The Father is Greater and Other FAQs (Series Part 4, Finale)

I have argued for the divinity of Jesus with no reference to Apostle Paul’s writings at all. This is by design. Some critics, especially Muslims, sometimes claim that Paul bastardized the “true religion” of Jesus and that Jesus never claimed to be (equal with) God. Surely, such a complaint cannot be made now. We can establish the case for the divinity of Jesus without Paul’s writings. If we add Pauline epistles, we have more data to corroborate the case made so far. But before that, I want to address some passages critics, especially Muslims, typically use to argue against the divinity of Jesus. 

The Father is greater than I

In John 14:28, Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I am.” The issue here is the apparent logical inconsistency of one God being greater than the other—a contradiction in terms. Indeed, this passage is one that proved most difficult for many church fathers and theologians. In church history, this is one of the central passages informing the Arian Heresy. Admittedly, if one is convinced on other grounds that Jesus is not Yahweh, then it is easy to see how this passage may be used as an argument-defeater. However, since the data strongly support the idea that Jesus is Yahweh as already argued, I am inclined to inquire: in what way is the Father greater than Jesus?

John 14 is a passage rich in abstruse language. Here, Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent departure and talks about going to prepare a place for the disciples in his Father’s house, a place the disciples were supposed to know. Troubled, the ever empiricist Thomas told Jesus he and the others did not know where Jesus was going. In response, Jesus says he is the way, truth, and life and that “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (14:6). Even more confused, Philip helped the group out by asking, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (14:8). In reply, Jesus says (14:9-10):

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.

This language probably shows how intimate the Father and Jesus are. Later, Jesus says his disciples should show their love for him by rejoicing because he is going to the Father “for the Father is greater than” he. Besides the difficulty of understanding what this means—rejoicing because he is going to the Father—there is also nothing in John 14 that remotely suggests that Jesus here speaks about his ontological status as deity. As the African Church Father Athanasius (328 AD – 373 AD) warns, we must resist reading too much of human reality into the Father and Son terms: “God is not as man [is], for the Father is not from a father; therefore, he does not beget one who shall become a father” (cited by Meyer, 244). It may help to recall that the third person of the Trinity is not Grandson. In other words, the terms are not equivalent to the human conceptions of them. Even in human experience, however, a father is no more inherently human than a son. 

Maybe Jesus here refers to what theologians call the economic Trinity, in which the persons of the Trinity perform different but definite hierarchical roles in their missions, including creation and salvation. In this economic Trinity, the Father sends Jesus, who agreed and knew this as the Father does, to die for humanity. Hence, in this economic Trinity, Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) could be understood as playing subordinate roles to the Father. But this only goes as far as the missional or functional roles of the persons in the Trinity go. It does not change the essential (or ontological) nature of the divine persons as Yahweh. The New Testament is rich in instances that depict the divine persons as fulfilling different roles in their missions:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. 2 Corinthians 13:14.

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Romans 15:30.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6.

He [Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Ephesians 2: 17-18.

How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Hebrews 9:14

But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 20-21

These passages show that the divine persons have definite but different inter-connected roles. It is noteworthy that the New Testament teaches that Christians should direct their prayers to the Father, as the incarnate Son modelled, through the person of/or in the name of Jesus, and by the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 6:6-13, Philippians 4:6, John 16:23-24, Romans 8:26-27.) Even in this regard, the New Testament sometimes softens the distinctive roles of the divine persons. Consider John 14:13-14: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” Here, Jesus encouraged his audience to directly ask him whatever they wanted and then he said answering these prayers would gladen the Father’s heart.

Only the Father Knows that Hour

In Matthew 24:36, Jesus says, “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The assumed issue here is that we reserve the term God for an omniscient being. How could the Son, if he were God, not know something? 

