God only knows?

In Matthew 24 and Mark 13, Jesus speaks about the destruction of the Temple and the day of his return. He makes the point that his return will be sudden, catching many off guard, so we are to keep watch and be ready. And in the middle of this, he declares:   

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Matthew 24:36

This raises fascinating questions about the Trinity, and in particular how knowledge is shared between the Godhead.

Many have argued that the reason the Son does not know the day or hour is due to his voluntary self-limitation. Jesus, being fully God, had infinite knowledge, insight and power. A number of times in the gospels we are told that he knew what was in a person’s heart (e.g. John 2:25), and Peter declared “Lord, you know all things” (John 21:17). But clearly he didn’t know all things; he claimed as much himself!

Being also fully human, he had finite knowledge, insight and power. In his incarnate life Jesus experienced things as we human beings experience them. He aged and became strong (Luke 2:40); increased in stature (Luke 2:52); he hungered and thirsted (Matthew 4:2; John 19:28), and got tired (John 4:6). We’re told that he grew in learning, which implies that the extent of his knowledge varied over time. (Luke 2:52).

There is therefore a tension between Jesus’ human and divine natures, which meant he could be said to ‘know all things’ and yet also have self-imposed limits on his knowledge, by virtue of having emptied himself, being born in the likeness of man (Philippians 2:7). Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 suggest that in Jesus’ human nature he was unaware of some knowledge – namely the date of his return – that presumably would have been accessible to him in his divine nature. This is a great mystery.

One of many questions this raises is: if the Father knows the dates and the Son doesn’t, how much does the Holy Spirit know? Given that Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 both say that ‘only the Father’ knows the details, should we infer that the Spirit is also unaware? And if so, why would that be? We can make sense of the Son not knowing, due to the limitations of the incarnation, but why not the Spirit? Is there some ‘Chinese wall’ designed to limit the exchange of information between persons of the Trinity?

To my mind, the crux of the question is whether the word ‘only’ is exhaustive or limited in scope? If it is exhaustive, then that would imply that literally only the Father knows, to the exclusion of all others, including the Spirit. If it is limited, that leaves open the possibility of others knowing the details, who fall outside the scope of what Jesus was intending to communicate.

I think there are good reasons to see Jesus ‘only’ as being limited in scope.

For one thing, Jesus was not trying to teach about intra-trinitarian relationships, but to make the point that the coming of the Son of Man will be unpredictable, and thus requires constant vigilance on the part of humanity. To apply Jesus’ ‘only’ in a literal and exhaustive way so as to rule out the Spirit’s knowledge seems as unhelpful as treating the ‘all’ in Peter’s declaration of John 21:17 as rigidly exhaustive. It applies the language to something the speaker was not intending to address and distorts his message.

Secondly, earlier in his gospel Matthew recorded this saying of Jesus:

“All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him”

Matthew 11:27

This sounds pretty exhaustive, but there are presumably all sorts of caveats attached to it. What kind of ‘knowledge’ are we talking about? Jesus was talking to people who knew him to some degree, but that ‘knowledge’ was different to the specific knowledge that is only possessed by the Father. Furthermore, presumably the Spirit knows both the Father and Son as well? It seems that ‘no one’ has therefore been used in a limited way. No human beings. In fact Jesus even qualifies his exhaustive-sounding statement about knowing the Father with an exception, which still doesn’t include the Spirit. I doubt anyone would argue that the Spirit only knows the Father because the Son has revealed Him? There seems to be an implied caveat: not including the Godhead.

I think it would be fair to assume such an exception also applies to Matthew 24:36. Jesus is talking about human beings not knowing the day or hour, and then he clarifies by saying not even the angels know, since they are not divine. I don’t think he intends us to apply this to the Spirit as well.

My assumption is that the Holy Spirit probably does know, since the Spirit searches all the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10-11). But I don’t think he’s in the business of undermining the Father and leaking the timetable to humans so they can publish a bestseller…

Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

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