The Relationship of the Son to the Father
The apostle Paul defined the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ in a remarkably succinct way: “In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead [theottos, literally “God-ness”] bodily” (Col. 2:9). That is, in the man Jesus there dwells, at all times, all that there is to God. As John expressed it in the prologue to his Gospel, the Word, which was in the beginning, which is and was God, “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (1:14). But in taking on Himself real—albeit unfallen— human nature, Jesus surrendered nothing of deity so that when men beheld Him, they beheld “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (Jn. 1:14). As Christian creed and chorus have ever acknowledged, He was at once very God and very man.
And yet, although the truth of the Theanthropic Person is an infinitely precious reality, cherished and celebrated by believers throughout Christian history, it is also a great mystery. It is, perhaps, a besetting sin of twenty-first-century believers to overlook the infinite mystery inherent in the biblical teaching concerning the person of Jesus. After all, we have had two thousand years to get used to the idea of God becoming man; and the doctrinal affirmation rolls comfortably from our lips. But has any divine proposition more thoroughly humbled the finite mind of man or more certainly driven the saint to his knees in humble submission to the authority and majesty of God’s revealed Word than this one? “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman” (Gal. 4:4)!
Although orthodox Christians universally confess this truth concerning the unique person of Jesus Christ, they often compromise it in the way they conceptualize Christ’s life on earth. Many believers appear to think of Jesus as God “dressed up like man.” They seem to believe He carefully perpetuated the illusion of genuine humanity while actually living His mortal life by secret and constant appeals to supernatural powers and insights that no other mortal has ever possessed. Yes, the biblical narratives describe Jesus as growing and learning (Lk. 2:40, 52; Heb. 5:8), as subject to human frailty (Mt. 4:2; Jn. 4:6), as disappointed (Mk. 3:5) or frustrated in some endeavor (Mk. 7:24), and as struggling with the temptation to turn back from an unimaginably difficult task (Mt. 26:37-39; Lk. 22:41–44; Heb. 5:7).
But the quiet assumption is that these passages are somehow superficial and illusory—that the real Jesus (because He was, after all, God) was never truly weak or surprised or frustrated or tempted. All that appeared to be evidence of human limitations in Jesus’ life were simply the Son of God playing a part, adopting the persona of a real human being for some devotional or instructive purpose.
To be sure, few believers probably would subscribe to this view of Jesus’ life if it were explained this way. Yet many read the Gospels from just such a perspective. Surely this slant is wrong!
Obviously, the mystery concerning the Person of Jesus Christ is bottomless. As Moses reminded his generation, “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God.” However, in the next breath, Moses affirmed that “those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever” (Dt. 29:29). Clearly, revealed truth exists concerning the Person of Jesus. The New Testament is unambiguous that in His incarnation, Jesus took on Himself genuine, unfallen humanity. Scripture explicitly and consistently has testified to this fact (Jn. 8:40; Acts 2:22; 1 Cor. 15:21; 1 Tim. 2:5), as has the common confession of orthodox Christians throughout the history of this age. (An example is the Definition of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, which affirms that Jesus is “at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.”)1 Indeed, it is by virtue of His real and full (and unfallen) humanness that Jesus can be our Kinsman-Redeemer as well as a High Priest who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:16–18).
But wait! Did Jesus not at times demonstrate the possession of divine attributes and powers? Did He not know Nathanael though He had never met him (Jn. 1:47–48)? Did He not supernaturally discern that a woman He had just encountered in Samaria had been married five times (Jn. 4:16-18)? Did He not foretell the future (Mt. 24—25), call nature to obey Him (Mk. 4:41; Lk. 5:1–7), and instantly conquer disease (Mt. 8:1–17), injury (Lk. 22:50–51), and even death (Mk. 5:31–42; Lk. 7:11–16)? He certainly did! The biblical narrative is clear that Jesus possessed divine attributes and that, on occasion, He employed those attributes as the Father directed Him to do so through the Holy Spirit (Isa. 61:1; Mt. 3:16; 4:1; Lk. 4:14, 18; 10:21; Jn. 3:34; Acts 2:32–33). But it is a mistake to conclude that because Jesus occasionally accessed supernatural power, He must have been constantly or perpetually availing Himself of it.
