Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/01/1995
Luke 18:31 And he took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all the things which are written though the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, 33 and after they have scourged him, they will kill him; and the third day he will rise again.” 34 And they understood none of these things, and his saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said. 35 And it came about that as he was approaching Jericho, a certain blind man was sitting by the road begging. 36 Now hearing a multitude going by, he began to inquire what this might be. 37 And they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. 38 And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet; but he kept crying out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to him; and when he had come, he questioned him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” And he said, “Lord, I want to regain my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he regained his sight, and began to follow him, glorifying God. And when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.
If you are like me, you probably have to resist the temptation to feel superior to the disciples in the first part of our passage today. Jesus’ words are not terribly obscure, even given that they did not have the advantage of hindsight in understanding them. “How could they have missed it?” we ask. We would not have! That is why I want to talk to you today about spiritual blindness and hardness of heart. For it was a much more serious problem than the physical blindness of poor Bartimaeus, which follows.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain what spiritual blindness and hardness of heart are is to start by giving some examples. Here are some statements I hear all the time doing church work. I bet you have heard some of them too.
“Well, I’m just not very religious.” Ah, I reply, but I am not talking about religion—I’m talking about truth. This often produces either a blank stare, or else even hostility. “Oh, I am a Baptist (or Methodist or Presbyterian—insert denomination of your choice).” Ah, I reply, that’s very nice, but what about your relationship with the Lord? More blank stares or else hostility. It is awfully hard to connect with people on spiritual things—harder, we often feel, than the mere difficulty of the concepts involved could ever possibly explain. Surely something else is at work: spiritual blindness and hardness of heart.
But, wait: you encounter the same phenomenon when dealing with believers on certain subjects, too. What about the spirit which tolerates a lack of theological integrity in the church? “Oh, I feel led to stay in and be a witness.” What kind of witness? Talking to a sinner from inside a church that preaches liberal theology, that does not believe the Bible, is like trying to reform a drunk by taking him to a bar and buying him a gin and tonic! Why is this so hard for some people to see? Or what about the multitude who watch Charles Stanley or some other media preacher on TV on Sunday morning but have no relationship to an actual local congregation? Do their Bibles somehow not contain Hebrews 10:25, which commands us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together? Somehow they can read right past that verse (I have watched some of them do it!) without ever being struck by the strange notion that it might apply to them. It goes right over their head; they see the words, but somehow they do not register. If you point them out so that they are prevented from ignoring them, however kindly, you are right back to the blank stare or hostility. How many times have you heard someone say, in effect, “I am going to get serious about the Christian life—Bible reading and prayer—faithful church attendance—tithing—(insert issue of your choice)—tomorrow. I really will. But, you see, things are just a little hectic right now.” Right now? I know people who have been saying this for years! Yet they seem blissfully ignorant of how hollow it sounds or of how little likelihood there is that things will be any less “hectic” tomorrow, so that they could achieve their laudable spiritual goals without prioritizing and sacrifice. What about the man who consistently works eighty plus hours a week and tells you that what matters is not quantity but quality time with his family! As if he is not too exhausted for there to be any “quality” if and when he does get home. Or how about people who routinely turn on the television to be entertained by adultery and blasphemy? I am not saying we should never hear stories involving those topics. But instead of being driven to their knees by such, we laugh at it! But our faces are mighty pious when we come to church on Sunday morning. “And they understood none of these things, and his saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.”
Ouch! If I haven’t stepped on your toes, it is only because I did not go on multiplying my examples long enough. Be grateful that it is time to move from examples to a definition. Spiritual blindness is the inability to receive spiritual things, which Paul described in 1 Cor 2:14. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned.” This inability is total in the unbeliever until the Holy Spirit converts his heart. It remains partially present in the more or less carnal believer, thwarting the work of God in his life. It is progressively relieved by the process of sanctification, of growth in grace, but is never completely absent from our lives until we see Christ face to face. It has nothing to do with intellectual limitations or stupidity. It is a spiritual dullness, a spiritual denseness, an ability to hear the truth without dealing with it or being dealt with by it, which ultimately stems from our fallen and rebellious natures, encouraged by the Enemy of our souls. It is something that each one of us wrestles with at one point or another. And it was certainly operative in the disciples before the resurrection. It may not be at the same point as it was for them, but at some point we are each as capable of this blindness as they were.
