The Jehovah’s Witness religion is a cult of Christianity (meaning it appears to be Christian but contradicts central Christian teachings) whose leaders, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, work out of Brooklyn, New York. They have numerous aberrant views, but it would probably be more helpful to focus on one for the purposes of this paper so that it can be more fully developed and refuted. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was created by God (whom they call Jehovah) before everything else. Before the Son became a man, he existed as the Archangel Michael. He is not God Almighty, but is called in the Jehovah’s Witness Bible translation, the New World Translation, “a god” (John 1:1, NWT) and sometimes referred to in Jehovah’s Witness parlance as “a mighty god, but not God Almighty.” It might be helpful to look at the biblical verses that bear directly on this issue and see how JWs understand them in order to respond to their charges directly.
Perhaps the most direct passage in scripture that testifies to Jesus’ divinity is John chapter 1. It begins, “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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. ” (John 1:1-3, ESV). John is here paraphrasing Genesis 1, which tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. John is therefore asserting quite clearly that the one who created all things in the beginning (referred to in Genesis 1) was “the Word,” a name which John (borrowing perhaps from the Greek concept of the logos or the Aramaic concept of the memra) applies to Jesus. John doesn’t simply make this identification implicit, however. He states quite explicitly that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses bring up an interesting point on the Greek behind this sentence that helps us to illuminate John’s view of God. They note that, unlike in the clause that reads “the Word was with God,” where “God” has a definite article before it, “the Word was God” lacks the definite article before “God.” Their conclusion is thus that this clause should be translated, “the Word was A god.” There is a much better explanation for the lack of the article here, however. Daniel Wallace, an eminent textual critic and Greek scholar explains:
“Its lack of a definite article keeps us from identifying the person of the Word (Jesus Christ) with the person of ‘God’ (the Father). That is to say, the word order tells us that Jesus Christ has all the divine attributes that the Father has; lack of the article tells us that Jesus Christ is not the Father. John’s wording here is beautifully compact! It is, in fact, one of the most elegantly terse theological statements one could ever find” (http://www.puritanboard.com/f17/exegetical-insight-john-1-1c-daniel-wallace-72459/).
In other words, the lack of the article often suggests that what is being referred to is a quality, not a personal identification. John beautifully illustrates the orthodox view of the Trinity here. Jesus is not a creation of God, nor is He the same person as the Father. He is, instead, distinct from the Father but also sharing in His divine nature. Or, as some have translated it, “what God was, the Word was.” John makes this even more emphatic by reversing the word order, so that it literally reads, “and God was the Word.” Furthermore, the missing article before “God” cannot mean, as a rule, that the God being spoke of is simply “a god,” or else the NWT’s translation of John 1:18 should read, “no one has seen a god.” In fact, according to Robert Countess, there are 282 instances of theos (God) without the article in New Testament:
“At sixteen places NWT has [similar to its translation of John 1:1] either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time” (cited in Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 267).
In an issue of Watchtower magazine, a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, entitled “The Man Who Changed the World” (April 1, 2010), we read of Jesus, “He lived before he was born on earth. Jesus once said: ‘before Abraham came into existence, I have been…'”
This is a reference to John 8:58, and follows the reading in their New World Translation. The NASB, a fairly literal translation, reads this way:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM [in Greek, ‘ego eimi’].'”
This wording matches the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint or LXX) in Isaiah 43:10-11. (Jesus and the apostles were very familiar with the Septuagint and it is quoted numerous times throughout the New Testament):
“…understand that I am he [ego eimi– I AM]: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, English Translation of the Greek Septuagint).
Many have also compared this verse to Exodus 3:14, where God refers to Himself as “I AM.” Whichever verse was in the mind of the Jews listening to Jesus (Isaiah 43:10 or Exodus 3:14), they understood His meaning. In the next verse, we learn that they picked up rocks to stone Him for blasphemy because of what He had just said. It is absolutely critical that we understand what Jesus means by these words. He Himself tells us that it is:
“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 He [better translated “I AM,” Greek: “ego eimi”], you will die in your sins” (John 8:23-24, NASB). If we do not take the time to pay clear attention to what Jesus is saying here, Jesus claims that we are still in our sins (see also John 13:19 and 18:6 for references where Jesus’ invokes I AM of Himself to attest to His divinity).
For more information regarding the use of “ego eimi,” please check out this article on the subject by Dr. James White: http://vintage.aomin.org/EGO.html
In this same publication, “The Man Who Changed the World,” we read:
“Jehovah has many angelic sons. Jesus, however, is unique. He referred to himself as ‘the only-begotten Son of God.’ That expression means that Jesus is the sole direct creation of God. The only begotten Son is the one through whom God created all other things.–Colossians 1:16.”
Colossians 1:16 is a very strange verse to quote here, as this Watchtower is for use in evangelizing, not simply for study inside the Jehovah’s Witness organization. As such, anyone not reading a Jehovah’s Witness Bible (the New World Translation), would not read this verse as a proof AGAINST the deity of Christ, but for it:
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17, NASB).
The New World Translation drastically changes this verse by adding one word not in the original text– “other.” In Jehovah’s Witness theology, Jesus does not create ALL things, but all OTHER things, meaning that God created Jesus, but Jesus created everything else. However, Paul does not support such a view. He states clearly that Jesus is the cause of everything that has been created. Since Jesus cannot create Himself, He must not have been created.
