by Al Maxey

Issue #97 ------- January 9, 2004
He who does not bellow the truth
when he knows the truth makes himself
the accomplice of liars and forgers.

Charles Peguy (1873-1914)

"The Only True God" -- John 17:3
Examining the JW's Favorite Proof-Text
in Denial of the Deity of Christ Jesus

About a week ago a member of the Jehovah's Witness group telephoned me. He was not pleased with my review of their version of the Bible -- The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures -- which I had done some years back, and which can be found on my web site. Rather than trying to defend the errors in his version, however, he went on the attack and demanded that I prove the deity of Jesus Christ (something the JW's deny). He specifically wanted to know my views of John 17:3, which he insisted was "proof positive" that Jesus was NOT deity, but just a created being. As many of you probably know from personal experience, trying to reason with a militant member of this cult is next to impossible. Our conversation ended with him furious at me, and with me frustrated with him ... and with my own inability to convict him of the divine nature of my Lord Jesus.

Jehovah's Witness doctrine really began around 1870 when a teen by the name of Charles Taze Russell formed a Bible study group. From these studies the young Russell published several books, gave several lectures, and in 1879 established two monthly publications known as Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence. In the year 1884 he formed the Zion's Watch Tower and Tract Society, serving as its president until his death in 1916. From this organization came the present day Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WBTS), the members of which are more commonly known as Jehovah's Witnesses.

They have many strange and unusual doctrines and practices, but the one that concerns us in this present issue of Reflections is their denial of the deity of Jesus Christ. They believe there is only ONE true God, and that one true God is JEHOVAH (YHWH). Thus, both Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are NOT a part of deity. The JW's teach that the Holy Spirit is not a being at all, but merely a "force" like gravity. In Genesis 1:2, for example, their version of the Bible reads, "God's active force was moving to and fro over the surface of the waters." As for Jesus Christ, the JW's teach he was merely a creation of God ... indeed, they declare he is the archangel Michael, who simply took bodily form for a time in the person of Jesus. When Jesus died, Michael simply ascended back to heaven and the body of Jesus dissolved into gases in the tomb. God then created special bodies to appear to the disciples (complete with nail holes) during the weeks following. Russell wrote, "The man Jesus is dead, forever dead" (Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 5, p. 454).

Perhaps their favorite proof-text, with respect to their denial of the deity of Jesus Christ, is John 17:3. One author observed, "John 17:3 is to a Jehovah's Witness, what John 3:16 is to a Christian." This is why my caller last week kept demanding I address the "obvious truth" contained in that passage -- the "truth" that Jesus is not deity. Here is the passage in question:

JOHN 17:3
And this is eternal life,
that they may know Thee,
the only true God, and
Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.

It is argued that if Jesus declared the Father to be the ONLY true God, then Jesus obviously did not regard himself as in any way, shape or form being God. Thus, they reason, Jesus is NOT divine. The danger of proof-texting, of course, is that it rarely considers the context of a passage and it rarely bothers to consider the other passages in the Bible on the matter, which often provide the best commentary on a difficult passage and thus compliment the teaching, providing a broader perspective. The dogmatic approach to biblical interpretation is a dangerous one, because it begins with a premise and goes looking for proof. When dishonesty is coupled with this approach one has all the makings of a deadly heresy .... which is exactly what one finds in the teachings of the cult known as Jehovah's Witnesses. There are many passages in the Bible which clearly declare the deity of Christ, but in their version of the Bible these passages have been tampered with to teach just the opposite. Notice just a few:

  1. John 1:1 --- "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The New World Translation, however, has altered this passage to read -- "In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god." In other words, the Word, who would later become flesh (John 1:14) and dwell among men, was not the one true GOD, but just a lesser created "god" ... a super being, above man, but below God. In point of fact, this preincarnate Word was Michael, the archangel, according to the teachings of this group. In verse 14, the NWT informs us that when this Word became flesh and dwelt among men "he was full of undeserved kindness and truth." Undeserved?! Of course ... he was just a created being. Only the one true God is deserving of such acclaim! Or, so they reason.

  2. Colossians 1:16-17 --- "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 by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." The Jehovah's Witnesses, however, believe God created Michael, who THEN created all OTHER things. They have modified their translation to reflect this false doctrine -- "Because by means of him all (other) things were created in the heavens and upon the earth, the things visible and the things invisible, no matter whether they are thrones or lordships or governments or authorities. All (other) things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all (other) things and by means of him all (other) things were made to exist." Through these additions to the biblical text they seek to prove Jesus was merely a created being who then took over and created the OTHER things of creation.

  3. Colossians 2:9 --- "For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form." The NWT, however, rephrases this passage so that it merely teaches some "quality" of God resides in Jesus, not the fullness of deity itself -- "because it is in him that all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily."

  4. Zechariah 12:10 --- God is speaking, and declares, "they will look on Me whom they have pierced." Again, we see it is DEITY that goes to the cross and is pierced. However, the NWT reads, "...and they will certainly look to the one whom they pierced through." They have changed the biblical text from "Me" to "the one whom."

