The God-Man: Jesus Christ

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December 6 2016
Author: Pastor Bill Henderson

Supplemental teaching for session Nine of Wayne Grudem’s 20 Life-Transforming Truths

Q. If Jesus is, in fact, God, how could he say, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)?

This is a very important textual question that has an ancient background in church history. It was this text of Scripture that was heavily used by Arius of Alexandria (ca. 250 – ca. 335 A.D.) to teach that while, by nature, Jesus was more than a man, he was less than God. Arius argued that when Jesus said, “the Father is greater than I,” the word “greater” proves that Jesus is essentially inferior to God the Father and therefore by nature something less than God, a mere creature. Today, the Jehovah Witnesses are among those who carry the torch of Arianism citing the same text of John 14:28 in order to reject the Deity of Jesus like Arius did.

However, while it’s always a noble practice to find biblical support for a doctrinal position, a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text. If you zoom out to examine John’s Gospel as a whole, you discover two mutually inclusive themes that relate to Jesus. On the one hand, John makes an inescapable case for Jesus’ full deity (e.g. John 1:1, 14; 5:16-18; 8:29; 14:1, 9; 20:28). And this last reference, John 20:28, is the climactic arc of John’s story line. In front of all the disciples, Thomas, the former doubter, applied to Jesus the standard issue name for “God” (theos) in direct discourse: “My Lord and my God!”

But on the other hand, in healthy tension with his deity, John also threads another Jesus-oriented theme throughout his Gospel. He demonstrates that during Jesus’ incarnate life, his status and authority were under the Father’s (e.g. 3:17; 4:34; 5:19-30; 8:28-29; 10:18; 12:48-49; 14:10). So the eternal Word of God (John 1:1-3, 14) not grasping at His divine position but laying aside His heavenly majesty for the duration of his incarnation, took on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus in dependence upon and obedience to the Father. It is this kind of functional subordination as a result of the incarnation that John is making explicit by quoting Jesus’ words, “the Father is greater than I.”

This interpretation of the Father’s comparative greatness to the Son along functional (not essential) lines is made clear by zooming in on the proximate context. John 14 records the upper room teaching of Jesus who reassured his disciples on the eve of his death and resurrection that upon returning to his Father in heaven (14:2-3, 12, 18-19) the Father would send the Holy Spirit (14:16-17). With the promised coming of the Holy Spirit in place (14:26) and Jesus’ promise to return to them (14:28a), he encourages his disciples to be happy for his impending exaltation: “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Rather than wallow in self-centered grief, their happiness ought to spring from the prospect that, in his exaltation to the Father’s side, Jesus will resume the greatness of his pre-incarnate heavenly glory: “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (17:5). So in the very moment of declaring his Father as greater than himself, Jesus glory was still veiled in the lowly condition of his incarnation. But privileged greatness, the undiminished glory and majesty of the Father, was just up ahead and would soon be recovered. So Jesus redirects his disciples away from sadness due to their own sense of loss to rejoicing instead due to his great gain, his imminent and great glorification.

By analogy, it’s easy to see how at one and the same time someone might be greater than you while being the same as you. I think most would agree that humans are greater than rocks and machines because of intrinsic superiority. But in what intrinsic or essential sense is the Prime Minister of Canada superior to you? Yes, functionally and in terms of dignity his political role in Canada is obviously greater than yours, but ontologically his essential nature as a human being is no different than yours. In this way, he is presently both co-equal and greater than you.

Similarly, the comparison between the Son and the Father in John 14:28 presents a “positional greater” (glory not humiliation) because of a “locational greater” (heaven not earth). That Jesus in his divine nature was fully God yet veiled in glory during his incarnation makes perfect sense biblically, theologically and conceptually.

Prior to Dan Brown’s mystery-detective novel, The Da Vinci Code, published in 2003, you would have been hard-pressed to find many Christians conversant with the Nicene Creed, an early Christian statement of faith. Now millions of readers and masses of moviegoers know a thing or two about it. Unfortunately, Brown’s artful dialogue between Teabing and Sophie spreads historical error when Teabing enlightens her to know that 1) Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote at the Council of Nicea, 2) it was a “relatively close vote” at that, plus 3) it was Emperor Constantine the Great (ca. 272 – 337) who upgraded Jesus’ status from human to divine almost four centuries after Jesus’s death.

Truth be told, the vote at Nicea (325 A.D.) was not close. Whether the Bishops in attendance were 220 or 318 (on this number there is discrepancy), historians know with certainty that the number of nay votes was only two (2), cast by friends of the heretic Arius. But more importantly, there’s a huge difference between establishing (i.e. inventing) doctrine and expressing (i.e. affirming) doctrine. In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea (today’s Iznik, south of Istanbul), led by the great Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296 – 373) did not establish the divinity of Christ. The Council expressed his full deity (and his full humanity for that matter) in conformity to the Bible with a clarity and eloquence that has stood the test of time and orthodoxy. Their decision to affirm the God-man, Jesus, was not invented, nor an upgrade, but rooted in the New Testament’s first century Apostolic witness, which was consistently preserved in the tradition of early church fathers before 325 A.D. And, to date, the voice of this Nicene Creed continues to biblically oppose the warmed over influence of the Arian heresy:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us and our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

HT: Stephen Nichols, For Us & For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bks, 2007); Donald MacLeod, The Person of Christ: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998); Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York, NY: Random House, 2003). 

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