How then are we to understand the relationship between the divine and the human natures in Jesus? Although this issue cannot be resolved unequivocally, the teaching of the New Testament in this regard is best summarized as follows: In some ultimately inscrutable sense, when Jesus took on human nature, He surrendered to His Father the independent exercise of His divine attributes. Jesus did not surrender deity in any sense, to any degree, or for any time (Col. 2:9); but He chose to wait on the Father’s direction to employ those attributes. In so doing, our Lord graciously and voluntarily subjected Himself to all the limitations intrinsic to unfallen humanity. He lived His earthly life within the scope of those limitations, except in those moments when the Spirit directed Him to access divine attributes. Because of such occasional direction, Jesus’ life was punctuated by flashes of omniscience and omnipotence.
Notice, then, that Jesus was both a man like every other man and a man different from all other men. He was like us in that He took on Himself all that belongs to humanity. But He was different on at least two counts. First, of course, He had no sin nature. We easily assume that sin is a necessary and intrinsic element of humanity—that no one can be truly human who is untouched by sin. But such is not the case. Sin is an invader in the human experience. The first Adam sinned away his creaturely righteousness; when the “last Adam” was confronted by the tempter, He remained pure and obedient (1 Cor. 15:45).
Again, Jesus differed from other men in that all others are subject to the limitations of humanity because of what they are—finite creatures bound by intrinsic restrictions. However, Jesus was subject to those limitations because of what He consciously and graciously chose to become. He had framed the world into which He came, but the eternal Son of God made Himself of no reputation and entered that world in the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7). Hymn writer Charles Wesley said it eloquently in the familiar carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
The incarnation of the Son of God was an act of deliberate and immeasurable grace.
But another question arises. Given the reality that Jesus genuinely became man and lived His earthly life within the constraints of unfallen humanness, what was the relationship of the Son to the Father during the years of that mortal life? Again, the Scriptures are explicit: Jesus was entirely dependent on (Jn. 5:19, 30) and submissive to (Jn. 8:28; 12:49) His Father in heaven. Such was Jesus’ confession in moments of victory (Jn. 4:34; 6:38) and in times of despair (Mt. 26:39). Further, such is the testimony of the Gospel records of Jesus’ life. When, as a maturing boy, He discerned that it was not yet the Father’s will for Him to be about His Father’s business, He returned with His parents to Nazareth “and was subject unto them” (Lk. 2:51). When Jesus needed to amplify His ministry by choosing twelve apostles to carry the gospel in His name, He first found solitude and “continued all night in prayer to God” (Lk. 6:12). And when His soul began to be overwhelmed with the anticipation of the infinite terrors to befall Him on a hill outside a northern gate of Jerusalem, Jesus stole away to a garden on the Mount of Olives. There He cast Himself on the love and wisdom and will of His heavenly Father (Lk. 22:39–46). The testimony of Jesus’ life, as well as that of His lips, was this: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will but the will of him that sent me” (Jn. 6:38). In so doing, the Son rested on the wisdom and strength of the One whose purposes He had come to accomplish.
Has your heart been broken by those whom you love most in this world? Jesus knows what that is like. His own family and friends were convinced that He was mad and tried to abort His ministry (Mk. 3:20–21, 31–35). The Scripture is explicit that His brothers still clung to unbelief late in His ministry (Jn. 7:5). Does your struggle with temptation seem more than you can bear? Jesus’ struggle was so dark (Mt. 26:38) and the trauma so heavy that He sweat great drops of blood (Lk. 22:44). Finally it became necessary for the Father to dispatch an angel to enable Him to arise and make His way from Gethsemane (Lk. 22:43).
In all of this, what resource did Jesus have but His Father? He prayed, “not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk. 22:42). He “committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23), and for the joy that was set before Him—a joy He anticipated on the basis of His Father’s Word—He endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). Because He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” His Father has “highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:8–9).
Here lies a most profound and practical truth: Jesus’ resource is our resource. We are enjoined to cast our every care on the God who loves us with an everlasting love (1 Pet. 5:7). Could there be any greater encouragement to live in dependence on and submission to our loving and all-wise Father than the pattern of Jesus, who left us an example, that we should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2:21)?