Saturday, November 19, 2005

What did Jesus know and when did He know it?

One of the more interesting sayings of Jesus is found at the end of the Olivet discourse. In Mark’s account, we read, in chapter 13:
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13: 24-33)
This passage concerns what many describe as the great tribulation, and it parallels the account in Matthew 24. Some might say that this passage contains two difficult phrases. The first is found in verse 30. Here Jesus says “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” Since many view the tribulation described here as a future event, this passage, it is fair to say, presents a problem for that viewpoint. You have to figure out how to deal with the two words “this generation.” However, since my own view is that the events described in the verses leading up to verse 30 have already happened, within forty years of Jesus’ prophesy, I don’t view verse 30 as a problem at all.

However, verse 32 presents a whopper of a problem regardless of your position on the end-times. For we all must deal with the fact that concerning this “coming of the Son of Man in the clouds,” regardless of what it refers to, we read that Jesus does not know the hour. This is a serious problem indeed, although we tend to smile at this verse and say things like “even Jesus doesn’t know” which, while apparently true, glosses over a very profound theological issue.

The fact that Jesus lacked this knowledge has not prevented the emergence of a cottage industry devoted to using the newspapers to predict the Second Coming. (And that would be among those who believe that this passage does in fact refer to the Second Coming.) After many embarrassments where predictions made to the very day and hour were proved false, the modern form for those who claim to know something Jesus didn’t know is more subtle. It’ll be soon, I’m sure—probably in my lifetime or at least in the lifetime of my children.

As an aside, if you (quite reasonably) view generation in verse 30 as referring to a period of approximately 40 years, then Jesus is not contradicting himself by on the one hand limiting these events to occur in that time span but on the other hand saying he does not know precisely when the terminus of his prophecy, his coming in the clouds with great power and glory, will occur in this generation-length interval. (And of course, in this view this event, Jesus’ coming in the clouds with great power and glory, does not mean The Second Coming that will mark the end of history, but the destruction of temple worship and the wholesale slaughter of Jews in AD 70.) Jesus’ time frame references can be paraphrased as saying “this will happen in the next 40 years, exactly when, I don’t know.”

But as I said, it’s verse 32 that is the problem, regardless of the details of the prophecy. Futurist or preterist, you still have to deal with the fact that Jesus didn’t know. For Jesus, we all believe, is God, and one of the attributes of God is omniscience. So how do we deal with the fact that Jesus is omniscient and yet there is something that He doesn’t know?

In solving this conundrum we have to avoid the heresy known as Nestorianism, named after Nestorius, who became bishop of Constantinople in 428.

As with many heresies, we find Nestorianism was rooted in good intentions “run amok.” Others before Nestorius erred by denying Christ’s human nature. Nestorius went to the opposite extreme, stressing Christ’s humanity to the extent that there were two distinct personalities—one divine and one human—within the same living consciousness. In arguing his position that the divine and human natures of Christ were separate, he stated that “God was never a two month old baby.” The litmus test of Nestorianism was an interesting one: whether or not you were willing to grant Mary the title theotokos, or “she who gave birth to the child who is God,” or more informally, “Mary, Mother of God.” Nestorius and his followers were unwilling to grant Mary that title, arguing that she bore only the human half of the duality. They would only refer to her as “Mary, mother of Jesus.” Now of course (and for no real good reason) many Protestants are loath to use the phrase “Mary mother of God,” because of its association with Roman Catholicism. We Protestants should fear not, the honorific “Mary mother of God” is self evident.

So an (unacceptable) solution to the problem of Jesus not knowing something is to resort to Nestorianism. That would entail arguing that Jesus the man is completely separate from Jesus the God; that Jesus the man is merely a human who is more or less possessed by the second person of the trinity, and Jesus the man and only the man is speaking in Mark 13:32.

We will find the solution to this puzzle in that direction—but without going so far as totally separating Jesus’ divine and human natures.

The problem before us is a weighty one indeed: it really amounts to seeking an understanding of the mystery of the incarnation. Here it is useful to turn to the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. There we find this teaching regarding the incarnation:
So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.
What this teaches is summarized by four negatives. The incarnation is without confusion, without change (or mixture), without division, and without separation.

Nestorianism, be contrast, would teach: with total separation.

The orthodox view is that Jesus the person is omniscient. Jesus the person has two natures, not separate, but distinct. Jesus the person has divine nature that is spiritual, immutable, preexistent, etc. And he has a human nature that is physical, mutable, and was born of a woman. The divine nature retains the attributes of deity including omniscience. The human nature retains the attributes of humanity, including limited knowledge, pain and suffering, fatigue, sickness (probably) and aging. With one important exception: sinfulness.

The divine nature can communicate to the human. Jesus can prophesy. Jesus can read minds and hearts. For example, he knew Nathanael before he met him:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:43-49)
But all these amazing powers were also performed by “purely” human prophets. The divine can communicate knowledge to any human—that’s the very definition of a prophet. What distinguishes Jesus from your garden variety prophet is that he was without sin and that his person included rather than just communicated with the divine. Jesus was not just an instrument of the divine, he was (is) divine.

This view of the incarnation allows us to take Jesus at his word. When He said “I don’t know”, He really didn’t know. His divine nature was not pleased at that moment to communicate that information to his human nature. And yet, throughout Jesus’ ministry there are many examples where his divinity was manifested by his humanity. He performed miracles. He forgave sins.

It is possible that hints of the limited knowledge of Jesus’ human nature may appear elsewhere in scripture. In fact, it could very well be that much of Jesus’ prayers reflect his human nature praying to the Father in much the same manner we pray—or at least are supposed to pray. Was it Jesus’ human nature, with incomplete knowledge, who prayed for his murderers to be forgiven? Wouldn’t his divine nature already know whether they would be forgiven? I don’t know—but it is an intriguing possibility that for me helps to explain some of the mystery of our Lord’s praying as recording in sacred scripture.

There is still a problem, though. Jesus didn’t just say “I don’t know.” He said “only the Father [knows].” This leaves us with the nagging question of the Holy Spirit—who has all attributes of deity but without Jesus’ complication of a dual nature. Was Jesus saying that the Spirit is not omniscient? I don’t know. It’s a puzzle.

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