The term used in this Watchtower for Jesus, “only begotten,” is not in Colossians 1:16, but it does appear in other passages, at least in some translations– “monogenes” is also often translated as “unique” or “only” and most scholars lean toward this translation. If one takes the view that it should be translated as “only,” then passages like John 1:18 would read, “No one has ever seen God; the only God [later manuscripts read “Son” instead of “God” here], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (ESV). If you take the view that “only begotten” is the proper translation, then John 1:18 would read “only begotten God.” If Jesus is begotten, does this mean that He was created? Not according to the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.), which uses this word of Jesus while still claiming that He was never created. They understood “begotten” to refer to a relationship in eternity wherein the Father is the ground of the Son, (which distinguishes the two) but not the Creator of the Son (the theological term for this is “eternal generation.” Click here for more information: http://www.wesleyantheology.com/structure-in-the-trinity.html). The term “begotten” also implies that the Son has the same nature as the Father. A man does not beget a burrito, though he might “make” one. We are adopted as God’s sons, but Jesus is “the only begotten Son.” Thus, this term does not work in the Jehovah’s Witnesses favor, since they believe that Jesus is not of the divine nature. If we do accept “only begotten” as the proper translation, this still does not undermine what the New Testament clearly says about Jesus’ divine nature.
At first glance, it’s hard to see why this passage would be used by Jehovah’s Witnesses to disprove the deity of Jesus. It reads:
“[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (ESV).
A straightforward reading would be that Jesus has the same nature of God, though He did not find it necessary to hold onto this with all of His might, but instead humbled Himself by taking on humanity and dying for our sins. Of course, in the translation Jehovah’s Witnesses use, their New World Translation, the first verse in this passage reads:
“who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.”
They therefore acknowledge that Jesus is said to exist in God’s form, though this is usually understood to mean that that Jesus existed as a spirit, like God does. But if Paul is simply saying that Jesus, like God, didn’t have a body, how is this significant to what follows? The logical flow is, “Jesus was God, however, Jesus didn’t feel the need to hold on to all of His divine rights but humbled Himself.” This is why New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado translates verse 6 as, “who, being in the form of God, did not regard this being equal to God as something to be exploited” (p. 89, Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?).
Richard Bauckham gives a similar line of reasoning, as well as a similar translation:
“The best linguistic argument suggests that the debated clause within which this phrase occurs is best understood: ‘he did not think equality with God something to be used for his own advantage’.” (p. 207, Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel).
Of translations that disagree with theirs, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, “It is apparent that [other translators] are bending the rules to support Trinitarian ends. Far from saying that Jesus thought it was appropriate to be equal to God, the Greek of Philippians 2:6, when read objectively, shows just the opposite, that Jesus did not think it was appropriate” (p. 25, Should You Believe in the Trinity?). The basis for this argument is that the word they translate as “a seizure,” (harpagmos) suggests seizing or snatching violently. Thus, they understand Paul to be arguing that Jesus didn’t try to steal what wasn’t His– namely, the title of God.
But this ignores the immediate context. If I said, “although these cookies are mine, I did not consider them something to be held onto tightly at all costs, but shared them,” this would suggest that I thought of myself as having the right to keep the cookies for myself. In fact I do. They are my cookies. “The owner of these cookies” is part of my identity. Thus, I don’t have to share them. I could declare that you’ll have my cookies when you pry them from my cold, dead hands! This is, in a sense, what Paul is saying about Jesus. Jesus could have held onto His divine rights with a death grip, but He let them loose as an act of love or humility. If Jesus was not God, it wouldn’t be humility for Him to not act like He was God. It would simply be honest. But because Jesus is in the form of God– He has God’s nature– He is equal to God, and giving up those divine rights is an act of extremest humility.
The larger context bears this out. Verse 9 tells us that because Jesus humbled Himself, God the Father raised Him back up:
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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” (Philippians 2:9-11, ESV).
Paul is referencing Isaiah 45 here. In Isaiah 45:18 God declares, “I am the LORD, and there is no other” (ESV). In verse 23, God says, “By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’” (ESV). If God has declared that to Him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He alone is Lord, and the Scripture cannot be broken, then Paul is giving us the fulfillment of this prophecy when he tells us that every tongue shall confess that Christ is Lord. It is not an accident that the New World Translation breaks their rule of changing out “lord’ (Gr. kurios) for “Jehovah” when they get to this passage. Paul here clearly quotes a prophecy about God Almighty and applies it to Jesus, and it would be very inconvenient for Jehovah’s Witness theology for them to point that out.
Sharing with Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to shut down or end the conversation if challenged too strongly. This is ironic considering they are known for going house-to-house just to challenge other people’s views! If something you share is going to stick, it is best to share inconsistencies in their own Bible or in arguments the Society makes.
So, for instance, one could point out that the NWT inconsistently translates “Lord” in Philippians 2:9-11; or that their own Kingdom Interlinear (which they are encouraged to use as part of the “JW Library” app) gives a more literal translation of the last clause of John 1:1 as “god [not ‘a god’] was the Word.” The effect of this tactic is that you have now made an association in their minds that supports the deity of Christ that they will see whenever they open their Bibles.
Also, remember that these are people who are entrenched in a group that asserts a significant amount of control over their lives and thoughts. To change their minds is not an easy matter. It could have significant costs associated. Try to be patient but also prepared to explain the truth to them as clearly as possible.