Everything that Jesus ever did came back to the gigantic claim of divinity. Jesus Christ is God. He is the human image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:18). He is the exact representation of God’s being in human form (Hebrews 1:3). The Psalms of worship were written of him (Hebrews 1:8-10). He took God’s name in Exodus, and applied it to himself (John 8:58/Exodus 3:14). If that is the case, why did Jesus say, ‘The Father is greater than I.’? After all, if the Father is greater than he is, in what sense can we say that he is God? Is he another deity, like a demigod?
This line of reasoning is often applied by Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses. After all, if Jesus is God, how could he say that the Father, who is God, is greater than he is? I would like to begin by dispelling any conceptual misunderstandings about this question. When I say that Jesus is God, I am not saying that Jesus is God the Father. Instead, I am defending the orthodox position of historical and biblical Christianity. There is one God, who is eternally present in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I am saying that Jesus is God the Son (click here for a detailed discussion of this).
So, if he is God, why did Jesus say, ‘the Father is greater than I.’? There are basically two common answers to this question. The first response is summarized in what is known as Classical Christology. The second is summarized in what is known as Kenotic Christology.
Classical Christology – He was a human. When Jesus came to earth, he was a complete man. He needed food, water, he shivered at night and felt the scope of emotion. He had love and anger. But despite that, he was God. When we say that he was God, we mean that he is the human image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:18). God is in human form. As a consequence of the sin of man, this world fell. The ground is cursed because of us (Genesis 3:17). There are thorns and death and pain and suffering. God did not have to come for us, but he did. God descended into such a world for the sake of his people, but yet his people did not receive him (John 1:11).
So when his disciples were saddened by the fact that he was going away, he told them not to be sad. He is going to the Father, and the Father is greater than he is. He is speaking as a human who is going to be with God the Father. But he is not only a human. He is the human image of the invisible God. He is God. Why did Jesus say ‘the Father is greater than I.?’ He is also a man and thus he thirsts (John 19:28) and longs and is in a position of subservience to the Father.
Kenotic Christology – He was in a position of subservience to the Father. Jesus is not intrinsically less than the Father. They are both God, and are both equals. So when Jesus says that the Father is greater than he is, that is to say that he is in a position of subservience to him. Jesus serves him, even though they are equals. The doctrine of kenosis suggests that Jesus, “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7). So when Jesus came to earth, he was stripped of his divine attributes. He willingly set them aside for the sake of sinful men.
So when Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I,” he meant that he was greater in duty, but not greater in nature. Jesus is an equal with the Father. But he has a position of subservience for the fulfillment of the ultimate will of God. This is comparable to the role of the husband and wife. The husband is not intrinsically greater than the wife. He is not more of a person just because he is a male. Nonetheless, they operate in a system in which the wife is subservient to the husband. She willingly submits herself for the ultimate will of God. In the same way, despite that Jesus is equal with the Father, having “the name which is above every name,” (Philippians 2:9) he submitted himself to a position of subservience.
Why did Jesus say, ‘The Father is greater than I.’? I think one can see the force of this objection and we can understand why a Muslim or a Jehovah’s Witness would appeal to it. After all, if Jesus is not as great as the Father, how can we say that he is more than a demigod? Evangelical theology provides two possible responses. Classic Christology emphasizes that Jesus is a human, speaking as a human and acting as a human. When he says ‘the Father is greater than I,’ he is representing his human nature. Alternatively, Kenotic Christology, while still emphasizing that Jesus is a human, emphasizes that he is not intrinsically less than the Father. He is only less than the Father in the sense that he is stripped of his divine attributes, and is in a position of subservience.
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