In What Way was God Greater than Jesus?
According to the apostle John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14, emp. added). Unquestionably, this Word (God), Whom John claims became flesh, was Jesus Christ (1:17). This same apostle recorded other statements in his account of the Gospel that convey the same basic truth. He wrote how, on one occasion, Jesus told a group of hostile Jews, “I and My Father are one” (10:30). Later, he recorded how Jesus responded to Philip’s request to see God by saying, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9). He even told about how Jesus accepted worship from a blind man whom He had healed (9:38; cf. Matthew 8:2). And, since only God is to be worshipped (Matthew 4:10), the implication is that Jesus believed He was God (cf. John 1:29,41,49; 20:28; Mark 14:62).
Some, however, see an inconsistency with these statements when they are placed alongside John 14:28, in which Jesus declared: “My Father is greater than I”. Allegedly, this verse (among others—cf. 1 Corinthians 11:3; Mark 13:32; Colossians 3:1) proves that Jesus and the Bible writers were contradictory in their portrayal of Jesus’ divine nature. Jesus could not be one with God and lesser than God at the same time, could He? What is the proper way to understand John 14:28?
Statements found in passages like John 14:28 (indicating that Jesus was lesser than God), or in Mark 13:32 (where Jesus made the comment that even He did not know on what day the Second Coming would be), must be understood in light of what the apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi concerning Jesus’ self-limitation during His time on Earth. Christ,
being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation [He “emptied Himself”—NASB], 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 (Philippians 2:6-8, emp. added).
While on Earth, and in the flesh, Jesus was voluntarily in a subordinate position to the Father. Christ “emptied Himself ” (Philippians 2:7; He “made Himself nothing”—NIV). Unlike Adam and Eve, who made an attempt to seize equality with God (Genesis 3:5), Jesus, the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:47), humbled Himself, and obediently accepted the role of a servant. Jesus’ earthly limitations (cf. Mark 13:32), however, "were not the consequence of a less-than-God nature; rather, they were the result of a self-imposed submission reflecting the exercise of His sovereign will (Jackson, 1995, emp. added). While on Earth, Jesus assumed a position of complete subjection to the Father, and exercised His divine attributes only at the Father’s bidding (cf. John 8:26,28-29) [Wycliffe, 1985]. As A.H. Strong similarly commented years ago, Jesus “resigned not the possession, nor yet entirely the use, but rather the independent exercise, of the divine attributes” (1907, p. 703).
Admittedly, understanding Jesus as being 100% God and 100% human is not an easy concept to grasp. When Jesus came to Earth, He added humanity to His divinity (He was “made in the likeness of men”). For the first time ever, He was subject to such things as hunger, thirst, growth (both physical and mental), pain, disease, and temptation (cf. Hebrews 4:15; Luke 2:52). At the same time Jesus added humanity to His divinity, however, He put Himself in a subordinate position to the Father in terms of role function (1 Corinthians 11:3). In short, as Wayne Jackson summarized, "when Jesus affirmed, 'The Father is greater than I' (John 14:28), He was not disclaiming divine nature; rather, He was asserting that He had subjected Himself voluntarily to the Father’s will" (1995).
Jackson, Wayne (1995), "Did Jesus Exist in the Form of God While on Earth?" Reason & Revelation, 15:21-22, March, [On-line], URL: http://apologeticspress.org/articles/264.
Strong, A.H. (1907), Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell).
Wycliffe Bible Commentary (1985), Electronic Database: Biblesoft.