by Luke Wayne
No, Jesus' position at the right hand of the Father does not make Jesus a lower sort of being than God the Father nor does it contradict Jesus' deity. There are various forms of this argument, but none of them actually establish anything that proves Jesus not to be divine or that conflicts with a proper understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The argument centers around the opening of Psalm 110, a chapter quite frequently cited in the New Testament in reference to Christ:
"The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet,'" (Psalm 110:1).
Like most arguments against the Trinity, arguments based on this verse generally must do one of three things:
- Misrepresent what Trinitarians actually believe
- Falsely assume that a distinction in role or function must mean inferiority in nature
- Ignore the significance of the incarnation
So, let's observe the three forms of this argument that make each of these three errors.
Misrepresenting the Trinity
The most simplistic form of this argument, one that I have heard from many Jehovah's Witnesses over the years, goes something like this:
- The Father speaks to Jesus, and Jesus sits at the Father's right hand
- This means that Jesus is different than the Father
- Therefore, Jesus is not God
The problem here is that the doctrine of the Trinity specifically states that Jesus is not the Father. The whole point of this argument is to show that Jesus and the Father are distinct persons, but that is already exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches! The doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that 1) there is one and only one Being that is God and 2) the one God has eternally existed in three distinct persons. So facts such as that the Father sends the Son, the Son prays to the Father, and the Son sits at the right hand of the Father are all exactly what a Trinitarian would expect to see. Indeed, we see plainly at the beginning of John's Gospel that Jesus, the eternal Word who became flesh, is explicitly stated both to be with God and also be God, which is exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches:1
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God," (John 1:1-2).
So the mere fact that the Father and Son are presented in Psalm 110:1 as two distinct persons is no challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity.
False Assumptions About Function Versus Nature
A second, slightly more thoughtful version of the argument doesn't argue from the mere distinction between the persons but rather from their apparent disparity in position. "If Jesus is at the right hand of the Father," they will point out, "Isn't that an indication that Jesus is lower than the Father?" They claim that a position at the right hand of a king was a position lower than that of the king himself. It was an honored post, but the honor derived from the fact that the king, being the highest one, allowed you (a lower official) the privileged place by his side. While sitting at God's right hand was certainly a high post, they will claim, it was a position lower than that of God Himself. Such a conclusion, however, is grossly in error.
First of all, it must be noted that if one is inherently superior to the person at their right hand, Psalm 110 also claims that the Son is superior to God! While verse one speaks of the Son sitting at the right hand of the LORD, the Psalm later says:
"The LORD is at Your right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath," (Psalm 110:5).
So the LORD is also said to be at the Messiah's right hand. We, therefore, cannot read inferiority into the "right hand" imagery.
More importantly, however, we have to address the root assumption. Just because two persons serve different roles or functions does not mean that one is inferior to the other in essence or being. I am subject to my earthly father. There is voluntary submission and loving authority in the relationship between us. Yet we are both men. We are both of the very same nature. We are equal in essence but distinct in function. The same is true of my wife and I. Our roles in the household are very different, but we are equal in value and in the nature of our being. How much more would this be the case in the persons of the Trinity, three persons who are literally the very same living Being? When God chooses to act in creation and redemption, the persons of the Trinity take on distinct roles and functions in the divine work, but this difference in action and role does not mean that the Father is one being and the Son is a different and lesser sort of being. As one Trinitarian Scholar explains the issue:
"Here is a basic, simple truth that is lost in the vast majority of discussions (or arguments) on this topic: Difference in function does not indicate inferiority of nature. Not exactly an earth-shattering concept? It isn't, but the vast majority of material produced by those who oppose the deity of Christ ignores this basic truth. What do I mean? It's really quite simple. Let's take a common argument against the deity of Christ: 'The Father is the Creator of all things. He creates through Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus Christ is not fully God.' Or here's another argument against the deity of the Spirit: 'The Spirit is sent to testify of Jesus Christ and convict the world of sin. Since the Spirit is sent by the Father, the Spirit cannot truly be God.' Both arguments share the same error: they ignore the above cited truth, difference in function does not indicate inferiority of nature."2
So, the place of the Son at the right hand of the Father does not make the Son a lesser being. It merely tells us something about the roles and relationship between the persons of the Trinity. The imagery of Psalm 110 is perfectly consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity and in no way undermines the deity of Christ.
The Significance of the Incarnation
The final and most sophisticated version of the argument points to the fact that the Father tells Jesus to "sit at my right hand." This implies, they argue, that Jesus was not previously at the right hand of God but was only now being elevated to that position. They further point to Peter's commentary on the passage in Acts 2:
"Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified," (Acts 2:33-36).
