Any father, by right as a father, is due deference1 from his son, which deference includes honor (τιμή).2 Moses commanded children, “Honor your mother and father.”3 Hence, the Lord Jesus Christ said, “I honor my Father.”4 One means by which a son pays deference is by addressing his father as “sir.”5 It is this phenomenon that prompted the Lord Jesus Christ to ask the scribes,6
35 While he taught in the Temple, Jesus answered and said, “How do the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 For David himself in the Holy Spirit said, ‘Yahveh said to my lord, “Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ 37 Therefore, David himself calls him ‘lord.’ How can it be that he is his son?” The large crowd heard him gladly.
The basis of the question posed by the Lord Jesus Christ to the scribes is the deference that David’s son (i.e., descendant), the Messiah, is supposed to pay David, since David is his his father (i.e., ancestor). And yet, David calls his descendant, “my lord” (i.e., my sir). This narrative demonstrates the deference required to be paid by any son to his father. (Why David pays deference to his son, rather than his son to him, would be answered in a different question.)
Deference does not preclude equality of nature
When Jesus says that “my father is greater than me” (ὁ πατὴρ μού μείζων μού ἐστιν), it is no different than what any other son would say concerning his own father. Nevertheless, the son and father still share the same nature.
For example, in the case of Adam and Seth, both share the same nature: ἄνθρωπος. That is, both possess ἀνθρωπότης (“humanity”), the quality of being human. Yet, Seth would naturally say of Adam, “My father is greater than I.” In the same manner, Jesus says his father (God the Father) is greater than him, yet both the Lord Jesus Christ (the Son) and God the Father share the same nature: θεός. That is, both possess θεότης (“deity”), the quality of being [true] god.7
Indeed, when Jesus refers to God as “my father” or “my own father,” the Jews understood it as a claim of equality with the Father. They were prepared to stone him—not because they misunderstood him, but because they rejected his claim.8
17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father works until now, and I also work.” 18 For this reason, then, the Jews were seeking to kill him more [than before], since, not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he also said God was his own father, making himself equal to God.
Eternal Filial Subordination
In traditional Trinitarian orthodoxy, it is said that the Son is “less than the Father according to his humanity.”9
Equal to the Father according to [his] divinity; less than10 the Father according to [his] humanity.
Aequalis Patri secundum divinitatem: minor Patre secundum humanitatem.
However, this belief that the Son is only less than (i.e., subordinate to) the Father according to his humanity, i.e., upon the incarnation, is unbiblical.
First, it is written that God the Father sent His Son into the world.11 On this Fr. Steven Scherrer, a Roman Catholic priest, writes,12
The Son was sent by the Father into the world. But if he was sent by the Father into the world, this means that this took place before the incarnation, and so we see that the relationship of the Father to the Son in eternity before the incarnation was one of a father with authority over an obedient son, who accepts his mission from the Father and becomes incarnate in the world. This relationship of sending and being sent is an authority-submission, paternal-filial relationship
in which the Son, while one in essence with the Father and thus equal with him in divinity, is nonetheless sent by the Father and is obedient to him.
Bruce Ware (Ware, 76–83) points out clearly that we are here dealing with an eternal Father-Son relationship, an eternally subordinate relationship of the Son to his Father, although in divinity the two are equal. The Son’s subordination is not in his essence or nature, in which he is the same as his Father, but in his
relation to his Father as Son. His relation to the Father is that of an obedient, subordinate, submissive, adoring Son. And this was eternally the case, not just while Jesus was a man on earth.
We see this throughout St. John’s gospel, where Jesus is said to be sent by the Father, for example: [John 3:16–17]. If the Son was sent into the world by the Father, then this happened before the incarnation, and therefore the paternal/obedient filial relationship of father to son also existed before the incarnation. We see this in many passages, such as the following: [John 10:36], or [John 6:38]. These quotations could be multiplied many times over, but they are sufficient to show that this relationship of an obedient, submissive, subordinate son to his father extends back from all eternity, long before the incarnation of the Son. It is not just something concerning Jesus as a man in his humanity being submissive to his Father. He has always related in this way to his Father, who even before his incarnation sent him into the world.
If it were true that the Son is only subordinate in his humiliation and incarnation (i.e., according to his humanity), we would suppose the Son to no longer be less than or subordinate to the Father after the Son’s exaltation, when he was glorified with the glory that he had with the Father before the existence of the world,15 and then ascended to Heaven.16
Yet, after his exaltation and ascension, the Son is still described as subordinate to the Father. The Son sits at the right hand of the Father.17 It is frequently recited that there is one God, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.18 The Father is described as the God of the Lord Jesus Christ.19 In the end,20 the Son submits his kingdom to the Father, and even then, the apostle Paul wrote,21
28 But when everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself shall also be subjected to Him who subjected everything to him, so that God is all in all.
Note that the apostle Paul speaks of a time in the distant future, long after the Son had been exalted, and yet, he still speaks of the Son as being subject to (i.e., subordinate to) God the Father. This plainly indicates that the Son is subordinate to the Father regardless of the incarnation. As such, when the Son says the Father is greater than him, he must be referring to filial subordination, not simply a subordination that existed on account of the incarnation.
When the Lord Jesus Christ said, “My (not “our”) father is greater than me,” he emphasizes his filial subordination (ὑπόταξις) all the while acknowledging his ontological equality with God the Father. Recall earlier in the fourth gospel that it was those same words (“my Father”) that the Jews understood of the Lord Jesus Christ as making a claim of equality with God the Father.22
1 Oxford English Dicitonary: deference (n.): 3. Courteous regard such as is rendered to a superior, or to one to whom respect is due; the manifestation of a disposition to yield to the claims or wishes of another. Const. to, for.
2 Greek τιμή
3 Exo. 20:12 LXX: «τίμα τὸν πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα».
4 John 8:42: «τιμῶ τὸν πατέρα μου»
5 “Sir,” being an English word, has its equivalents in Latin: dominus (Lewis & Scott, p. 609, dominus, B., 5.; Hebrew: אָדוֹן (adon) (Alcalay, p. 24, אָדוֹן) or the Aramaic loanword מָר (mar): (Jastrow, p. 834, מָר); Greek: κύριος (LSJ, p. 1013, κύριος, B., b.)
6 Mark 12:35–37
7 cf. Col. 2:9
8 John 5:17–18
9 Athanasian Creed
10 minor Patre is an ablative of comparison.
11 John 3:16
12 Scherrer, p. 12
13 ibid, p. 12–13
14 ibid, p. 13
15 John 17:5
16 cf. Acts 2:33, 3:13
17 Acts 2:33
18 1 Cor. 8:6
19 2 Cor. 11:31
20 1 Cor. 15:24: «εἶτα τὸ τέλος»—“then the end”
21 1 Cor. 15:28
22 On other such statements of equality with the Father by Lord Jesus Christ which the Jews understood yet rejected, cf. John 8:58–89, 10:30–31.
Dahms, John V. “The Subordination of the Son.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS). 37/3 (September 1994): 351–364.
Scherrer, Steven. The Vicarious, Sacrificial, Atoning Death of Jesus Christ: How We Benefit from the Death of Jesus Christ. New York: iUniverse, 2010.
Ware, Bruce. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005.
NOTE: All English translations of foreign-language texts are my own unless otherwise noted.