It is interesting that Luke pairs this story with the healing of blind Bartimaeus. The comparison with physical blindness helps us understand the seriousness of the disability we are dealing with here. Students in the university system of Georgia have to pass a test to enter their junior year, a test I used to get to grade. One of the essay questions they could choose from was, “Which of your five physical senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste—would you least like to lose?” Well, there were a few gluttons who wrote on taste, and a handful of musicians who picked hearing, but ninety percent of the respondents and more always chose sight. If physical sight is valuable to us, how much more should spiritual vision be! It would be a great tragedy to miss the light of this world, but how much greater to miss the Light of which our sun is only a symbol! It would be a great tragedy to miss so much earthly beauty, but how much greater to miss the beauty of holiness, the heavenly and eternal life! Nothing could be more serious. Spiritual blindness can cost you God’s blessing in this life and heaven in the next.
I do not know whether Luke did it on purpose or not, but the juxtaposition of these two stories certainly helps bring out the difficulty of curing spiritual blindness. Physical blindness is much easier—even for the Lord Jesus Christ himself! All it took was one simple request from Bartimaeus, and his physical sight was restored. But the disciples were constantly asking, “Teach us to pray—explain this parable—show us the Father,” and still they did not see. It took one word from Jesus to cure Bartimaeus’ physical blindness. All the eloquence of the eternal Word, every discourse, every parable and hard-hitting illustration of the Son of Man, every plain and blunt statement such as we read today from the greatest Teacher who ever lived, were not sufficient for the disciples’ spiritual blindness. One moment was enough to remove the scales from Bartimaeus’ physical eyes. Three years day and night had not yet sufficed for the disciples. If I can say it without heresy, if I can utter it without blasphemy, the one thing that seems difficult even for an omnipotent God is to remove the cataracts of spiritual blindness from the hearts of men.
What is the cure for spiritual blindness and hardness of heart? I wish I knew! Not all the Bible reading in the world, in and of itself, will do it. Not all the good expository preaching in the world, in and of itself, will do it. Ultimately, without neglecting those necessary means, we must wait on the mysterious illuminating and convicting work of the Holy Spirit. That is what took the disciples from Luke 18:34 to Luke 24:45—from “And they understood none of these things, and his saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said,” to “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Oh, is that not where we to want to be? So let us push on one step farther. What was it that unleashed the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives so they could complete that journey? It was the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ which brought home to them the spiritual truths they could not yet see in an inescapably personal way. And so, if we truly want the Spirit to do his work of enlightening our eyes to the truths of Scripture and how they apply to us, perhaps we should seek him for that ministry at the foot of the Cross.
Truly, the Cross is the place where we have the most hope of receiving that cure. For the death of Christ for these disciples was the death of all their hopes, all their dreams, their whole life’s work. And as such, it was also the death of all their safe assumptions and preconceived notions. The death of Christ was also the death of all their pride. It was the death and crucifixion of any pretense that they were anything but a bunch of cowards, deserters, and traitors. The death of Christ was to them that death to self which makes possible the resurrection of faith, understanding, and responsiveness to the Word of God. Only after that death were the disciples ready—only then could they be ready—to receive a suffering Messiah and salvation by grace, God’s unmerited favor, alone. If we want to receive the same gift of sight, we must stand at the foot of the Cross and receive by faith that death. That is the place—the only place—where the Spirit’s ministry of illumination, which is the only answer to the problem of spiritual blindness, can be found.
For all of us, as for the original disciples, the only cure for spiritual blindness is to be driven to our knees at the foot of the Cross. And so I plead with you this morning: go there first, on your own, before God has to drive you! Would you pray this prayer with me? “Father, I do not know where my blind spots are—if I did, they wouldn’t be blind spots—but I am willing to admit that I must have some. I ask you to drive the sharp, two-edged sword of your Word through where it needs to penetrate. And I am willing and ready to make whatever changes may be necessary in response—for your Son said, ‘He who is willing to do his will is he who will know the doctrine, whether it be of God’ (John 7:17).”
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams