Darren L. Slider
I Have Said, “You Are Gods”
I Have Said, “You Are Gods”
When I was in the eighth grade, I had a friend named John. John had the distinction of being the first Jehovah’s Witness who ever made my acquaintance without first knocking on my front door. I was, at the time, preparing for baptism as a Seventh-day Adventist, so it was not unnatural that our early conversations took a theological turn. John and I spent many a recess and lunch period in lively doctrinal debate.
It didn’t take us long to discover that we held no doctrines in common except the state of the dead and the final destruction of the wicked. Of all the odd beliefs of the Watchtower Society, the one that surprised me the most was not the assertion that blood transfusions are immoral because they violate the Levitical prohibition against drinking the blood of an animal. It wasn’t even the assertion that Christ had really returned secretly in 1914 and was remaining invisible until the establishment of His kingdom on earth. (Charles Russell, the founder of the sect, had predicted the return of Christ in that year. When Our Lord entirely failed to appear, Mr. Russell improvised the secret-return doctrine to explain this inconvenient state of affairs.) Of all the Watchtower beliefs I had never encountered before, the denial that Jesus Christ is God took me the most by surprise.
I did not, in every respect, lead a sheltered life, but I did grow up mostly among nominal Protestant Christians. Thus, by this time, I had encountered only one other person who denied the divinity of Christ. He was a fourth-grade friend named Anthony whose parents had raised him to be an atheist. This astonished me beyond measure. At that age, I had of course no knowledge of apologetics whatsoever, and the only challenge I could think to mount to Anthony’s disbelief was the thoroughly tactless question, “If you die and then find yourself in hell, will you admit then that God exists?” Anthony allowed that in that instance, he would.
Now John did not deny the existence of God, and I had a little more experience discussing doctrinal matters by the time I met him. At the ripe young age of thirteen, I had only the crudest notion of systematic theology and no knowledge at all of the history of the dispute regarding Our Lord’s nature. I didn’t know then that we were re-enacting a debate that arose in the early fourth century and persisted, in one form or another, with considerable intensity for nearly a hundred years. It is known today as the Arian controversy.
This dispute is named for Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria of Egypt who, in the year 318, began the dispute, which was to persist until well after his death in 336. He described the Son of God as a sort of lesser god, inferior to the Father. Arius believed that Christ made everything else that exists, but not that Christ always existed Himself: Arius put forth the infamous formula, “There was, when He was not.” In other words, “There was a time when Christ did not exist.”
This false teaching didn’t catch on in the church in the western part of the Roman Empire; it was simply unheard of before the late third century. Christians there had always believed that Christ is God, but there had been, before this, no occasion to work out the details. The first of these details were worked out at the famous council of Nicaea, in 325: The Son was said to be “of one substance with the Father,” and the teaching of Arius was rejected. Arius himself was exiled to Asia Minor, but over the next thirty years, his teaching (and milder forms of it) gained considerable political influence. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria and the strongest defender of the truth in his day, was banished from and recalled to his office several times. Eventually, the tide turned, and Arian doctrine was finally forced out of the church in the later part of the century.
Sixteen hundred years later, at the time of my schoolyard debate with my friend John, I was unaware of all this. I would, no doubt, have been comforted by the fact that the early church didn’t immediately know how to respond to it either. Like them, I held by faith the divinity of Christ (even if I couldn’t say exactly what I meant by “divinity”), and my belief had never been challenged. I did what any young fundamentalist would do: I prayed for the assistance of the Holy Spirit and went digging through the New Testament for proof-texts. I didn’t have too much trouble finding some, especially in the Gospel of . . . John. I wasn’t able to persuade John (my friend John, not the gospel writer), but I did learn a lot from the experience. The Jehovah’s Witnesses train their people from a young age to have an answer for everything, and I was not yet experienced enough to know how to show that their answers are inadequate.
I began, for example, with the very first verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “What more do I need?” I thought. I was entirely astonished to learn that in the New World translation, the version of the Bible the Watchtower Society requires its members to use, the reading is a little different: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” How do they justify that? The Greek language, they say, contains the definite article the, but not the indefinite article a (or an). When you translate from Greek to English, you have to add the a wherever it belongs. Obviously, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, it belongs here, because Christ isn’t equal with God.
Of course, this answer begs the question. I have no reason to believe that I should read “the Word was a god” instead of “the Word was God” without other evidence from the first chapter of the gospel, because, after all, “the Word was God” is the more obvious reading. This highlights the major vulnerability of the proof-text method: If I don’t know the broader context, my opponent can always find a way (however contrived) around any text I try to make use of. (I learned later that the Arians of the fourth century tried to twist the language of the text a different way: Since Greek had no punctuation, the reader had to supply it. So they read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was. God was in the beginning with God” This was, of course, no better.)
