In our Lord’s last extended discourse to His disciples on the night on which He was betrayed, He spoke about His final departure from their earthly lives. It was, not surprisingly, something of a theme that night: “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek Me, and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come’” (John 13:33). “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). “He who believes in Me will also do the works that I do, and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). “Now I am going to Him who sent Me” (John 16:5). “I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28). And in the midst of all these declarations of His imminent departure He also said this: “If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
The Father is greater than I. These words have done abundant service in the creation of Christology, received and mulled over both by heretics and by Orthodox. For the Arians these words were proof than Christ did not regard Himself as truly divine, for the Father was greater ontologically than He was. Others opined that the Son, though the ontological equal of the Father, was lesser in the sense that He had His hypostatic origin from the Father so that the Father was the a-temporal aitia or cause of the hypostasis of the Son and the Spirit, the former by generation and the latter by spiration. Other theologians have sought to locate the subordination of the Son in His incarnate nature, and have said that the Father is not greater than the Son in the Son’s divinity, but only in His humanity. What all these views have in common is their conviction that Christ was speaking about His own ontological nature, and so that His words could have direct and proof-text relevance to Christology.
This seems unlikely, given the context in which they were spoken. The disciples were not then interested in such matters, but were preoccupied to the point of distraction over the thought of Him leaving them. Abstract and precisely analytical questions of Jesus’ pre-incarnate eternal relationship with the Father (which like all such abstractions never came naturally to any Jewish mind at any time) were hardly then to the point. In all His discourse that night Christ told His disciples what they would urgently need to survive the events of the next few hours (see John 13: 18-19, 16:1-4, 16:12). And as an ontological statement, the words “the Father is greater than I” would have meant little to the disciples at that moment. Of course, they would have thought, God is ontologically greater than Jesus. Jesus was a human being like us, and He prayed to the Father—of course God is greater. I suggest therefore that, although the Fathers were not wrong in their application of these words to the Christological concerns of their day, these words are not primarily about Christ’s ontological relationship with the Father.
The greatness of the Father of which Jesus spoke was His sovereignty over human events. The Sanhedrin might scheme, power-brokers like Caiaphas might conspire with Pilate, and soldiers might arrest Him and scatter His followers. These opponents might seem to have all the power and everything on their side. They might imagine that in arresting, condemning, and crucifying Jesus they had proven themselves stronger than Him. And in one sense they were stronger. They won; He had lost; they had defeated Him. But the Father could not be thus defeated, but was actually fulfilling His purposes through the arrest, condemnation, and crucifixion of Jesus.
The Father was greater than Jesus in the sense that the Father was not so easily overthrown or subject to their earthly power. Christ’s earthly defeat was actually His glorification, preordained by the Father. His departure from this earthly life was part of the divine plan; His going to the Father through the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension was the fulfillment of His own saving goal. Jesus might be surrounded and bound in the garden, but the Father’s purpose could not be arrested or thwarted. The Father reigned on high; our God in the heavens, doing whatever He pleased (Psalm 115:3). And it was His pleasure that Christ’s earthly defeat was also His eternal triumph, and the outworking of the salvation of men. Christ’s adversaries might retire that night, thinking that their schemes, successfully carried out, meant Christ had been beaten. In fact, all their choices—the schemes of the Sanhedrin, the betrayal of Judas, the political cowardice of Pilate, the mockery and brutality of the Roman soldiers—all played their parts in fulfilling the Father’s will. They did not understand the utterances of the prophets, and so they unwittingly fulfilled them by condemning Jesus (Acts 13:27). Christ had not been beaten at all. They might howl in triumph over the tomb of Christ, but the Father was greater than all.
We find confirmation of this interpretation in the other place in John’s Gospel where Jesus spoke of the Father being greater: John 10:29. In this passage, Christ spoke of His protection of His followers. They knew His voice to be the voice of their shepherd (v. 27) and so they followed Him, confessing Him as their Lord. He would protect them so that they would never perish; none could snatch them from His protecting hand (v. 28). His adversaries assumed that they could in fact harm His followers, and they had agreed that if anyone were to confess Him to be the Messiah, they would be expelled from the synagogue, and thus forfeit divine favour as a heretic (9:22). But their excommunications and expulsions were futile, and would be of no effect. They might rage all they liked, but His followers remained safe from their ravages. Christ had the key of David, and if He opened the Kingdom to His followers, none could shut it (Revelation 3:7-9)—not even the rulers of the synagogue. The Father had given those followers to Jesus, and the Father “is greater than all” (John 10:29)—i.e. no one, however exalted in this world, not even the rulers of Israel, could snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Here again we see that the greatness of the Father refers to His power to fulfill His purposes through the ministry of Jesus. It is true, of course, that the Father is also ontologically greater than all, but this bit of theological ontology was not the point—the ministry of Christ was. The greatness of the Father manifests itself through the Son, and to see the Son was to see the Father. The Fathers of the Church, forced into the Christological arena of combat by heresies, inevitably interpreted this verse ontologically. They were not wrong in their conclusions. But ontological conclusions were not uppermost in the apostles’ minds when they first heard those words. They only knew that Christ seemed to be abandoning them in a moment of crisis, and they cried in their hearts like orphaned children (see 14:18). The Lord therefore comforted them, and said if they only could understand, they would not cry. It was true that He was leaving them, but only to go the Father. And if they loved Him, they would rejoice, for the Father was greater than He. And the Father was about to bestow upon the Son His final victory.
Makes sense. I think I instinctively understood it that way, but never worried about those verses that much unless I was talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses (Arians).
A tangential note: I read something by Cardinal Ratzinger once, to the effect that everything in Jesus’s ministry can be summed up in the prepositions “from” and “for”. He is always ” from ” the Father, and always “for” others (us). From and for. A simple little comment that stuck with me.