As I came out of the train station after work one day last week I spotted a stand with booklets called ‘What does the Bible really teach?’ Intrigued, I stepped closer and had a look, and noticed the Watchtower magazine there with them. Ah, I thought, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and picked up a copy of one of the booklets to have a look at. I’ve always dismissed Jehovah’s Witnesses and their beliefs, without really knowing exactly what it is they teach, so thought it was only fair to have a look.
I dedicated some time to having a look through this booklet, expecting it to say lots of crazy things about blood transfusions and not celebrating birthdays. These things are included, towards the back of the 224-page booklet, but this is not what I read at first. What I read in the first few pages shocked me. Why? Well, here are some of the things the book says: God created the world, God loves us, God hates to see people suffer, God wants us to know who He is, the Bible is harmonious and accurate, God hears our prayers, this world is fallen, God has defeated the devil… as I flicked through I started to think that this booklet could be about the Christianity I’ve devoted my life to.
But then, I haven’t devoted my life to Christianity, I’ve devoted my life to Christ. And that is where the problems with this booklet arise. Chapter four is entitled ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ and this is the stumbling block. The Bible says that Jesus is a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23), and this proved to be an accurate statement the further I read through ‘What does the Bible really teach?’ The first definitive statement this chapter makes about Jesus is, “Jesus sets the best example of how to live and how to treat others.” Wow, I thought, if this is the best they’ve got to say about Jesus, they’ve got something seriously wrong.
There is more – the book acknowledges that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins, which they state is the most important thing; but why would you start with this statement about being a good example? I’m not sure. I don’t think Jesus set a particularly good example, per se – he offended people, he threw tables around, he associated with tax collectors and prostitutes, and more… If you’re looking for a positive role model, Jesus doesn’t quite fit the bill. Of course, Jesus is the perfect role model, but that is not why I worship him.
Anyway, saying that Jesus is a good role model doesn’t go against anything I believe, and nor does the next claim: that Jesus is the Messiah, as prophesied throughout the Old Testament. Yes, good. It says that even now we can get “blessings” through Jesus, which is all well and good, if a bit wishy washy, so I kept reading. The next part is about where Jesus came from.
Page 41 of this booklet says, “The Bible teaches that Jesus lived in heaven before he came to earth.” Agreed – John 1:1. It talks about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, and that he was born as a human. Yes. It then says, “As a spirit creature in heaven, Jesus had a special relationship with Jehova.” Alarm bells – a spirit creature… er, what? “Jesus is Jehova’s most precious Son” – yes. “He is the ‘only-begotten Son'” – yes – Hebrews 5:5. “This means that Jesus is the only one directly created by God.” No. Definitely not.
I felt the need to read no further though the booklet, I could see that this is where Jehovah’s Witnesses have got things so terribly wrong. From here, the next paragraph is about how Jesus is not equal to Jehovah (God the Father) because he was created by Him as His firstborn Son. It might seem like there’s not much of a problem with thinking that Jesus is created by God the Father, even if it means he is not equal to Him. So what? Jesus is still special, he is still more than human, and he still died for us.
There’s the rub. If Jesus is not God, if he is just some angel, then how could he die for our sins? Jesus has to be fully man, yes, this booklet makes that clear. But he also has to be fully God, otherwise God is just sacrificing a third party. What kind of God sees His people dying in their sins and chooses to send another man to die instead of them. Where is the goodness in an all-knowing, all-powerful Being killing a third-party to satisfy his need for a sacrifice? Surely that is barbaric, and I do not want to worship that God. It is important that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. Wayne Grudem says that it is of vital importance that Jesus is fully God for three reasons:
“(1) only someone who is infite God could bear the full penalty for all the sins of all those who would believe in him–any finite creature would have been incapable of bearing that penalty; (2) salvation is from the Lord (Jonah 2:9 NASB), and the whole message of Scripture is designed to show that no human being, no creature, could ever save man–only God himself could; and (3) only someone who was truly and fully God could be the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), both to bring us back to God and also to reveal God most fully to us (John 14:9). Thus, if Jesus is not fully God, we have no salvation and ultimately no Christianity.”
