The Day and the Hour – Why Matthew 24:36 is Not Always Helpful with False Prophecy

So by now we all know that Harold Camping has once again failed to predict the rapture of the Church and the subsequent end of the world. But Camping is just another in a long line of failures to predict the end of the world. What I wish to address here is the most common response to such predictions and why the proof text used to counter such claims (Mt. 24:36). While appropriate for Camping’s date-and-time setting failure, it is not really as helpful against most end time predictions.

In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 24 Jesus predicts the fall of the Jerusalem temple and also about His return. End-time debates aside, most Christians throughout history have believed that by the time we reach verse 29 Jesus begins speaking about His future Second Coming. Verse 36 reads as follows: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (ESV)  This statement allegedly makes the prediction of Jesus’ return forever impossible. However, there are a few problems with using this as a proof text for such a belief.

First, most people concerned about dating the return of Jesus are not actually talking about the Second Coming. Rather, they are referring to an event known as the Rapture. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is a physical return to Earth for judgment (e.g., Rev. 19) while the Rapture is said to be an invisible coming of Jesus Christ to snatch away his followers at some time prior to His Second Coming (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:13-18). Now, the problem is that most believers in a Rapture think it will occur prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, yet the event being referenced in Mt. 24:36 is the Second Coming. Thus, it is not predicting the Rapture and cannot be used to prove that that event’s timing cannot be known. (Further, if someone objects and says that the two events occur at the same time, then one should maintain the “post-trib” view of the Rapture – for this event clearly occurs after the tribulation – Mt. 24: 29).

Second, Jesus says that we cannot know the “day or the hour,” but this does not necessitate that we could not know the week, month, season, or year. If this is thought to be implied, there needs to be an argument made – because it is not in the text. For some reason few people seem to notice this, and the ones that do often simply brush it off  (when I brought this up to a famous Christian apologist, he just laughed it off). But I am not simply splitting hairs here. When we read the stories that Jesus uses in the very same passage to illustrate what He is saying, we see that some actually indicate that we should be aware that the time is near. It is only foreknowledge concerning the day/hour details that are denied.

The flood and workers illustrations point to an issue of days, while the thief illustration refers to the hour. The servant illustration points to the day and the hour. When we get to chapter 25 the bridesmaids illustration points to unknown hours. But note that the first illustration is the fig tree – where Jesus points out that the season should be obvious!  We may not be able to predict Jesus’ return years or centuries ahead of time, but the text does imply that the season should be recognizable.

But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. (1 Thess. 5:4)

Now, none of this means that we should simply accept anyone’s prediction of the Rapture, Jesus’ Second Coming, or the end of the world. But we do need to offer something more substantial than the “no one knows the day or the hour” quip.

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25 thoughts on “The Day and the Hour – Why Matthew 24:36 is Not Always Helpful with False Prophecy

  1. I thought that maybe one could claim “the day or the hour,” to be a figure of speech in that culture, so I checked with Bullinger’s Figures of Speech in the Bible, and it didn’t show up, so yeah, no justification there that it is a known figure of speech.

  2. Do you consider Bullinger a good source, with him being a hyperdispensationalist? Knowing that, and knowing that some of those that are, such as Les Feldick, use him, I haven’t used his resources. What is your opinion?

  3. I do not consider Bullinger a good source on much of anything theological (unless it backs me up of course! :) ) I don’t know anything about Feldick.

  4. Doug, this is well written and of particular concern to me as you know. Many seem to brush off the ability to understand the season based on this one verse. In fact with the latest non-event it seems to be the flavor of the month! Correct me if I am wrong, but I am under the understanding that the Greek word used in this verse for “know”, is a matter of content, not time. These types of predictions by Harold or myself for that matter, ;-) actually set up the church or individuals with clear understanding when we get closer to the tribulation time. I appreciate all the work you do to keep the church accountable to truth based in logic. Feel free to beat on me if necessary! All that is important is that Jesus wins!!!

