If Jesus is God, why do the Scriptures portray him as distinct from the Father? This is a very fair question, and a major argument presented by non-trinitarians. It’s also a point of confusion for those who do seek to honour the Lord Jesus as they honour the Father (John 5:23). We have now considered several blogs which argue that Jesus Christ is God; that he shares God’s glory, titles and attributes, is worthy of worship, performs the works of God and in him dwells all God’s fullness. However, we also need to address the clear teaching that the Son and the Father are not the same, and that the Son’s role is one of willing subordination to, and dependence on, the Father. Paradoxically, but inescapably, the New Testament both distinguishes Jesus from God and identifies him as God, sometimes in juxtaposition (John 1:1, 20:28–31; Hebrews 1:8–9; 2 Peter 1:1–2). So we need to address the balanced teaching of Scripture.
When Jesus speaks of the God of Israel, he calls him Father, and when speaking of the Father he clearly identifies him as God (Matt 6:6–15; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21; John 4:23; 5:21–27; 8:54; 12:28; 14:13; 20:17; Phil 2:11). But “Father” language is never used in the Bible in an abstract, impersonal way to name God; God as “father” in the Bible always involves God being the Father of someone. Calling the creator God “Father” is primarily a perspective introduced by Jesus. In the Old Testament, there are few references to God as father and they are always relational (e.g. Deut 32:6), never in the heathen sense of God “begetting” his creation. In the New Testament, the Father is explicitly equated with God, but always as the Father of Jesus and, by adoption, the Father of those in Christ. Paul and other New Testament writers refer to God as “Our Father,” “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “God the Father” on many occasions and speak of the believers’ adoption through Christ.
The Father of Jesus Christ is clearly God, but “God” is not just the Father. Jesus Christ, Son of God, has the attributes of God; in him dwells all God’s fullness (Col 1:19, 2:9). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are often linked together in the New Testament in “triadic formulae,” such as 2 Cor 13:14, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” also 1 Cor 12:4–6, Eph 4:4–6 and 1 Pet 1:2. The Great Commission of Jesus to his disciples was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (onoma; singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Here the one name of God encompasses Father, Son and Spirit. We don’t read, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the angels/ prophets/ patriarchs/ Moses/ virgin Mary/ apostles,” and rightly so. No other being can be put in the same category as Father, Son or Holy Spirit; all other beings are created, they are not God, are not to be worshipped (Rom 1:25) and it would be blasphemous to baptise in their name.
The Holy Spirit is grouped with Father and Son in a unified and equivalent sense.
God works in his people, imparting various gifts; this is the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:6, 11). Sometimes the Spirit is called the Spirit of God, at other times the Spirit of Christ (e.g. Rom 8:9-11; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11; 1 John 4:2) The Holy Spirit was sent from the Father and from the Son and in this way Jesus was said to be with them; he is “the Other Comforter” (John 14:16–18, 26; 15:26; 16:7–8, 13-15; 20:22; Acts 1:4–5; 2:38; 5:32). There is an intimate working relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what one does, the others are also involved with and said to also be doing. Therefore, it is important to realize that whilst unqualified use of the name “God” in the New Testament generally means the Father (being addressed or spoken of by his children), this is not always the case, and “God” in both Testaments encompasses more than the Father. The Son and the Holy Spirit, in some way, must also be taken into account when coming to terms with who and what God is, what he does and how he works. This must be done whilst simultaneously acknowledging that God is one; there are not three Gods and that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct; they are not the same “person” and they have different but complementary roles. The Son and the Spirit, together with the Father comprise the unique identity of the one true God.
