Jesus: One with the Father, distinct from the Father

Q. Our Bible group is wondering if you can give us your thoughts on the following question from your John study guide so we can better understand what you were thinking when you asked the question (in Session 20, 2nd discussion section):

In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks both of his unity with the Father (“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”) and of their distinct personalities (“the Father is greater than I”). They are one, but they’re distinct. What are the dangers of losing sight of either side of this paradox, and saying either that the Father and Son aren’t distinct, or that they aren’t one?

As I mention in that particular discussion section, the unity that Jesus enjoys with the Father even while the two of them remain distinct persons is “one of the most profound and difficult concepts in the gospel of John.”  So I’m not surprised that you’ve asked about this question, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to expand on it a bit further here.

Basically I wanted groups like yours that are working through the gospel of John to think about what is lost from the paradoxical but magnificently balanced picture we get in that book of Jesus’ relationship with the Father if we lose sight of either their unity or their distinctness.

For example, if we see Jesus as operating too independently from the Father (losing sight of their unity), we might conclude that he is able to do the significant things he does simply because he’s divine himself.  In that case, we miss out on the way Jesus in his humanity provides an example and model for all of us of how to be a channel for God’s powerful works through attentive obedience.  Jesus explains earlier in the gospel, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”  This is the phenomenon of “co-operation” (working together) that I explain in Session 21 of the study guide and it is a model for all followers of Jesus today.

On the other hand, if we lose sight of the way Jesus is nevertheless a distinct person from the Father, we might make the mistake of believing that he was in some way just an “appearance” or “manifestation” of God on earth.  In that case he would not have taken up our humanity and he would not have become the agent of our salvation as a representative of the entire human race, as a “second Adam” (as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians).  Or, as the second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon expressed it (as described in this post), “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”  If Jesus was just a “manifestation” of God and he did not take on our humanity, then he did not redeem that humanity.

In addition, if we don’t see Jesus and the Father as distinct, then we can fail to recognize the amazing community between persons that lies at the heart of the Godhead.  John writes in his first epistle that “God is love,” and we come to appreciate some of what this profound declaration means when we recognize that a loving community between persons that has existed from all eternity, and which will have no ending, is a constitutive part of the very essence of God.

I wonder, however, whether in expanding on my original question here I might be introducing further profound and difficult concepts in order to try to explain the first one!  But that’s the nature of John’s gospel:  it poses profound paradoxes for our consideration, but it then rewards us with deeper insights into the character of God when we ponder them, even though we can never resolve them completely.  Those are the rewards I wanted for groups like yours when I invited reflection on the paradox of Jesus’ simultaneous oneness with and distinction from the Father.

I hope you continue to have a good experience using the John study guide in your group, and thanks again for your question!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is writer and biblical scholar who was a also pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. He is the author of After Chapters and Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations and of the volumes in the Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series. He has a B.A. in literature from Harvard, a master's degree in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought from Boston College.

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