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Merely ‘a’ God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses on Jesus

The Jehovah's Witnesses have to jump through some pretty tight hoops to say that Jesus wasn't God.

Trent Horn

The doorbell rings, and you peer through the peephole. Standing on your doorstep is a man in a suit and a woman in a tasteful dress. They don’t look like your average salespeople, so you open the door. It turns out they are here to see if you “hope for a better world” or if you “wonder if the Bible is still relevant.” They offer you free magazines and say they’re willing to study the Bible with you at your convenience.

The guests at your front door are Jehovah’s Witnesses, part of a religious group founded in the 1870s that has nearly 8 million members worldwide.  And they have a counterfeit version of Jesus. The central belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses is that there is one God, and his name is Jehovah. According to them, Jehovah created a “Son,” and it was through this Son that he created the rest of the world. This Son, whom we now call Jesus, has the same “spirit nature” as his Father, which makes him “a god” or “a mighty god.”  

However, the Son is still a creation of the Father, and so he is not the “true God” and should not be worshiped. As their Awake! magazine says, “[T]rue Christians do well to direct their worship only to Jehovah God, the Almighty.” 

Is Jesus an angel?

Since the Witnesses believe that Jesus is the highest or most glorious of God’s creatures, and they consider archangels to be the highest of the angels, it follows for them that Jesus must be an archangel. And since Michael is called “the archangel,” that means there is only one archangel, and so Michael and Jesus must be the same. The sect claims: 

The only other verse in which an archangel is mentioned is 1 Thessalonians 4:16, where Paul describes the resurrected Jesus, saying: “The Lord [Jesus] himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet.” So Jesus Christ himself is here identified as the archangel, or chief angel (“Is Jesus the Archangel Michael?”, The Watchtower, April 1, 2010).

But calling Michael the archangel in Jude 1:9 doesn’t prove that Michael is the only archangel any more than calling Sonic the Hedgehog proves he is the only hedgehog. Neither does describing Jesus as descending “with an archangel’s voice” require us to conclude that he is an archangel. (The same verse also says that Jesus will descend with God’s trumpet, but that doesn’t mean Jesus is a trumpet.) It means only that Jesus’ voice will have the quality of an archangel’s voice, or that he will be accompanied by angels who will shout for him. 

Besides, the Bible explicitly teaches that Jesus is superior to all the angels, including the archangels. The author of Hebrews 1:4-6 writes that Jesus has become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs. For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him” (Heb. 1:4-6). 

Angels don’t worship other angels; they worship only God. Since Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is Michael the archangel, their New World Translation of the Bible (NWT) avoids the situation of angels worshiping another angel by rendering this passage, “Let all of God’s angels do obeisance to him.” 

Obeisance means to bow down in respect for another person. In Exodus 18:7, Moses made obeisance to his father-in-law, Jethro; and in 1 Kings 1:16, Bathsheba bowed before King David. These instances of obeisance merely describe paying solemn respect to someone. They do not describe the kind of worship one would give to God. 

The Greek word in Hebrews 1:6 that Jehovah’s Witnesses translate “obeisance” is proskuneo. This word can indeed refer to simple bowing or showing a sign of respect to someone in authority. But it can also refer to the kind of worship given to God alone.  

Interestingly, elsewhere the NWT renders proskuneo as “worship” when the verb has God the Father as its direct object (e.g., John 4:20-23). It even translates it as “worship” when it is used to describe the worship of a false god, such as the Beast in Revelation 13. But when proskuneo is used of Jesus, the NWT always translates it as “obeisance” and never as “worship.” 

This may be appropriate in verses that describe people paying respect to Jesus, such as when the mother of James and John knelt before Jesus prior to requesting that he give her sons special authority (Matt. 20:20). But there are other verses where context makes it clear that worship is the most appropriate word to use. These include Luke 24:52 and Matthew 28:9, both of which refer to the apostles worshiping Jesus after his resurrection. After Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Matthew 14:33 tells us, “Those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’”  

In the Old Testament, only God possessed power over the weather and the sea. Biblical scholar Moran Hooker points out that even though the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41), to the reader of the Gospel “the answer to their question is obvious. It is God who made the sea, and God alone who controls it (Ps. 89:8). The authority with which Jesus acts is that of God himself” (The Gospel According to Mark, 140). 

