Most Christians believe God and His Son have an equality of essence. However, when we ask what “essence” refers to, proponents of this view typically tell us that such mysteries are beyond our comprehension. If we ask logical questions like, “How can one who died for our sins be equal to one who cannot die?” or “How can Jesus be fully divine if he didn’t know the day or the hour of his return?” they reply, “How can you—a mere human being—hope to understand the inner workings of the Almighty?”
If we point our finger to the Scriptures and provide dozens of texts that clearly teach the inequality between God and Jesus, they say, “Ah yes, but those statements pertain to Jesus after his incarnation, when he was functionally subordinate to the Father, but in his divine nature, he remained coequal.” No matter where we prod whether requesting an explanation, applying logic, or pointing to Scripture itself, the response comes back the same: “Take it on faith.”
Should we just blindly accept the dogma that Jesus is coequal, coeternal, and coessential with the Father and His spirit? Should we kowtow to the majority position, simply because it’s popular? Should we submit to tradition for the pragmatic reason that they will accept us into their churches, conferences, and colleges? Or should we blow the whistle on the whole thing?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t respond well to bully tactics, appeals to mystery, or claims about an idea’s popularity. I want to know the truth. Is Jesus equal to the Almighty or not? If so, then I want to believe that, teach that, live that. If not, then I can’t just go with the flow, hoping that church fathers in the distant past figured everything out so now I can just blindly trust “orthodoxy.” I want to know based on Scripture and reason what the truth is. What about you?
In what follows, I want to present a simple biblical case for the subordination of the Son to the Father. Of course, I’m aware that Trinitarian and Oneness theologians have responses to what I will say here, but I can’t cover everything in a single article. Instead of fussing about the comeback, I’d like to layout the scriptural evidence in a plain and straightforward way.
I’d like to begin in the Gospel of John for two reasons: (1) this is the first place many go in order to try to establish that Jesus is God and (2) this Gospel contains the most evidence that the Father is greater than the Son. We do well to recognize the sheer number of times that Jesus claimed to be the one sent by the Father. Now, it is true that an inferior can send a superior or equals can send each other, but typically, especially in the ancient near east, the sender is superior to the one sent. For example, when the centurion wanted an audience with Jesus, he did not come in person, but sent a servant. He did not send another centurion of equal status, much less a superior officer. No, he sent someone with a lower status to carry out his wishes. This is the natural implication of “sending” language. And Jesus wasn’t shy about using this kind of language repeatedly and without qualification. More than forty times, Jesus says the Father sent him.1 In fact, quite the opposite is true. Jesus explicitly endorsed the stereotype of a sender’s superiority when he said, “[A] servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (John 13:16). As plentiful as this sending motif is, we have even stronger and more explicit statements of the Son’s subservient role to the Father.
Jesus, himself, regularly recognized his Father’s superiority throughout the Gospel of John. I counted twenty-four such declarations where Jesus confessed subordination to his God.2 Jesus constantly deferred to what God wanted him to say.3 He did not come up with his own ideas to share with others; he said, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 7:16). Along with the words Jesus said, the Father also decided what works Jesus would do and then empowered him to do them.4 Jesus never claimed his deeds were his own, but recognized, “The Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). He always submitted to God’s will.5 In fact, he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). What a striking statement this is! His very sustenance was doing God’s will. What’s more, three times over, he explained that he was impotent on his own.6 He said, “I can do nothing on my own” (John 5:30). Could he have been any clearer? He was not the source; he was tapping into God’s plan, God’s power, God’s wisdom throughout his ministry.
Furthermore, Jesus wasn’t the one who decided that he would come and rescue humanity.7 He said, “I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (John 8:42). Jesus’ redemptive work both in his ministry and on the cross was all God’s idea (John 3:16). We aren’t left to infer this conclusion, for Jesus himself admitted that he did not want to face crucifixion. This is why we find him in agony at the Garden of Gethsemane, crying out to God three times for the cup of suffering to pass from him. He said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Because Jesus always did God’s will, spoke God’s words, and performed God’s works, he could say, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (John 12:44-45). This was not a claim to be God, but a claim to be like God. As young children reflect their parents’ mannerisms, so Jesus looked like God.
