One of the most difficult sayings of Jesus to understand comes during His address to His disciples on Tuesday of Passion Week, often called the Olivet Discourse. Having left the temple after a contentious exchange with the religious leaders, Jesus looked back on the temple mount in all its glory and said to his disciples, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another—all will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2; CSB).
Nothing Jesus could have said would have been more shocking to a Jewish audience. The temple was the center of life for Jewish people. It was the place where God’s presence dwelt. It was the one place on earth where heaven and earth seemed to intersect. It was also the place where the sacrifices were offered that ensured God’s wrath toward sin and sinners would not be poured out on them.
So, after they picked their jaws up off the ground, Peter, James, John and Andrew demanded that Jesus give them more details about when this would happen. Jesus’ response seems to move between a discussion of the temple’s destruction, which would take place about four decades later, and the final judgment that would someday come upon all creation.
Jesus offered several signs that would proceed the destruction: false teachers (13:5-6), political upheaval (13:7-8), persecution of His followers (13:9) and the Gospel being preached to all nations (13:10). While it is possible to find fulfillment for each of these prior to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, Jesus also seems to move the conversation beyond the temple to the final appearing of the Son of Man, see particularly Mark 13:24-27.
Although the disciples’ question was not verbalized, it is evident they wanted more than signs; they wanted to know the precise day and time. Jesus responded, “Now concerning that day or hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven nor the Son—but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
Much ink has been spilled for 2,000 years trying to explain how to interpret Jesus’ words here. Throughout history, those who have rejected outright the deity of Jesus have pointed to this verse as evidence. Even those who would grant Jesus some type of exalted status with a special relationship with God yet deny Him full equality with the Father often seize on this verse.
If Jesus did not know even one thing, so the argument goes, then He could not be equal to the Father. Even the revision in 2000 of the Baptist Faith & Message highlights the potential challenge of this verse. One of those additions includes the following in article II on the doctrine of God: “God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present and future… “ How might we respond?
Those of us who believe that Jesus is the “stuff” of deity, that He was not a created being but rather He was eternal in the same sense as the Father, have to exercise caution in interpreting Mark 13:32. On the one hand we want to defend Jesus’ divinity, but not to the exclusion of his genuine humanity.
To interpret this verse, as some have done, in a way that removes any limitations in Jesus’ knowledge during His earthly ministry would seem to deny the truth of Luke 2:52, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and with people.” Heb. 5:8-9 seems to a similar truth: “Although he was the Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. After he was perfected, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
The idea that Jesus was lecturing his fellow two-year olds on the nature of the Trinity, or that there was no thing He had to learn, like how to speak, build a table, or tie His sandals, would be a denial of the verses.
The challenge of Mark 13:32 is to maintain a balance in our understanding of Jesus’ nature. Once we affirm the truth of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), that Jesus was perfect in Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, and also perfect in manhood. Once we affirm that the divinity and humanity of Christ are “not parted or divided into two persons,” but Christ is “one person and one being,” an interpretation of Mark 13:32 begins to come into view.
In Jesus’ earthly ministry, we catch a glimpse of the uniqueness of Jesus who is fully God and fully man, yet one person. On the one hand He could be hungry, but at the same time He could feed a multitude. On the one hand He could cry, feel, thirst; but on the other He could turn water into wine. On the one hand He could die, but on the other He could raise the dead to life.
And finally, on the one hand His knowledge of the day and hour of His return could be limited, but on the other he was/is the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, and we presently await His appearing in great glory, the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Was there anything that Jesus did not know? Yes, but this limitation was a voluntary emptying himself so that He could be truly and fully human. To be sure, there’s mystery involved.
What happens when full divinity and perfect humanity join in one person? We may only know in part at the present, but I am confident that on that day when faith becomes sight, the question of Jesus not knowing the day and hour will be answered.