‘A god,’ not God?

Jehovah’s Witnesses often say Jesus is “a god” but not “the true God.” But that raises a question: “If Jesus is not the true God, is he a false god?” The New Testament never says Jesus is “a god” or merely “a mighty god.”  

In fact, John describes Jesus as the Word made flesh (1:14) and declares in the first verse of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Because this verse identifies Jesus as God, the NWT translates it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God” (emphasis added). 

Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught early in their Bible studies to say something like this in response to John 1:1: “The correct translation is ‘The Word was a god,’ not ‘The Word was God.’ That’s because the Greek word for God in this passage, theos, does not have the Greek article [i.e., the word the] in front of it in the original text.” 

It’s true that the original Greek text of John 1:1 does not have the Greek word for the before “God.” However, that doesn’t mean that the indefinite article a should be put there. Greek doesn’t have indefinite articles, so translators insert them based on the context of the passage. The Witnesses simply assume that in this context, the Word is not God. 

Yet they don’t consistently follow their own rules of translation. Just a few verses later, the evangelist says of John the Baptist, “There came a man who was sent as a representative of God [theos]; his name was John” (1:6). As in John 1:1, theos lacks the definite article, but here it is not translated as “a God.”  

In their defense of the divinity of Christ, Robert Bowman and J. Ed Komosewski note: 

If John had meant to signal that ho theos meant “God” and theos meant “a god,” his wording in the rest of the prologue (1:1-18) is very strange. After verse 2, which summarizes the first two clauses of verse 1, theos appears five times in the prologue, each time without the article, and in the first four occurrences everyone agrees it means “God” (vv. 6, 12, 13, 18a, 18b) (Putting Jesus in His Place, 141).

Before Abraham was . . .

We’ve seen how John also records Jesus using the sacred divine name (“I am”), which confirms that Jesus is the eternal Word that has become man (8:58). This verse is so contradictory to Jehovah’s Witness theology that their Bible has Jesus say in John 8:58, “Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”  

According to them, Jesus was merely claiming preexistence, or being a very ancient part of Jehovah’s creation. He was not claiming to be Jehovah himself, since he did not exactly utter the sacred divine name. 

Is there a good reason to think that John 8:58 should be translated, “Before Abraham was, I have been” instead of “Before Abraham was, I am?” 

In Greek, the verse reads, prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi. The part we are concerned with is the last part: ego eimi. Ego means “I,” and eimi is the Greek word for the verb “to be.” So, where John 10:9 reads in Greek, ego eimi he thyra, we translate it as Jesus saying, “I am the door,” not “I have been the door.”  

Ego eimi is a simple phrase to translate in Greek, and it makes sense to translate in John 8:58 as “I am,” not “I have been.” In fact, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) describes God revealing his name to Moses in Exodus 3:14 as ego eimi, or “I AM.” 

But what about when Jesus says, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)? If Jesus is God, shouldn’t he be equal to the Father? 

Well, just because someone is described as being greater than another person does not mean that person is greater in being, as it is in the claim that humans are greater than plants. In Scripture this isn’t the case. Among the apostles, for example, St. James the Greater (the son of Zebedee) and St. James the Lesser (possibly the son of Alphaeus) possess titles that refer to the former being taller or older than the latter. It can also refer to one person having more authority or a higher position than another person. 

When Jesus says the Father is “greater,” he means that the Father holds a higher position than he does. Christ was in a “lesser” position than the Father during his earthly ministry because he set aside his divine glory in order to become man (Phil. 2:7). That’s why Scripture says that during his earthly life, Jesus was for “a little while lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7).  

But after his resurrection Jesus fully manifested his divine glory. As a result of this exaltation, “God bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). 

