But of the time and hour no one knows—See Matthew 24:36

Take a closer look at what Jesus meant in Matthew 24:36.

Ekkehardt Mueller, DMin, PhD, is associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew 24:36 declaring that He does not know the day and hour of His second coming has long puzzled students of Scripture. Scholars such as R. T. France talk about “the remarkable paradox that ‘the Son,’ who is to play the central role in that ‘day,’ is Himself ignorant of when it will be.”1 And Grant Osborne calls it an “incredible statement.”2 Others, too, have wondered about the intent of Jesus here.

How can we understand what Jesus was saying, and why He said it?

Analysis of the context

This difficult verse is part of the Olivet Discourse, in which Jesus talks about the destruction of Jerusalem and His second coming. In verses 29–31, He focuses on the heavenly signs preceding His parousia and on His coming. With the parable of the fig tree and the following admonition (Matt. 24:32, 33), Jesus returns to the issue of the destruction of Jerusalem and encourages His disciples to observe the signs of the times and to understand the nearness of this terrible event. The generation that will not pass away until all these things have happened (Matt. 24:34) would be the first-century generation that has known Jesus and would experience the fall of Jerusalem.3

The passage, beginning with verse 36, returns to the Second Coming. Clearly the parousia (Matt. 24:39) and the coming (erchomai) of the Lord/the Son of Man (Matt. 24:42, 44) are mentioned. Verse 36, a kind of introduction to verses 37–51, focuses on the fact that a date for the Second Coming cannot be known.4 This passage deals with the eschatological ignorance and the necessity of being ready and prepared because of this unknown date. Now you will find an outline of the passage:

 Verse 36

Statement: The ignorance of humans, angels, and Jesus (day and hour)

Verses 37–39

Example: Noah, the Flood, and the Second Coming (days, day)

Verses 40–41

Examples: Men in the fields and women grinding with a mill

Verse 42

Imperative: Watch because of the coming of the Lord (day)

Verse 43

Example: The head of the house and the thief

Verse 44

Imperative: Be ready because of the coming of the Son of Man (hour)

Verses 45–51

Example: The faithful or unfaithful servant (day and hour—v. 50)

Throughout the paragraph, the theme knowing is found. According to verses 32 and 33 in the preceding passage, disciples should know (ginōskō) about the nearness of the predicted event. With our passage (Matt. 24:36–51), the stress is on not knowing.5 Verses 36–51 clearly emphasize that, although signs may indicate the nearness of the Second Coming, this event cannot be calculated. If even the angels and Jesus Himself do not know the precise date, how much less would the disciples know? Instead of computing the Parousia, they should always be ready. Thus, the focus centers not so much on the nature of Christ but on the preparedness of humans for the most climactic event of world history.

Matthew 25—with the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats—continues this thought.6 We should recognize the importance of being ready, when Jesus comes, to enjoy the wedding banquet. In these parables, Jesus also indicates that there will be a delay,7 an interim between His first and second coming. In addition, the last two parables show that it is not enough to wait passively. Those who truly wait are actively involved8 in some work for the Master, and they serve others.

Analysis of the text

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone (Matt. 24:36, NASB).

The Greek manuscripts contain various readings of Matthew 24:36. The most important one seems to be the omission of the phrase nor the Son in the Majority Text and some other manuscripts and versions, while well attested in some earlier manuscripts. We find it quite likely that, in some manuscripts, the phrase nor the Son was dropped due to theological considerations, namely the question of how the concept of the Trinity would fit with such an amazing statement.9 However, no matter which reading one prefers, in each case “the Father alone” knows the date of the second coming of Jesus. Whether or not the phrase “nor the Son” is included does not make much of a difference but is automatically implied.

As the analysis of the context has shown, that day and hour undoubtedly refers to Christ’s second coming.10 According to verse 36, the date of this coming remains unknown. Day and hour “tie down a time . . . : together the day and the hour identify the time.”11 The terms day and hour are repeated in the next verses. There are the days of Noah (vv. 37, 38) and the day when Noah went into the ark (v. 38). In verse 42 the day of the Lord’s coming and in verse 44 the hour of the coming of the Son of Man appear. Obviously, the terms are here used almost as synonyms, and are joined again in verse 50 to describe the Second Coming.12 Although not mentioning day and hour, verse 48 contains the problem of a delay. So the importance of the Parousia and the disciples’ readiness are underlined, and any attempt to calculate the event is rejected.

Three groups do not know the time: (1) all humans, (2) the angels in heaven, who are close to God and the heavenly council, and (3) the Son.13 Only God the Father knows the date of the Parousia. Though most modern interpreters take the text at face value and are willing to talk about limitations for Jesus,14 ancient interpreters came up with a variety of suggestions concerning the ignorance of Jesus: “Origen, ad loc., wondered whether Jesus was referring to the church of which he is the head.

