Does the Holy Spirit Know When Jesus Will Return?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
One question that various individuals have submitted to Apologetics Press in recent years involves the Second Coming of Christ and the omniscience of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4) and thus omniscient (Psalm 139), why did Jesus say about His return, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32, emp. added)? Why would the “Father alone” (Matthew 24:36, NASB) be aware of the time of Jesus’ Second Coming? Does this awareness exclude the Holy Spirit?
When Jesus came to Earth in the flesh, He willingly “made Himself of no reputation” (Philippians 2:7; He “emptied Himself”—NASB). He moved from the spiritual realm to put on flesh (John 1:14) and voluntarily became subject to such burdens as hunger, thirst, weariness, and pain. Our omnipotent, omniscient, holy God chose to come into this world as a helpless babe Who, for the first time in His eternal existence, “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). While on Earth in the flesh, Jesus was voluntarily in a subordinate position to the Father (cf. Jackson, 1995)
It has been suggested that, similar to how Jesus chose not to know certain information while on Earth, including the date of His return, perhaps the Holy Spirit also willingly restricted Himself to some degree during the first century (see Holding, 2012). Perhaps the special role of the Holy Spirit in the first century in regards to spiritual and miraculous gifts (Acts 2:38; 1 Corinthians 12:7), special revelation (John 14:26; 16:13), divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16), intercession (Romans 8:26), etc., is somewhat similar to the role that Christ played. That is, could it be that both God the Son and God the Spirit voluntarily restricted their knowledge on Earth in the first century? And thus, could that be why Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32, emp. added)? Considering that a number of Christians and scholars believe that even God the Father may freely choose to limit His own knowledge of certain things (cf. Brents, 1874, pp. 74-87; Camp, n.d.), many would likely explain Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36 by contending that the Holy Spirit freely limited His knowledge for a time regarding Christ’s return.
Given especially the indisputable fact that the Son of God voluntarily chose not to know certain things for a time, it may be possible that the Holy Spirit could choose the same. However, the Holy Spirit Himself revealed through the apostle Paul that He, the Spirit, “searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). Furthermore, there are no explicit statements in Scripture about the Holy Spirit’s willful unawareness of certain things as there are about Jesus (Mark 13:32; cf. Luke 2:52).
All one can cite is Jesus’ statement about “only the Father” knowing the date of the Son’s return and conclude that this declaration implies the Spirit of God was unaware of that day. What’s more, in context, Jesus placed much more emphasis on the words “no one knows” than the qualifying statements “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son.” Jesus wanted His hearers to understand that just as those in Noah’s day “did not know” the day of the Flood (Matthew 24:39, emp. added) and just as the servants in the parable of the servants “do not know when the master of the house is coming” (Mark 13:35, emp. added; Matthew 24:50), so “you do not know what hour the Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42, emp. added; Mark 13:33). Thus, Jesus taught the all-important central message in these chapters of “watching” and being “ready” for the unknown time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36-25:46; Mark 13:32-37). Even though we may learn something of the Messiah’s voluntary, self-imposed emptying of some of His omniscience (Mark 13:32), Jesus’ “purpose was not to define the limits of his theological knowledge, but to indicate that vigilance, not calculation, is required” (Lane, 1974, p. 482)—a lesson that all “end-of-time” false prophets need to learn.
Rather than quickly dismiss the omniscience of the Holy Spirit during a particular period of time in human history, a better explanation exists: expressions such as “no one,” “only,” “except,” “all,” etc. are oftentimes used in a limited sense. Consider what Paul revealed in Romans 3: “Jews and Greeks…are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one…. They have all turned aside… there is none who does good, no, not one” (vss. 9,10,12, emp. added). In this passage, Paul was stressing the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), but he was using these inclusive and exclusive terms (e.g., “all,” “none”) in a somewhat limited sense. Paul was obviously not including Jesus in this passage, as elsewhere he wrote that Jesus “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21; cf. Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19). Neither was he including infants (see ****, 2003), the mentally challenged, or angels. Who then has sinned? All humans of an accountable mind and age (see Miller, 2003), with the obvious exception being the sinless Son of God.
In John 17:3, Jesus prayed to the Father, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3, emp. added). Are we to believe, as some do (cf. “Is There Only…?” 2009), that Jesus was implying neither He nor the Holy Spirit is divine? Not at all. Rather, when the Bible reveals that there is only one God, one Savior, one Lord, one Creator (Isaiah 44:24; John 1:3), etc., reason and revelation demand that we understand the inspired writers to be excluding everyone and everything—other than the members of the Godhead (see Lyons, 2008). Throughout the Gospel of John, the writer repeatedly referred to Jesus’ deity (1:1,3,23; 4:25; 9:38; 10:30-33; 20:28)—Jesus most certainly was not denying it in John 17:3. Unless the biblical text specifically mentions what a member of the Godhead does not know or do, we should be careful alleging ignorance, limited power, etc.
In Matthew 11:27, Jesus stated: “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (emp. added). Are we to believe that the Spirit of God does not fully comprehend the Son of God or God the Father? After all, Jesus said, “[N]o one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son.” Once again, the terms “no one,” “anyone,” and “except” must be understood in a limited sense. Jesus was in no way suggesting that the Spirit of God, Who “searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10), does not fully understand the Father as Jesus does. The Son of God was revealing that aside from the “one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27), “no man or angel clearly and fully comprehends the character of the infinite God…. None but God fully knows Him” (Barnes, 1997, emp. in orig.). Once again, Jesus was alluding to His deity. Mere humans cannot truthfully speak in this manner. “The full comprehension and acknowledgment of the Godhead, and the mystery of the Trinity, belong to God alone” (Clarke, 1996). Jesus was and is God. We should no more exclude the Holy Spirit from Jesus’ statement about Himself and God the Father in Matthew 11:27 than we should exclude the Father or the Son from Paul’s statement about the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2:10-11.
It is unnecessary to conclude that the Holy Spirit must at one time have given up some of His omniscience because Jesus stated of His return. “[N]o one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” In light of the way in which God and the Bible writers oftentimes used exclusive terms in limited senses, especially as those terms relate to the Godhead, it cannot be proven that Jesus was excluding the Spirit of God in this statement. If we should not exclude Jesus and the Holy Spirit from the God that Jesus praised in John 17:3, and we should not exclude the Holy Spirit from the Divine that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:27, it seems entirely unnecessary to infer that in Mark 13:32 and Matthew 24:36 Christ was implying that the Holy Spirit was unaware of the day of His return.
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