I think Jesus here, being incarnate, functioned as a human dependent on the Father for his knowledge of the future. This would imply that the Father did not reveal “that day or hour” to Jesus. The language of John 5:19-21 strongly suggests that the Incarnate Son does not have a priori knowledge of all things but depends on the Father for his daily sustenance. The Son waits for the Father to show him things, modeling the exemplary God-human relationship. Therefore, I stated earlier that any satisfactory model of the Incarnation must not make a monstrosity of humanity or divinity. Interestingly, when the disciples posed a similar question to the resurrected Jesus in Acts 1, he replies somewhat as he did in Matthew 24:36, except that he no longer says the Son does not know (Acts 1:7).

Jesus is made a little lower than the angels

The book of Hebrews 2:9 says, “but we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death so that by God’s grace he would experience death on behalf of everyone.” The issue here is supposed to be that if Jesus was lower than an angel in the chain of beings, he cannot be God. Surely, such a complaint arises from not paying attention to contextual details. Jesus was made, for a little while, lower than an angel precisely when he became a man and functioned merely as a man, depending on the Father for his sustenance. Interestingly, the author of Hebrews does something in the same chapter revealing his understanding of what Jesus is. First, in 1:6 and concerning the Son, he writes:

“But when he again brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all the angels of God worship him!”

Even angels worship Jesus, not just men! Notice that this implies that Jesus is not only not an angel, but he is also superior to angels. Also, notice that “firstborn” here does not mean that Jesus was created. (See my treatment of the issue here.) Second, Hebrews 1:8-9 states:

But about the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever;

   a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.

  You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;

   therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions

   by anointing you with the oil of joy.” 

Here, the writer applies Psalm 45:6-7, meant for Yahweh to Jesus. The author even does this again with Psalm 102:25-27. The author takes it for granted that the Son is Yahweh just as the Father is Yahweh—and all of that in the same chapter where he says Jesus was made a little lower than angels.

Jesus calls the Father his God

Jesus says, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God (John 20:17). The issue here is supposed to be that even Jesus calls the Father his God, somehow implying that he is not God. A wrong understanding of the Trinitarian doctrine partly informs this objection, which typically comes from Muslim critics. Muslims often read this passage through the lens of Islamic monotheism. Having just completed his assignment as the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45) and restoring humanity to a real relationship with God like the first Adam once enjoyed, Jesus can here be understood as announcing that all humans can now enter a relationship with the Creator not just as God that they are familiar with but also as the Father. Jesus spoke as a man that has fulfilled his purpose here. Humanity shall have an intimate fellowship with the Holy Trinity (John 14:20).

Jesus Calls the Father the Only True God

Jesus says in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life – that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.” Critics contend even Jesus proclaims that there is only one true God—as though the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) were not clear enough—and declares himself a mere messenger of God, a position nearly like what the Quran teaches. On a closer look, this differs from the teaching of the Quran. Here, the man Jesus claims that eternal life comprises his being known and knowledge of the Father. Put another way, Jesus claims that knowing only the Father is insufficient for eternal life. Humans must know the Father and the Son to receive eternal life. That is, he yet claims equality with God.

Some Jews Straightforwardly Called Jesus God

First-century monotheistic Jews and disciples of Jesus were completely convinced about the divinity of Jesus. That is why John could write, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1). 

Thomas, the Apostle who has become a huge source of encouragement to many modern followers of Christ for his empiricist stance, once professed Jesus as God: “And Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28). 

Not to be left out, Apostle Peter writes: “to those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (2 Peter 1:1). 

Apostle Paul also reckoned Jesus as God. First, he writes to Titus concerning “the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Then, in a passage worth quoting at length, Paul writes: 

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, emphasis added)

Scholars believe that this passage was a hymn for the early Church. Paul here says that Jesus is ontologically God (2:6). But then he adds an intriguing, seemingly contradictory thought in verses 9 to 10. When he says God exalted Jesus to the highest place, this, on a cursory reading, would imply that Jesus was not, before this point, at the highest place—further implying that Jesus was not God. How can Paul, in the same breath, proclaim Jesus as God and as not God? Let us parse the passage carefully.

