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The Day, the Hour, and the Unexpected Hanging

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Most Bible students in the Church of Christ believe that Matthew 24 is a divided discourse covering two subjects: the fall of Jerusalem and the End of Time. They believe that the fall of Jerusalem is under consideration in verses 1-34 while Jesus discusses the end of time in the remainder of the chapter and the chapter to follow.

One major argument used to defend this position is that while Jesus’ coming at the fall of Jerusalem had signs, His coming at the end of time will not. This is all based upon verse 36.

But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.

Matthew 24:36

Since they could not know the day or the hour, the argument goes, and signs would reveal the day or hour, then no signs given by Jesus apply to His final coming. After all, they say, Jesus knew when the fall of Jerusalem would be. In the Bible I used up to 2015, I had markings in the margins to show this divide. One arrow pointed up with the label “AD70” while the other pointed down to the rest of the text with the label “the end of time.”

To deal with this argument, we’ll do several things:

  1. Can the expression “but of that day and hour no one knows” apply to an event when one knows the general timeframe of its fulfillment?
  2. Did the disciples know the day or the hour of the fall of Jerusalem?
  3. Is Matthew 24 divided?

This Generation

Can the expression “but of that day and hour no one knows” apply to an event when one knows the general timeframe of its fulfillment? In the OIivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25), Jesus says that the events would take place within that generation.

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Matthew 24:34

So, since they knew it would be in that generation, could it be that they also were unaware of the time? I think so. What’s interesting is that this question is actually an example of what’s called “The Unexpected Hanging Paradox.” Here is the example given in the Wikipedia article.

A judge tells a condemned prisoner that he will be hanged at noon on one weekday in the following week but that the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. He will not know the day of the hanging until the executioner knocks on his cell door at noon that day.

Having reflected on his sentence, the prisoner draws the conclusion that he will escape from the hanging. His reasoning is in several parts. He begins by concluding that the “surprise hanging” can’t be on Friday, as if he hasn’t been hanged by Thursday, there is only one day left – and so it won’t be a surprise if he’s hanged on Friday. Since the judge’s sentence stipulated that the hanging would be a surprise to him, he concludes it cannot occur on Friday.

He then reasons that the surprise hanging cannot be on Thursday either, because Friday has already been eliminated and if he hasn’t been hanged by Wednesday noon, the hanging must occur on Thursday, making a Thursday hanging not a surprise either. By similar reasoning, he concludes that the hanging can also not occur on Wednesday, Tuesday or Monday. Joyfully he retires to his cell confident that the hanging will not occur at all.

The next week, the executioner knocks on the prisoner’s door at noon on Wednesday — which, despite all the above, was an utter surprise to him. Everything the judge said came true.

We could apply the same logic and outcome to the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus promising that it would happen within that generation doesn’t mean that they knew the day or the hour. Knowing the general timeframe of an event doesn’t demand that one knows the exact timing of it. For example, when a mother is pregnant, she knows the “due date,” but she also knows that the child will come whenever they are ready. My son was born about two weeks early!

However, this doesn’t mean that the disciples didn’t know the day or the hour of the fall of Jerusalem. It just shows that one conclusion doesn’t imply the other, so did they know exactly when Jerusalem would fall? Let’s look.

The Day and Hour of Jerusalem’s Fall

Matthew 24:20

But pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.

Matthew 24:20

Jesus gave them signs to look for to know the temple was ready to fall so they could leave Jerusalem. Using an example from above, when a mother is expecting a child, she doesn’t know when the baby will arrive, but as she nears the time of delivery, she sees signs that alert her to a more specific time of birth. When a new mom doesn’t know all the signs to look out for, it’s possible for her to go into labor without even knowing. My wife had contractions all weekend in her lower back, but she didn’t recognize what they were until the day that Cadyen was born.

The disciples knew the general time of the fall of Jerusalem (“this generation”), but they didn’t know the specific time. Jesus calls this “that day and hour” in verse 36, but in verse 20, He warns, “Pray that your flight will not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath.” Apparently, not only did they not know the day or the hour, but they didn’t even know the season! This raises another question: if they didn’t know the day or hour, how could they ever say that the coming of the Lord was at hand like James?

You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

James 5:8

Excellent question, and I’ll answer this question with something I call the “crescendo of imminence.”

