While John 17:5 and other verses point to Christ’s deity, critics often highlight John 14:28, which reads, “The Father is greater than I.” Was Jesus a lesser God? Was he equal to the Father, or was he some sort of junior God, possessing the attributes of deity and yet somehow failing to match the total sketch of the divine that the Old Testament provides?
John 17:5 is one of the many verses that clearly indicates that Jesus fully shared the divine attributes and as such is worthy of worship. As the Creator of the world, God was the First Cause of all creation. If the statement in this verse is true, how does John 14:28 affect its meaning?
Reading the context of John 14 makes a big difference in determining the correct meaning of John 14:28. In this chapter, the disciples were distressed because Jesus told them he was going away. Jesus says, “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). That is to say, Jesus is returning to the glory that is properly his, so if they really know who he is and really love him properly, they will be glad that he’s going back to the realm where he really is greater.
When you use a category like “greater,” it doesn’t have to mean ontologically greater. If someone says, “The president of the United States is greater than I,” that person would not be saying that the president is an ontologically superior being. While it’s true that the president is greater in military capability, political prowess and public acclaim, he’s not more of a person than anyone else. We’re all equal human beings.
Because of his ministry on Earth, Jesus was limited by the incarnation—he’s going to the cross; he’s going to die—but he’s about to return to the Father and to the glory he had with the Father before the world began, as seen in verses like John 17:5.
Adapted from interview with Dr. D. A. Carson