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Cults and Misinterpreting John 1

JOHN 1:1—Is Jesus God or just a god?

MISINTERPRETATION: The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation renders this verse, “The Word [Christ] was a god” (insert added). The Watchtower magazine states that “because there is no definite article ‘the’ (ho) it means Christ is only a god, not the God” (The Watchtower, 7 December 1995, 4). They in fact believe that Jesus is only a created being, Michael the Archangel (The Watchtower, 15 May 1969, 307). The Greek of John 1:1 “is not saying that the Word (Jesus) was the same as the God with whom he was but, rather, that the Word was godlike, divine, a god” (Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, 212).

CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION: It is not proper to translate this verse “The Word was a god” so as to deny the deity of Christ. The full deity of Christ is supported by other references in John (e.g., 8:58; 10:30; 20:28) as well as the rest of the New Testament (e.g., Col. 1:15–16; 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8). Further, it is not necessary to translate Greek nouns that have no definite article with an indefinite article (there is no indefinite article in Greek). In other words, theos (“God”) without the definite article ho (“the”) does not need to be translated as “a God” as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have done in reference to Christ. It is significant that theos without the definite article ho is used of Jehovah God in the New Testament. Because the lack of the definite article in Luke 20:38 in reference to Jehovah does not mean he is a lesser God, neither does the lack of the definite article in John 1:1 in reference to Jesus mean he is a lesser God. The fact is, the presence or absence of the definite article does not alter the fundamental meaning of theos. If John had intended an adjectival sense (the Word was godlike or divinea god) he had an adjective (theios) ready at hand that he could have used. Instead, John says the Word is God (theos).

Contrary to the claims of the Watchtower Society, some New Testament texts do use the definite article and speak of Christ as “the God” (ho theos). One example of this is John 20:28 where Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” The verse reads literally from the Greek: “The Lord of me and the God [ho theos] of me” (see also Matt. 1:23 and Heb. 1:8). So it does not matter whether John did or did not use the definite article in John 1:1—the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is God, not just a god.

Greek scholars have thoroughly refuted the Watchtower translation. Dr. Julius Mantey says of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of John 1:1, “Ninety-nine percent of the scholars of the world who know Greek and who have helped translate the Bible are in disagreement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Mantey, 3:3, 5).

That Jesus is Jehovah (Yahweh) is clear from the fact that the New Testament consistently applies to Jesus passages and attributes which in the Old Testament apply only to Jehovah (compare Exod. 3:14 with John 8:58; Isa. 6:1–5 with John 12:41; Isa. 44:24 with Col. 1:16; Ezek. 43:2 with Rev. 1:15; Zech. 12:10 with Rev. 1:7).

JOHN 1:1—Does this verse teach that God is impersonal, as Mary Baker Eddy claimed?

MISINTERPRETATION: Christian Science leader Mary Baker Eddy concluded that the identification of the Word with God in this verse implies that God is an impersonal deity. Eddy said, “This great truth of God’s impersonality and individuality . . . is the foundation of Christian Science” (Eddy, 117).

CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION: Affirming that the “Word [Logos] is God” in no way implies that God is impersonal. “God” (theos) is the same Greek word used of God throughout the New Testament. And God is always presented as a personal being who has a mind (John 10:15), will (John 4:34; 7:17), and feeling (John 4:23). He is a personal being unto whom believers may cry, “Abba,” an Aramaic term loosely meaning “daddy” (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

Second, two of the three characteristics of personality can be found in this very passage. God is manifested as the Word (Logos) which means a rational discourse or reason. And God chose by his will to create (John 1:3).

Finally, there is nothing impersonal about the Logos (the Word), for he became flesh (human) and lived among us (John 1:14). He engaged in personal relations with other persons (humans).

JOHN 1:1—Did Jesus preexist only in God’s foreknowledge, as some cults claim, or was he really eternal God?

