QUESTION: Did Jesus’ divine nature include omniscience? Was Jesus all-knowing? If so, how do we explain Matthew 24:36?
ANSWER: Many crucial Christian beliefs are involved in the answer to such questions, e.g., the immutability (unchangeableness) of God, the nature of the incarnation, and especially the divine nature of Jesus, which is the presupposition for the substitutionary atonement. Unless Jesus was fully divine and thus infinite in nature, He could not have been the propitiation for our sins, suffering the equivalent of eternity in hell for the entire human race in the finite event of the cross. (See my book, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer, 435; or the condensed version, God Most High, 389.)
The Bible does indeed give abundant testimony to Jesus’ divine nature (see my book, The Faith Once for All, 231-246). Passages about Yahweh (Jehovah) in the Old Testament are cited in the New Testament as referring at least to Jesus (see Psalms 102:25-27, with Hebrews 1:10-12; see Joel 2:32, with Acts 2:21,36 and Romans 10:9,13). The person of the Trinity called the Logos (the Word) became Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14), and John 1:1 declares that the Logos (Word) was God. Speaking of Jesus the Apostle Paul says that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). Jesus put Himself on an equal level with God the Father: ”So that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23). The Greek word translated “even as” expresses this equivalence. The Apostle Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28), and was not rebuked or corrected by Jesus. In Revelation 5:13-14 “every created thing” gives equal worship to the Father and the Son.
So, if Jesus was (and is) fully divine, would He not necessarily be omniscient? Does not God know everything? Yes, 1 John 3:20 says that God “knows all things” (see God Most High, 94-95). How then could the divine Jesus not know all things? Some suggest that the fact of the incarnation must have made a difference. I.e., when God the Son became a human being, he “gave up” some of his divine attributes. In some sense his humanity placed limitations upon his formerly infinite powers.
The problem with this suggestion is that it requires a blatant violation of a standard divine attribute, namely, the immutability of God. Though we may disagree on the details, the main point of this attribute is that God’s nature CANNOT change. His essence is unchangeable. As He says in Malachi 3:6, “For I, the LORD, do not change.” Regarding Jesus Himself, Hebrews 13:8 says He is “the same yesterday and today and forever.”
So what happened when “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14)? There was no change in the essence—the attributes—of the Logos. He did not surrender or give up anything; rather, He ADDED something. The incarnation was accomplished not by subtraction from the divine nature but by the adding or joining of human nature to the divine. This would have made profound differences in God’s experiences and consciousness and actions, but not in his essence.
Likewise Philippians 2:7 does not indicate a reduction in the divine nature of the Logos when He took the form of a bondservant and was made in the likeness of man. Some Bible versions (e.g., NASB) translate the first part of this verse as “He emptied Himself.” Some have gone so far as to say that this means He emptied Himself of His deity. This is ridiculous; He IS His deity. Others say He emptied Himself of SOME of his attributes. This, too, is a denial of the very godhood of God. God IS His attributes.
I agree with this statement from Karl Barth (!): “God is always God even in His humiliation. The divine being does not suffer any change, any transformation into something else, any admixture with something else, let alone any cessation. The deity of Christ is the one unaltered because unalterable deity of God.” There was no loss, “diminution or alteration of His Godhead” (Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 179-180).
The ESV and NIV translation of Philippians 2:7 is preferred: the Logos “made himself nothing.” He did not count His equality with God as something he had to jealously guard, as if He could lose it (2:6), but instead devoted Himself to solving our sin problem even though it required Him to humble Himself even to the point of a human slave’s death on the cross (2:5-8).
What this does mean is that Jesus in His humanity voluntarily gave up the USE of some of His divine attributes. This was not a diminishing of His divine nature but a veiling of it, which consisted of a temporary suspension of the exercise of His prerogatives as God. As a nativity hymn says, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail, incarnate deity!” This is why much of His messianic work was accomplished via the strengthening presence of the Holy Spirit. (See my book, Power from on High: What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit, chapter 4, “The Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ.”)
This brings us to our main question: did Jesus retain and use the divine attribute of omniscience? The text that suggests a negative answer is Matthew 24:36, where Jesus says of the day of the second coming, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” If Jesus was omniscient, how can this statement be explained? And if He was not omniscient, how could He be God?
First we should note that the Gospels do testify to Jesus’ supernatural knowledge. For one thing, He knew the secret contents of men’s hearts, which 1 John 3:20 suggests is a prerogative of deity: “For God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” On one occasion the Jewish leaders were thinking accusing thoughts of Jesus, and Mark 2:8 says that “immediately Jesus [was] aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves.” He was “knowing their thoughts” (Matt. 9:4; see Matt. 12:25). On another occasion of potential conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, “He knew what they were thinking” (Luke 6:8; see also 9:47). As John 2:24 says, “He knew all men.”
Another consideration is that Jesus on several occasions exhibited foreknowledge, or knowledge of the future—another exclusive characteristic of God (see Isaiah 40-48). He knew from the beginning that Judas would betray Him: “For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him” (John 6:64). On the night before His death, He said to Peter, “Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times” (Mark 14:72).
It is significant that Jesus’ disciples noticed His divine knowledge: “Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God” (John 16:30). In a post-resurrection discussion with Peter, the Apostle humbly acknowledged, “Lord, You know all things” (John 21:17).
How then shall we explain Jesus’ lack of knowledge of the time of the second coming? Here is my reasoned suggestion. As a result of the incarnation, the divine nature (the Logos) and the human nature of Jesus shared one stream of consciousness and one moment of awareness at any given time. As we would say about ourselves, we can be thinking of only one thing at a time. I believe this applied to Jesus. His human nature dictated that He be conscious of only one thing at a time. But here is the difference between Him and us: as the omniscient divine Logos, He could will Himself to know (be conscious of) any knowledge-content that he chose to know. He could choose to know the heart of any individual, but He was not consciously thinking about it all the time. Likewise, He could have chosen to know the time of the second coming, but it was the decision of divine wisdom that as the man Jesus Christ He did NOT choose to bring this datum to his consciousness, and for our sake He told us that this was the case (in Matt. 24:36)! The benefit of this is that we know that it is vain to search the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels for some secret, hidden hint as to the time of His return.
(As a footnote and for the record, Jesus’ question in Luke 8:45, “Who is the one who touched Me?”, was for the woman’s sake and not His own. He asked not because He did not know the answer, but because He wanted the woman voluntarily to enter into a dialogue with Him. This is similar to Genesis 3:9.)