You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.
— John 14:28 —
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
— Philippians 2:6–7 —
In his excellent treatise on the trinity, De Trinitate, Augustine of Hippo masterfully explains the various ways in which Scripture speaks of Jesus—sometimes in the form of God, sometimes in the form of a servant. In the following quote, he reflects on the way in which John 14:28 and Philippians 2:6, at first glance, appear to make the Son look less than the Father—a doctrinal heresy known as subordinationism.
In his explanation, Augustine reminds us all that Scripture when speaking about the God-man Jesus Christ will of necessity sometimes speak of him as lesser than he is. This is not to deny his status as co-equal (of one essence) with the Father. It is to recognize the limitations of finite language, and to help disciples of Christ to worship God in all of his triune glory and grace.
I encourage you to read the following quotation slowly—it comes from Book 1, section 14 of De Trinitate. Ponder it. Look up the verses (in italicizes). Read it again. And marvel at the God who is three in one, the God who became man when the Son of God took on the form of a servant.
Because of the Word of God’s incarnation, which for the sake of restoring us to health took place that the man Christ Jesus might be mediator of God and man (1 Tm 2:5), many things are said in the holy books to suggest, or even state openly that the Father is greater than the Son. This has misled people who are careless about examining or keeping in view the whole range of the scriptures, and they have tried to transfer what is said of Christ Jesus as man to that substance of his which was everlasting before the incarnation and is everlasting still. They say that the Son is less than the Father because it is written in the Lord’s own words, The Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28); the truth, however, shows that as far as that goes the Son is less even than himself. How could it be otherwise with him who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:7)?
For he did not so take the form of a servant that he lost the form of God in which he was equal to the Father. So if the form of a servant was taken on in such a way that the form of God was not lost—since it is the same only begotten Son of the Father who is both in the form of a servant and in the form of God, equal to the Father in the form of God, in the form of a servant the mediator of God and men the man Christ Jesus—who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion.
And this rule for solving this question in all the sacred Scriptures is laid down for us in this one passage of the apostle Paul’s letter, where the distinction is clearly set out. He says: Who being in the form of God thought it no robbery to be equal to God, yet he emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, in condition found as a man (Phil 2:6). So the Son of God is God the Father’s equal by nature, by condition his inferior. In the form of a servant which he took he is the Father’s inferior; in the form of God in which he existed even before he took this other he is the Father’s equal. In the form of God, the Word through whom all things were made (Jn 1:3); in the form of a servant, one made of woman, made under the law, to redeem those who were under the law (Gal 4:4). Accordingly, in the form of God he made man, in the form of a servant he was made man. For if the Father only without the Son had made man, it would not have been written Let us make man to our image and likeness (Gn 1:26).
In conclusion then, because the form of God took on the form of a servant, each is God and each is man, but each is God because of God taking on, and each is man because of man taken on. Neither of them was turned or changed into the other by that ‘take-over’; neither godhead changed into creature and ceasing to be godhead, nor creature changed into godhead and ceasing to be creature. (De Trinitate, 74––75)
Soli Deo Gloria, ds