Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

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Digression 28: Do we Know the Day and the Hour...?

The idea that we can't know the day or hour of the Lord's return can somehow militate against our enthusiasm to understand prophecies of the last days; at best, it can make us cynical of any interpretation that points to the Lord's imminent return. There are a long list of passages which we have simply misunderstood for many years, due to our assumption that we know exactly what they mean, and therefore we've not bothered to analyze the implications of our views. I'd suggest that the Lord's words to his disciples about not knowing the day or hour are an example of this.
"Likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the Kingdom of God is nigh at hand" (Lk. 21:31). As surely as trees bud and then Summer comes, so when we see the signs of Lk. 21:24-26 in Israel, we will know that the Lord is really at hand. It is only to the unworthy that the Lord comes unexpectedly. The majority of generations, including the disciples to whom Christ primarily spoke those words concerning not knowing the hour, have of course not known the day or hour. But there seems absolutely no point in the Lord giving us any signs if in fact the last generation cannot foresee with some certainty the time of His coming. Surely Yahweh has revealed all His plans to His servants the prophets? As a woman knows within herself the approximate time of childbirth although not the day or hour, so we should know that the day of new birth is approaching- so Paul's reasoning goes in 1 Thess. 5. He warns that for those who do not watch, the day of Christ's coming will be a day of "sudden destruction... as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape" (1 Thess. 5:3). Surely the picture here is of a woman whose time of delivery comes unexpectedly upon her, with complications that result in her dying in childbirth. As a woman who knows the time of delivery is very near will behave in an appropriately careful way, so will the faithful of the last generation who likewise know that the Lord's coming is nigh. The same mixture of seriousness and joyful anticipation will be seen in us too, who are watching and loving the appearing of Christ.
If we can never know the time of the Lord's return, it seems to me we must find a way round the following difficulties:
- All major events in God's purpose have occurred within the approximate period when true students of the word expected them to - the Flood, the desolation of Jerusalem and its rebuilding, the Lord's first coming, the events of A.D. 70 etc. are all good examples.   How much more then with the time of the second coming and the consummation of God's purpose?   "The Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his... prophets" (Amos 3:7), and the purpose of their writing was so that we might understand. The Lord rebuked the Jews because they couldn't discern the signs that Messiah's first advent was with them (Mt. 16:3; Lk. 19:44); and his first advent was a type of his second. The coming of judgment through the Babylonians was another type of the last days; and Israel were critcized for not perceiving the approach of that day, whereas "the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time; and the turtle and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming" (Jer. 8:7). This means that as the natural creation have an inherent knowledge of the seasons, so God's people should have a sense of the time of the Lord's coming. The Lord said the same when he spoke of how our internal awareness of the approach of Summer should correspond to our certain knowledge of the Kingdom's approach.
- In a section full of allusion to the words of the Olivet prophecy, Paul boldly states: “But you brothers are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thess. 5:4), although it will overtake many in that way. Paul appears to be writing in the hope that his generation would see the Lord’s return.
- David seems to have foreseen the joy of the natural and spiritual creation of the last days as they sense the approach of the Lord: "Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad (Heavens and earth usually refer to God's people)... let the field be joyful, and all that is therein (cp. Mt. 13:38)... before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth" (Ps. 96:11-13). 
- The bride is likewise full of joy at the knowledge that she knows her beloved is really about to come (Song 2:8).
- Such knowledge can really be arrived at through a personal study. The Lord introduces his Olivet prophecy by saying that it was no use listening to those who said "The time draweth near"- instead, he went on to say, 'You must personally match the spiritual and physical situation you find yourself in with what I'm describing'. And at the end of the prophecy, he hammered this home again: "When (the trees) now shoot forth, ye see it, and know of your own selves that Summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things... know ye" (Lk. 21:30,31 RV). The very personal feeling within us that Summer is near is likened to our knowledge of the imminence of the Lord's coming; you can't be told by anyone else that Summer's coming, you see the signs, and you know within your own self.
- If the caretaker knows when the thief will come, he will watch (Mt. 24:43). This parable is alluded to in 1 Thess. 5, where we are told that the faithful will be awake and watching for the Master, his coming will not be a thief-like surprise for them as it will be for the unworthy.
- Not watching is equated by the Lord with not knowing the time (Rev. 3:3). The evident allusion to the disciples not watching (Mk. 14:37) suggests that if we don't know the time, we will be like them- unprepared when we ought to be on the tiptoe of expectancy. The connection with the disciples also hints that when the Lord told them that they didn't know the time, he was in some sense rebuking them rather than making a general statement about the impossibility of ever knowing the time of his return.
- If none of us can know the time of the Lord's return, the whole spirit of the Olivet Prophecy is hard to come to terms with. When the disciples asked "When shall these things be, and what sign will there be when these things shall come to pass?" (Lk. 21:7), the Lord didn't cut short the conversation by saying 'Well actually you can't know, so your question isn't appropriate'. He gave them just what they asked for: signs whereby the faithful would know "when these things shall come to pass". The primary application of all this was that the faithful knew exactly the approaching end of the Jewish age in AD70- everything went according to plan, for those who correctly understood the prophecies. Therefore James, Peter and Paul could assuredly teach that "the judge standeth before the door" (James 5:9) etc. And it is apparent that the situation in the run up to AD70 was typical of that in our last days. Likewise, the position of the faithful remnant in Babylon at the time of the restoration is another type of latter day events. And they too had an opening of their eyes to the prophetic word, resulting in an ability to clearly see where they were, and that the time of restoration of Israel's Kingdom was imminent.
- The language of the Olivet prophecy brims with certainty as to the faithful knowing the time: "When ye shall see these things come to pass, know that it is nigh... ye know that Summer is near...when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh... when ye therefore shall see (same Greek translated "know") the abomination of desolation... when ye see (Gk. know, understand, perceive) all these things come to pass, know ye that the Kingdom of God is near". The idea is that we will understand clearly certain signs, and know therefore that the Lord is imminent.
The Context of the Disciples
This all seems in marked contrast to the Lord's conclusion to the prophecy: "of that day and that hour knoweth no man". There is a marked connection here with the fact that he has just been saying that it will be possible to know once the signs are seen and understood. Surely he must be talking specifically to the twelve; they didn't then know the time, neither could they; but those who saw the signs by implication would know. In the context of these words about not them not then knowing the day and hour, the Lord said that the believer at the time of his return who didn't know the day and hour of his coming would be found unprepared (Mt. 24:50). This is surely proof enough that the last generation will in some way know the day and hour, i.e. the appointed time (cp. Rev. 9:15), of the Lord's return. This point is a very powerful one.
It is commonly though that even the Lord Jesus doesn't know the time of his return, only the Father does. During his mortality, the Lord said exactly this (Mk. 13:32)- at the time he was speaking to the disciples, he himself didn't know. But after his resurrection and glorification, the Lord made two statements to the disciples which he surely intended to be connected: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth... it is not for you (the inquisitive eleven standing on Olivet) to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power" (Mt. 28:18; Acts 1:7,8). But all the Father's power has been given to His glorified Son, and this therefore includes knowledge of the "times and seasons" of the second coming. In the exalted Lord "are hid all the riches of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3); it is thereby inconceivable that the Father would still keep back some knowledge from the Son. The point of all this is that when the Lord Jesus said that "of that day and that hour knoweth (present tense) no man, no, not the angels... neither the Son" he was not laying down a general principle for all time. He was speaking of the situation at that time: 'You can't know now, indeed at the moment even I don't know; but these are the signs which will tell the believers when I'll come'. By implication he was saying 'You can't understand them, although I'm giving them to you, but in the future some will understand them, because these signs will accurately pinpoint my return'. This was exactly the spirit of what the Angel told Daniel when he too wished to know when Messiah would come in glory; he was basically told 'It's not for you to understand, but in the last days understanding of these things will be increased among God's people; they will know the time, but you can't'. There are so many connections between the Olivet prophecy and Daniel that perhaps it is legitimate to think that the Lord was alluding to the Angel's refusal to tell Daniel the time of Messiah's coming.
That the Lord was primarily referring to the twelve when he spoke of them not knowing "when the time is" (Mk. 13:33) is confirmed if we appreciate that the Lord Jesus sometimes uses "the time" as a reference to the appointed time for his own death (Mt. 26:18; Mk. 14:35; Jn. 7:6,8). The disciples were fascinated with the time of his return, and the Lord was giving them the signs. But knowing his death was only days away, inevitably he had in mind "the time" of his passion. And he knew that as they didn't know the time of his return, so they didn't understand the time of his death. Having pointed out that they knew not "the time", in words surely reminiscent of his criticism of Jewry generally for not knowing "the time" of his coming and death (Mt. 16:3; Lk. 19:44), the Lord went on to tell the story of the man (himself) who left his household (the disciples) and told them to watch, with warnings as to what would happen if they didn't. Every one of those warnings, and some other language in the Olivet prophecy, came true of the disciples in the next few days, in the context of "the time" being the time of Christ's death:

