The Bible tells us that Christ can sympathize with us in all our weaknesses and that he has been tempted like us in everything (Heb 4:15). Many times I don’t really believe this. Do you ever think to yourself, Riiiggghhhttt…but you were God. Think about it. There are some things Christ just was not tempted to do. For example, Christ was never tempted to tell a lie to cover up another lie! As well, I have certain weaknesses which Christ does not seem to have had. For example, I don’t know the future. Because of this, decision making is very difficult. If I knew the future, this life would be much easier. Exhaustive knowledge of all things would be even better. So many problems and so much weakness would be done away with, for all of us. Think about how easy the questions that plague humanity would be if we had exhaustive knowledge of all things: Whom should I marry? How many kids should I have? What vocation should I pursue? Why do I have this pain? Should I send this email or not? How exactly should I respond in this or that difficult circumstance? If we could draw upon omniscience, all of these questions – all of these weaknesses – would be a snap. We would always know exactly what to do.

What were Christ’s limitations? Did he have any? What did Christ know and when did he know it? What could Christ do and how could he do it?

Most Christians view Christ, first and foremost, through his deity. Sure, we believe that Christ is both God and man, but when it comes to our default understanding of him as we read the Scriptures, we normally see only his deity. If he knew something which ordinarily could not be known, we attribute it to his deity. If he did something that could not normally be done, we credit his divine nature.

However, when it comes to some of the more troublesome passages, we find ourselves scratching our heads. For example, when Christ was in the Garden and asked that the cup of suffering pass from him (Lk 22:42), we are confused. When he asks the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Mk 15:34), we don’t know how to take it. And (here is the big one) when he says that he does not know the day or the hour of his coming (Matt 24:36), we are baffled. In fact, so confused was one early scribe concerning Christ’s confession of ignorance here, he omitted the phrase “nor the son” from the manuscript.

The question is: How could Christ, who is God, not be omniscient (knowing everything, including the future)? Why didn’t Christ know the time of his coming? I think if we answer this question, we will find answers to the others as well.

There are a few options:

1. Christ really did know; we just don’t know why he said this.

2. Christ did not know for some unknown reason, but he knew everything else.

3. Christ did not know because, being a man, he was no longer omniscient.

4. Christ did not know since he did not access his omniscience due to the rules of the incarnation.

My contention is that number four is correct.

Let me be brief and clear with my thesis:

Although Christ was fully God, he never independently accessed any of his divine powers or knowledge while incarnate. All of his miraculous deeds and understanding were the result of his submission to God, and came by way of the power of the Holy Spirit. Further, if Christ had at any time accessed his own power or omniscience independently, he would not be qualified as the second Adam and could not represent us in redemption.

This means there were many things Christ did not know. It was not simply that Christ chose on a case-by-case basis what not to know, but that he, like every human, had limitations of knowledge. He had to grow and learn just like all people (Luke 2:52). When he knew things that are beyond the abilities of normal humanity, like when he knew the background of the woman at the well (Jn 4:17-18), he knew them by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, just like the prophets. When he did things that are beyond the abilities of normal humanity, like walking on water, he did so by the power of the Spirit.

In summary, I believe that while Christ exercised divine prerogatives (forgiving sins, claiming to be God, receiving worship, etc.), he did not ever exercise his own divine attributes independently of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. His knowledge and miracles do not alone substantiate his deity, as parallels to all Christ’s miracles and knowledge can be found in the prophets. But his miracles substantiate his deity because they substantiate his testimony.

Concerning this, there is no one “orthodox” belief to which all Christians through all time have held.  There seems to be a spectrum of belief here. While orthodox Christianity does not entertain the idea that Christ was no longer God in the incarnation (kenotic theory), it does not necessarily speak to whether or not he used his own divine powers independently, or submitted completely to the Holy Spirit.

I believe the latter is correct for the following reasons:

1. It seems biblically correct:

There are many places in Scripture that speak of Christ’s limitations and about his complete submission to God and the Holy Spirit.

In Luke 4:1 we are told that Christ was “full of the Holy Spirit” and that the Spirit “led” Christ into the wilderness to be tempted. Why didn’t he lead himself?

When Christ is tempted in the wilderness, he responds to the devil by quoting the Old Testament Scriptures, not using his own words (which, by definition, were inspired). Why not just speak directly?

Luke 2:40 speaks of Christ’s growth in wisdom, implying a previous lack of wisdom.

In John 14:10 we understand that Christ does not speak on his own initiative, but on the Father’s. Why not his own?

Acts 1:2 tells us that Christ instructed the Apostles through the Holy Spirit’s authority. Why not through his own authority?

Acts 10:38 tells us that Christ’s anointing was through the Holy Spirit and his power was from the Father. Why not use his own power?