Since the context is about the man Jesus—who took on human nature besides his divine nature, who did not cheat by tapping into his divinity while on earth, and who died on a cross (2:6-8)—verses 9 and 10 must also be about the Incarnate Son. In effect, Paul here writes that the man Jesus was literally exalted, through the Ascension, to the highest place, the place of the pre-Incarnate Son. That is, Jesus’ incarnation is a permanent phenomenon—Jesus will forever be truly human besides being God! This speaks of how highly God thinks of humanity. So, this passage does not say that the man Jesus became God through this exaltation. This cannot work because a finite being cannot become infinite. 

The Philippian passage above also teaches that Jesus is Yahweh. Carmen Imes observes that Paul subtly fuses the identities of Yahweh and Jesus, much like many other New Testament writers do (153). For instance, the hymn borrows from Isaiah 45:22-23, which interestingly, is one of the clearest passages about Jewish monotheism: 

Turn to me and be saved,

        all you ends of the earth;

        for I am God, and there is no other.

 By myself I have sworn,

   my mouth has uttered in all integrity

   a word that will not be revoked:

 Before me every knee will bow;

   by me, every tongue will swear.

When Paul applied the knee-bowing and tongue-swearing language to Jesus, he placed Jesus in the place of Yahweh. He says Jesus is worthy of worship. Imes observes that the name that is above every name is NOT Jesus (153) – this should not be surprising since Yeshua (or Jesus) and its variant, Yoshua (or Joshua), are common Hebrew names. Rather, the name that is above every name, in Jewish contexts, is Yahweh. So, when Paul says that God gave Jesus the name that is above every name, he is saying the man Jesus is Yahweh. 

There is another subtle point in the hymn that is easy to miss. When Paul writes that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” he also here proclaims that Jesus is Yahweh. Imes writes:

 …kyrios stands for the proper divine name, Yahweh, throughout the Greek Old Testament and into the New Testament. Therefore, the “name above every name” is not “Jesus.” Rather, he is given “the name” LORD (kyrios), which is Yahweh. Knees will bow at the name that belongs to Jesus, that is, Yahweh. (153)

Readers may recall the note in Part 2 about the New Testament writers’ use of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) which translated Yahweh as Kyrios (Lord). Notice how Paul says that everything he has to say in Philippians 2 so far somehow brings glory to the Father. This way, Paul identifies both the man Jesus and the Father as Yahweh.

Wrapping Things Up

The divinity of Jesus is a mystery—both in the sense that we cannot exhaustively grasp it and that we know only as much as he reveals. Jesus peculiarly reveals himself to persons in increments. Crucially, the revelation does not stop with what is written in the Bible. Jesus yet daily reveals himself across the world today. Though I have not primarily argued for the doctrine of the Trinity in this piece, I believe that reiterating a few things about that subject may help prevent misunderstandings. I subscribe to a Trinitarian view of God: there are three distinct and distinguishable persons in the Godhead. The Trinitarian view of God is, admittedly, not intuitive. But in modern times, intuition is no longer a reliable arbiter of truth. Indeed, my confidence in the conclusions drawn in this blog series is firmer when I consider that there are physical phenomena that are quite counter-intuitive. Quantum physics is full of examples. Einstein’s correct insistence on the absoluteness of the speed of light in all inertial frames remains counterintuitive. Similarly, the quantum superposition principle, which implies that an electron can simultaneously occupy an infinite number of locations, is even more counter-intuitive. 

A Christian need not be crucified because she cannot explain the fellowship of eternal persons in ways that completely gel with our intuitions. We do not crucify experts for being unable to explain what common labels like “energy” and “gravity” denote. From Newton to Hawking, nobody yet knows what gravity is. But details like these have not hindered the growth of science. People should be just as magnanimous to Christians tasked with explaining the nature of the greatest being in the cosmos. A stanza from a famous hymn captures much of the things already discussed: 

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
‘Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live.

Works Cited

Imes, Carmen Joy. Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. IVP, 2019.

Meyer, John R. “Athanasius’ Son of God Theology.” Recherches De Théologie Et Philosophie Médiévales, vol. 66, no. 2, 1999, pp. 225–253. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26170026. Accessed 20 Aug. 2021.

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