Jesus is worshiped

The fact that Jesus returns to his original status alongside the Father in order to sit at his “right hand” (Acts 7:55) means he has an equal position with the Father, which is indeed cause for rejoicing. The disciples should not mourn Jesus leaving, because Jesus is going to reign as their “Lord and God.” In fact, after his resurrection, Jesus allows Thomas to call him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). 

This is astonishing, because in the New Testament, whenever an apostle is mistaken for God, he corrects those who are worshiping him (Acts 14:14-15). In Revelation 19:10, the apostle John falls at the feet of an angel to worship him, but the angel tells him, “You must not do that!” When Herod Agrippa (the grandson of Herod the Great, who sought to kill Jesus when he was an infant) gives an address to the people of Tyre and Sidon, they shout in response, “The voice of a god, and not of man!” Luke then tells us, “Immediately an angel of the Lord smote him, because he did not give God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). 

Yet Jesus did not correct Thomas or tell him to “give God the glory.” No angel smote him. This should lead us to the conclusion that there was nothing to correct. Thomas’s statement of faith speaks the truth. If that is the case, then we should imitate Thomas and not be afraid to address Jesus as our “Lord and God” as well. 

Some Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Thomas was so overcome with joy that he didn’t know what he was saying. But in other Scripture passages we are told explicitly when the apostles say something they don’t mean. After Jesus’ transfiguration, for instance, Peter says impulsively that he will build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In response to this exclamation, Luke describes Peter as “not knowing what he said” (Luke 9:33), and Mark says that Peter “did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid” (Mark 9:6). 

Jehovah’s Witnesses also can’t say that Thomas was merely making an exclamation, as how some people say, “Oh my God!” when they are surprised. Even in the NWT, John 20:28 says, “In answer Thomas said to him: ‘My Lord and my God!’” Thomas didn’t merely say, “My Lord and My God!” He said it to Jesus because Jesus is his (and our) Lord and God. 

SIDEBAR:

Who is Lord? Jesus or Jehovah? 

Whenever the Greek word Lord, kurios, is found in the New Testament, the NWT renders it “Jehovah”—except in verses such as Philippians 2:11, where the title is applied to Jesus. For example, a Watchtower magazine article quotes Romans 10:13 as “Everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved.” 

But Romans 10:13 doesn’t contain the word Jehovah. It says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD [kuriou] will be saved.” If the NWT were consistent, it would render Romans 10:9 as “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Jehovah and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But this consistency would come at the expense of a theology that denies that Jesus is the true God named Jehovah (whom ancient Jews knew by the name Yahweh and not Jehovah). 

SIDEBAR:

Why ‘Jehovah’?

In the Old Testament, God’s name is spelled with the consonants YHWH. It is derived from Exodus 3:14, when God says his name is “I am who I am,” which in Hebrew is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. The four letters representing God’s name, what is called the sacred tetragrammaton, was eventually considered so holy that the Jewish people did not speak it. This was done to ensure that no one broke the second commandment, “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.”  

But this presented a problem, because when the Jewish people read the Old Testament, they encountered the name YHWH more than 6,000 times. In order to read the text, they replaced YHWH with the Hebrew word for Lord, or adonai 

Over time, this practice caused the original pronunciation of the name to be lost, but Jewish sources have not accepted the pronunciation “Jehovah.” The rendering of “Jehovah” came about in the eleventh century, when monks combined the Latin rendering of the tetragrammaton, or JHVH, with the vowels in the word Adonai, which gave us Jah-hov-ai, or Jeho-vah.  

If using the name Jehovah was so important, as Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, then why is it not cited anywhere in the New Testament? Why doesn’t Jesus say to pray to Jehovah when he teaches his disciples to say the Lord’s Prayer? Some Witnesses claim that the name “Jehovah” did appear in the original New Testament manuscripts, but later heretical scribes removed it. However, there is no evidence from any ancient manuscripts for this claim, and so it is just an unprovable, and therefore dismissible, conspiracy theory. 

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