Philoxenus, ad loc., asserted that Jesus became one with the Father in wisdom and authority only after his ascension. Ambrose, de fid. 5, 16, attributed ‘nor the Son’ to an Arian interpolation. Athanasius, C. Ar. 3.42–50, suggested that Jesus only feigned ignorance. The Cappadocians thought that the Son did not know the date on his own but only through the Father. . . . Chrysostom, Hom. on Mt. 77.2, . . . simply denied that Jesus was ignorant of anything.”15 Others suggest that Jesus did not use the term son as a self-designation.16 However, the text is quite clear and shows that Jesus admits openly and frankly that He has limited knowledge in this situation. This also indicates submission to the Father.17 Yet the sequence of groups from humans to angels to Jesus may indicate a progression. Jesus lives the closest to the Father,18 even if at the time He spoke these words He did not know the exact timing of His second coming.

Theological considerations

The question is, Does Jesus’ limited knowledge militate against His divinity and His place within the Trinity? We do not think so.

1. Matthew and Jesus’ knowledge. Although Jesus did not know the exact time of His coming, He knew many other details.19 Matthew 24–25 reveals that around a.d. 31, Jesus knew the future destruction of Jerusalem and His own coming. He knew that some time would pass between the fall of Jerusalem and the final consummation, and between His first and second comings, filling in for us many details about earthly and heavenly signs and religious confrontations. For instance, in Matthew 25:19 He mentions a long time. These chapters are foundational to New Testament eschatology. In addition, Jesus knew about the future persecution of His people (Matt. 10:18), His own suffering (Matt. 16:21; 17:12; 20:19) and betrayal (Matt. 26:34), the final judgment (Matt. 10:15; 11:22; 12:36), reward (Matt. 19:29), and His future glory (Matt. 16:27). But His knowledge was not limited to the future. He knew the Father and revealed Him to whom He wanted (Matt. 11:27). He also knew the thoughts of His audience (Matt. 9:4). This knowledge surpassed that of all other human beings and obviously had to do with His divinity. Yet there were a few elements that were excluded from His omniscience. Matthew 24:36 “is the clearest statement in the New Testament of a limitation of Jesus’ knowledge.”20 Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that Jesus knew God, humanity, and the future in a very detailed way, even if He did not know everything.

2. Matthew and Jesus’ divinity. While the Gospel of John stresses Jesus’ divinity the strongest and contains remarkable statements in this respect, the Gospel of Matthew is not devoid of statements pointing to Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is the Lord/Yahweh (Matt. 3:3; Isa. 40:3). The Son of Man is able to forgive sins, and that is a privilege of the Deity (Matt. 9:6). He sends out prophets, a divine activity (Matt. 23:34–36).21 Jesus is David’s son and yet also His Lord (Matt. 22:45). All authority is given to Jesus; so He is omnipotent (Matt. 28:18) and also omnipresent (Matt. 28:20). He is also part of the Trinity, who shares one common name (Matt. 28:19). So in Matthew, Jesus is both God and the One whose knowledge is somewhat limited. Therefore, when discussing Jesus’ limited knowledge, one should not deny that He is God. One cannot and should not give up one truth for the other. The Bible knows a number of paradoxes,22 and here it looks as if we have another one. Both paradoxical statements are true and must be maintained.

3. Matthew and Jesus as a real human being. Jesus differs from God the Father and the Holy Spirit, in spite of being part of the Trinity, by the facts that He is fully human and fully God and that He has retained these two natures after His incarnation. Sure, His human nature is now a glorified resurrection nature. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is a real human being, though conceived by the Holy Spirit. He accomplishes this revelation by integrating Jesus in the genealogy of Matthew 1 and mentioning His birth. Because Jesus was fully human, He became hungry as we do (Matt. 4:2). He needed to drink (Matt. 27:48), rest (Matt. 8:20), sleep (Matt. 8:24), and have some kind of home (Matt. 13:36). He was also tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1–11). As a social being, He had fellowship with others (Matt. 9:10, 11). He felt compassion for His people (Matt. 9:36; 20:34).
He prayed to God (Matt. 14:23) and sang (Matt. 26:30). He felt disappointed (Matt. 17:17), deeply grieved to the point of death (Matt. 26:38), left without emotional support from His disciples (Matt. 26:42, 45), drained, and deserted by God (Matt. 27:46). Finally, He died (Matt. 17:23; 27:50). As a human being, subject to physical, emotional, and mental needs and participating in the frailty of humanity, Jesus had temporarily emptied Himself of certain divine prerogatives (Phil. 2:6–8; Matt. 20:23)23 and became subordinate to the Father who had sent Him (Matt. 10:40; 15:24).

