What does Jesus mean when he says “The Father Is Greater Than I”

Muslims often point to John 14:28 as proof that Jesus denied  that he’s God. According to John 14:28,  the Lord Jesus Christ said that “the  Father is greater than I”. On the basis of this passage, Muslims  assume that Jesus cannot be  co-equal to the Father in essence if the  Father is greater than he. However, the problem with that objection  is that it ignores the fact  that the term “greater”, not just in Greek  but even in English,  can have one of two possible meanings. First, it can mean  someone who is better in essence  as well as in position and rank. For  example, I’m greater than my dog not just in  position and rank but also in essence. Or the term “greater” can simply refer to  someone  who holds a higher office or status for  example  my boss is greater than me, the president  is greater than the vice president. However,  both my boss and myself as well as the  president and the vice president are  fully human and we have the same  human dignity and value in the eyes of  God. So clearly “greater” in those examples  cannot mean someone who’s superior  better than someone in essence and nature. 

When Jesus says “the Father is  greater than I”,  did he mean that the Father is better  than him in essence,  not just superior to him and rank, or did  he mean that the Father  is greater than him by virtue of the  status in heaven because when Christ uttered these words,  he was on earth  and had assumed the status, the position  of a servant? How do we know the answer? The way  that you find  what Jesus meant is by looking at the  context of the verse itself. And by  context,  I mean either the chapter itself, the  chapters before or the book as a whole. After all, John 14 comes 14 chapters  later.  John has a lot to say about Jesus Christ  in the 13 preceding chapters. But for the sake of time I’m going to  focus and limit my discussion  to the immediate context of John 14 as  well as look at  a passage from John 17:5. Let’s see what  Jesus said earlier  in John 14 in order to demonstrate  whether “greater than” means that the  Father is superior in essence  or greater in rank by virtue of the  Father remaining in heavenly glory and  Christ on earth  in the form of a slave. Let’s go to John 14:12-14 where our Lord says to the  disciples the following “Truly truly I say to you. Whoever  believes in me will also do the works  that I do.” Notice Christ is saying whoever  believes in him will do the same  miracles, the same kind of works that  Jesus has been doing  while he was on earth and greater works  than these  he will do because “I’m going to the  Father.” Notice that Christ  also says not only will they be doing  the works “I’ve been doing”  but they’ll actually end up doing  greater works than these, same Greek word is used in John 14:12  that later on Jesus uses in John 14:28. Here “greater” cannot mean greater in  terms of quality, that the disciples will be doing better  works than the Lord Jesus. Greater can only mean in terms of  quantity. They’ll be doing more miracles  than Jesus did  but they’ll be performing the same kind  of miracles that Jesus did while he was  on earth. How do we know that? Because of  the line before that, the preceding  sentence. Whoever believes in me will also do the  works that I do. Notice it’s the same works that Jesus  has been doing but a greater number of  them  and that makes sense. After all, the  disciples  spread throughout the entire earth,  reached more people,  preached the gospel to more nations and  did more miracles than Jesus did  when he was on earth. So here “greater” can  only mean  in terms of number, quantity  not quality. But then Christ gives the  reason why they’ll be able to do  greater miracles than him because “I’m  going to the Father”. 

What’s the connection with the disciples doing a greater number of works  and Jesus going to the Father? Continue reading in verse 13 and 14 and Jesus  gives you the answer. Whatever you ask in my name, this  I will do. Notice what the Lord did not say “If you ask in my name, the Father will do  it.” No,  I will do it myself.  I will personally do the things you ask, that the  Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will  do it.” You see what Jesus said here? If you ask  me, in other words pray to me directly,  I will do it personally. Christ  is not only making himself an object of  prayer, which would be blasphemy if he  was a creature. After all, the bible and the Quran agree  that all petitions,  all invocations must be directed to God  alone  because God alone can answer all prayers – dua (Arabic word for prayer), invocations etc. But Christ says “you can pray directly to  me and I will do it”. In saying that he is able to hear all  prayers directed to him  and in answering those prayers Jesus is  presupposing  the omni- attributes of God. What do I  mean by that? In order for Christ to know who’s  praying to him,  where they’re praying to him, when  they’re praying to him,  and what they’re praying for, he must be  omniscient. He must know who’s praying, when, where  and what. And it doesn’t matter how many are  praying to him. Christ is saying if all  of you ask me, I’ll answer  all of you. So that requires omniscience. It also requires omnipresence and  omnipotence. In order for Christ to personally  guarantee  that he will answer all the prayers  offered to him, he must have the ability  to fulfill all requests. However only God  is omniscient,  only God is omnipresent, only God is  omnipotent. Yet Jesus’ statements here  in John 14 presuppose that he believed  he was all of these things  i.e omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. 

