How Much Did Jesus Christ Know?
Our Limitations in Understanding
When we speak about Jesus Christ, we quickly realize our limitations. We are able to understand people who live around us, for we ourselves were born from a human father and mother. The Lord Jesus Christ, however, is more than a man. He is God as well as man. He has both a divine nature and a human nature. Actually, He had a divine nature before He was born as a baby in Bethlehem. He was always God: from eternity he existed as God. At a specific moment in time, however, He assumed the human nature. He, who was God from eternity, also became man. The apostle John points to these stages in Christ’s life when he says:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He adds later: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.John 1:1, 14
This is an astonishing miracle. The Son of God, who continued being fully God, also became a human. He was born as the son of Mary. This is a marvellous truth, which was, and still is, not easily grasped. It took the church several centuries before it was ready to speak about this with generally acknowledged clarity. The monument of this process of Christian thought is the Nicene Creed1, which is still used in the Christian church.
We all know this statement, confessing that Jesus Christ is true God as well as true man. We should not take away anything of his human nature, for He was born from Mary and is in every respect just like us, with the one exception of sin. At the same time, He continues to be God in the full sense of the word; He has a complete divine nature. There is nothing lacking in his divinity.
Taking this as point of departure, the church has continually attempted to increase their understanding of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it possible to see in his life and from his words and works how the two natures exist together? Without wanting to speculate about issues beyond our understanding, can we increase our understanding of the greatness of our Saviour Jesus Christ? For example, how much did Jesus Christ know? Was his knowledge divine knowledge and did He know everything? Or was his knowledge limited just as our human knowledge?
This question is presented to us by God’s revelation itself, for several statements concerning the knowledge Jesus Christ had during his life on earth can be found in Scripture. We may gain more insight into the life of Jesus Christ by listening carefully to what the Bible says about Him. That is all the more important for it looks as if the data given in God’s Word do not fully agree. That leads to our question: How much did Jesus Christ know?
How Much did He Know as a Youth?
The first indication can be found in Jesus’ youth. In Luke 2, several aspects of his knowledge are shown. First of all it is indicated that Jesus Christ, when He was growing up, did not know everything. When Luke describes his development, he mentions not only that the child Jesus grew in length and strength, but also that “he was filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40). What Luke wants us to know is that the young Jesus gradually increased in wisdom. There were things He first did not know, but at a certain moment learned. Just as He increased in height and strength, He also increased in understanding and wisdom. 2
Actually, the Bible recounts an event in which this became evident. When Jesus was twelve years old He accompanied his parents on their journey to Jerusalem. At a certain moment, He was in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Everyone who heard Him was amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:46, 47). He was obviously ahead of his peers in the understanding of the Scriptures. At the same time, the fact that He asked questions makes clear that He wanted to know more. His knowledge was not complete. To this can be added that He did increase in knowledge. After He had returned to his hometown Nazareth, He “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52). The last word means that Jesus grew physically – we would say that He had his growth spurt. At the same time his understanding was increasing and deepening. That shows his mental development. Just as He grew in height He grew in wisdom. He is fully human, and that also showed in respect to his knowledge.
As He Grew Older
However, after Jesus had taken up his public ministry among the people of Israel, a different aspect of his knowledge became noticeable. That began early, while He was gathering his disciples. When Jesus saw Nathanael He said: “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” (John 1:47). Nathanael’s honesty was obviously not visible on the outside, let alone that it could be perceived from the first moment of meeting. Yet, Jesus knew this before anyone had told Him. He revealed here his divine knowledge. 3 Actually, the event itself contains a double witness of his divine knowledge. Jesus began by stating concerning Nathanael that there was no falsehood in him, something that could not easily be verified. Then He confirmed the truth of his words by adding that Nathanael had been under the fig tree before he was called, a statement that could be verified. Combined, these two statements provide strong confirmation of Jesus’ divine knowledge.
The New Testament records many more instances showing that Jesus Christ knew things mere humans would be unable to know. The following examples are taken from the gospel of John which was used before.
