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?
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).
If the angels, so near to God (Heb. 12:22; Rev. 3:5) and surpassing man in power and wisdom (2 Sam. 14:17, 20), cheerfully obey him while remaining ignorant of when Christ will return, how much more should we trust him in all things? If the incarnate Son of God went to the cross looking forward to his exaltation without knowing the time of its consummation, how much more should we receive in faith whatever degree or length of suffering God has planned for us until Christ brings us home to glory? Most of all, how joyfully should we welcome each day, knowing it could be the day we’ve been waiting for ever since God welcomed us in Christ?
God’s Word tells us all we need to know about Christ’s return. He will come from heaven, on clouds, in the flesh, with glory and power, suddenly, visibly, audibly, at the end of the world, with angels and saints at his side, as Christians rejoice and unbelievers weep at his sight. Where, and especially when, this glorious event will occur, no one knows—no one, that is, except the Father, the Spirit, and now the ascended Son, our Redeemer, to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Matt. 28:18).