One Thing Jesus Didn’t Know

December 24, 2018

by Carlton Wynne

God knows everything (1 John 3:20). God knows himself and all things exhaustively, eternally, and unchangeably. He knows his own perfections, plans, actions, and goals (Ps. 147:5; Isa. 46:10; Acts 15:18). He knows the billions of angels in light (Dan. 7:10), every corner of hell (Prov. 15:11), all of our sins (Ps. 69:5), every hidden thought (Ps. 139:2), every ounce of our suffering (Ps. 56:8). He proves his deity by infallibly knowing the past, present, and future, including all possibilities and contingent events (1 Sam. 23:10–13; Matt. 11:21), from the tiniest detail (Matt. 10:29–30) to the fact and timing of our salvation (Rom. 8:29; 2 Tim. 1:9). As the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus Christ possesses the fullness of deity, including the attribute of omniscience (Phil. 2:6; John 21:17).

How, then, are we to reconcile the comprehensiveness of Jesus’s divine knowledge with Matthew 24:36, where the divine Son of God declares to his disciples that there is something he didn’t know? “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:26; cf. Mark 13:32).

How could that be, and why did Jesus say it?

What Did Jesus Not Know?

Nearly all commentators agree that in Matthew 24 Jesus is foretelling two “judgments”—one on Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (cf. Matt. 23:38; 26:61), and another at the end of the age with his second coming (parousia) (cf. Matt. 24:3, 14, 23–27). While scholars widely disagree over which verses refer to which event, how the two judgments are related, and what it all means for Christians today, nearly all agree that Jesus’s reference to “that day or hour” describes the timing of his return to judge the living and the dead (cf. Matt. 25:31–34).

Yet the question remains: How could the One who will enact worldwide judgment be ignorant of when that day will be? Apparently we’re not alone in our trouble: likely in an effort to avoid the doctrinal difficulty, some manuscript copies of the New Testament omit the words “nor the Son.” Such redactions don’t alter the fact, though. Jesus said it. How are we to understand it?

The doctrine of the Trinity implies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all possess the same singular being, mind, and will.

What the Father Knows, the Divine Son Knows

The doctrine of the Trinity implies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all possess the same singular being, mind, and will. The three persons don’t constitute a kind of social committee, in which one member could conceivably withhold information from another. Instead, what one person knows the other two likewise know, exhaustively and eternally, as the one God—yet without blurring or denying their identities as distinct, mutually related persons.

Therefore, whatever Matthew 26:37 means, it doesn’t mean the second person of the Trinity is or ever has been ignorant of anything. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and the full scope of biblical revelation preclude any such notion. As the infinite and immutable source of all knowledge, God never learns anything. This goes for the Son as much as for the Father and the Spirit.

Jesus Grew in Knowledge

Yet even as the second person of the Trinity (the Logos) never changes, out of free grace he became man two millennia ago by assuming to himself “a true body, and a reasonable soul” (Westminster Larger Catechism #37)—both of which are capable of change. Now and forever, two completely different natures (divine and human) are united in the one Son of God. As a man, then, the Son “increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). And like any human being after the fall, he became hungry (Matt. 4:2), grew tired (John 4:6), felt distress (Matt. 26:38), and, yes, was amazed at what he learned (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9; Mark 6:6; cf. Luke 2:46). Jesus could only have experienced such changes in his human nature.

By seeing the genuine limitations and temporal changes in Jesus’s human nature, albeit with no limitations or changes in his divine identity, we can further see that when he says he didn’t know the timing of his return, the eternal Son of God was speaking with a human mouth, out of a human soul, with limited knowledge as a man, in perfect submission to his Father’s salvation plan.

Even if Jesus’s self-reference to “the Son” is short for “the Son of God” (a common name for the divine Logos) and not “the Son of Man,” this is not an insurmountable problem for the view presented here. Scripture sometimes ascribes human attributes to the person of the Son incarnate while also identifying him according to his divine nature (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 2:8). Therefore, limited knowledge (a human attribute) may well be ascribed to Christ’s divine nature insofar as such knowledge belongs to the person of the Mediator as a man. In that carefully understood sense, then, we can say, “The divine Son was ignorant of the day of his return,” even as we affirm that the divine Son knows everything (John 21:17).

Whew! Are we done? Not quite. Jesus didn’t speak these words just to give us a theological conundrum. The really important question about Matthew 24:36 is not, “How could Jesus not know when he would return?” The most important question is why.

Jesus Was Helping Us

The context of Matthew 24 reveals that Jesus’s declaration in verse 36 is designed to restrain our vain curiosity, to bind us to his Word, and to stir us up to be vigilant and eager to meet our Lord face-to-face (Matt. 24:42, 44; 25:13, 46).

. . . continue reading at The Gospel Coalition.

Read More On Incarnation, son of man, trinity

Carlton Wynne

Dr. Wynne (PhD, Westminster) is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics at WTS.

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