It doesn’t take long when talking with Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) before we get to the subject of Jesus identity. This seems an easy matter to settle, we go to the first verse of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1, NIV
But the JW shakes their head, “No, that’s a bad translation”. They then read from their Bible:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.
John 1:1, New World Translation (NWT)
Every Scripture we cite that says Jesus is God is translated differently in the NWT. What usually ensues is a long meandering discussion about which translation is right or wrong.
I’m going to suggest an approach that I’ve found more fruitful. There are a series of verses in the Old Testament you can use from the NWT that provide a convincing case for the Divinity of Christ.
No one has ever seen Jehovah (YHWH )
John’s Gospel has a key verse that opens up the identity of Jesus in the Old Testament:
No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him.
John 1:18, NWT
John is paraphrasing a passage in Exodus 33, the NWT helpfully cross-references this verse:
But he [Jehovah] added: “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live.”
Exodus 33:20, NWT
But Moses also speaks to Jehovah (YHWH) face-to-face
Where it gets very interesting is that a few verses earlier, Moses speaks to Jehovah face-to-face:
“Jehovah spoke to Moses face-to-face, just as one man would speak to another man.”
Exodus 33:11, NWT
Now how do we interpret the contrast between verse 11 and 20? Was the writer of the Pentateuch a poor editor?
Neither the JWs nor we would find that plausible. It can only mean the narrator is referring to different persons in these verses.
Yet both persons are addressed with the divine name Jehovah (or YHWH).
John 1:18 makes clear the identity of the person who speaks to Moses face-to-face. It can’t be the Father, it has to be Jesus.
You might be surprised, but JWs don’t necessarily dispute this interpretation. The NWT again refers us back to John 1:18, suggesting this verse may refer to Jesus.
Is this a one-off?
No. There are many references to Jehovah (YHWH) speaking face-to-face with the Israelites (e.g. Genesis chapters 16, 18-19, 21, 24, 28, 31, 48; Exodus 3, 23, 24, 28, 31, 32, 33-34; Numbers 22; Judges 2, 5, 6, 13 etc.).
Let’s take one more example, Genesis 18-19 again all references are from the NWT:
- 18:1 states that Jehovah appears to Abraham: “Afterward, Jehovah appeared to him among the big trees of Mamʹre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent during the hottest part of the day”
- 19:1 clarifies that of the three people who visit Abraham two of these were angels who are then sent to Sodom.
- 18: 20,22,26 shows that the person left with Abraham continues to be addressed as Jehovah both by Abraham and the narrator
- 18:33 states the angel of Jehovah leaves Abraham and goes to Sodom to destroy the city
- 19:24 makes an interesting contrast between Jehovah who goes to Sodom and Jehovah in the heavens: “Then Jehovah made it rain sulfur and fire on Sodʹom and Go·morʹrah—it came from Jehovah, from the heavens (NWT)”
Most common JW responses
1)Face-to-face is metaphorical
The Bible is speaking metaphorically when it states that Jehovah spoke to people face-to-face. I’ve never seen a JW defend this convincingly. The passages I’ve quoted above don’t offer the option of a metaphorical interpretation of face-to-face.
2) Jesus as Ambassador
Another JW response is to claim, although Jesus is addressed as Jehovah in the Old Testament, it doesn’t mean he’s equal to Jehovah.
He is only acting in an ambassadorial role. Support for this comes from the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV
God is one, therefore Jesus cannot be God.
Interpreting Deut 6:4
Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer, provides some helpful context in his book The Meaning of the Pentateuch.
Deuteronomy 6-11 contains a series of laws that delineate the first five of the ten commandments. The focus is on worshipping Jehovah (YHWH) alone and not the neighbouring gods of the ‘nations’.
So the aim of the passage isn’t to talk about YHWH’s essence as a single-person god.
The meaning of ‘one’
The Hebrew word אֶחָד (echad) translated ‘one’ in Deuteronomy 6:4 can mean numerical one but it can also mean unity between persons. For example Gen 2:24 uses the word אֶחָד:
That is why a man will leave his father and his mother and he will stick to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Genesis 2:24, NWT
Hence Sailhamer points out Deut 6:4 can be translated: “Israel, remember this! The LORD–and the LORD alone–is our God.”
We must also take the rest of the Pentateuch as context – since Deuteronomy is the final book of the Pentateuch. A sermon on the edge of the Jordan recapping all that they had learnt before entering the Promised Land.
I’ve shown from passages in Genesis and Exodus that YHWH is not a single person God. Therefore, in Deuteronomy 6:4 we should interpret אֶחָד (echad) as meaning the unity of persons in a similar way to Genesis 2:24 rather than numerical oneness.