MORE ABOUT JESUS’ OMNISCIENCE
JACK COTTRELL – FEBRUARY 2015
Question: Did Jesus know himself to be the Son of God and the Messiah (Christ)?
Answer: The question of Jesus’ “Messianic consciousness” has been raised and addressed for centuries: Did Jesus know he was the Messiah? Did he claim to be the Messiah? If so, when did he begin to have this understanding? I will address these questions in two separate essays. Here we will set forth the general idea that Jesus was omniscient, and explain how that worked in his incarnate state. In the next essay we will look at Jesus’ own testimony, recorded in the gospels, to his self-consciousness as the divine Messiah.
(I have already published one essay on the question, “Was Jesus Omniscient?” What follows here is an expansion of one aspect of that omniscience.)
We accept without reservation the full deity of Jesus Christ. He was “God in the flesh” (see John 1:1, 14). We know that one of the attributes of God is omniscience, i.e., God knows all things. So, since Jesus was God, did he not know all things? And if he knew all things, did he not know everything there was to know about himself? Did he not thus know his own divine nature and his Messianic mission?
Positive answers to such questions would seem to be quite straightforward, but there is one complication. Jesus was not only God; he was also a human being, with a finite human nature. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Jesus had both a divine nature and a human nature somehow combined into one person. And this God-man, Jesus, has told us that while he was on the earth, he did not know the time of his second coming (Matt. 24:36).
How is this possible? If he was God, did he not, by nature, have to know everything? Not necessarily, as I will now explain. As a divine-human being who was one person, Jesus had one mind or one center of consciousness. As any other human being, Jesus would be thinking about only one thing at a time; and as any other human being, he had within his subconsciousness a whole reservoir of knowledge below the level of actual consciousness. From this reservoir of knowledge he could call up into his consciousness, by an act of will, anything he wanted to know, i.e., anything he wanted to consciously think about. We do the same thing when someone asks us a question or when we look at an exam question for the first time (we hope!).
But here is the difference between Jesus and the rest of us. Our reservoir of knowledge is finite, as we quickly learn when taking a tough exam. I.e., there are only a limited number of things we can call up to our consciousness even when our memory is working perfectly. But because of his divine nature, the reservoir of knowledge from which Jesus could draw was infinite. Though he would be thinking about only one thing at any given time, he could also at any given time call up to his consciousness any fact that he desired.
For example, that reservoir included a knowledge of every thought that lay hidden in the hearts of every man and woman. “He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25). He spoke to people, “knowing their thoughts” (Matt. 9:4; 12:25). “He knew what they were thinking” (Luke 6:8; see Mark 2:8; Luke 9:47). This does not mean Jesus was constantly thinking about their thoughts; it means he could call this knowledge up to his consciousness whenever he so willed.
This is the key idea. Jesus, as God, could will to know anything he wanted to know. The time of the second coming, by predetermined plan, was something he willed not to know, at least while he was on the earth.
How does this relate to his knowledge of his divine nature and his Messianic mission? At this point I will invoke a lesson I learned from Professor John Murray, who taught theology at Westminster Theological Seminary when I was a student there. In a course on Christology he was lecturing on the obedience of Christ and was explaining Jesus’ hesitation to proceed to the cross, as reflected in the Gethsemane prayer in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” What would cause Jesus to express such a negative feeling at this moment?
Professor Murray answered the question by referring to the statement about the 12-year-old Jesus in Luke 2:52, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” This statement raises the question, how could Jesus increase in favor with God (the Father)? He never did anything to lose favor with God, so how could God’s favor with him increase?
Murray’s analysis was intriguing and reasonable. He concluded that even though Jesus knew who he was, by God’s prearranged plan a complete knowledge of everything involved in his saving mission would not be available to his consciousness from the beginning. At various stages of his life and ministry, more and more would become available to him. And at every new level of understanding, Jesus would accept it and fully commit himself to it. This is why Luke can say that Jesus increased in favor with God. Jesus was never lacking in commitment and obedience to his mission, but his commitment and obedience deepened as each new level of understanding was reached.
This brings us back to Gethsemane. Professor Murray concluded that here the complete understanding of what lay just ahead for Jesus was, for the first time, unveiled to his consciousness. The enormity of it overwhelmed him. In fact, Mark 14:33 says that as he entered the garden, “he began to be amazed.” English translations usually say “He began to be distressed.” The Greek word, though, is ekthambeo, which basically means “to be astonished, amazed” (as in Mark 9:15; 16:5,6). Jesus’ prayer was thus his amazed reaction to what here entered his consciousness for the first time.
All of this is consistent with the basic view of Christ’s omniscience, as explained earlier. A knowledge of all things was available to his (human) consciousness, but was not willed up from the infinite reservoir of his subconsciousness unless and until the proper time arrived.