What is the most confusing passage of Scripture? I know, I know, it’s hard to choose. There are a lot of passages that make us scratch our heads. For example, who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men in Genesis 6:4? And who were the “men of renown” that were their offspring? Why did God enlist a deceiving spirit in 1 Kings 22:19-23 at his own instigation? Or what does it mean to be “baptized for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29? However, one that has to make the top ten list of almost every Evangelical is when Christ said that he did not know the time of his second coming. We read about it in Matthew 24:36: “No one knows about that day or hour [of my coming], not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36). I mean, come on . . . I can understand the angels not knowing, but Christ? Christ not knowing anything at all is confusing. How could Christ, being the eternal, transcendent, and omniscient (i.e. he knows everything) not know something? Yet we find these odd times, here and there, where Christ seems to lack information which his omniscience should have provided. Another possible example is when Christ did not seem to know who touched him and was healed (Mark 5:31). Or when he prayed for the cup of suffering, if possible, to pass from him (Matt. 26:39). Or when Luke says that Christ “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The question is this: how can God be ignorant of something?
Those who deny the deity of of Christ often use this passage in Matthew 24 (and others like it) to say that Christ must not have truly been God. After all, if Christ was God, they would argue, he would have known everything. However, I think that this represents a very common and fundamental misunderstanding of the mission of God in Christ and the relationship between Christ’s divine nature and his human nature.
Now, lets start with a chart!
In securing his right to be the second Adam and represent humanity on the cross, Christ had to be fully human. But in order to represent God to man and offer the atoning sacrifice to the Father, Christ has to be fully God. Therefore, after the incarnation, Christ had two complete natures, in one person. Got that? Two natures, one person. This chart illustrates the state of affairs which Christ was in while on earth before the resurrection. Notice that the two natures of Christ do not “communicate” with each other. This does not mean they don’t talk, it means that the natures do not co-mingle. In other words, the attributes or properties of one nature do not change the attributes or properties of the other. Though Christ’s divine nature is eternally omnipresent, it does not make his human nature omnipresent. Likewise, though Christ’s human nature was limited by time and space, it does not effect his divine nature. The Definition of Chalcedon in 451 says that Christ two natures were “without confusion” and “without change.” Were Christ’s human nature to mix with the divine nature, Christ would have be something else all together. He would have been a “humine.” Therefore, he could only represent other humines on the cross. But in order to represent us, he had to have an untainted and complete humanity.
But while the human and divine natures never communicate their properties to each other, as we will see, it is possible for them to communicate their properties to the one person of Christ. This is often referred to as the communicatio idiomatum (“communication of properties”). Berkhof speaks of it this way: “that the properties of both, the human and the divine natures, are now the properties of the person, and are therefore ascribed to the person” (Berkhof, L., Systematic Theology, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.; Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988, p. 324.)
So far so good?
Now, notice that in my chart, before the resurrection, the human nature communicates its attributes to the person of Christ, but the divine nature does not. Why? Because Christ had to live as a human, completely dependent on his human nature to make it through this life. Why? Because that is the way you and I have to live. We can’t drawl from omniscience, omnipresence, or omnipotence to aid us in living. How much easier would things be if we could! But Christ came to represent us. Therefore he had to live just like us, in utter dependance on God for his life. Of course Christ still had “access to” his divine nature, power, and properties at any time since he was always fully divine. At the snap of a finger he could have done this:
Think about this: What was the first temptation that Satan brought to the table when confronting Christ in the wilderness? Remember? It was to turn a stone into bread (Luke 4:3). This is Satan’s diabolical plan? To cause the Son of God to turn a stone into bread? Is it some eternal sin that man shall not turn stones into bread when they are hungry? After all, Christ did turn a few fish into thousands of fish and a few loaves of bread into enough to feed five thousand later in his ministry. So there is obviously not a problem with feeding the hungry through miraculous means. So why did Satan tempt Christ in such a way? What was he trying to accomplish? Well, considering Christ’s obligation to live according to his humanity, Satan was tempting him to access his divine nature for self-abasement. This would have immediately disqualified him from being our representative since neither you or I can turn stones into bread when we are hungry.
Notice how Donald MacLeod puts it when speaking about Satan’s temptation of Christ:
“Part of the truth here is suggested by the first of the three temptations in the desert: ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Mt. 4:3). The essence of the temptation was that the Lord disavow the conditions of the incarnation and draw on his omnipotence to alleviate the discomforts of his self-abasement. He could have turned the stones into bread . . . But the latter would have undone his work as surely as the former. Christ had to submit to knowing dependently and to knowing partially. He had to learn to obey without knowing all the facts and to believe without being in possession of full information. He had to forgo the comfort which omniscience would sometimes have brought.” (The Person of Christ, 169)
The point is that Christ had to live as a human, with all the limitations of a human. So when it comes to Christ not knowing the time of his coming, we should not be surprised. Christ only knew what needed to be known in order to fulfill his mission. Sound familiar? That is just like you and I. We live with a great degree of uncertainty every day. We can’t look ahead into the future and see what is going to happen tomorrow. How much easier things would be if we could? But we can’t; therefore, Christ could not either. I believe that what he knew and what he did were all under the provisional hand of the Father, through the power of the Spirit.
MacLeod goes on:
“The other line of integration between the omniscience of the divine nature and the ignorance of the human is that just as Christ had to fulfill the office of Mediator within the limitations of a human body, so he had to fulfill it within the limitations of a human mind.” (ibid)
“Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude.” (ibid)
Millard Erickson shares similar thoughts:
“Perhaps we could say that he [Christ] had such knowledge as was necessary for him to accomplish his mission; in other matters he was as ignorant as we” (Christian Theology, Baker, 726; Leon Morris shares the same thoughts in Lord from Heaven, 48).
And then there is my (ahem) friend (whom I stalk) Thomas Oden:
“During his earthly ministry, the communication of divine power to the human Jesus was administered by the Holy Spirit, upon whom he constantly relied. Jesus taught, acted, and suffered what the Spirit enabled, directed, and permitted.”
“[T]here was sufficient impartation of divine empowerment to Jesus as was needed for each stage of the fulfillment of his office of Mediator” (The Word of Life, Prince Press, 183-184).
Therefore, Christ did not know the time of his coming because he did not need to know it to fulfill his mission.
After the resurrection, however, the person of Christ regained full access to his divine nature and properties and they were, once again, communicated to his person. This is the way Christ looks now:
Notice, though, that, in my estimation, there is still no communication of properties or attributes between the two natures of Christ. Christ’s human nature, even after the resurrection, does not become divinitized. This is the view of most reformed theologians. The person of Christ is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient today. He does know the time of his coming now. He knew it when the disciples asked before he ascended (Acts 1:6). However, his human nature is still limited in all the respects that humanity is (and always will be) limited. Christ’s resurrection body is in some place right now. It cannot be everywhere. Why? Because that is the limitations of humanity. Therefore, when Catholics, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthdox say that Christ’s body can be at countless places around the globe during the Lord’s Supper, they are expressing their view that somehow after the resurrection there can be a communication between the two natures of Christ (just erase that line blocking the human and divine natures in the illustration and you will see what I mean). However, I believe that Christ still represents us as our high priest and pioneer to the new life and resurrection. Therefore, he still has a complete and untainted human nature.
Setting aside the debatable issues, one thing is clear: Christ really does sympathize with us in all that we are. I don’t know about you, but this fact comforts me a great deal. It comforts me to know that Christ had the same limitations as I have. It lets me know that when I turn to him in time of need, he really does understand.
“For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)