He goes on to reiterate that he has  these essential divine attributes  that belong to God alone in John 14:23. Jesus answered him “If anyone loves me,  he will keep my word and my Father will  love him  and we (i.e. Father and I) will come to him  and make our home with him.” Did you see  what Jesus just claimed? Christ says not only will the  Father spiritually dwell  and have fellowship with anyone who  truly loves Christ,  Christ says that he too will spiritually  dwell with anyone and  everyone who truly loves him. In other  words,  Christ is not only claiming to be  omnipresent, he’s claiming to be present  with every believer  in the same sense and to the same degree  that the Father is. And in saying that, Christ shows that he  believed  he was co-equal with the Father in  essence and nature,  that he was just as present with every  believer as the Father is. Therefore he’s just as omnipresent as  the Father is,  something that no mere creature could  utter. Now in light of these statements  in John  14, in light of these explicit statements  to deity,  Christ claiming to possess the very omni  attributes  that belong to God alone,  clearly in John  14:28,  Jesus could not be saying that the  Father is greater than him in essence. If Christ is claiming to be  omniscient,  omnipotent, omnipresent and only God  is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent,  then Christ is clearly claiming to be  God. If he’s clearly God, then he’s equal  to the Father in essence and nature. Then in what sense is the Father  greater than the Son? Christ  gives us an idea in John 17:5 which says “Now Father glorify me  in your presence with the glory that I  had  (notice used to have with you)  before the world existed.” Christ  claims  that he shared the very divine glory  that the Father has  and he shared this with the Father even  before the world began. And yet while on earth, he had set aside  this glory. This passage helps us to  better understand  what Jesus meant in John 14 28 that the  Father is greater than I. 

John 14:28 You heard me say to you I’m going away  and will come to you. If you love me, you would have rejoiced  because I’m going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Notice  what Jesus is telling his disciples. You shouldn’t be sad at the fact that  I’m leaving you. If you really love me,  you would be happy  because I’m going to the Father for the  Father is greater than I. What’s the connection with the disciples  rejoicing that Christ will return to the  Father  and that the Father is greater than he? In light of John 17:5, it’s obvious  why Jesus  said what he said. The point to the  disciples is this: If I remain on earth, the Father will be  greater than me  in terms of glory and status. Because  Jesus already told us in John 17:5  that he set aside the very divine glory  that he possessed with the Father before  the world was,  in order to come to the earth and redeem  his people  from their sins. However once he returns  to the Father,  he will once again receive that glory  which was his,  which he voluntarily set aside. Basically what Jesus  is telling the disciples is this: If you  love me,  then you would desire for me to return  to glory  and cease to be on earth because while  I’m on earth  I will continue in the state of  humiliation  but if I return to the Father, not only  will the Father no longer be greater  than I, I’ll be basking in the very divine glory  that the Father possesses,  which belongs to me and the glory I had  with him before the world was. That’s what Jesus means when he says “the  Father is greater than I”,  not in terms of essence or nature but in  terms of status and glory.

Finally it is ironic that Muslims would  point to John 14:28  to try to disprove the deity of Christ  when this passage  actually proves that Islam cannot be a  revelation from the true God. Notice Jesus says he  will return to the Father. However, according to the Quran, Allah is  a Father to no one  and he’s definitely not the Father of  Jesus Christ. Just look at the at the following  passages in the Quran 5:18, 9:30, 6:101, 19:88-93,   all of which say Jews and Christians are  not the sons of God,  that Jesus is not the son of God and  that God has no sons  and that the highest relationship a  person can have with Allah  the God of Muhammad is a slave to master  relationship. Yet here, the God that Jesus proclaimed,  the God that Jesus is returning to  is his blessed Father. Jesus is returning  to God the Father,  something Muhammad denied. Therefore  Muhammad cannot be a true prophet. So it’s ironic that the very passage  that they’re trying to use to disprove  Christianity  actually ends up proving Islam is false.