4. Matthew and Jesus’ Limitations. So, as a human being Jesus was limited in various ways.24 Our text, Matthew 24:36, suggests that Jesus’ omniscience was limited. Reading through the Gospel, we also notice that Jesus’ omnipresence was limited but affirmed at the end of the Gospel, namely after His resurrection (Matt. 28:20). The same seems to be true for His omnipotence (Matt. 26:53). Osborne writes: “Jesus is the God-man and as such is both fully God and fully human. This involves limitations when in His incarnate state. When walking Planet Earth He was not omnipresent and limited Himself in His omnipotence and His omniscience.”25 Robert Mounce points out that “as the omnipotence of the Son did not come into play in the temptation scene (4:1–11), now His omniscience is veiled in a specific area.”26 Commentators explain that the ignorance on Jesus’ part during His incarnation should be seen positively, namely as evidence of His genuine humanity.27

Conclusion

Matthew 24:36, a difficult verse that mentions Jesus’ ignorance with regard to the date of His coming, was spoken during His incarnation as a human being, and this needs to be understood from this perspective. The Gospel of Matthew stresses both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, even for the time when He lived on Earth, but it shows that, due to the incarnation, certain limitations in Jesus’ life existed that were removed after His resurrection (Matt. 28:18, 19). Therefore, the text cannot be used to either deny Jesus’ divinity or exclude Him from the Trinity.

Yet this observation does not seem to be the main point of the argument, anyway. The focus of Matthew 24:36–51 is on the unknown date of the Second Coming and on our reaction to it. If this date was not known to Jesus, we should not attempt to calculate it.28 Rather, we should live constantly in a state of readiness, expecting with great anticipation and joy Christ’s second coming.

1 R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2007), 939.

2 Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 903.

3 See Richard M. Davidson, “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘This Generation‘?” in Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers, Biblical Research Institute Studies, vol. 2, ed. Gerhard Pfandl (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2010), 289–292, versus Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 341.

4 See John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005), 990. 

5 Verse 36: The angels and Jesus do not know day and hour (oida). Verse 39: Most antediluvians did not know (ginōskō). Verse 42: The date for the Second
Coming cannot be known (oida). Verse 43: Know that the coming of the thief cannot be calculated (ginōskō). Verse 50: The servant does not know the day and hour his master comes (ginōskō).

6 See David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), 326, 327.

7 See R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1990), 351.

8 See ibid., 352.

9 See Alexander Sand, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus, Regensburger Neues Testament (Leipzig: St. BennoVerlag, 1986), 498. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 347; David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 589.

10 See Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 991.

11 Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 990.

12 See also Matthew 25:13, where the two terms occur again. They are inclusive. Therefore, the argument that calculation of months or years or smaller units than hours is permitted is mistaken.

13 Some suggest that Son stands for “Son of God”— France, Matthew, NICNT, 940—while others propose that it means “Son of Man,” who actually appears in the same paragraph, namely in verse 44. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary 33B (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1995), 716.

14 E.g., Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, 323, 324; Turner, Matthew, 589; Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of Matthew, Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 427.

15 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew XIX-XXVIII, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997), 379.

16 See Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, 324.

17 See Davies and Allison, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 378, quoting P. W. Schmiedl.

18 See France, Matthew, NICNT, 940: “The structure of this saying places ‘the Son’ on a level above the angels, second only to the Father.”

19 See, Osborne, Matthew, 903.

20 France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 347.

21 Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 193.

22 That is, one God in three Persons, being already saved and yet not completely saved, and washing the clothes in the blood of the Lamb.

23 This is called kenosis. See France, Matthew, NICNT, 940. It “accepts the full divinity of the Son but argues that for the period of his incarnation certain divine attributes (in this omniscience) were voluntarily put aside.” See also Hagner, 716. Stanley J. Grenz mentions “temporal limitations,” limitations in location, and limitations in strength. Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2000), 277

24 Cf. Gerald O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 121. Thomas C. Oden warns against extreme positions such as to argue “that Jesus knew no more than the average Jew of his time.” The Word of Life, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Peabody: Prince Press, 1998), 89.

25 Osborne, Matthew, 903, 904.

26 Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 229.

27 See Turner, Matthew, 589; Mounce, Matthew, 229; Augustine Stock, The Method and Message of Matthew (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 374.

28 See Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 221.


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Ekkehardt Mueller, DMin, PhD, is associate director, Biblical Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

September 2016

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