way for such reconciliation, atonement and mediation than Calvary. If there had been, Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” would have been answered by the removal of Calvary. When Jesus cried, “it is finished,” all the demands of the attributes of God which had been affected by sin were satisfied.

Believers give to the cross a great significance in experience. This experience is threefold. First, the cross is the way of salvation. It is the only way to come to God, the only means of salvation, the only bridge from sinful man to holy God. Thus, it is emphasized in the law, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels and the epistles. It is the essence of the Gospel which is presented throughout the entire Bible.

The second way of experiencing the cross is for sanctification or victory of Christian life. The believer accepts the cross as the means of his dying to the old man. He takes his position with Christ as crucified to the old nature and the motions of sin. By faith he reckons himself to be dead. Once the believer so accepts the cross, he may then be united with Christ in resurrection life. By the Spirit he is quickened and seated with Christ in heavenly places. Thus, the resurrected, glorified, reigning Christ may release the Spirit in the life of the crucified and resurrected believer, producing all the fruit of the Spirit which makes the believer like unto Christ.

The third meaning of the cross in Christian experience is as a way of service or of living. The principle was set down by the Lord Jesus when He said, “Except a com of wheat fall to the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.” The cross must become a constant way of life. The believer must voluntarily accept his position of self-denial, sacrifice and service for Christ’s sake. Insofar as he does this, he shall bear fruit, for “he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.” Only as the believer voluntarily follows the pattern laid down by Christ in his acceptance of crucifixion, is he able to effectively serve the Lord.

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What Can Never Be Known Of Calvary

Though there is much that the believer understands about Calvary, there is much he will never understand. Christians will never know the depths of suffering which Christ Jesus endured on the cross. We know that he tasted death (Heb. 2:14), and what a death it was. No believer will ever die the kind of death that Jesus died upon the cross. We know that he endured the curse of the broken law (Gal. 3:13) and that that curse will never rest upon the believer. We know that he carried the wrath of God which was holiness in motion against the sin of humanity held back and dammed up through the ages and then released to overwhelm Christ Jesus on the cross (Rom. 3:25, 26). It was this that overwhelmed Christ and broke his heart. No believer will ever be able to understand the depths of such suffering through which Christ passed.

We can never know the full mystery of what occurred on Calvary. Remembering that Jesus was the pre-existing Son of God whose goings were from old, even from everlasting, that he was with the Father from eternity, that he was the creator of the world, we cannot help but wonder what happened when he cried, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” What happened in the Trinity at that moment? What happened in the two natures of Christ when he suffered the wrath of God in our place? How did God die on the cross? How did he take death into himself? If he had not done these things, how could the atonement have been made efficacious for the believers? When will the human mind ever understand this, and where shall we ever find language to express this? This mystery can never be known and will always cause us to fall down and worship before the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.

We shall never know the fulness of redemption wrought by Jesus on the cross. This is suggested to us in the Scripture, and we may apprehend more of it when we get to heaven, but we certainly cannot know it now. What is included in “being able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:18, 19)? In Calvary God exhausted himself, and it is impossible for a finite being to fully comprehend this action of an infinite being.

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Witness Of The Disciples

But let’s ask these same disciples who did not understand when Jesus told them of Calvary what they now understand about it.

How about you, Peter? What do you understand about Calvary?

“I saw them take him away from Caiaphas’ hall when I was offended because he did not accept my defense of him by force. It seems incredible, impossible that I did not stand with him in that hour, but I did not understand. But now I know. I know that it was the Prince of Life they crucified. They ‘denied the Holy One and the just, and desired a murderer to be granted … and killed the Prince of Life, whom God hath raised up from the dead.’ I know that we are redeemed with his precious blood as of a lamb without blemish and without spot who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world. I know that he his own self bare our sins in his body on the tree, that we, being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes we are healed. I know that Christ hath once suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but quickened by the Spirit. I know that Calvary was the means to life.”

And how about you, John? You were very close to Christ. What do you think of Calvary now?

“I stood with Jesus through it all: through the trial in Caiaphas’ hall, through the suffering on the Gabbatha and through the agony of the cross. It was all so dark and confusing that I did not understand. Then, on the resurrection day, when he appeared to us and explained it, saying that it behooved Christ to suffer, and rise from the dead the third day: that repentance and remission of sin should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, I began to understand. Now I know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin and that the evidence of love is not that we love him but that he loved us and gave himself as a propitiation on our behalf. Now I look forward to the day when I shall stand with that throng, a glimpse of which I was granted, and shall cry, ‘Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.’ ”

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How about you, Paul. Do you understand the cross?

“Once I did not. Once I hated the Nazarene and I persecuted his followers for worshipping him as God because this was blasphemy. Once I stood by and watched men stone Stephen to death. Once I was crucifying the Son of God afresh. But one day I saw him: saw him in glory, saw him as he revealed himself to me with his wounds as I traveled on the road to Damascus. Now I know. I do not know him any longer after the flesh, but after the spirit. Now I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. Now, God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. For now I know that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, and has committed unto us the Gospel of reconciliation.”

My friend, do you understand Calvary? Is Calvary a mystery to you? Are your eyes veiled? If you have seen him with the eyes of faith as he was crucified for you, the veil has been taken away and you understand. If not, pray at this season that you may have your eyes opened, that you may see the necessity of Calvary, that you may see what God has suffered for you, that you may understand the cross.

Harold John Ockenga is pastor of the famed Park Street Church in Boston, where he has ministered since 1936. After receiving the A.B. degree from Taylor University in 1927, he attended Princeton and Westminister seminaries, and holds a Th.B. from Westminster, A.M. and Ph.D. from University of Pittsburgh and numerous honorary degrees. He is author of Protestant Preaching in Lent, The Church in God and other works. He is presently chairman of the board of Christianity Today.

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