He knew early in his ministry that He would die at the hands of the Jews. After He had cleared the temple, the Jews were outraged. In response He said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:22). The Jews did not grasp the meaning of the expression “this temple” and questioned Him about it. In fact, Jesus had been speaking about his death and resurrection. At the time, no one could know about his execution. He himself, however, knew both of his early death and his rising from the dead.
Another instance in which several aspects of his unusual knowledge became apparent can be found in his discussion with the Samaritan woman (John 4:17). Although Jesus had always lived away from the area where she was and this was apparently the first time He met this woman, He proved to know everything about her married life. The woman, probably uncomfortable with his statement and attempting to divert the attention away from her lifestyle, asked Him a question in return, but she did not deny the truth of Jesus’ words. Actually, she recognized Him as a prophet who could speak of what God had revealed to Him (19). In his answer, Jesus announced the change in worship which would soon take place (21-24). In this discussion, Jesus Christ proved to have exceptional knowledge, both of the past and of the future.
Jesus’ knowledge of Lazarus was comprehensive. Not only was He aware of the fact that Lazarus had died (11:14), already before He was made aware of this He had stated that Lazarus’ illness would not end in death (4). In other words, He knew beforehand both Lazarus’ death and his return to life.
Jesus knew that it was Judas who would betray Him. Actually, He showed that He had insight in Judas’ plans beforehand (13:11).
During the night when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, and before Peter actually had betrayed Him, Jesus also warned Peter of his betrayal (13:38). Later, John reports in general terms that Jesus knew all that was going to happen to Him (18:4).
Before Jesus had to undergo the final suffering, He told his disciples about Pentecost. He taught them that the Holy Spirit would come on them so that they would remember all He had told them (14:26).
Jesus also knew and made known to his disciples that in a little while they would not see Him, but a short while later they would see Him again (16:16).This shows that his knowledge extended not only to his own life, but included what would happen in the lives of others.
This is an impressive collection of statements. They all indicate that Jesus Christ did have a comprehensive knowledge. He not only knew what was going to happen to himself, He also proved to know in detail the lives of other people. He knew of the lifestyle of the unknown Samaritan woman as well as the thoughts of his disciples. He also knew what would happen in the future. 4
This may give the impression that Jesus did not know everything prior to his public ministry, but after having taken up his ministry knew all there was to know. However, again the facts contradict our expectation.
Up to now, the pattern we found was that Jesus Christ had normal human knowledge, for He increased in knowledge. However, after He had been baptized his knowledge extended beyond what ordinary people can know. He had comprehensive divine knowledge during the three years of his public ministry.
More must be said, however, for the Bible also points out that while Jesus was fulfilling his prophetic task among Israel, He did not know everything. He mentioned that himself, not long before He died. 5 In this lengthy speech on the future of the church, Jesus also discussed his own return. At that point in time He stated: “No one knows about that day, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
We need to take a close look at this text. Jesus Christ acknowledged his lack of knowledge when responding to a question by his disciples about the destruction of the temple (13:1). In his lengthy answer He had shown again that He knew more than his contemporaries. He had stated that the temple would be destroyed (verse 2) and He had indicated what would happen about forty years later when Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed (verses 14ff). He had spoken with authority about events no one at his time could predict, showing his knowledge of the future. 6 And yet, in the same speech He also stated at one point that He did not know the time of his return. Jesus Christ did not give any qualification. He said straight out that He did not know when He would return to the earth.
These biblical data have caused much discussion in the church. Considering these texts, the Christian church correctly confessed that Jesus Christ was both God and man. But it proved to be hard for them to fully acknowledge Christ’s lack of knowledge. How hard, can be demonstrated by the fact that the great theologian Augustine dealt repeatedly with this text, and not always in the same way! But his main solution is clear: Mark’s statement that Jesus did not know the time of his return, must be taken to mean that Jesus Christ does not make it known to others! 7 It is obvious that Augustine wanted to stay close to Scripture, but at the same time it must be noted that he failed to do justice to it.
