Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 24:36

This passage can seem to be rather jarring. That is, it does not appear to fit in with what we know about basic Christian teaching. The passage in question, Matthew 24:36, has Jesus saying this: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

But, is not Jesus God? So how can Jesus not know certain things? Is he not omniscient? Good questions, but in one sense the solution is actually somewhat straightforward (that is, if a discussion about the Godhead and the divine persons can ever be described as straightforward).

kenosisLet me provide context for this text before going any further. Matthew 24-25 comprises what we call the Olivet Discourse (for the simple reason that Jesus gave his teachings while on the Mount of Olives). Chapter 24 deals with various issues about the end times, while chapter 25 contains three parables relating to preparedness for the end.

Jesus speaks about certain events pertaining to the end times, and in verse 36 of Ch. 24 he makes the statement we are now examining. So how are we to understand this? The answer lies in the traditional Christian understanding of the person and work of Christ.

We believe Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. So with the Godhead we speak about one God in three persons. However with the incarnation of Christ we speak about one person with two natures: Jesus has a human nature as well as a divine nature.

So it is in that context that we must understand this verse. And other New Testament passages deal with this, chief of which is Philippians 2:5-11. The first three verses say this:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

The crux of this passage is verse 7 and how we are to understand the bit about Jesus making himself nothing, or emptying himself, as other translations have rendered it. Oceans of ink have been spilled on this one, but we must seek to understand how the key Greek word, kenosis, is being used theologically here.

Of what did Christ empty himself? Did he stop being divine during the incarnation? Did he empty himself of his divine attributes? While theologians who are more liberal have developed full-blown kenosis theories, arguing such positions as this, most conservative scholars believe what is being said here is that Christ simply self-limited himself as he became a man in the Incarnation.

Thus he limited the use of some of the divine attributes that belonged to his divine nature, such as omnipotence and omniscience. As a real man he was dependent on and obedient to the Father. He was empowered by the Spirit in his earthly ministry, so in that sense he emptied himself. But he did not cease being God.

As a divine being he had perfect knowledge, but as a man he grew in strength and knowledge just like anyone else. In this respect he was subordinate to the Father. How these two natures in one person interact and cohere is of course the stuff of mystery. Biblical revelation only takes us so far in all this.

But this is the NT framework for understanding this passage. Let me appeal to a few commentators here to further elaborate on all this. As Michael Wilkins comments:

While he did not in any sense give up his deity, Jesus voluntarily limited the use of those divine characteristics so that he could experience human life in its entirety (cf. Heb. 4:14-16). It was only at the will of his Father that he could use his divine attributes, if it was the Father’s will for him to do so. He acted primarily in his humanity and was empowered by the Spirit….
The independent use of his supernatural knowledge was limited to whether it was the Father’s will for him to use it. In his earthly ministry Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven. It was not the Father’s will for him to know the date of his return during his time on earth. In his human consciousness, Jesus restricted himself to normal human knowledge while retaining omniscience in his divine nature. On other occasions he demonstrates supernatural knowledge of the present and the future (e.g., John 2:4; 4:17-18; 6:70; 11:4, 11; 13:10-11, 38).

A quite helpful discussion of this can be found in Daniel Doriani’s commentary on this verse. He is worth quoting at length:

Jesus is omnipresent, yet he travelled from place to place by foot (typically) or by boat or donkey (occasionally). When Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, he walked. He didn’t stand in Capernaum and tell the disciples “Since I am omnipresent, I am already in Jerusalem, so I’ll stay here and see you there when you arrive!” When he walked, he laid aside his omnipresence.
Jesus is omnipotent, yet unless he ate food, he became hungry. Without sleep, he became tired. Eventually he slept–hard (Matt. 8:23-25). He did not draw on his omnipotence to fill his empty stomach or to refresh his weary body.
Jesus is omniscient, yet he laid aside his knowledge too. Jesus asked genuine questions in the Gospels. In Mark 5:30-32, Jesus asked “Who touched me?” and “looked around” to see who it might be. In Mark 9:16, he asked the disciples, “What are you arguing about?” In John 5:6, he asked a man how long he had been sick. On other occasions, he asked visitors, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:32; cf. 20:21).
Indeed, if Jesus had constantly exercised his divine attributes, he would not have led a genuine human life. If he endured no human limitations, his incarnation was a charade. If the crucifixion caused Jesus no pain, how could he suffer for us? If no bodily desires touched him, how can we say he was “tempted in every way” as we are (Heb. 4:15)?
So Jesus truly did not know when he would return. He did not need to know, nor do we. He finished his work, so he is ready to return.

As mentioned, all this takes us into mysterious territory. How a fully human nature and a fully divine nature could coexist in one person is something we will never fully grasp. The early church fathers sought to deal with all this, and some of the creedal affirmations they came up with are hard to improve upon.

