Today, I am going to look at a couple of verses which at face value seem to contradict each other. As we unravel the contradiction we are going to find out one of the most powerful truths about the nature of God, and about how we relate to each other in community and society.
You heard that I said to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. (John 14.28)
I and the Father are one. (John 10.30)
You can see that at first glance that these verses are contradictory – is Jesus the Word who was God and is God become flesh, fully equal to God, the second person of the Trinity or is He inferior to the Father? The Jehovah’s Witnesses rely on John 14.28 to defend their belief that Jesus is merely a god, and not God – because, according to them, if the Father is greater than Him He cannot be as great as the Father.
The reason these verses seem initially confusing is because we fail to see that there are two ways of determining the worth of a person. The first is called ontological and the second is called teleological. You have ontological worth and teleological worth. So does everyone and everything. Ontological worth is the intrinsic worth of a person or item: a gold ring has ontological value because it is made of gold, money has very little ontological worth because it is made of paper. Ontological worth is based on the skill of the manufacturer and the value of the materials used. As a human being you are designed by God and He made you by breathing His Spirit inside you. That means ontologically you have amazing, awesome value.
Teleological worth is the worth an item or person has based on what they could do. Money has very little ontological value, but has a high teleological value because it can be used to buy a whole host of things. Depending on the situation, teleological value can change. On a desert island, money has very little teleological value, but water would have a much higher teleological value.
Now when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. we need to realize that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the three persons of the Godhead are ontologically equal in value. The Father is worth the same as the Son is worth the same as the Spirit. That makes sense of the Scriptures that say that Jesus is God, that the Father and Son are one. That is why we worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are all equal in value – the value of the perfect, holy God.
However, when it comes to teleological value, the Son made a free choice to become human and dwell among us. By becoming human, He made the decision to submit His will to the will of the Father. That’s why Jesus said “I can only do what I see the Father doing”. Jesus took the teleological role of the submitted human to ensure the mission of the Trinity could be completed and humanity redeemed.
So on an ontological, intrinsic level Jesus is worth the same as the Father – they are equal in holiness, glory, weight and awesomeness. They are one. But on a teleological, functional level they are different: the Father is greater than the Son.
Not only is that helping you understand the differing Scriptures, it helps you form healthy relationships. For example, I set my son’s bedtime, he doesn’t set mine. But on an ontological level, he is as precious as I am. Functionally however, I pay the bills, I am the dad, and I am the boss. On that level, I am greater than him. But as I function as the father, I must never forget that that does not make me intrinsically more valuable.
Whenever you are in a position of authority over someone – employer, dad, husband, pastor, policeman – realize that your authority is only teleological. You are not better than that person, you are in a position of authority to love and to serve and to lead someone who is of equal worth to you.
Whenever someone is in a position of authority over you, realize that they are not better than you, they are of the same ontological worth as you. When you realize that and are secure in that it’s easy to say “My Father is greater than I”. It’s easy to submit to your husband, it’s easy to honour and obey your parents, it’s easy to obey and submit to your pastors. People who find saying someone is greater than them teleologically generally don’t know what they are worth – they can claim to know they are righteous but their inability to humble themselves proves they don’t. When, like Jesus, you know you are the son of God and have intrinsic worth, you don’t need to prove it by jumping off a temple, insisting your whole church goes the way you want, and that your mum and dad start valuing you around here by letting you do x, y and z.