I have argued in previous installments of this series that in John 10:28-30 Jesus claims to be â€œoneâ€ with the Father in the exercise of the divine prerogative and power of giving eternal life to the people of God and preserving them against any spiritual attack. Christ’s use of the monotheistic statement of YHWH in the Old Testament that he alone is God because no one can snatch them from his hand (Deut. 32:39; see also Is. 43:13), which Christ applies to himself and to the Father, sets us up to understand "I and the Father are one" also as an allusion to the Old Testament’s most famous monotheistic affirmation, the Shema (Deut. 6:4).
Those who deny that Jesus Christ is one God with the Father point to certain elements of the context to show that such an interpretation is mistaken. Immediately before Jesus’ famous statement in John 10:30, he states, "My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all (v. 29 ESV, HCSB, NASB, NET). Jesus says two things here about the Father that anti-Trinitarians often understand as implying that Jesus is not God.
First, Jesus says that the Father gave him his sheep. Why would the Father need to give the Son anything if he possesses it necessarily by virtue of his being God? This kind of question comes up repeatedly with reference to statements throughout the Gospel of John that express the Son’s dependence on the Father. The Son does what he sees the Father doing (5:19-20). The Son cannot do anything on his own, independent of the Father (5:19, 30; 8:28). The Father gives the Son life in himself (5:26) and the authority to judge (5:22, 27) and to give eternal life (17:2). The Son does the works that the Father gave him to do (5:36; 17:4). The Father gives the Son his people, his sheep (6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 9, 24). The Son’s teaching is not his alone but is the Father’s (7:16-17). He does not speak on his own (7:17; 14:10). He speaks what he hears from the Father who sent him (8:26; 15:15), from God (8:40), what the Father instructs him (8:28), commands him (12:49), and gave him (17:8) to say. The Son’s speech is the Father dwelling in him doing his works (14:10). He did not come on his own (8:42). The Father gave his name (17:11, 12) to the Son. He gave him glory (17:22). He also gave him the cup of sacrificial death (18:11). In short, the Son is apparently dependent on the Father for everything he has, says, and does. How, then, can the Son be considered in any way equal to God?
Classically, orthodox Christians have understood these statements to reflect the dependence of the Son on the Father that characterized him in his humiliation”that stage of the Incarnation that extended from his conception to his resurrection. By becoming a human being (John 1:14), the Son humbled himself, taking a position that entailed utter dependence on the Father for everything he had, said, and did. In some sense, the Son had left behind the glory that he had alongside the Father since before creation, a glory to which he was to return following his death and resurrection (John 12:16; 17:5). (Since the risen Christ is still human, orthodox theologians regard the period following his resurrection as a second stage of the Incarnation" the stage of exaltation.) During this first phase of the Incarnation, the Son’s entire modus operandi was to glorify the Father (John 7:18; 12:28; 15:8; 17:4). Jesus therefore credited his miracles as well as his speech to the Father. Thus, even when Jesus performed acts that revealed in some way his divine glory, he did so that the Father might be glorified through and in him (John 1:14; 2:11; 11:4, 40; 13:31-32; 14:13; 17:1).
This explanation is consistent with the fact that these numerous statements in John all appear to refer to the Son’s dependence on the Father during his mortal life on earth. Although the Gospel of John explicitly teaches that the Son existed as a divine person before becoming a human being (John 1:1-3, 10; 8:58; 13:3; 16:28; 17:5), all of the references to the Son’s dependence on the Father are statements by Jesus focused on giving the Father credit for the things Jesus was saying and doing at the time.
This classical Trinitarian interpretation would therefore understand these Johannine passages in much the same way as Christians historically have understood the famous "Christ hymn" in Philippians, which says that although Christ existed in God’s form, he humbled himself as a servant, becoming a man, and dying on the cross, after which God highly exalted him above all creation (Phil. 2:6-11). As the divine Son, Christ was entitled to the recognition, honor, and glorious privilege of God (v. 6), but he humbled himself for the Father’s glory (v. 11). In that state of humiliation, Christ depended on the Father as a servant depends on his master, and was therefore dependent on the Father to exalt him (v. 9).
There is much to commend this line of thinking, and I think it is right, or at least mostly right. Some Trinitarians, however, think that a qualification is in order. They argue that it is a mistake to limit the force of all of these statements in John to the period of Christ’s humiliation. They suggest that the Son’s dependence on the Father in the Incarnation, though perhaps deepened or radicalized by his humiliation as a mortal human, should be understood as in some way revelatory of the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. The theological maxim that expresses this view is that the economic Trinity reveals the ontological Trinity: how the incarnate Son relates to the Father in space-time reveals something of the relationship between the Son and the Father in eternity. We might put it this way: the fact that the Father sent the Son into the world, rather than the other way around, is not an accident. It is not as though the three persons of the Trinity drew straws to determine who would become a man and die on the cross. There is something appropriate and fitting about the Son coming on behalf of the Father. The very titles "Father" and "Son" indicate an asymmetrical relationship between the two persons, such that it is proper and fitting that the Father sent the Son, that the Son seeks to do the will of the Father, etc., and not the other way around.