MISINTERPRETATION: According to The Way International founder Paul Wierwille, Jesus was not God.

How was Jesus with God in the beginning? In the same way that the written Word was with Him, namely, in God’s foreknowledge. . . . In the Old Testament, Jesus Christ was in God’s foreknowledge and in the foreknowledge of God’s people as God revealed this prophetic knowledge to them. When Jesus Christ was born, he came into existence. Foreknowledge became a reality. [cited in Martin, 87]

CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION: All the evidence is contrary to Wierwille’s conclusion. John asserts that the “Word” (Logos) was a person (John 1:14), not a mere idea in God’s mind, as knowledge would be. The text does not say, as Wierwille claims, that “foreknowledge” was in God’s mind eternally and that “foreknowledge” became flesh and dwelt among us. It says that the “Word [Christ] was God” (John 1:1) from all eternity—and that this same person (not God’s foreknowledge of him) “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14).

John speaks of Christ “the Word [Logos]” being “with God” (1:1) eternally. Knowledge would not be “with” God. God would have wisdom, but it would not be with him. The word “with” implies another along side in an intimate relationship. Christ was another person in the Trinity, not the same person as the Father.

Numerous other verses in the New Testament declare the full deity of Christ (for example, John 20:28; Col. 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8).

JOHN 1:14—Does this verse mean that when Jesus became a human being he lost his deity, as Herbert Armstrong argued?

MISINTERPRETATION: In John 1:14 we read, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Herbert Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, took the phrase “the Word became flesh” and concluded that it meant “conversion into flesh.” Christ the Word did not merely assume an additional, human nature; rather, he experienced metamorphosis into human flesh. He became exclusively human.

CORRECTING THE MISINTERPRETATION: The Old Testament backdrop helps us to understand what John is saying in this important verse. John’s choice of words in describing the incarnation is highly revealing. The phrase Jesus “dwelt among us,” is more accurately translated “made his dwelling among us” or “pitched his tent [tabernacle] among us.” In using this terminology, John was drawing heavily from the Old Testament. That Jesus “pitched his tabernacle” among us harkens back to the Old Testament tabernacle of Israel’s wilderness wanderings. God’s people had been instructed to erect the tabernacle as a reminder that God’s dwelling-place was among them. Exodus 25:
8 quotes God as saying, “Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them” (nasb). Hence, as God formerly dwelt among his people in Old Testament times in the tabernacle that was erected for him, so now in a fuller sense he has taken up residence on earth in a tabernacle of human flesh.

Furthermore, John’s use of the Greek word eskēnōsen (“pitched his tabernacle”) becomes even more significant when it is realized that the glory that resulted from the immediate presence of the Lord in the tabernacle came to be associated with the shekinah, a word that refers to the radiance, glory, or presence of God dwelling in the midst of his people. When Christ became flesh (John 1:14), the glorious presence of God was fully embodied in him, for he is the true shekinah. The same glory that Moses beheld in the tabernacle in Exodus 40:34–38 was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17).

What is more, it is critical to recognize that Christ the Logos did not cease to be the Logos when he “became flesh.” Christ still had the fullness of the shekinah glory in him, but that glory was veiled so he could function in the world of humanity. The Word did not cease to be what he was before; but he took on an additional nature—a human nature. This is the mystery of the Incarnation: Christ the Logos was fully God and fully human. The shekinah glory dwelt in the tabernacle of the flesh of Jesus. Of course, while Jesus’ human body was, in one sense, a “temple” in which the shekinah glory dwelt, his body was not an exact parallel to the Old Testament tabernacle. For, in the Old Testament, God always remained distinct from the tabernacle, even though he dwelt in the tabernacle. In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus in the incarnation permanently took upon himself a human nature. Hence, Jesus’ human body was not a mere temple that embodied the shekinah glory, but rather became a very real part of his person as the God-man.

Norman L. Geisler and Ron Rhodes, When Cultists Ask : A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1997), 159.

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