Crescendo of imminence

The term crescendo is a music term meaning “the loudest point in a gradually increasing sound.” A good example of this is the THX intro played before movies called “Deep Note.” By “crescendo of imminence,” I mean the tendency of New Testament authors to talk about the coming of the Lord with more and more urgency the closer they get to the fall of Jerusalem.

For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul says, “We who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). This statement is fairly general, but it still affirms a basic assumption of the New Testament writers instilled within them by Jesus: some original disciples would be alive to see the coming of Jesus in His kingdom (Matthew 10:23, 16:27-28). As the New Testament authors continued to write, the statements of imminence became more intense.

Do this, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Romans 13:11–12

The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.

1 Peter 4:7

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.

1 John 2:18


Hebrews 10:37

Hopefully, you can catch the sense of urgency in these passages as you read. As a side note, I believe one could use these statements to assist themselves in dating the New Testament books.

Let’s look at one more passage, a passage that probably fits somewhere in the middle in the above texts.

You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.

James 5:8–9

The reason I chose this passage is its connection with Matthew 24.

Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

Matthew 24:32–34

While James did not know the day or hour, he must have seen something that caused him to alert his readers that the judge was “right at the door.” Like Jesus’ taught in the parable of the fig tree quoted above, something was happening in James’ day which signaled that the coming of the Lord was near. By the way, you don’t know the day or hour a tree will produce fruit, but you know the general time and signs to look for.

So, the disciples didn’t know the exact day or hour, Jesus gave them enough information to know when it was getting close. Like Jesus said, they were to pray that their flight from Jerusalem wouldn’t be in the Winter or on Sabbath (Matthew 24:20).

To be fair, just because the disciples didn’t know the day or the hour of Jerusalem’s fall doesn’t mean that there isn’t a division in Matthew 24, so let’s dig a little deeper.

Is Matthew 24 Divided?

There’s a larger question lying right below the surface of this one: is Matthew 24 talking about two different comings of the Lord? And this question potentially leads to other scary questions like, “Are there multiple comings of Jesus?” or “is there a second, second coming?” While we won’t answer all these in this article, hopefully we can at least get you thinking about some of these other questions.

To answer the question stated in the title of this section, no. Jesus isn’t addressing two subjects, the end of time and the fall of Jerusalem, in this chapter. To show that, let’s look at Luke’s gospel. In chapter 17, Luke records a lot of the same things that Matthew does in his chapter 24. I believe this point is best demonstrated if you do it yourself, so go read Matthew 24 followed by Luke 17:22-37. While you are reading, fill out the chart which is downloadable in the file below. I have attached an answer key at the bottom of the page.

I’ll do two for you first to show what it looks like, but on your paper, leave off the quotation or just include a few words. The center column is to record whether the passage from Matthew is in the first or second half of the chapter.

Matthew 24First or Second Half (1-34 or 35-51)Luke 17:22-37
“For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Matthew 24:27First For just like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day. Luke 17:24
“For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Matthew 24:37–39Second And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Luke 17:26–27
Matthew-Luke Comparison

Now that you have completed the chart, notice that while Matthew includes some of these references in one so-called half, Luke uses all these expressions interchangeably. There is no division in Matthew 24. The passages in the latter “half” are just as applicable to the fall of Jerusalem as those in the first “half.”


In this article, we have established that the disciples did not know the day or hour of the fall of Jerusalem, even though they knew the general time frame. We have also seen that Matthew 24 is one discussion about the same topic: the fall of Jerusalem. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered now, but that will have to wait for another article. Until then, I encourage you to listen to my interview with Kevin Pendergrass and Lee Grant here:

Answers for the worksheet:

1 thought on “The Day, the Hour, and the Unexpected Hanging”

  1. Daniel, I appreciate the clarity of your examination dealing with the Olivet Discourse. Your presentation demonstrates that this Discourse is one whole. The Scriptures you sighted proves beyond a-shadow-of-a-doubt that the Second Coming was not far off. “The time is near” should awaken one to the nearness of God impending judgment against Israel for its rejection of God’s Messiah and His prophets and apostles. Your focus on the parallels in the various Gospels concerning this judgment is superb. Both Matthew 10 and 16 should convince that Jesus’ Second coming occurred in AD 70.

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