I think there is some support for this qualification to the classical view in something that Jesus in the Gospel of John says about the Holy Spirit: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:13-14). Here Jesus says that the Holy Spirit "will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears." This statement says about the Holy Spirit exactly what Jesus had earlier stated about himself: "Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own" (John 7:17). "The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own" (John 14:10). "I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father" (John 15:15). Jesus also says that the Holy Spirit will glorify him (that is, glorify Jesus, the Son), rather than the Spirit glorifying himself" just as Jesus came not to glorify himself but to glorify the Father. Yet the Holy Spirit clearly does not become incarnate or otherwise experience a "humiliation" comparable to the Son becoming a human being. Thus, it may well be that the "dependence" language in John is not merely or exclusively a function of the humiliation of Jesus’ coming in the flesh, but more broadly reveals the Son as acting on the Father’s behalf.
The instructive parallel of the Holy Spirit also shows that this dependence language does not imply inferiority of nature. We cannot plausibly understand Jesus to mean that the Holy Spirit remains ignorant of some truth until Jesus imparts it to him, or that the Spirit is inferior to Jesus. Rather, when Jesus says that the Holy Spirit does not speak on his own but speaks what he hears from Jesus, he means that the Holy Spirit’s ministry of revelation will be performed for the purpose of revealing and glorifying the Son. Jesus’ coming into the world as a mortal human being is indeed a special act of humiliation, but it appears that humility is a virtue or moral attribute that characterizes the divine persons of the Trinity. The Son comes to glorify the Father, the Father for his part glorifies the Son, and the Holy Spirit comes to glorify the Son.
The second thing we need to discuss that Jesus says in John 10:29 (according to most scholars) is that the Father is greater than all. (There are textual variants here, and the NRSV adopts the strange reading â€œWhat my Father has given me is greater than all else."If this reading turns out to be correct, the statement would be describing the sheep as greater than anything else" an odd statement, but one that clearly could not pose any objection to viewing Christ as God. I will, however, for the sake of argument assume that the majority view is correct here.) Anti-Trinitarians assume that Jesus is including himself in saying that the Father is greater than everyone" that is, that the Father is greater than Jesus. And that may well be. We know that Jesus could make such a statement, since he does so explicitly in John 14:28, "the Father is greater than I." If so, Jesus in both of these passages would be saying that the Father was greater than he was. Does this contradict the idea that he is God? Again, not necessarily, if we understand these statements in the context of the Son’s humiliation in becoming a mortal human being. On the other hand, it is probably not the case that the two statements should be equated in this way.
In John 14, Jesus looks forward to his return to the Father’s presence and to the sending of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, through whom even "greater" things would take place than the miracles Jesus had performed in the ministry of his earthly humiliation (v. 12). This statement clearly does not mean that the disciples would be greater than Jesus or even that they would do greater works than Jesus, because it would in fact be Jesus, through the Holy Spirit he was going to send to them, working within them to do those greater works, bringing glory to the Father and the Son (vv. 13-21). It is in this context of the Son’s exaltation and return to heaven and of the Spirit’s descent to the disciples that Jesus encourages his disciples to rejoice that he was going to the Father, "because the Father is greater than I" (vv. 26-28). Jesus’ ministry was limited by virtue of his living in mortal flesh; he was about to expand his ministry immeasurably by returning to the Father, whose greatness was not limited by the Incarnation, and sending the Spirit. Thus, Jesus affirms the relative greatness of the Father not as a denial of Jesus’ own divine identity but as an expression of his humiliation and radical dependence on the Father in the period leading up to his death.
When we look again at John 10:29, it is evident that Jesus is not denying divine power or identity. Jesus has just affirmed that no one could snatch the sheep from his hand (v. 28), and he now affirms that likewise no one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. In this context Jesus reminds his hearers that of course the Father is greater than everyone. No one can snatch the sheep from the Father’s hand because there is no one greater than the Father who could pull off such a feat. But then Jesus, far from drawing the supposedly obvious conclusion that he was inferior in power to the Father, makes the opposite assertion: "I and the Father are one" (v. 30). In context this can only reasonably mean, at the very least, that Jesus and the Father are perfectly one in their exercise of divine power to preserve the sheep and repel all attacks against them. "The Father is greater than all, so that no one can withstand him" but Jesus is one with the Father, so that no one can withstand him, either. Thus, in context, Jesus in John 10:29 is not saying that the Father was greater in divine power than he, but that the Father’s unparalleled greatness in power is his power, too. Far from disproving Christ’s equality with God, the logic of his argument in this passage strongly proves that he was claiming to be no less than God.