In Acts 2:22 we are told that it was the Father’s power that gave Christ the ability to do the miracles. Again, why didn’t he use his own power?

Mark 13:32 demonstrates that Christ did not know the day or hour of his coming. How do we explain this void of knowledge?

In Luke 8:45 Christ was ignorant of who touched him. What a mundane thing to be ignorant of. Why didn’t he know?

John 11:34 tells us that Christ was ignorant of where Lazarus had been laid. Again, another mundane statement of ignorance.

Is seems theologically correct:

Have you ever wondered why the Devil’s first temptation to Christ was to turn a stone into bread? What is the big deal in that? It does not seem like a sin. If I had that power, would it be a sin for me to use that power? However, the Devil’s plan was much more strategic than we often think. His goal was not simply to have Christ turn a rock into a meal, but to have Christ independently access his own omnipotence (power) for self-satisfaction. You see, Christ had to become like us in every respect in order to represent us. This is why the dictates of Chalcedon (451) are so important. If Christ did not become fully man, then we lose representation. If Christ was not fully God, there is no power of salvation. Christ had to be fully God and fully man for redemption to be accomplished and applied. Satan was tempting Christ to do something that would forfeit his representation of us and therefore forfeit redemption. Had Christ turned the stone into bread based on an independent use of his own power and authority, he could only represent those of us who can do the same by our own power and authority. Since there is no one who has such abilities, no one could be represented.

With this in mind, it is perfectly understandable why Christ did not know certain things, including the time of his coming. Christ only knew what needed to be known for his mission. This is like us. For both Christ and us, we must rely upon and trust in God completely for the unknown future.

Lest you think I am saying something novel here, let me quote a few sources:

Donald Macleod:

“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.”

Concerning the temptation in the wilderness he writes,

“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; he could have (perhaps) known the day and the house of his parousia. 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.”

He goes on,

“Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude” (The Person of Christ, IVP, 169).

Millard Erickson:

“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).

Tomas 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.”

He goes on:

“[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).

One point that needs to be reiterated here: While Christ did not independently utilize his divine attributes to make it through this life, he always had immediate access to them. Christ never ceased to be God and did not give up his divine attributes at the incarnation. He simply chose not to use them in order to qualify to be our representative. This is made clear by the very fact that Satan tempted him to use his own power to satisfy his hunger. If Christ did not have access to this power, then the temptation is meaningless. According to this line of reasoning, Christ’s full deity is actually substantiated. After all, how many normal humans are tempted to do the things that Satan tempted Christ to do?

But don’t be misled here. Ignorance does not equal error. Just because Christ, living according to the rules of the incarnation, was ignorant of some things, this does not mean he was ever wrong. He never spoke in error.

Having said this, I do believe that such line of reasoning causes us to pause and reflect on just how much Christ can relate to us in every way as a mediator. He was just like us. He had to trust in God for his future as you and I do. He had to rely on the Holy Spirit for his mission and power just like us.


C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    13 replies to "Why Didn’t Christ Know the Time of His Coming? or “How Can Christ Really Relate to Us?”"

    • CarolJean

      Did Christ transcend his incarnation?
      If yes, was He omniscient in his transcendence?
      Does this present a violation of the law of non-contradiction?

    • C Michael Patton

      I believe his nature transcended the incarnation. However, the consciousness of his person limited himself to the rules of the incarnation.

    • Nate

      I was thinking about this today when I was reading DeWeese’s new book Doing Philosophy as a Christian. I would agree with your thesis, but wonder about this twist:

      Is it possible that Christ, being the Word made flesh, would have his knowledge limited to what the Father has spoken in the past and was speaking in the present, but would not know things yet to be spoken? In other words, Christ is omniscient when omniscient is defined in terms of available current knowledge. But when his divine mind was operating through a human mind, it was not able to articulate future events with technical precision until their time had come. This is kind of riffing off of Vanhoozer and Poythress and their speech act understanding of the Trinity, but I just wondered what the viability of this idea is.

      If it were true, it would account for Jesus being able to speak about coming events, but not to the level of detail required to give a day/time. Because the Father’s spoken word is an efficacious illocution that accomplishes what it proclaims, until God the Father spoke certain historical events into action (like Christ’s return) they couldn’t be something that Christ, the Divine Word Incarnate could know in a human sense at least. In other words, since he is THE word, until it is spoken by the Father it is not something for Him to proclaim. For him to speak the answer to the disciples would actualize the event in a way that only the Father could. The simplest way to respond would then be to say that only the Father knows the day/hour.

      What do you think?

    • James

      Is there a possibly 5th alternative? That Christ has the power of will, that when the Father wants something to be unknown to him, he can limit his knowledge, being obedient to the Father?