[Systematic Theology (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), p553]
Jesus’ death only works as a sacrifice if it is God Himself dying in our place – otherwise it is no more than killing one person to save another. How can Jesus be both fully man and fully God? Well, I don’t fully understand it, and nor does anybody else, but there is sufficient evidence in the Bible to show that this is true. How can God be both the Father and the Son (and the Spirit too)? Let me suggest Mike Reeves’ fantastic series of talks called Enjoying the Trinity – they are endlessly helpful, and Reeves is also quite funny. You can find the talks here: http://bit.ly/fNHyWE
It is also crucial that Jesus is fully God, not just for his death, but also for his life. Throughout the Old Testament, the Jews look towards their promised Messiah to save them from their sins by offering animal sacrifices. The appropriate offering for sin was a ram; not just any ram, but a spotless one. If they broke God’s law, they had to die, but they could offer this ‘scapegoat’ to die instead of them – but only if it is perfect (we see example of imperfect ones being displeasing to God in the book of Malachi). This did not save them in itself, as the ram, though perfect, had no ultimate power, but it symbolised their faith in what was to come–Jesus. Because Jesus was fully God he lived the perfect life on earth–he never sinned. This is something that no human could ever do, as we have seen throughout the Bible. Even the best leaders (take David, for example), messed up big time. But Jesus never did. In order for us to be redeemed (made perfect in God’s sight), God had to swap life for life, but the life being swapped with ours had to be a perfect one. Only God can live a perfect life.
How did the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the conclusion that Jesus was created by God? As far as I can tell, it is by translating the word ‘begotten’ to mean the same as ‘created’. I looked ‘begotten’ up in my dictionary app, and it said this:
1 . (especially of a male parent) to procreate or generate (offspring).
2. to cause; produce as an effect: a belief that power begets power.
They are clearly using the second meaning of the word – to cause. But I don’t think that we can equate this to the verb ‘to create’, as a “power begets power” doesn’t mean ‘power creates power’ but more, ‘power amasses more power’. But clearly the word ‘begotten’ in this sense is talking about the procreation of a male parent – Father begets Son – the Bible speaks in this way continuously, and this makes sense. If I were to have a baby, Stuart hasn’t created that baby, as it didn’t come from nothing – it would have come from Stuart’s sperm, my eggs and whatever else has to be involved. Stuart will have begotten him/her, as he would have participated in the bringing about of the baby, indeed there wouldn’t be a baby without him (or another man, but as I believe in fidelity, monogomy etc, the sperm could only come from Stuart!). This is not a perfect analogy, as I have not studied philology, as much as it fascinates me. Nor do I know Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek (although I am working on the latter – sort of!) but those older than me and wiser than me do know these things, and I trust their translation of the word.
It seems that an awful lot hangs on the balance of one word, and this is what scares me. In Eden the serpent persuaded Eve to sin, and thus cause the Fall of the whole of creation, by twisting God’s words just ever so slightly, but enough to make her discredit Him and His goodness. I am not saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses are being malicious and trying to deceive us, as I know that they genuinely believe that they have it right. But, for me, what they are teaching does not hold water – it seems inconsistent with a loving God, and it doesn’t fit with what I know of the Bible.
I have explored Christianity, I have read the Bible from cover to cover multiple times and I know that what it says is true, not least because it simply makes sense to me. I have not read it in my own power, but with God’s help and Spirit working within me, I can understand it, and it fits together, it does not contradict itself and it is powerful. I do not understand it all, and I won’t ever understand it all, but by God’s grace pieces are revealed to me daily.
I am concerned that it is so easy to be deceived and end up following a religion that is hollow and cannot save.