How then shall we understand the distinctiveness of Father and Son without sacrificing the divinity of the Son or the unity of the Godhead? One of the early heresies of the Christian church, as it struggled to understand the divinity of Jesus and his relationship to the Father, was modalism. Modalism treats the Father, Son and Spirit as different “modes” of the Godhead, in an attempt to safeguard against tritheism, the false doctrine that there are three Gods, and to uphold the unity of the Godhead. Modalists concluded that there was one God, and that his self-revelation took place in different ways (modes) at different times. Chronological modalism, also called Sabellianism, holds that these roles were successive; God was the Father at one point in history, the Son at a subsequent point and finally God appears as Spirit. Functional modalism taught that God operates in different modes simultaneously. The danger in this view, and the reason it was rejected as an appropriate explanation of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit by the mainstream church, is that it blurs or eliminates the distinctions between the three. It was to combat the error of modalism that the Athanasian Creed included the prohibition against “confounding the Persons . . . for there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son and another of the Holy Spirit.” When Scripture speaks of Father, Son and Holy Spirit they are distinctive identities, interacting concurrently, not merely modes of being. This was particularly evident at Jesus’ baptism.
“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:16–17).
The first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, was uniquely the Son of God by virtue of his incarnation and conception in the womb of the virgin Mary. He is frequently referred to as Son of God and repeatedly spoke of God as his Father. Trinitarian Christians understand that the Son has always been “the Son” in eternal relationship to “the Father,” and that these terms do not originate solely with the virginal conception. Jesus came to reveal the Fatherhood of God, something intrinsic to God himself, and something that had always been part of the relationships within the Godhead (John 5:37, 43; 6:46; 7:29; 8:19, 42; 17:5; Matt 11:27). Jesus Christ the Son of God and God the Father interact in an extraordinarily and uniquely close relationship, but they have different roles and they are different persons. Proving a distinction between the Father and his Son does not refute the doctrine of the Trinity. In fact, orthodox trinitarianism is equally concerned to avoid modalism as it is to avoid subordinationism, unitarianism and tritheism.
The Father sent the Son into the world; he proceeded forth and came from God, where he shared the Father’s glory from before the world began (John 3:16–17; 8:42; 10:36; 17:3, 5, 8; Gal 4:4; 1 John 4:10, 14). The Son did not operate autonomously from the Father whilst on earth. The Son does nothing of himself, but does what the Father does; he seeks the will of his Father (John 5:17–20, 30). He came in his Father’s name (John 5:43) and the Father set his seal on him (John 6:27). Because he came from God, Jesus knows the Father in a unique way (Matt 11:27; John 7:28–29).
In coming into the world, the Son set aside, not his divinity, but the privileges that were his right; he humbled himself, taking the form of a servant, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Phil 2:5–8, Mark 10:45). Jesus prayed to his Father (Mark 1:35, 6:46, Luke 6:12, 11:1) and subjected his will to the Father’s (Luke 22:42). He obeyed his Father (Luke 2:49; Matt 26:39; John 5:30; 14:31; Acts 3:13, 26; Rom 15:3; Heb 3:2; 5:7–8; 10:9). His teaching had its origin in the Godhead (John 7:16–17) as was fitting for the Word made flesh.
Scripture testifies both to the distinction between Father and Son (John 14:28; 15:1; Acts 2:32; 1 Cor 15:24–28; Eph 1:3; Heb 1:5, 9) and the unity to their relationship, a unique association that transcends a normal father-son relationship.
“But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’ This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise’” (John 5:17–19).
For the Son to be able to do whatever the Father does, he must be divine, and in perfect unity with him. Father and Son work together, not separately or at crossed purposes. All must “honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29). “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). “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” (John 14:10).
These passages, and many others, express the unity of Father and Son, but they do not blur the distinctions between them. As we shall see in a future blog on the subordination of the Son to the Father, Father, Son and Holy Spirit each have distinct roles, even as they act in unity toward their creation, mutually glorifying and indwelling one another. They are in a sense a community of love, but not in any disparate sense; there is one God, whom we are privileged to know and to relate to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier who in his love draws us to him as adopted children, so that we too may cry, Abba, Father.
Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) Explains in detail how the worship of Jesus Christ was embraced by the early church without compromising true monotheism, and how Jesus shares in the unique identity of God
Charles Sherlock, God on the Inside: Trinitarian Spirituality (Canberra: Acorn Press, 1991) Discusses who God is, as Father, Son and Spirit and what it means to live in relationship with the triune God.