Context is crucial in understanding Matthew 24:36. Here is the circle of context which must be considered.
C. The Broader New Testament Context
I want you to look at two other passages in the New Testament that are related to the statement of Jesus in Matthew 24:36.
The first passage is Acts 1:6, 7.
And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel? ” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
When the disciples asked about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, their question was rooted in Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament had, indeed, predicted “the time … when the saints … (would take) … possession of the kingdom” (Dan. 7:22). Now it may be that the disciples still had too carnal and nationalistic an idea of what the restoration of the kingdom to Israel would mean, but it is clear that their hope for such a restoration was firmly built on biblical basis (Acts 3:21; Matt. 19:28). This restoration occurs, of course, in conjunction with the glorious appearance of the Messiah in His second coming.
Thus, the disciples are raising here substantially the same question that Jesus answered in Matt. 24:36. Not surprisingly, Jesus answers them in language which echoes Matt. 24:36. He refers to the Father just as He did in Matt. 24:36. There he said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone”. Here He says, “it is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority”. The statements are clearly parallel, but there is one key point at which Jesus enlarges upon and interprets what He said in Matt. 24:36. You will notice that He does not speak of “the day and the hour”. Now He speaks of “times or epochs”.
Whatever these words more exactly mean, they plainly confirm the meaning that we have attached to the words of Jesus in Matt. 24:36. When Jesus denies that we can know the day or hour, He is not contrasting the day and the hour with the week, month, or year. Rather, He is denying that we can have any knowledge of the date of Christ’s arrival. Not the day, nor the hour, nor the time, nor the epoch of Christ’s return can be known, and therefore certainly not the week, month, or year.
The second passage is 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4.
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like birth pangs upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief.
The meaning of this passage is plain itself and also plain in light of Matt. 24:36 and Acts 1:6, 7. Paul here uses the same two words used in Acts 1:6, 7: “times and epochs”. He plainly says that there is no need to write them about such things because they already know that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. The phrase, “thief in the night”, echoes a passage in Matthew 24 a few verses after our text:
“But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will.”
The idea is plainly that Christ’s coming is sudden and unexpected. A thief does not announce the time of his burglary. Neither does Christ announce the time of His coming.
This is confirmed by v. 3. That verse pictures the ungodly world as promising itself peace and safety when sudden and inescapable judgment overtakes them through Christ’s return. Thus, Paul is plainly saying that he need not write them about the time of Christ’s return, because they already know that its timing is unknown.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.