Friday, May 23, 2014

How Can Christ Be Omniscient & Not Know the Timing of His Return?

Jesus asserts in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 that not even the Son of Man knows when the end of the age will come. I am preaching on this text on the next Lord's Day and began to consider how authors, commentators, and theologians have handled this difficult Christological issue. No doubt Jesus' words seriously challenge the orthodox position that Jesus, even in His incarnation, remains omniscient - all knowing. How do we reconcile this text with this doctrine?

To my surprise, the systematic theologies I own in my library do not address the issue directly. These theologies include Greg Allison Historic Theology, Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology,[1] Millard Erickson Christian Theology, Michael Bird Evangelical Theology, John Calvin Institutes, Understanding Christian theology, Charles Ryrie Basic Theology, and Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears Doctrine. In addition to that, I consulted other theological works including Charles Colson The Faith, Daryl Aaron Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day, and Erik Thoennes Life's Biggest Questions, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson The Deity of Christ, and Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshear Vintage Jesus.

I was forced, therefore, to primarily limit my theological study to commentaries. They have proven to be helpful and below I highlight how some of my commentaries handle this exegetical and theological difficulty.


John MacArthur, Matthew 24-28:
Still more amazingly, not even the Son knew at the time He spoke these words or at any other time during His incarnation. Although He was fully God as well as fully man (John 1:1, 14), Christ voluntarily restricted His use of certain divine attributes when He became flesh. ‘Although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,’ that is, to be held onto during His humanness (Phil 2:6). It was not that HE lost any divine attributes but that He voluntarily laid aside the use of some of them and would not manifest those attributes except as directed by His Father (John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38).

Jesus demonstrated His divine omniscience on many occasions. [John 2:25 and John 3:13].

But there were certain self-imposed restrictions in His human knowledge. He told the disciples, ‘al things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you’ (John 15:15).” Jesus obediently restricted His knowledge to those things that the Father wanted Him to know during His earthly days of humanity. The Father revealed certain things to the Son as He reveals them to all men – through the Scripture, through the Father’s working in and through His life, and through the physical manifestations of God’s power and glory (see Rom. 1:19-20). Jesus learned much of His earthly knowledge just as every human being learns, and it is for that reason that He was able to keep ‘increasing in wisdom’ (Luke 2:52). In addition to those ways, some truths were revealed to the Son directly by the Father. But in every case Jesus’ human knowledge was limited to what His heavenly Father provided.

Therefore, even on this last day before His arrest, the Son did not know the precise day and hour He would return to earth at His second coming. During Christ’s incarnation, the Father alone exercised unrestricted divine omniscience.

It seems probable that Christ regained full divine knowledge after the resurrection, as implied in His introduction to the Great Commission . . . Just prior to His ascension, He told the disciples, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority (Acts 1:7). He repeats the truth that the disciples would not be told the time of His appearing, but He did not exclude His own knowledge, as he did in the Olivet discourse.” (71-72)

Hershall Hobbs, Matthew:
Does Jesus mean to say that even He did not know the time of the second coming? He said so in plain language. Some will see a problem at this point. For if in Him dwells ‘all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col. 2:9), how could this be possible? The answer is found in Philippians 2:6-8. When the Son emptied Himself into the form of man He took upon Himself the ‘infirmities’ (weaknesses, Heb. 4:15) of man, apart from sin. In a mystery which defies our understanding He took on a limitation of His omniscience. He possessed it, and yet He did not posses or express it in keeping with the condition of His incarnation. We cannot explain it; we can only accept it as the teachings of Scripture. E. Y. Mullins likens it to a master playing the piano while wearing gloves. Or to the mathematician setting aside his great knowledge to explain 2 + 2 = 4 to a child. The knowledge and skill were present, but in both cases the master adapted himself to a given situation. So the omniscient God as Jesus adapted Himself to the conditions required in a complete incarnation apart from sin. Only thus could He be our Saviour. (342-343)

John Broadus, Matthew:
This statement of our Lord as to himself can be explained only by referring the ignorance to his human mind. We read of him at 12 years of age that he ‘advanced in wisdom and stature’ (or ‘age). If he then advanced in wisdom, he did not cease advancing at the age of twenty or of thirty. If his knowledge was incomplete at twelve, it was still incomplete at thirty. In deed, a finite mind could not contain all knowledge. If there was to be a real Incarnation of the Eternal Word, then the body he took must be a real body, an th mind a real mind. How has divine nature could be omniscient, and his human mind limited in knowledge, both being united in one person, is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, which we need not expect to solve. (Comp. Phil. 2:7) But to be limited in knowledge, does not necessarily involve erroneous information or conceptions. The human nature of the Incarnate Deity was infallibly preserved from sin (comp. 4:1), and so, we may believe, from error of judgment.” (493)

Frank Stagg and Henry E. Turlington, Matthew-Mark, The Broadman Bible Commentary:
The saying undoubtedly goes back to Jesus, for no disciple would have suggested that he had limited knowledge. The statement does support the solid claim of the New Testament that Jesus Christ was truly human as well as divine.

Christian faith can only stand before this mystery of the full reality of the incarnation. God came uniquely in one who was a real man, not just a seeming (Gnostic) man. Not only does this verse demand the full recognition of the human limitations Jesus, but it also demands that we acknowledge our human limitations, one being that we do not know the time of the end of the world or the coming of the Son of man. The Christian must accept the necessity of living in the tension between knowing the certainty of Christ’s coming and not knowing when. (221-222)

One systematic theology worth considering in regards to this question is Michael Horton's The Christian Faith. He writes:
Without surrendering his divinity (which included omniscience), the eternal Son fully assumed our finite humanity.

There is no reason to be embarrassed by the full humanity of our Lord.  Jesus agonizes over his destiny: "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death," he tells his disciples (Mt 26:38a). And in his prayer to the Father he petitions, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (v. 39). In one sentence we discern bot Jesus' intimate unity with the Father ("My Father") and his differentiation ("not as I will, but as you will"). The same paradox occurs in the crucifixion itself. On one hand, Jesus cries out with surprising formality, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46) and on the other, his last reported words are in the form of another cry, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46). The blood that he brings into the heavenly sanctuary to atone for his brothers and sisters is human (Heb 9:11-10:18), yet because of the unity of his person it can be called the blood of God (Ac 20:28).


[1] Grudem does interact with A. N. S. Lane on who denies Christ's omniscience based on Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32. Grudem responds in a footnote "But . . . Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 are certainly capable of being understood to refer to Jesus' knowledge in his human nature. And when lane says that omniscience and ignorance "cannot coexist" he is simply pitting one part of a biblical paradox against another and then asserting that one part is impossible. On what ground are we justified in saying that an omniscient divine nature and a human nature with limited knowledge "cannot coexist"? Such assertions fundamentally deny that infinite deity and finite humanity can exist together int he same person - in other words, they deny that Jesus could be fully God and fully man at the same time. In this way, they deny the essence of the incarnation." (559-560)


For more:
David's Lord: Jesus on the Hyopstatic Union
12 Proofs of Jesus' Deity From the Synoptic Gospels
"Christian Theology": Blogging Through Erickson - Christology 2
The God Who Became Man: Millard Erickson on the Implications of the Humanity of Christ 
Martin Luther on how John 1:1 Contradicts Modalism & Arianism
From Lewis' Pen: Either the Son of God or a Madman
We've All Heard This Before: "Zealot" and the Same Search For the Missing Jesus 
"For Us and Our Salvation" by Stephen Nichols: A Review
And yet this Jesus of Nazareth . . .
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