Bible - General Questions

Why Did Jesus Say, 'The Father is Greater Than I'?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Does this mean that the three Persons of the Godhead are not equal in power and authority?

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

In response to our radio messages on the doctrine of Christ in Colossians chapter one, a listener writes: "I am puzzled by John 14:28. If God the Son is equal with God the Father, why did Jesus say, 'The Father is greater than I' ?" The answer lies in an understanding of the roles of the three Persons of the Godhead in the plan of redemption.

Jesus' Statement in Context

Let's begin, as we always must, by looking at Jesus' words in context:

Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, "Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?"

Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. You have heard Me say to you, 'I am going away and coming back to you.' If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said, 'I am going to the Father,' for My Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me." (John 14:22-30)

The context of Jesus' words is His promise of the Holy Spirit, not only to the disciples but to all New Testament believers. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will be sent by the Father in Jesus' name, just as Jesus was sent into the world by the Father in His name. This passage and others teach that Jesus proceeds from the Father, and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Here is what that means: Jesus did not come to speak His own words or do His own will, but the words and will of the Father. The Spirit likewise came by the will of the Father to glorify the Son. There is subordination of function within the Godhead of three co-equal Persons.

Jesus' Two Proclamations About Himself

Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus consistently proclaimed two things about Himself. The first was that He is equal with God the Father. Notice, for example, Jesus own words earlier in this chapter:

Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him."

Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves." (John 14:5-11)

The second thing that Jesus consistently proclaimed was that He had not come to earth in human form to do His own will, but was in everything subservient to His Father. Jesus says this repeatedly here in John 14. "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works" (14:10). "He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father's who sent Me" (14:24).

Is This a Paradox?

Philippians 2:5-11 explains how it is that both of Jesus' proclamations about Himself are true without being paradoxical:

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Paul tells us that Jesus, before His incarnation, was equal with God (2:6, where the word translated "equal" is isa, meaning "the same as.") Paul then tells us that Jesus did not surrender even the slightest part of His deity in coming to earth, but in taking on a human body He took on the form of a bondslave, a servant. Jesus made Himself subservient to the will of the Father in all things when He came to earth, even to the point of the death of the cross.

No Contradiction

So clearly, in John 14:28, Jesus is not contradicting Himself; He is not saying that He is equal to the Father yet at the same time inferior to the Father. Jesus says that if the disciples truly loved Him, they would rejoice, and not be troubled, by His statement that He is going to return to the Father. Jesus was about to return to Heaven, to the glory that Philippians 2 tells us He temporarily laid aside in order to come to earth and redeem lost sinners. As Paul says, "Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given him a name that is above every name." Jesus spoke to the Father of this impending event in His prayer in John 17:

Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was." (John 17:1-5).

When He took on human flesh, Jesus was temporarily "made lower than the angels" (Hebrews 2:9). Like Philippians 2, this speaks of Jesus' status as a servant. But Jesus at the same time remained fully divine. God did not cease to be God. The Second Person of the Godhead voluntarily relinquished only the prerogatives of equality with the Father, and subjected himself to the will of the Father while on earth.

A Human Illustration

An imperfect illustration will, I hope, be helpful and not cloud the issue. Two human beings often enter into an employer/employee relationship. The employer has the right to say what the employee will do, and to set the policies by which the employee must perform his assigned responsibilities. The employee has the obligation to faithfully execute those responsibilities and abide by those policies. He speaks and acts on behalf of his employer.

However, the employer and employee are both still human beings. They have the same human nature. As to their essence, there is no difference between them. They are equals. The fact that one has voluntarily submitted to the other in an employer/employee relationship does not in any way change the essential equality of the two individuals as human beings.

The Bible teaches the same thing about the Persons of the Godhead. All three are equal in essence. They have one divine nature. But in the plan of redemption, as we find in Ephesians chapter two, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each perform specific parts of the plan. Performing those parts - the Father choosing a people for Himself, Christ accomplishing their salvation, and the Spirit applying it - involves subservience within the Trinity. Jesus' statement, "The Father is greater than I," speaks not of any difference as to their essential divine nature, but it does speak of the relationship of Christ's subservience to the will of the Father while He was on earth.


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