"Having been exalted..." "Having received from the Father..." "God has made Him both Lord and Christ." Don't these phrases show that Jesus was less than God and that God exalted Him to His high position? It is important here to repeat the point made in response to the previous objection, that a distinction in role or function does not imply inequality in nature, but there is much more that also needs to be said.
Psalm 110 is a Messianic Psalm. It finds its ultimate fulfillment in the promised heir of David who will reign forever as king of Israel and Lord of the nations. This prophecy is not simply about the Son of God as an eternal person in the Triune Godhead, but quite specifically about the incarnate Son who took on flesh and became a man, a "descendant of David according to the flesh," (Romans 1:3), so as to fulfill the promise of a perfect and righteous king in David's line who would atone for sins and reign forever.
As Psalm 110 later expresses it, He was to be "a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek," (Psalm 110:4) and also to "rule in the midst of your enemies," (Psalm 110:2). The promise is of an immortal priest-king! One who both serves as high priest to make atonement and also one who rules and judges as lord and master. This is why Jesus became a man. The eternal Son of God did not cease to be God, but He took on a human nature and clothed Himself in mortal flesh. As we noted above, John's gospel opens with the teaching:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being," (John 1:1-3).
The Word is Creator. He is both with God and is God. And we are told:
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth," (John 1:14).
Jesus came down in the humble state of humanity, but we are constantly reminded:
"He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all," (John 3:31).
"And He was saying to them, 'You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins," (John 8:23-24).
"No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man," (John 3:13).
"For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me," (John 6:38).
"I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh," (John 6:51).
And in various other ways, we are reminded that Jesus is the eternal, divine Word who came down from heaven and took on human flesh. As He approached His death on the cross, He prayed:
"Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was," (John 17:5).
So, the glorious place at the right hand of the Father where Jesus rose to sit was a return. He ascended back to the heavenly glory He had departed for our sakes. As Paul writing to the Philippians also reminds us:
"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men," (Philippians 2:5-7).
Jesus existed in the form of God but took on the form of man in humility. It was Jesus in the flesh who died for our sins and Jesus as a man born in the line of David according to the flesh who could be appointed Messiah, the promised king. To fulfill the sacred promise, God the Son became a man. He suffered human death, took back up His human life in resurrection, and ascended as both God and Man to the right hand of the Father. He will reign forever on the throne of David as our Messiah and Lord. In this, the promise of Psalm 110 is fulfilled, and none of this contradicts the doctrine of the Trinity.
A New Testament View of Psalm 110
Having answered the objection, it is worth also noting the positive case that Psalm 110 makes for Jesus' deity in eyes of the New Testament writers. In three of the gospels, Jesus raises the Psalm to His critics:
"Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question: 'What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?' They said to Him, 'The son of David.' He said to them, 'Then how does David in the Spirit call Him "Lord," saying, "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, Until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet'"? If David then calls Him "Lord," how is He his son?' No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question," (Matthew 22:41-46, see also Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44).
So, while the Messiah (or the Christ) is indeed a son of David according to the flesh, Jesus makes the case that Psalm 110 proves that the Messiah must also be something much more. David calls the Messiah "Lord," or "Master." In the ancient world, a father (and especially a king) would not call their own son "Master." For the Messiah to be King David's sovereign, he must be something greater than merely a royal heir to David's throne. So whose Son is He? Jesus' point in the gospels is obviously that He is God's Son, and in a very unique and powerful sense of the term! When we arrive at Jesus' trial, we read:
"But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, 'Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?' And Jesus said, 'I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.' Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, 'What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?' And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death," (Mark 14:61-64, see also Matthew 26:63-66).
Jesus combines Daniel 7's prophecy of the Son of Man with Psalm 110's Messiah who "sits at the right hand." The authorities see this as blasphemy and call for Jesus' execution! They understood that He was placing Himself equal with God, not inferior to God. Likewise, during the trial of Stephen in the Book of Acts, we read:
"But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul," (Acts 7:55-58).
Stephen is stoned for claiming that Jesus is at the right hand of God as Psalm 110:1 says. Clearly, they did not see this as a claim of inferiority to God. The Book of Hebrews cites a number of Psalms in reference to Jesus:
"But of the Son He says, 'Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, And the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness above Your companions.' And, 'You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the works of Your hands; They will perish, but You remain; And they all will become old like a garment, And like a mantle You will roll them up; Like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.' But to which of the angels has He ever said, 'Sit at My right hand, Until I make Your enemies A footstool for Your feet'?" (Hebrews 1:8-13).
The Son is directly called God, identified as YHWH and as the eternal creator, and right alongside these citations the Son is also identified as the one at the right hand of the Father. Thus, the right hand of the Father is a position of equality with the Father, not inferiority. Jesus is God, the eternal Word, the divine Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. He sits at the right hand of the Father in glory as the Lord of all.