  5. Yes, I always think of you when I am writing on prophecy stuff. :) As to the Greek, I do not believe that this is the case. The Greek word (οἶδα) is about as generic as the English word “know.” I do not think the object of one’s knowledge or even the category of the object of knowledge can be guessed simply by using the word. According to BDAG, the following are legitimate meanings for “οἶδα “:

    1. know—someone, about someone, about something (Mt 24:36; Mk 13).
    2. be (intimately) acquainted with, stand in a close relation to
    3. know or understand how, can, be able
    4. understand, recognize, come to know, experience

  6. It does not seem that any of these definitions necessarily suggest a time element. They do all suggest content of.?

  7. How is it that that Matt. 24:15 could not be referring to anything other than His future Second Coming. Is there any reason that the church should separate the abomination in Daniel 9, from the abomination of Daniel 11 and 12? If we can, how do we than contend that Jesus is referring to the abomination in chapter 9, but not the abomination in chapter 11 and 12? If you want I could just give you a call!  Don’t you just hate those people that start to feel like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe!

  8. Actually none suggest content per se. The word is simply “to know” – the content of that knowledge is not suggested by the word itself. Only when it is joined to some predicate in a sentence (some of which are suggested by the list) does the content come out. It would be like if I said to you, “Chris, I know…” Unless I finish the sentence you have no idea what I am talking about. “To know” does not suggest time, color, quantity, quality, measurements, or anything other than that some thing is known.

  9. I love it dude – we can talk sometime again for sure. For now though, the Jews believed this Abomination prophecy to have been fulfilled in Antiochus Epiphanies (cf. 1 Maccabees ch. 1). Jesus very well might have been using this historical event to signalan other similar occurrence (or occurences). In the context of the Olivet Discourse it seems to refer to the coming of the Roman armies / destruction of the temple in AD 70 (here is a brief but interesting article for future study). This was apparently the understanding of the Church for quite some time. Whether or not this exhausts the prophecy is another question!

  10. @Doug and @Holly, aren’t you two committing a genetic fallacy in rejecting a reference work on schema/figures because of his positions on other matters? I didn’t detect any bias in the introduction of his work when he explains the project. Plus, you know, his work seems to back up your position. ;)

  11. No, because neither of us are calling what you said he said into question based simply on who he is. His views range from goofy to heretical in several areas, so to say “I turst him” would be false. It does not mean that nothing he says is trustworthy or true. I was responding to Holly’s question in general not to your post. So if that is what Holly was specifically asking about then I’d have to say I just don’t know. I don’t really know anything about his ability in the area you mentioned – but when it comes to doctrine he’s a mess.

  12. My point is that in the context of the verse, “the know” does not suggest when, but content or understanding of. Do you agree?

  13. The Jews don’t actually have that great of track record when it comes to understanding prophecy! I’m not sure it is wise to use them as a reference here. Do you separate the abomination in chapter 11, from the abomination in chapter 12? Please explain how. Isn’t the angel referring back to 11 at the end of 12? It’s not that I am opposed to a double fulfillment of prophetic events, but in this case why? I know this is not the above topic, and personally hate it when people stray from the blog. I would love to talk about this if you are willing. This may not be the proper forum or blog site.

  14. Pingback: The Disappointed « Midwest Christian Outreach: The Crux

  15. Chris,

    I am not making any claims as to the abomination(s) in Daniel. What I mean is that in Jesus’ day the book of Macabees (which is included in the Septuagint – the OT Bible His followers and Paul used) says it was already fulfilled. Now this may have been an error – but Jesus does not seem to mention any correction, nor do any of the gospel writers. At the very least it was a cultural term that would have been thought of as Antiochus. Thus, it could at least serve as a cultural reference that the Jews would have understood.

  16. I have read first and second Macabees and do not remember them referring to the book of Daniel and or suggesting that this prophecy was fulfilled. Please point me to a specific verse. I’m not saying the Jews did not think that, but that if they did they were wrong. Again, do you think that one can logically argue that the abomination spoken of in chapter 11, is different from the abomination in chapter 12? According to the angel the words and vision are to be sealed until the time of the end. In light of the 2500 years, plus or minus, between the vision and the present, I would suggest this vision still concerns a time yet to come. Jesus is speaking of future events, not historical ones, if He was speaking of both than He failed to mention that as well.