Thus the Chalcedon Creed (from the Council of Chalcedon, 451) is still worth running with. It reads in full:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

So Jesus as God had all knowledge, but Jesus as man had limited knowledge. This was not about Jesus being any less than God, but about humility and servanthood. Indeed, if we return to the Phil. 2 passage, that is the very point Paul makes. For example in v. 8 he says this:

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This hard-core theological and Christological truth is being used to remind Christ-followers to also be humble. As he says in verses 3-5:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

So the Matthew text is not implying that Jesus is somehow not divine, or less than divine. It is restating what Paul stated in Phil. 2 and elsewhere. Jesus in his incarnation voluntarily limited the use of his divine attributes. Jesus did not empty himself of the divine attributes, but the use of those attributes.

That in good measure is how we explain a verse like Matthew 24:36.

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11 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 24:36”

  1. It still leaves the question, Does Jesus *still* not know? What do you think?

  2. Ah, but now you of course wade into even murkier theological waters, dealing with such heavyweight issues as the eternal sonship of the second person of the Trinity and the like. Might need another article or two on that one!

  3. I have always pictured Jesus saying to the Father something like “no, don’t tell me, let it be a surprise”.

  4. Yes, I love thinking about this issue, particularly from the Philippians 2 passage. Philippians is my favourite book and the passage in chapter 2 has special significance for me. Is Christ emptying Himself ‘of’ something (such as aspects of His deity) or ‘into’ something (the form of a man or servant) or are both ideas applicable? Whatever the case, I think it also links closely to Isaiah 53:12 – ‘he poured out his soul unto death.’ A quick browse through the pen notes in the margin of my Bible around these verses turned up this quote – ‘Acceptance of the limitations of human life does not make him unlike himself.’ Unfortunately I can’t remember to whom credit is due for that quote – it’s possibly from a sermon I once heard, or maybe a well worn John Stott commentary on Philippians that I have mislaid somewhere. Rich thoughts indeed.

  5. Kerry’s linking of our Lord’s kenosis to Isaiah 53:12 may be further hinted at by the Apostle Paul’s writing of his own being poured out like a drink offering further on in the same chapter of Philippians [Philippians 2:17]. A key exegetical issue is how much we ought to read into the declaration of our Saviour’s “emptying of Himself” for our sakes. The Isaiah 53:12 verse certainly uses language which sounds rather synonymous with the emptying of a human vessel. The shedding of the blood of the Lamb of God may also be also described as His emptying of Himself for our sakes in obedience to the Father.

  6. A good article on the paradox that is Jesus, Son of Man and Jesus, Son of God, of significant value to our understanding of His life and the work of the cross, and explaining it to others.

    Yes John Wigg, good point. Likewise, seeing the image, and word of kenosis in the beginning of the article, I was hoping this aspect would be covered in more depth regards to this amazing statement of Jesus ’emptying of Himself’.

  7. Thanks Garth. Of course this article is on the Matthew passage, and as I said, entire libraries have been written about how we understand things like the self-emptying of Christ. So if I wanted to do more on Phil. 2, I would need to pen an introductory article of several thousand words for starters, and even that would hardly do it justice! But perhaps that will be forthcoming at some point.

  8. I think “the murky theological waters” are because God hides Himself in darkness Psalm18:11 see Isaiah 45:15. While the rationale you give us Bill is fine on our human level, I would suggest it is inconsistent with the Divine nature of the Trinity which is manifestly hierarchical. The eternal Father eternally shows the eternal Son, (John 5:20) so that Sons’ nature is to be shown – or the words mean something else which is to my mind impossible – tho probably not to others. So Proverbs 25:2 “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter…” obtains within the Godhead and Jesus has told us of this glory He shares in when He prayed as recorded in John 17. We are on holy ground and even Moses who conversed face to face with God had to be hidden from the glory which would have destroyed him. I look forward to your two (or more) articles to come! 🙂

  9. I found the following very helpful:
    First of all, He gave up His glory. That’s why in John 17:5 He says, “And now, Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.” Give Me back the glory which I once had, which means at that point He didn’t have it. He veiled His glory in human flesh. He set aside the full expression of His glory.
    Secondly, He gave up His honour. Isaiah 53 says He was despised, He was rejected. The New Testament tells us He was hated, He was mocked, He was spit on. He was defamed. He was dishonoured.
    Thirdly, He gave up His riches. Second Corinthians 8:9 says, “He who was rich for our sakes became” – what – “poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich.”
    Fourthly, He gave up His favourable relation to the Father. And He did that only in a moment of time, when He died on the cross and said, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” But He lived with the anxiety of coming to that point through all His life.
    Fifthly, he also gave up His independent exercise of authority. He said, “I will do only that which the Father shows Me. My meat is to do the Father’s will. What the Father says I will do. What I see the Father I will do.”
    He emptied all of those things out, and yet He continued to be God. It wasn’t that He lost any of His divine attributes, it is that He chose not to use them; that He gave up the prerogative, or the privilege, of using them. Was He still God? Yes, that’s who He was.
    Taken from a sermon by John MacArthur

  10. Jesus limited Himself to the point of becoming our achievable example, as firstborn among many brethren, through being baptised with the Holy Spirit, operating in and through the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, living in perfect communion with the Father, having all thoughts captive toward the Father’s perfect will, and doing all without sin, so that we could become like Him.

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