Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.
No one would have been surprised had this saying appeared somewhere in the Gospel of John. The language is characteristically Johannine; the saying has been called "an aerolite from the Johannine heaven" or "a boulder from the Johannine moraine." For all its Johannine appearance, it does not come in the Gospel of John but in the non-Mark material common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, drawn (it is widely supposed) from the Q collection of sayings of Jesus, which may have been in circulation not long after A.D. 50. The nearest thing to it in the Synoptic Gospels is the utterance of the risen Christ at the end of Matthew's Gospel: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Mt 28:18).
In both Matthew and Luke (and therefore presumably also in the source on which they drew), the saying follows on immediately from words in which Jesus thanks God that things hidden from the wise and understanding have been revealed to "babes"--that is, apparently, to the disciples. The one who has revealed those things is Jesus himself; indeed, he is not only the revealer of truth; he is the Son who reveals the Father. In this context the "all things" that have been delivered to him by the Father would naturally be understood to refer to the content of his teaching or revelation. But the content of this teaching or revelation is not an abstract body of divinity; it is personal, it is God the Father himself. Jesus claims a unique personal knowledge of God, and this personal knowledge he undertakes to impart to others. Unless it is imparted by him, it is inaccessible. He is the one who at his baptism heard the Father acclaim him as his Son, his beloved, his chosen one (Mk 1:11). He enjoys a special relation and fellowship with the Father, but that relation and fellowship is open to those who learn from him. As he calls God "Abba, Father," they may know him and call him by the same name. All the other gifts which the Father has to bestow on his children come with this personal knowledge, which is mediated by Jesus.
Matthew and Luke give the saying two different literary contexts; if we look for a historical context, we might think of some occasion when the disciples showed that they had grasped the heart of his teaching to which the minds of others remained closed, as at Caesarea Philippi.
There is nothing hard in this except to those who cannot accept the claim to uniqueness, the "scandal of particularity," implicit in the gospel. But to those who accept the presuppositions current in a plural society this can be hard enough.
But what of the statement that "no one knows the Son except the Father"? One line of traditional interpretation takes this to mean that the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Son of God is a mystery known only to the Father. But it is anachronistic to impart later christological teaching into the context of Jesus' ministry. More probably the two clauses "no one knows the Son except the Father" and "no one knows the Father except the Son" constitute a fuller way of saying "no one except the Father and the Son know each other." It has been suggested, indeed, that there is an argument from the general to the particular here--that a saying to the effect that "only a father and a son know each other" (and therefore only the son can reveal the father) is applied to the special relation of Jesus and God: "only the Father and the Son know each other" (and therefore only the Son can reveal the Father). Whatever substance there may be in this suggestion, it is clear that a reciprocity of personal knowledge between the Son of God and his Father is affirmed. As none but the Father knows the Son, so none but the Son knows the Father, but the Son shares this knowledge with those whom he chooses, and in the present context that means his disciples.
There is a fascinating collection of variant readings in the textual transmission of this saying; they bear witness to difficulties which early scribes and editors found in it. The only variation at which we need to look is that between Matthew's wording and Luke's: whereas Matthew says "knows the Son . . . knows the Father," Luke says "knows who the Son is . . . or who the Father is." Luke's wording might appear to weaken the emphasis on direct personal knowledge expressed by Matthew's wording, but this was probably not Luke's intention. If consideration be given to the Semitic construction behind the Greek of the two Gospels, Matthew's wording can claim to be closer to what Jesus actually said.