Q. In John 14:28, Jesus says: “You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.” Given that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, and is co-equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, how should we interpret “for the Father is greater than I”?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper, “the Father is greater than I,” have proven quite problematic to the Church for 2,000 years. The Alexandrian priest Arius (A.D. 250-336) interpreted them to mean Jesus was a divine, but subordinate, being — created by the Father (and therefore not equal to him) before the beginning of the world. Arius’ teaching has a certain, simple appeal, so it was very popular. It was, however, condemned as heretical from the start.
But what do traditional Christians teach in its place? The simplest interpretation is to acknowledge the words as the human Jesus speaking as God’s agent. The Father is “greater” because Jesus is carrying out his will (see The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 975). St. Hilary and St. Augustine express this when they say Jesus, as the Son, pays tribute to God, as Father. Another early Father of the Church speaks for Jesus and says, “If you want to know how the Father is greater than I, I was talking from the flesh.”
A modern Scripture scholar (Ernst Haenchen) looks at Jesus’ words and arrives at the same conclusion, “The Father is greater … [for Jesus] is the promise … the Father is the fulfillment.”