To consider the relationship between Jesus and the Father, I focused first on the Gospel of John, since I have studied that book for three decades and memorized it as well. I recorded the number of times Jesus mentions the Father, or when John alludes to the relationship between them in his narrative: I found 95 references, but I suspect I missed a few. To put this in perspective, I found that the three Synoptic Gospels mention this relationship only 12 times among them.
The Nature of the Trinity and Our Veiled Understanding
Since Scripture does not separate the Father and Son from the Spirit, we must tread carefully. Before we examine how the Son relates to the Father, we must consider the doctrine of the Trinity, the Three Persons of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit. We cannot discuss the two without acknowledging the third person. Let’s try to imagine how close the Trinity is: There’s no time or space between or among them. They move in perfect accord in thought, will, work, and purpose. They think and act in perfect harmony without separation. We cannot describe this union in concrete terms. St. Augustine characterized this unity using the term “substance,” “That the Son is Very God of the same substance with the Father. Not only the Father but the Trinity is affirmed to be immortal. All things are not from the Father alone, but also from the Son. That the Holy Spirit is very God, equal with the Father and the Son” (On the Trinity, Loc 562).
The mystery of the Trinity proves impossible for the finite human mind to fully fathom. Christians worship the Three Persons as One God and the One God as Three Persons. Thomas Oden writes, “God’s unity is not a unity of separable parts but [that] of distinguishable persons” (Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Living God 215).
Speculating about the Oneness of God twists human reason into knots. We apply logic and attempt to divide the indivisible. We attempt to arrange the three persons within the Godhead, assigning greater importance to the role or work of one person over the other. We want to categorize and to manage the Trinity according to human schemes. However, when we do so, we deny the nature of God as revealed in Scripture and venture far from the truth. The harmony in which the Three Persons exists cannot be grasped in human terms. Jesus attests to this unity unequivocally when he proclaims, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). When Philip presses Jesus to “show us the Father and it is enough for us” (John 14:8), Jesus chides him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:9-11).
Philip misses the point of Jesus’ words, of His equality within the Godhead. “For it was with the idea, as if the Father were somehow better than the Son, that Philip had the desire to know the Father: and so he did not even know the Son, because believing that he was inferior to another. It was to correct such a notion that it was said, He that sees me, sees the Father also” (Augustine, The Tractates on the Gospel of John, loc. 10515).
We, like Philip, tend to think of the Trinity as a hierarchy, with the Father as the greatest, then the Son and then the Spirit. However, the Trinity exists as indivisible, with all Three Persons equal. The Athanasian Creed testifies to this doctrine of the Trinity, “And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal so that in all things…the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.”(The Creed of Athanasius in Concordia: The Lutheran Confession, A Readers Edition of the Book of Concord, p. 17).
Christ Incarnate and the Work of Salvation
Jesus expounds upon this unity and its role in salvation in John 14:6 when He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Some critics of the Christian faith point to these words of Jesus and cry foul. They excoriate us for insisting that Jesus represents the only way to salvation or to communion with God. Yet, this verse establishes that only through the Son can people come to know the Father. We rely on a perfect, holy mediator between us and a holy God. Jesus does not withhold knowledge of the Father as some think. He simply declares the fact that people who do not trust in His oneness with the Father are blind to the reality of God the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus came into the world to announce the Father — that is to make Him known. John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
For the sake of salvation, the Son of God condescends to come to earth to take upon Himself the sin of the whole world. In this work, the will and purpose of God are not divided between the Father and Son but accomplished by the Son and the Father. Jesus said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Here Jesus confirms His ongoing eternal work as the Son of God incarnate. He embodies the perfection that God demands for communion with mankind. Man’s sinful nature prevents us from achieving that perfection apart from Christ. Therefore, since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), no one through his own effort saves himself. Jesus, the Son of Man, lived a perfect life before God on our behalf and died as the propitiation for our sins. The Son of God “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8) so we could be justified by His grace, redeemed, and reconciled to God through Him.
Jesus is sent by God to become the suffering servant. For a time, the Son of God, through whom all things were made, became a “little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5), so the “world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). We affirm Christ’s divine authority when we proclaim in the Athanasian Creed, “Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages: and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh but by the assumption of the humanity into God; on altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person” (The Creed of Athanasius).
The unity of God becomes visible in the work of salvation even, paradoxically, as Jesus appears to draw a distinction between the Son of God and Son of Man when He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Here Jesus speaks of His dependence upon the Father while He bears the frail form of the suffering servant. Christ’s incarnation does not deprive Him of His divine power in the lowly state, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). He manifests His heavenly authority to give “life to whom he will” (John 5:21).
Making Visible the Invisible
Separating the Godhead diminishes the primacy of Christ’s incarnation: The Son of God became visible and dwelt among us so He could make the invisible Father known. The author of the Book of Hebrews extols the incarnate Christ when he proclaims the Son, “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:3)
St. Augustine explains our tendency toward hard-headedness in matters of the Trinity, “For they saw His perfectly resembling Son, but needed to have the truth impressed on them, that exactly such as was the Son whom they saw, was the Father also whom they did not see” (Augustine, The Tractates on the Gospel of John, loc. 10488)
The Nicene Creed testifies to this fundamental doctrine, and Christians affirm the unity of the Godhead and the revelation of the Father through the Son when we proclaim:
“I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.”
Rightly Reflecting Upon the Trinity
We should always approach the doctrine of the Trinity with awe and respect, and we should refrain from idle speculation. Christians rejoice in Christ as the one way to the Father. Jesus Christ the God-Man reveals the Father so we might be saved and dwell eternally and joyfully in the unity of the Godhead. Jesus assures us of our position in Him when He prays for all His disciples, not just the twelve, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23). We are united to the Trinity through the love and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages: and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh but by the assumption of the humanity into God; on altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person” (The Creed of Athanasius).
Denise Larson Cooper has a passion for Jesus Christ and teaching the Scriptures. She is the author of three devotional books: Life is a Metaphor, Ordinary Days with an Extraordinary Savior and Godnesia: Keeping God in Mind Each Day. She co-produces the daily devotional podcast Ordinary Days. She is an avid walker and teaches several small group Bible studies and Sunday school. She graduated from Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. She is a wife, mother of two grown daughters and currently works as a gymnastic coach.
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