DIGRESSION 5: DO WE KNOW THE DAY AND THE HOUR...?
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
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
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.
Context Of The Disciples
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
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.
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:
deliver you up to the councils
Christ to the Sannhedrin
kings for a testimony
priests, Herod, Pilate
shall betray the brother
back to take up his garment
Mark's linen garment
echo of 'Barabbas'?
the sun shall be darkened...
at the crucifixion
watch and pray...
with me"; Gethsemane
at the cock crowing
in the morning
find you sleeping
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
All our confident proclamations of the past 150 years 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
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.