Our text has two different Greek words for “to know.” In verse thirty-six we read, “But concerning that day and hour, no one knows – neither the angels of the heavens nor the Son – none except for the Father” (my translation and emphasis). The verb here is “oida.” The verb appears again in verse forty-two. “Be on watch, therefore, because you (plural) do not know on what day the Lord is coming to you” (my translation and emphasis).
In verses thirty-nine and forty-two, the verb is “ginosko.” “And they did not know until the Deluge came and they were completely swept away; thus also shall be the coming of the Son of Man” (my translation and emphasis). Both verbs appear again in verse forty-three. “But know this (ginosko): that if the master of the household had known (oida) at what watch of the night the thief was coming, he would not have permitted his house to be broken into” (my translation and emphases).
This may seem a bit nerdy and in the weeds. But I think this matters for interpretation. Most of the time, I find out what I’m thinking by typing it here. And sometimes I’m as surprised as you may be by what comes out of the process. We could conclude that the Matthean author is just sloppy with vocabulary. Or we could conclude that in the Matthean community the verbs were relatively interchangeable. We could, but I don’t.
I don’t think either conclusion is warranted in this text or in the Matthean account in general. Instead, this variation in verbs describes different responses to the events described in this section of the gospel story. And this variation in verbs can challenge us to reflect on the kind of “knowing” we bring to our lives as disciples, especially in challenging times.
“Oida” generally means to “know about” someone or something. It’s really the perfect form of the Greek stem, eid–. “Perfect” here refers to a verb tense, not a state of purity or completion. And the stem describes the action of seeing or observing. “Oida” describes knowing the externals of a person, thing, or event. Not knowing, in this context, means something like to be unacquainted with that person, thing, or event.
“Ginosko” generally means to “know” someone or something from the inside. In relational terms, it describes an intimate connection. Therefore, for example, the Matthean author uses this verb to describe the sexual relationship (or lack thereof) between Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:25). In my final translations of Matthew 24:39 and 24:43, therefore, I use the English verb “to comprehend” to render “ginosko.”
“But no one knows about that day and hour,” Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 24:36. That is, no one except for the Father knows about the details of the calendar or the actual events of that coming. This is quite remarkable since the day and hour in question refers to the coming of the Son of Man (see Matthew 24:29-31). The Son himself won’t know the details of that day and hour until things come to pass in the moment.
“For just as were the days of Noah,” Jesus continues, “likewise will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37, my translation). In those days, life appeared to go on as normal. Then Noah entered the ark. Those outside the ark didn’t comprehend the significance of what was happening until it was too late for them. They clearly “knew about” Noah’s boarding of the boat. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to comprehend or understand.
The “knowing” that is at stake here is not “knowing about.” It’s not knowing the Divine timetable or charting the progress of events as the world moves toward some sort of “end.” That is precisely the knowing that is not available – not available even to the angels of heaven or the Son. If the people in Noah’s days are an accurate example, then many are likely to get it wrong if the focus is on knowing about the daily details.
In order to interpret our text accurately, I think we need to read closely the preceding “Lesson of the Fig Tree” (Matthew 24:32-35). “But from the fig tree learn this parable,” Jesus says, “whenever you observe (oida) its branch becomes tender and it puts forth leaves, you understand (ginosko) that summer is near…” (Matthew 24:32, my translation).
The two verbs show up in connection and contrast here. You “know” the condition of the branch and the presence of the foliage by observing. On the basis of that observation, you can get a deeper understanding of what’s happening – especially of what the season is. “Likewise, you also, whenever you see all these things,” Jesus continues, “you understand that he is drawing near, upon the gates” (Matthew 24:33, my translation and emphases).
In verse 33, we get a clear juxtaposition of oida and eidon, the verb for “to see.” Seeing events leads to an observation and awareness of those events. The wise observer will then understand more than meets the eye. The wise observer will conclude that the seasons are changing.
I think Jesus is quite intentional in the use of his imagery here. Some of the vocabulary in these verses shows up in the Matthean account of the Triumphal Entry in Matthew 21. We get images of trees and branches, like the branches laid on Jesus’ path as he draws near to the gates and enters the city. The coming of the Son of Man, Jesus tells his followers, has commenced with that triumphal entry. The tree branches are sprouting leaves, and the season is changing.
The lead-in for the Apocalyptic Discourse in the Matthew account comes in Matthew 23:39. Jesus pronounces woes upon the scribes and Pharisees. He declares in Matthew 23:36 that these messianic woes will come upon that current generation. Jesus then laments over the fate of Jerusalem, when the Temple (the “house” in Matthew 23:38) will be left desolate. And he connects “seeing” him with the declaration the crowds shouted in Matthew 21:9.
This generation has “seen” Jesus as he approaches the gates of Jerusalem. They have not comprehended that the season is changing for them. But that won’t keep things from happening to them. “Truly I am telling you,” Jesus solemnly declares in Matthew 24:34, “that this generation shall not come to an end until all these things have happened” (my translation). I think there’s no question that Jesus is speaking, albeit in veiled terms, to those around him at that moment.
Jesus makes clear the meaning of his actions. The season is changing for the Jerusalem establishment. Nothing can change that fact. “Heaven and earth shall come to an end,” Jesus concludes, “but my words shall certainly not come to an end” (Matthew 24:35, my translation). This is the introduction to our text.
The conclusion is equally as stark. In the parable of the faithful slave and the wicked slave, Jesus describes the incomprehension of the wicked slave: “the Lord of that slave will come on a day when he is not on watch, and in an hour which he does not comprehend (ginosko)” (Matthew 24:50, my translation). The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is blessed. The Lord finds that slave engaged in the ongoing work of the household. The wicked slave is cut up and cast out.
The pragmatically wise and reliable slave is in a position to see what’s happening. That slave comprehends that the Lord’s delay is not a sign of the Lord’s faithlessness. Rather, that delay is a call for greater faithfulness on the part of the slave. That faithfulness consists of continuing to do the work in which the slave has been employed all along. That will put the faithful slave in the best position to comprehend what the Lord is doing.
This may all have been cryptic and to some degree unfulfilled for Jesus’ listeners. The Matthean audience, however, is in a different position. So are we. Stanley Saunders offers helpful words in this regard in his workingpreacher.org commentary.
“We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach ‘the end’ of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality.”
We Jesus followers trust that Jesus is coming. We look for that coming in our daily lives and experience. We look for that coming as the culmination of God’s Creation/New Creation project. We can observe the events of our lives. We can regard them as more of just one damn thing after another. Or we can comprehend these events as opportunities to meet Jesus as wise and faithful servants, part of the fulfillment of God’s project.
For those in liturgical traditions, it’s a change of seasons. It’s also a change of seasons in the natural world, toward winter or toward summer – depending on our hemisphere. Is it a change in the season of my life? Is it a change in the season of our congregation? Is it a change in the season for our tradition or denomination? This first Advent text raises those questions for us. And it challenges us to comprehend the depth of what we see.