We could list many, many others, but this demonstrates the point. They have started with a belief and they have perverted the Scriptures in an effort to prove their dogma. This is deceit of the highest order and should be exposed for the Satanic deception it truly is! As Christians we should all be "looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus" (Titus 2:13). "But of the SON He says, 'Thy throne, O GOD, is forever and ever'" (Hebrews 1:8). And, yes, the NWT twists these passages also.

The Jews of Jesus' day certainly had no trouble perceiving His claim to be of divine nature. John 5:18 tells us that "the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him" because He was "making Himself equal with God." Several times in John 8 Jesus referred to Himself as the "I AM," which the Jews understood was only used in reference to God. He ends the dialogue with these words, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM" (John 8:58), "therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him" (vs. 59). They knew what He was claiming. He was professing His deity. Jesus was, and is, the I AM. Thomas, when he finally saw the risen Jesus and witnessed the marks on His body, declared, "My Lord and my GOD!" (John 20:28). Interestingly enough, the NWT did not change the wording of this statement. Thus, in the very version produced by the Jehovah's Witnesses, they have a clear declaration that Jesus is GOD ... a teaching which they, nevertheless, DENY.

Examining John 17:3

But, the question of the JW's is with regard to John 17:3. What about this passage? Doesn't Jesus declare, in His prayer to the Father, that the one to whom He is praying is the "ONLY true God"? Doesn't this suggest, reason the JW's, that Jesus could not, therefore, be divine. If the Father is the ONLY God, then Jesus, who is talking to Him, couldn't be! This is their challenge. They will twist and pervert other passages of Scripture to try and prove their doctrine, but is it possible they just may have a legitimate argument from this verse? They seem to think so. Thus, let us examine the passage further to determine the truth.

The first mistake of this cult, in their effort to use John 17:3 as their foundational proof-text, is that it is a violation of the principles of biblical hermeneutics to formulate any theological doctrine out of a single verse. A simple study of the other passages relevant to the nature of Jesus would have quickly shown any sincere student of the Word the error of such a doctrine. This is rarely a concern of those who approach Scripture with a preconceived teaching in hand, however; such persons are not there to perceive His doctrine, they are there to prove their dogma. Disreputable exegetes can literally prove just about anything if they are allowed to snatch a single verse from the context of the whole.

Second, this group is not even consistent with their own professed interpretative logic. They declare that the phrase "only true God" necessitates Jesus NOT be identified as deity. Okay ... let's use this same logic on some other passages. In Jude 4, for example, we find "certain persons" being discussed by this brother of Jesus who "deny our ONLY Master and Lord, Jesus Christ." May we assume from this verse that God is NOT our Lord and Master? If Jesus Christ is the ONLY Lord, does this mean God can't be Lord as well? After all, Ephesians 4:5 says there is "ONE Lord." Jude says it is Jesus. So, GOD can't be LORD! Right?! This, of course, is absurd. There are countless places in Scripture which declare God to be Lord. But, if the JW's are going to use that "logic" on John 17:3, may we not use it also on Jude 4? If not, why not? Thus, we see the woeful inconsistency of their so-called "reasoning."

There is ONE Lord, and both the Father and the Son are referred to by that term. They are ONE, but they are also distinct eternal Beings! One scholar expressed the mystery of the trinity this way: "The biblical doctrine of the trinity teaches that the one God exists as three persons, individual and distinct, yet co-equal and co-eternal, possessing all the same attributes of deity." One of my professors in graduate school told me that if anyone could explain this mystery to the satisfaction of mankind, they would receive PhD's from every university in the world. We are finite creatures seeking to grasp the infinite wonders and complexities of our Creator. It is beyond our grasp. Nevertheless, there are some things we know: There are three, and they are one! Husbands and wives become "one flesh." That too is a mystery that men and women often fail to fully perceive, but it does not diminish the reality, even if that reality is only truly perceived in its entirety by our God.

Although fully GOD, Jesus was also fully MAN. He was the God/man. This too is a mystery difficult for finite minds to fully grasp. Thus, at times we see Jesus manifesting His deity, and at times we see Him manifesting His humanity. At times He spoke as the "I AM," and at times He spoke as one of us. In the John 17 passage, which is the great prayer of Jesus to the Father on the night of His betrayal and arrest, we see the humanity of Jesus clearly portrayed. He was the suffering servant speaking to the Master in whose hands He would soon commit His very being. He prayed on behalf of Himself, as He prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, He prayed for His disciples, and He prayed for those who would become His disciples through the work of those He was about to entrust with the Gospel message. "Our Lord prayed as a man, and as the Mediator of His people; yet He spoke with majesty and authority, as one with and equal to the Father" (Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible).

Even more importantly, however, is what Jesus was asking for in verse 3. He identified "eternal life" as consisting of coming to know "Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." This was said for the benefit of both Jews and Non-Jews. The Jews needed to see in Jesus the MESSIAH, the anointed one, the Christ, who had been sent in fulfillment of promise. The pagans needed to perceive there was only one true God, not the MANY that they worshipped; they needed to see that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was THE God, not their many idols. Thus, Jesus spelled out that eternal life was to be had in relationship with deity. The pagans must turn from their idols and embrace the one true God, and the Jews, who had already embraced the one true God, must embrace His Messiah, who was Jesus.