Even more striking is Jesus’ bold and unambiguous confession, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).8 How we claim Jesus was equal with God if he, himself, said they weren’t equal? Do we dare call Jesus a liar here? Should we get clever with philosophical hair-splitting and say, “Well, in his human nature the Father was greater, but in his divine nature they were equal?” That may be a sneaky way to escape the force of Jesus’ words, but it’s not what any of his disciples in that upper room would have thought when he said his Father was greater. Wouldn’t they have just taken what he said at face value? Surely, they weren’t privy to the kind of metaphysical framework required to distinguish person from being. Such ideas would have to wait centuries before they could be articulated, appropriated, and dogmatized. No, Jesus’ followers understood him to be a human being uniquely chosen, commissioned, empowered, and authorized by the God of Israel. That’s how Jesus portrayed himself and that’s what they believed as a result.
Even after the resurrection, Jesus didn’t suddenly start claiming equality with God. For example, when Mary encountered the risen Jesus, he told her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:28). Where’s the big reveal? This would be the moment, right? The risen Jesus should have said, “You know how we have always thought God was supreme—a category by Himself? Well, actually, I’m equal with God. I couldn’t tell you before, but now you’re ready.” No! Instead, Jesus humbly recognized—even in his immortalized state—that he had a God. Further, his God was their God—the Father. What was new in this encounter, was not God’s identity, but that Jesus was to ascend to be with Him.
So far, we’ve limited ourselves to the Gospel of John. However, now I’d like to add in three key texts from Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians. The first two draw an analogy between our relationship to Christ and Christ’s relationship to God: “…you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:23) and “the head of every man is Christ…and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). These clear-cut statements of subordination have the resurrected and ascended Christ in mind. We know this because Paul was writing the Corinthians roughly twenty years after these events had taken place. So, even in his exalted position at God’s right hand, Christ is still subordinate to God. This point becomes even starker when we consider the third and most powerful text:
1 Corinthians 15:28. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
In the end, once Christ reigns and subjects all powers in our world, eliminating even death once and for all, then Christ himself will put everything in subjection to God—including himself! Now, if Jesus were equal with God, surely in eternity he would not remain subordinate!
Now, I know there are a small handful of texts that advocates of coequality between Father and Son employ to establish their case. As I mentioned before, space doesn’t allow me to engage with them in this brief article. Nevertheless, we’ve considered no less than twenty-seven subordination statements in just two books of the Bible: John and 1 Corinthians (not counting the forty times Jesus said the Father sent him). Surely, we shouldn’t overturn this mountain of evidence by a verse or two that have multiple interpretation options, translation issues, or textual uncertainty.
No, the simple truth of Scripture is that there is one supreme God. This God is over all—even Jesus, although I’m sure many who elevate Christ to God’s level do so out of a desire to honor Jesus. However, it’s more honoring to listen to Jesus than to make him something he repeatedly said he wasn’t. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Both God and Jesus are important for attaining eternal life. However, according to Jesus, there’s only one true God—the Father. May we submit to our Lord as he submitted to his God.
1 John 3:34; 4:34; 5:23, 24, 30, 36, 37, 38; 6:29, 38, 39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28, 29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:44, 45, 49; 13:16, 20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21.
2 John 3:34-35; 4:34; 5:19, 30; 6:38; 7:16-17, 28; 8:28-29, 38, 42; 10:18, 25, 29, 32, 37-38; 12:44-45, 49-50; 14:10, 24, 28, 31; 17:4, 7-8; 20:17
3 Jesus spoke what God wanted him to say/teach: John 3:34; 7:16; 8:28, 38; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24; 17:7
4 Jesus did the works God wanted him to do: John 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10; 17:4
5 Jesus did God’s will: John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38; 8:29; 14:31
6 Jesus could do nothing on his own: John 5:19, 30; 8:28
7 Jesus did not come on his own accord: John 7:28; 8:42
8 God is greater than all, including Jesus: John 10:29; 14:28