Saying that Jesus did know it, but did not want other people to know, is twisting the words of the Bible. For Jesus Christ himself said He did not know!
Calvin defended the early theologians by saying they meant well for they were confronted with denials of Christ’s divinity. At the same time he disagreed with their solution for it fails to do justice to Christ’s own statement. He pointed out that Jesus Christ did not only mention his own ignorance, but also that of the angels. His own interpretation is based on the premise that Jesus Christ’s divine nature was “in a state of repose” and did not exert itself wherever it was necessary that the human nature should act separately. 8
This may be true, but Calvin’s solution fails to convince. The problem why Jesus Christ in this particular case said that the Son did not know the day of his return is not really discussed. We need to investigate carefully the meaning of the text in the context of the Scriptures. 9
He was Fully Man
First of all we should note the expression: “No one knows the day or the hour ... not even the Son.” Christ makes it very clear that He himself did not know the time of his return. Jesus Christ did know the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, which He had announced in detail. But the time of his own return was unknown.10
This shows that Jesus Christ here, as more often in the gospels, speaks as a human. Just as we have no knowledge of the future, so Jesus Christ did not have knowledge of the future. He stated this emphatically.
The question comes up how it would be possible that Jesus Christ is ignorant of the time of his return to the earth. If we want to do justice to this, we have to begin by acknowledging that Jesus Christ was fully man. He became hungry when He did not eat for a long time. He was sad when He heard of the death of a close supporter, Lazarus. He fell asleep when He was tired. And in the same way, He was a man who did not know everything.
But did He not have divine knowledge? He did, several examples have been given before. In his teaching He showed clearly that He could speak with authority about God and his will. But He did not always do that. We do not read of extraordinary knowledge when He grew up. Rather, the Bible says that He increased in knowledge. And also in the case of his return, He did not have knowledge about the time. He did know of his impending death and his resurrection, but He did not know exactly when He would return. That means: He had to live out of faith! At this point in his life, He was close to his death, and He had to trust in God.
He had divine knowledge, but not to use it for himself. Perhaps it can be expressed in this way, that He could access this divine knowledge in order to tell the people what they needed to know about God and his will. In his function as Messiah and Saviour He regularly showed that He knew God’s plan and was allowed to make it known.
However, at the end of his earthly ministry He did not have knowledge of the time when He would be able to return to this world to begin his glorious reign. He had to suffer and to die just as every human being: in faith and trust. In his case, He would die the death of a condemned criminal, something He already had made known to his disciples. He knew of his death, but He had to enter into the process leading to his death, without knowing the time of his return.
We may say that He used his divine knowledge for instructing the people, but not for comforting himself. That is the reason why the incarnate Son who lived on earth, did not know when He would return to this world. He did know the fact of his future triumphant return (13:26), but He was at this point of his life ignorant of the day and hour this would take place.
Live from Faith
This is a very encouraging statement for our own faith. For it means that during his life on earth even Jesus Christ had to live out of faith, and be obedient unto death, just as we have to do (Hebrews 5:5-8). He had been going around being faithful in teaching and preaching in the villages of Israel, meeting people and being rejected by many. Even when He died He lived in faith, just like we. He entrusted his spirit to God in heaven.
Having surveyed the data Scripture provides, what is the answer to the question “How Much Did Jesus Know?” While Jesus Christ on earth, He was both true God and true man. Scripture shows us both sides: his divine and his human nature. But these two natures did not always appear side by side.
When Jesus Christ grew up, He increased in knowledge. This shows that He had a normal human development, as far as knowledge is concerned.
From the time He began to teach and preach He proved to know much more than common Israelites know. He was more than a prophet, more even than John the Baptist. He had divine knowledge at his disposal. As a result He was able to preach to his people all they had to know.
But for himself, there were limitations in his knowledge. It was part of his living in faith, that He had to go on with his work while trusting God and holding on to God’s revelation. By accepting these limitations He showed yet another aspect of his faithfulness as Saviour for his people. 11