Why we can’t know when (Matthew 24:36)

There’s a good reason our leader couldn’t tell us when everything would finally be under his care. Why didn’t he know?

Matthew 24:36 (my translation, compare NIV)
36 But about the day or hour of that moment, no one has been informed, not the angels of the heavens, not the son, no one except the Father alone.

We don’t have the security clearance to know when the kingdom of God will be fully here. No surprise: crucial plans are often “need-to-know.”

What is surprising is that our Commander-in-chief did not have that information. None of his troops had the envelope either. Why didn’t he know?

It may have to do with how power is transitioned from the existing rulers to God’s appointed ruler.

I speak of a transition of power, because that’s what the whole of Matthew 24 has been about. God takes power from the rulers of this world and gives it to the one he has appointed to reign over us. That’s the good news of the kingdom for all nations (24:14).

But don’t expect a seamless transition: God does not turn us into slaves or robots. And the rulers who claim to be running the nations have no intention of relinquishing their power so earth can be a kingdom of heaven. They have a history of invading and taking what they can.

For Jesus and his people, Jerusalem was the city where God lived and reigned through David’s descendants, until the nations invaded. Jesus proclaimed the restoration of the kingdom. As he entered Jerusalem the crowds proclaimed him as son of David arriving to save them, so Jerusalem would be safe now?

No, says Jesus. His own people would reject God’s kingship, handing the king of the Jews over to their enemies. As they rejected God’s kingship, God would leave his house, leaving the city vulnerable (23:38). Her enemies would take the city. For God’s people, it would be a time of great distress — worse than when the first temple fell, worse than when Antiochus forced the temple to close (24:15-22).

But these intense sufferings were not the final gasps of God’s dying kingdom. They were the onset of labour, God bringing something new to birth. The self-appointed superstars lose the lofty positions they have taken, as God gives the kingship to his appointed ruler. The authority of the son of man operates not with military hosts to crush enemies, but with angelic hosts drawing the world together under his kingship (22:23-31).

The transition of power takes time because earth is not instantly responsive to heaven. It happens in both realms:

  1. In heaven, God gives the kingship to his anointed.
  2. On earth, the rebels acknowledge his kingship.

#1 has already happened. The Christ received the kingship when God responded to his execution by raising him from death to the throne.

#2 is still in progress, and we don’t know how long it will take.

If Alexander the Great’s kingship was at stake, he would have developed a snap strategy to crush the rebels under his feet, but the son of man isn’t like the killers. Jesus could not answer the disciples’ When? question because he didn’t know when all his enemies would come under his feet.

Neither his earthly servants, nor the angels at his command, nor our Commander-in-Chief have been given a date for the fullness of the kingdom. It’s not that kind of strategy: his kingdom is not forced on the world.

Does that leave you feeling uneasy? Can we be sure this protracted transition will work? Jesus asks us to trust the Architect of the plan. The day of the Lord’s reign will come, but it’s the day known only to the Lord (Zechariah 14:7).

Jesus messed up some of our views of God here. That he did not know something doesn’t fit Catholic Christology’s perception of Jesus as omniscient. That the Father does know the end game doesn’t sit well with Process Theology’s presentation of God as merely experiencing the journey with us.

Maybe God did know what he was doing. Grant me a little folly. Imagine God had told us, “The transition will be complete at noon on 3 March in year 3333.” How would that change our responses? Cynics could say, “It’s already determined! We have no choice! Heaven is imposing its will. We’re nothing but cogs in a machine awaiting our fate.” Wicked rulers would pursue their short-term lust for power with impunity. Even God’s servants would react as Hezekiah did when Isaiah told him of the coming invasion, “Whew, that’s good. It’s irrelevant to me. All I care about is peace and security in my lifetime” (see Isaiah 39:6).

The Ancient of Days is not like one of us, trying to meet our targets before we die. His is a multi-millennia project, bringing the nations under his governance through Abraham, David, and ultimately Christ. Every generation matters. In every generation, he is looking for dependable and insightful servants to whom he can entrust his care of the human household (24:45). We really need to leave the When? question to him.

So, can we lose the To Do lists we invented to define what he’s to do when he returns? He has given us work to do now, implementing his care in our lifetime. The next few instructions from the king are telling examples of what he does and does not want us to do. Stay tuned.

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 938–939:

This short section sets out three connected aspects of the parousia: (a) the time of the parousia is unknown (v. 36); (b) therefore it will catch people unawares (vv. 37–41); (c) therefore disciples must always be ready (vv. 42–44). Vivid illustrations from history and from ordinary life underline the second and third points: point (b) is illustrated by the sudden irruption of the Genesis flood into normal life and by the banal occupations of people who will suddenly find themselves divided; point (c) is illustrated by the householder who is unprepared for the coming of the burglar. All three points rule out the sort of warning “sign” which the disciples had asked for, and their request is thus firmly refused.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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