  17. The abomination is mentioned twice in 1 Maccabees:

    1 Mac 1:54 – “Now the fifteenth day of the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and fifth year, they set up the abomination of desolation upon the altar, and builded idol altars throughout the cities of Juda on every side”

    1 Mac. 6:7 – “Also that they had pulled down the abomination, which he had set up upon the altar in Jerusalem, and that they had compassed about the sanctuary with high walls, as before, and his city Bethsura.”

    Before you simply conclude that the Jews were wrong, keep in mind that 1 Maccabees was part of the Scripture in use during NT times (the Septuagint). The Septuagint is quoted more in the NT than the Hebrew. It continued to be the OT Scripture of the early church, and 1 Mac. is still considered Scripture by the majority of the Christian Church. So we should not dismiss what it says lightly. No Gospel records any confusion on the part of the disciples upon hearing this, and it was at least a part of the culture of the day.

    Also, be careful not to limit your understanding of prophetic fulfillment with a simple literal approach. There are other ways to understand “fulfillment” in Scripture than the merely literal. Several of Matthew’s prophetic fulfillments concerning Jesus’ birth do not reference literal prophecy (e.g., “out of Egypt I called my son” in Hos. 11:1), and some were already fulfilled prior to the time of Christ (e.g., the “virgin birth” in Isa. 7:14). Thus, Jesus may be using the same interpretive scheme here. Antiochus’s violation of the temple may well have been the abomination of Daniel 9, or 11 or 12. Perhaps one or more of these is still future, or they could be the same thing in different phases. Given how prophecy has been said to be fulfilled in the past, none of these are off the table.

    Indeed, this seems to be the way the early Church understood the Olivet Discourse. The Church was basically futurist as to the return of Christ, the coming of Antichrist, the kingdom, judgment, etc., yet many believed that A.D. 70 was what Jesus was talking about in the Olivet Discourse (see http://www.catecheticsonline.com/CatenaAurea-Matthew24.php for a few prominent ones). Augustine concluded that both views were true.

  18. It does than refer to an abomination! I will study in more depth what you have posted. Do you think Jesus was referring to Antiochus Epiphanes in the Olivet Discourse? Thank you for taking the time to respond.

  19. Obviously first and second Maccabees are written as a historical account of what took place during the rebellion. It is likely that whoever wrote these letters believed that Antiochus Epiphanes was the abomination spoken of in Daniel. Does that make it correct. How many of the quotes in the NT come from the Anagignoskomena, and did Jesus make any of them? Daniel 10 through 12 do not appear in any way to be written as a historical account. Daniel himself did not understand the vision. Has the time of the end already happened and why? Again, do you think that one can logically argue that the abomination spoken of in chapter 11 is different from the abomination in chapter 12? If you don’t have time for this I understand.

  20. Simply writing 1 Mac. does not make it true of course, but it does show what Jewish people were reading at the time and had knowledge of whether or not it was considered Scripture or quoted by Jesus. Jesus is referring to Daniel because He says “spoken of by the prophet Daniel.” Thus there does seem to be some sense in which similar historical events *could* receive the same title (perhaps like saying “Gaugamela was was Darius’s Waterloo”). Anyway – the timing of Dan. 11 has also been thoguht to work out neatly for Antiochus but I do not have an opinion on that. What we do know is that Jesus specifically warned the disciples “when” they saw the abomination (not “if”), and Luke drops this terminology and replaces it with “Jerusalem surrounded by armies.” The warning was to flee which, it can be argued, like the rest of the Olivet Dsicourse, took place right on schedule 40 years later. This does not mean the prophecy was exhausted by the AD 70 events however. Thus, Daniel 11-12 could still be future just as, in a sense, the Olivet Discourse could as well. Since there is strong biblical support for multiple levels of fulfillment I don’t see why this would be a problem.

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