One argument deployed by unitarians and Nicene subordinationists is to assert a fundamental asymmetry between the Father and the Son: the Father sends the Son, but the Son never sends the Father. The Father tells the Son what do to, but the Son never tells the Father what to do.
Let’s examine the first claim first. The problem with the first claim is the inference that being sent connotes a subordinate status. No doubt there are examples in which that’s the case. A centurion dispatches a lower-ranking officer.
However, in Johannine usage, the sending of the Son is linked to where he comes from. For instance:
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.6: 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.7: 33 Jesus then said, “I will be with you a little longer, and then I am going to him who sent me.”10: 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.
The point is to accentuate the fact that the Son is not from this world. The Son is not a creature.
This is reinforced by a further fact. The passages I quoted are book-ended by these statements:
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.17:5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
The Son doesn’t come from heaven the way an angel comes from heaven. He isn’t sent in that sense. Rather, he is from heaven in the same sense that the Father is from heaven, as well as the Spirit (e.g. Jn 1:32-33). I don’t mean the Father comes from heaven. Rather, the Father is from heaven.
We need to distinguish two differences senses of heavenly language:
i) Oftentimes in Scripture, heaven is a part of the created order. A place where exalted creatures (saints, angels) dwell with God.
ii) However, the Fourth Gospel also uses heavenly language, not to describe a created place, but to distinguish God’s exclusive domain from the world. In this sense, heaven is not a part of the world. It doesn’t belong to the created order. Rather, it’s a spatial metaphor for God’s unique mode of subsistence. That which is only God, in distinction to that which is not God (i.e. the world). The Son is a heavenly being, just like the Father (and the Spirit).
Now let’s examine the second claim. Is it true that the Father always tells the Son what to do, while the Son never tells the Father what to do? In Jn 17, isn’t the Son telling the Father what to do?
17:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.”5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
I think Christian readers miss that accent because we tend to unconsciously turn the imperatives into petitions, as if Jesus is merely asking the Father to do these things. And that’s because, when Christians pray to God, we are making requests. We are supplicants. Sinners. Creatures. We adopt a submissive posture in prayer.
But it’s a mistake to reinterpret the imperatives in Jn 17, as if the Son speaks to the Father in the same way a Christian speaks to the Father.
One might object that Jesus isn’t barking orders at the Father. Agreed. But by the same token, the Father isn’t barking orders at Jesus.
Finally, it’s striking to compare these two passages:
3:31 He who comes from above is above all.10:29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.
If we take 10:29 to mean the Father is superior to the Son, then, by parity of argument, we should take 3:31 to mean the Son is superior to the Father. If the Father being greater than all includes the Father being greater than the Son, then the Son being over all includes the Son being over the Father.
Clearly this should caution us against absolutizing comparative statements about the Father in relation to the Son, for the logic is reversible.
Indeed, we also have a specific assertion of the Son’s equality with the Father:
5:18 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.