By Keith Thompson
A very common text Muslims and other non-Trinitarian groups distort in order to attempt to undermine the deity of Jesus is Matthew 24:36:
"But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only" (Matthew 24:36 cf. Mark 13:32).
The argument is that Christ is a mere human/prophet because not knowing something is an immediate disqualification of deity, allegedly. For, they argue, it is impossible for God to not know something. However, there are at least five points which call this common approach into question.
First, it is vital to note that contra the Islamic teaching on Jesus being a mere human/prophet, He is actually being exalted above all men (“no one”) and angelic beings (“not even the angels”) in this text. The necessary deduction due to Christ chronologically coming after these two classes of beings is that Christ is above them ontologically. Just like angels are ontologically greater than humans presently, Christ is ontologically greater and more exalted than both angels and humans. Hence, this verse actually demonstrates Christ’s deity when examined closely. He is not presented as some prophet equal to other prophets and humans (S. 5:75), which is the Islamic picture.
Second, His identification of himself as “the Son” in the context of differentiating Himself from humanity and the angels 1) refutes Islam’s denial of Jesus’ sonship and the Father’s fatherhood; and 2) shows His unique divine relationship with the Father. That is, Jesus stresses His Son-ship while contrasting himself with all creation then and so affirms that His Son-ship is utterly unique and reflective of His divine superiority to all creation. Thus, in light of that context, it will not work to say Jesus is a Son just like other creatures are God’s sons in the Bible (a common Islamic assertion). Jesus shows that His Son-ship transcends those kinds of identifications and separates Him from all creation.
Third, according to the standards of the biblical writers, Jesus not knowing the final day and hour no more disqualifies Him from deity than Revelation 19:12’s mention of only Jesus knowing the name written on Him disqualifies the deity of the Father and Holy Spirit. It says, “His [Jesus’] eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written on him that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). Those of the 7th century Arabian tradition must, if they want to understand the biblical material, make it their task to understand the thought of the 1st century Jewish tradition.
Fourth, Zechariah 14:1-7 shows Jesus did know, in His full divine consciousness, the final day, though temporarily relinquishing this knowledge in his waking human consciousness during his first advent:
"Behold, a day is coming for the Lord when the spoil taken from you will be divided among you. 2For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city will be captured, the houses plundered, the women ravished and half of the city exiled, but the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. 3Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. 4In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley, so that half of the mountain will move toward the north and the other half toward the south. 5You will flee by the valley of My mountains, for the valley of the mountains will reach to Azel; yes, you will flee just as you fled before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord, my God, will come, and all the holy ones with Him! 6In that day there will be no light; the luminaries will dwindle. 7For it will be a unique day which is known to the Lord, neither day nor night, but it will come about that at evening time there will be light" (Zechariah 14:1-7).
In this text the day of the Lord is referenced (the second coming of Christ). We are told YHWH will stand on the Mount of Olives and split it upon His advent (v. 4), and that this Lord’s day is known to YHWH (v. 7). However, Acts 1:11-12 proves that it is Jesus who will come on the Lord’s Day and stand on the Mount of Olives:
"11They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’ 12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away" (Acts 1:11-12).
Since Jesus is the LORD mentioned in Zechariah 14:4 who stands on the Mount of Olives on the Lord’s Day as Acts 1:11-12 establishes, He is by implication likewise the LORD who knows the unique day in v. 7. Thus, Christ does know the day of His return in His full divine consciousness, contra the false understanding of the Muslims who misuse Matthew 24:36.
Fifth, Matthew’s witness to the omniscience of Christ renders the Muslim handling of 24:36 specious as well. One could raise examples such as Jesus knowing the thoughts of men (Matthew 9:4; 12:25) and knowing who was unrepentant in regards to entire villages (Matthew 11:21-23).
In conclusion, we see once again that although an objection against Christ’s deity can on the surface appear to undermine the Trinitarian position, once careful consideration is given to the totality of Scripture the problem dissolves. Christ, in his waking human consciousness chose not to exercise His omniscience on this issue, just as he chose not to exercise His omnipotence at times. But in his full divine consciousness the day was known to Him. As New Testament scholar Robert Gundry notes:
"Theologically, we may say that just as Jesus did not exercise his omnipotence except to further the kingdom (cf. his refusal to make stones into bread), so he did not exercise his omniscience except to further the kingdom. To have known and made known the exact time of his coming would have damaged the work of the kingdom by encouraging carelessness during the interim. What Jesus could have done because he was divine did not predetermine what he did do as also a man. The incarnation did not destroy divine potencies, but it did limit actualities" (Robert Horton Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994], p. 492).
Further discussion on this Bible passage is found in these articles: