In the Gospels Jesus tells us that no one knows the day or the hour of his coming, not even the Son himself (Matthew 24:36), and a good many of us have often wondered why. Why would Jesus keep us in the dark about that sort of thing? It seems awfully important and helpful information to know. In fact, some of us are so curious we try to figure it out anyway, despite Jesus’ warning.
It turns out that people in the early church were curious about those verses as well, but for different reasons. The Arians were in the habit of pointing to it as evidence that Jesus wasn’t divine and coeternal with the Father. How could he be if he didn’t know at what time these things had been ordained to pass? Athanasius has no patience for this and points out, again, that we need to think more deeply about what it means for the Son to take on flesh. He not only assume a human body, but human weakness, hunger, exhaustion, and yes, even ignorance at times. While he knows these things according to his divinity, in the economy he accepted a properly human ignorance for our sakes.
As it happens, though, in answering a Christological challenge, Athanasius sheds some light on another question, like, for instance, why God doesn’t tell us the final day and hour. He gives us two good reasons:
- “For it is profitable to you to hear so much [that the Son doesn’t even know] both of the Angels and of the Son, because of the deceivers which shall be afterwards; that though demons should be transfigured as Angels, and should attempt to speak concerning the end, you should not believe, since they are ignorant; and that, if Antichrist too, disguising himself, should say, ‘I am Christ,’ and should try in his turn to speak of that day and end, to deceive the hearers, ye, having these words from Me, ‘No, not the Son,’ may disbelieve him also.
- And further, not to know when the end is, or when the day of the end, is expedient for man, lest knowing, they might become negligent of the time between, awaiting the days near the end; for they will argue that then only must they attend to themselves. Therefore also has He been silent of the time when each shall die, lest men, being elated on the ground of knowledge, should forthwith neglect themselves for the greater part of their time…For who, knowing the day of the end, would not be dilatory with the interval? but, if ignorant, would not be ready day by day? It was on this account that the Saviour added, ‘Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come;’ and, ‘In such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.’ For the advantage then which comes of ignorance has He said this; for in saying it, He wishes that we should always be prepared;”
Four Discourses Against the Arians, 3.49
Jesus wants us to be able to tell false prophets from the true Word of God, and he wants us to be prepared. He knows the schemes of the enemy as well as our weakness, so he gives us protection and encouragement.
These might not be the only reasons God holds back a knowledge of the day and hour of his return, but it’s a good place to start. Quit trying to peer into the day or hour God has appointed by his secret plan, but rather prepare yourself to live at all times in light of his coming, whether it is 2 days or 200 years away.
Soli Deo Gloria