Jesus always obeys his Father—see, for instance, John 5:19 and 6:38. Let’s pause and ask why. The answer we reach may just reshape our own obedience.
Was the Father so much greater than the Son in his being—his substance—that a proper obedience was what the Father required of him? Did the archheretic, Arius, and his modern day followers, the JW’s, actually get it right that only the Father is “true” God—the unoriginated one—with the Son slotted as a second-tier deity, created by God in order to create everything else?
Or is Jesus just as eternal as the Father—as the Bible represents him and all the church creeds affirm—so that he is no less than fully God with the Father? If so—and that’s the conviction I embrace here—then the Son’s obedience is based on something other than a divine necessity imposed by a greater God on a lesser god. But even if Jesus is fully equal to the Father but always obeys him we’re back to our starting point: why?
Let me pose another possibility: Jesus obeys the Father because there exists a heavenly set of laws assigned by the Father to define their divine relationship. When the Logos became man, one might argue, he had a copy of the Ten Commandments—and all the other duties assigned to him by the Father—in his hip pocket. And with that his main task in the incarnation was to review those laws from time to time in order to make sure he kept them in everything he did; and then to coach all his followers in how to do the same. Jesus, by this measure, had a contract to keep and the stipulations of the contract defined his relationship with the Father. And his goodness, in turn, was affirmed and displayed by his completion of all these duties. We then are to live like Christ by obeying all that the Father expects of us. In so doing we validate our own goodness as properly obedient disciples who can, in turn, be assured of salvation.
Now let me pose still another option: Jesus obeys the Father because, as the eternal Son, he always responds to the loving initiatives of the Father. That is, the communion of the Triune God has a label: love. So that this God who “is love” (1 John 4:8&16) exists in an eternal bond between an eternal initiator of love, the Father, and an eternal responder to that love, the Son; and they share one Spirit between them who eternally supports the reciprocity of their love. The Son expresses his love by only and always embracing the initiatives the Father offers him: “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:19-20). So this is an obedience of love: the devotion of a responder to the one he loves. And the faithful Father always leads on the basis of his love for the Son.
If this last option is true—and I’ll stake my life on the certainty that it is—then our own obedience, once we become responders to the Son in faith, is to live in the same reciprocity that unites the Father and the Son by the Spirit. Listen, then, to Jesus speaking to his disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:9-11).
Now an assessment: the perpetual error of many professing Christians has been to discard, happily, option one and then to commit the faux pas of misreading God’s being by landing in option two. The second option—a life of eternal duty to a demanding law-giver—is the Galatian error. What a devotion to contractual law does is to insert something between God and humanity so that law is made the bonding feature between both Jesus and the Father; and between Jesus and us. And, for a reminder, law in itself is never the key issue—laws simply define “good” behaviors—so the underlying premise is that goodness is affiliated with such behaviors: that we are “good” because we do the “good deeds” God wants from us. Aristotle, a pagan, taught this and Martin Luther called him “the worst enemy of grace” for saying so; and Luther grieved that the church of his day held to such a scheme.
What is it, then, that orients and motivates a proper faith? The obedience of love. To know Christ is to love him. And to love him is to delight in whatever he calls us to embrace. Is it mediated by a set of moral steps that we need to climb in order to prove our worth? No! Our goodness comes by our now being “in Christ” who offers us the life and love of the Father by the Spirit who lives in us and pours out the eternal Triune love in our hearts. We simply respond, just as the Son responds to the Father, by obeying.
So we find the “why” answered by love. Let me ask, in turn: what version of obedience do you embrace?