      After all, the omnipotent Father has the power to choose to no longer recall our sins. Is Jesus practicing a similar choice in this case, because it’s God’s will?

    • CarolJean

      @ Michael

      You wrote, “I believe his nature transcended the incarnation. However, the consciousness of his person limited himself to the rules of the incarnation.”

      Does this mean that Christ was not aware that he was transcendent?

    • C Michael Patton

      That is a good question. It is the same as asking “When did Christ know he was God?” I don’t have the answer to that. Those who emphasize his deity have sometimes said that he was aware of it from conception. I think that this is a bit far-fetched. However, I don’t have an answer. It was at least by the time he was 12, but I imagine it came before this. However, I believe that his cognitive abilities had to develop to the point that recognition would actually means something.

    • David Couchman

      So… could Jesus have been ignorant, or held wrong beliefs, about what we would call ‘scientific’ matters – facts about the natural world? For example, could he have believed the Earth is flat? I’m not getting into whether people then thought the Earth was flat – this is nothing like as clear as some folk would have you believe – but *if* at that time they believed the Earth was flat, would Jesus have believed it too, because he chose to limit his knowledge? Could he, as a carpenter, ever have made a mistake in his measurements? Could he have made mathematical mistakes?

      It seems like however you answer these questions they lead to complications.

    • C Michael Patton

      I personally don’t think so, but it is like asking “Could Jesus have gotten a math problem wrong in school?” or “Could Jesus has mis-stepped and stubbed his toe?” My first thoughts about each of these are “Of course!” But then I wrestle with the implications.

    • David

      Great article. Just a fyi, there are many groups of Christians that use the term “kenosis” or “kenotic theology” to describe their beliefs on the incarnation, but still believe that Jesus was 100% divine as well as 100% human. I actually went to a ministry school that used these terms but used them to describe the idea that Jesus only operated through his humanity on the earth, although he could have at any moment operated out of his divinity. However, he chose not to, because of the ground rules of the incarnation.

    • […] – C. Michael Patton asks why Christ didn’t know the time of his coming. […]

    • Antioch

      Or there is the unitarian explanation. That explains why he didn’t know. That explains the ‘two wills’ of Gethsemane. That offers a much simpler explanation of why Satan would waste his time trying to get Jesus to bow to him.

    • Richard Worden Wilson

      C. Michael,
      I am simultaneously intrigued, confused, and amused when you say something like this:
      “I believe his nature transcended the incarnation. However, the consciousness of his person limited himself to the rules of the incarnation.”

      Of course, talk of “his nature” reflects creedal conclusions subsequent to scripture rather than _sola_, _prima_, much less the _ipsissima verba_ of _scriptura_. This applies even more to “the rules of the incarnation.” Where could we possibly get Apostolic elucidation of such rules? Speculative theologies may be fun, but are they really spiritually profitable? OK, so it a “a thesis.” Yes, I agree that “When he did things that are beyond the abilities of normal humanity, … , he did so by the power of the Spirit.” However, in your summary you go on to say “I believe that while Christ exercised divine prerogatives (forgiving sins, claiming to be God, receiving worship, etc.)” “his miracles substantiate his deity because they substantiate his testimony.” Christ himself says he forgave sins by the authority God gave the Son of Man [the human man], and besides, he passed that authority on to his followers who were also given the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. Hence, how can that simply be a “divine prerogative”? Also, it is not clear to me that Christ either “claimed to be God,” at least not clearly, though his disciples did after the resurrection, nor necessarily received absolute worship as God (obeisance and worship being designated by the same Greek word). Hence, the argument here seems a bit weak. To whit, “his” miracles, which you yourself attribute to the power or enabling of the Holy Spirit, substantiate testimony in which Jesus doesn’t actually claim to be God (as fully human how could he actually make such a claim without sin?). Classic arguments like this: “if Christ was not fully God, there is no power of salvation” find no rootedness in Apostolic texts or arguments, so why do we find it necessary to repeat them? –a rhetorical question– The answer would seem to be that we can’t reach the conclusions we want without them.

      Please don’t get me wrong here. I believe in and trust Christ as God in every way that I find explicitly or adequately reflected in scripture. I’m just merely as doubting as Thomas, yet confess before Christ my Savior: My Lord and my God.
      All the best to all in Him.

    • Georg Kaplin

      I am confused how a professed Trinitarian could say Jesus did not remember his pre human existence. (Eg. J 8:38)

      If someone told me I was going to go somewhere important and then leave and when I would return again I would remember that without being divine.

      Also, if Jesus was not able to perform miracles of his own power, what biblical evidence is there to support a dual nature?

      Georg

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