The key word here is "true" ... He is the one TRUE God. All others are FALSE gods. In the biblical passages where God is characterized the "true God," it is done to make clear distinction between Him and the idols of the pagans. For example, notice the unmistakable message of 1 John 5:20-21 -- "We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true -- even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." Even the JW's acknowledge the clear parallels between this passage and John 17:3. It speaks of the "true God," and it speaks of "eternal life." We see the Son and also the Father. And we see the charge to forsake idolatry. The TRUE God is in contrast to FALSE gods. Paul told the saints in Thessalonica, "you turned to God from idols to serve a living and TRUE God" (1 Thess. 1:9). Again, He is the TRUE God as opposed to the many FALSE gods. This distinction reaches back into the writings of the Old Testament as well. Jeremiah says, "But the Lord is the TRUE God" (Jeremiah 10:10), and then points out in the very next verse that the "gods that did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth" (vs. 11). Whenever you see the phrase "TRUE God," there is almost always a view to a contrast with idols (or false gods).

Dr. Alvah Hovey wrote, "This language ('the only true God') has been considered by many incompatible with the proper deity of Christ .... But it should be observed, that the association of himself with the Father, as one of the two personal objects of that knowledge which is life eternal, does not accord with any view which denies his own deity. It seems well nigh incredible that Jesus should have said that it is eternal life to know the only true God, and an inferior being, sent by him as a messenger to men. If it be said, that knowing the messenger sent, is the only means of knowing the true God who sent him, it is impossible to see how the messenger could be an adequate revealer of One whose nature he did not share. In such language there is the plain assumption of some real, though mysterious, alliance of the Son with the Father, which seems inconsistent with the exclusive deity of the Father, in contrast with the Son. Indeed, Cyril of Alexandria remarks, that 'the knowledge of God as the Father really involves a knowledge of the Son as God.' That Jesus intended to represent the deity of the Father as exclusive of his own deity, is an idea foreign to the context, and, therefore, improbable. Lucke, certainly an impartial scholar, says, 'The passage is neither Trinitarian nor anti-Trinitarian ... It is the combined anti-polytheistic and anti-Judaistic expression of Christian truth'" (An American Commentary on the New Testament, p. 335).

In short, the Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to demonstrate, by any test of logic or exegetical device, their doctrine regarding the Lord's statement in John 17:3. The members of this cultish religious group come about as close as the many pagan religions in denying our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They have stripped Him of His deity, relegated the Holy Spirit to some force comparable to gravity, and in so doing deny the very God they profess to witness for. They are a dangerous group of people, and one should be very cautious in his/her dealings with them. Some of their doctrine is deadly toxic waste to those seeking the pure water of life!

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Great Britain:

Al, I have just finished reading your book on divorce & remarriage (Down, But Not Out), and also your published debate with Ron Thomas (The Maxey-Thomas Debate), and I have learned much in relation to this subject. Thanks!! Like your denomination, Al, Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God (I was a member in the late 60's) used to teach that remarriage = adultery, and they used to split up couples who were in a happy, stable 2nd marriage. Even to this day, I have a good friend who has remained celibate, following a divorce many years ago, because he believes that remarriage is wrong. Dr. David Instone-Brewer has recently written 2 books on divorce & remarriage. He basically agrees with your conclusions, but he uses a completely different approach than you. Any chance of a head-to-head discussion between yourself and David at some time in the future, Al? Now that would be worth reading!! Those books are:

  1. Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible

  2. Divorce and Remarriage in the Church

From a Reader in Texas:

I was wondering if you have any plans to bind your Reflections articles into a yearly volume? They are very interesting and I enjoy them.

From a Minister in Mississippi:

I took the opportunity to read the plea from the brother in Texas for advice on marriage and pensions to my class this Sunday morning. We are going through James and the situation he wrote about couldn't have been more tailor made for our class. I read his plea, without comment, to my class and asked for their opinions. They too did very well in their answers. I intended to spend 15 minutes on the subject as a lead-in ... it took the whole class time.

We talked of Hebrews 10:32-39, when some "joyfully accepted the confiscation of (their) property," and the words of encouragement that this would bring to these couples. We talked of James' words to "consider it pure joy" as these couples face this trial. We talked about how today Roman soldiers may not come knocking to take our possessions away, but that saying "I do" may lead to the same result. Next we read James 2:14-17, and then someone raised the question, "Are you suggesting that the church help these families out?" "Yes, I am" was my answer. I talked about how practical James and Hebrews are for today. I pointed out how in Acts the church did not consider their possessions their own, but gave to those in need. I talked about not coming to the building on Sunday mornings and listening to the sermon and then telling our brothers, "go and be well fed." I talked about the importance of honoring God in our individual decisions as we face trials, and that as a church family we should also honor God and those in our congregation who face persecution by supporting those who "do the right thing." Anyway, very good class, very practical, very non-conventional, but very biblical. Thanks for sending the plea out in your Reflections. It helped bring the Bible to life for us today. God bless you and your efforts for His kingdom.

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