They shall deliver you up to   the councils

As Christ to the Sanhedrin


Christ buffeted

rulers and kings for a testimony      

Chief priests, Herod, Pilate shall betray the brother  

Judas; Peter's denial?

...turn back to take up his garment  

John Mark's linen garment

...false Christs...                         

An echo of 'Barabbas'?

the sun shall be darkened...            

As at the crucifixion

watch  pray...                                                     

"Watch with me"; Gethsemane

at even...  

Last Supper

at midnight...


at the cock crowing

Peter's denials

in the morning

trials and crucifixion

find you sleeping

disciples in Gethsemane

Uncomfortable Conclusions
The point is, the words of Jesus about watching because they did not know the time seem to have been specifically relevant to the twelve. The evidence presented above that the latter day believers will know the time of the Lord's return forces us to some uncomfortable conclusions:
- All the confident proclamations that 'the coming of Christ is imminent' were wrong. We will know for sure when the return is imminent. We won't get it wrong. We thought we knew in the past, on the basis of our understanding of Bible prophecy. Therefore our understanding wasn't correct. We just must have the humility to accept this.
- Are we in the situation where we know that all prophecy has been fulfilled, and the Lord's coming is indeed imminent? It's no good saying we believe this. Our attitude to careers, bank balance, material possessions, human relationships, pensions etc. will show what we believe. The attitude that 'well we may be wrong so we better plan for the future anyway' is irreconcilable with the sure knowledge of the imminence of the second advent which the word speaks of.
- So we come to the nitty gritty question. Are we in that state of total and firm knowledge of the imminence of the second coming which Scriptures like the Olivet prophecy teach? I suspect we aren't. Of course, we must live as if we expect the Lord at any moment; but that's different from saying that all the prophecies are fulfilled and therefore we know the Lord's advent is imminent. Paul was an enthusiast for living as if we know the Lord's return is imminent; but he told the Thessalonians that that blessed day wouldn't come immediately, because some prophecy still had to be fulfilled (2 Thess. 2:3). This, I suspect, is the situation we are in now: living as if we expect the Lord imminently, but recognizing that we don't know whether his return is imminent, and still looking for some prophecy to be fulfilled.
- The idea that the believers who live on the brink of the second coming will know the day and hour fits in with at least two other themes in latter day prophecy: firstly, that there will be a sudden upsurge in Biblical and prophetic understanding within the true ecclesia in the very last days; and secondly, the repeated teaching that the second coming will occur after a defined, specific number of days of persecution (literal days, it seems, seeing that no figurative interpretation makes any real sense). The believers who are alive in this period and correctly perceive their position in prophecy will then be in exactly the situation we spoke of at the beginning of this study: they will know with absolute certainty that the Lord's coming is imminent. This is why the days leading up to Christ's return are called "the days of the son of man" (Lk. 17:24,26)- the signs will be so clear that it will be as if  he's back. And doubtless in the depths of their (our?) tribulation, we'll dearly cling on to that glorious assurance.