Knowing the broader context well is no easy task. It requires sustained study and a mind open to the influence of the Spirit. I confess that, at another point in my argument with John, I tried to draw attention away from part of the context of a passage. I didn’t add any words to the text, but I did try to steer around a verse that I didn’t understand.
I found a wonderful passage in the tenth chapter of the same gospel. It begins in verse thirty, with Jesus speaking to the Jews:
I read this far and thought I had everything I needed. Then I read Our Lord’s reply:
I had no idea what to make of this saying of Our Lord. In fact, I was a bit afraid of it: Christ suddenly starts talking about lesser gods, and wasn’t my friend trying to argue that Christ was a lesser god? When I returned to the debate, I chose the better part of valor and stopped at verse thirty-three. I told my friend simply that the Jews accused Jesus of making Himself equal with God, and that Jesus didn’t deny it. I don’t remember what my friend said in reply he probably used the same tactic as in chapter one, arguing that the Jews meant that Christ was making Himself out to be a god but I was relieved when he didn’t bring up verse thirty-four.
In the years following my debate with John, which ended, like most debates, in a stalemate I didn’t persuade him, he didn’t persuade me I often wondered why Our Lord would bring up such a thing. Why didn’t He just respond, “But I am God?” (It would certainly have helped me in the debate.)
I learned over time that this was exactly the sort of response that Christ was entirely unlikely to make. Indeed, I discovered that He seemed to take an almost perverse delight in always saying the wildest thing imaginable, the very thing that His hearers least expected (or wanted) Him to say. When the chief priests and Pharisees, in chapter seven, had sent officers to arrest Him, they returned empty-handed and open-mouthed. To their frustrated employers, they had only the excuse found in verse forty-six: “ ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ ”
His enemies knew it all too well, but even His family was not spared the experience. Even when He was twelve, His mother came to know it. On the return journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth (as recorded in Luke, chapter two, beginning in verse forty-three) His mother realized that she had lost track of Him. It wasn’t until three days later that they found Him in deep discussion with doctors of the law in the temple, and holding His own very nicely in the conversation. She reproached Him for putting her through three days of anxiety. His response: “ ‘Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ ” What other child could have said such a thing to his mother without being slapped silly for his insolence? And as for the part about His Father’s business, the very next verse states that Mary and Joseph had no idea what He was talking about.
In the gospel of John, His brothers (who, as it says in 7:5, didn’t actually believe in Him) tried to persuade Him to go up to the Feast of Tabernacles and proclaim Himself openly, instead of skulking around in the boondocks of Galilee. “ ‘For,’ ” they said, “ ‘no one does in anything in secret while he himself seeks to be known openly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.’ ” (7:4) His reply? “ ‘The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil. You go up to this feast. I am not yet going up to this feast, for My time has not yet fully come.’ When He had said these things to them, He remained in Galilee.” (7:7) But what did He do next? “But when His brothers had gone up, then He also went up to the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret.” (7:10)
Then there’s the occasion recorded in Matthew 12:46-49:
Did Our Lord enjoy being . . . well . . . a smart-aleck to His family? Did He take delight in confusing them, or, worse yet, putting them down to make Himself look important? Or was He trying to tell them something that they couldn’t really understand and appreciate unless they worked it out for themselves?
The incident in the temple is a harbinger, a small taste of the great feast to come. Jesus is twelve, and will not begin His ministry in earnest for another eighteen years. He doesn’t explain “His Father’s business” to Mary and Joseph because the discussion in the temple is only meant as a sign of things to come. On the other two occasions, Our Lord’s hidden meaning is right there before His mother and brothers, if only they will see it. As they ought to have known from His miraculous birth, He is not of this world. He cannot operate on their agenda, for that of His real Father, God, supersedes it. For his mother and brothers to be related to Him in God’s family, they must do the will of His Father. Until they are willing to do so, they cannot understand either the boundlessly deep content or the inexplicable method of His teaching. This is precisely what He tells the Jews when He does mysteriously appear at the temple in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles: “ ‘If anyone wills to do His will’ ” that is, God’s will “ ‘he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority.’ ”
Thus He commends His disciples, calling them His “real family,” as it were, because there was in them a real beginning of faith. They followed Him everywhere He went because they really did believe that He came from God. To that extent, they understood Him better than His own earthly brothers. True, they had only a beginning of the faith He wanted to produce in them. They were ambitious, self-assertive and narrow-minded, perpetually arguing which of them was to be the greatest. At the very end of His ministry He would tell them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (Indeed, we must all ask ourselves, “How much are we like them? How often does Jesus want us to know Him better and understand more of Him, and our lack of faith gets in the way?” For to know Him is, truly, eternal life John 17:3.) In the end, because of His grace, they did persevere and acquire a faith the size of a mustard seed, and it was the testimony even of their enemies that they not only moved mountains, but “turned the world upside down”! (So may it be with us.)
As for His enemies, time and again they got the worst of His penchant to choose the oddest and yet most pertinent thing to say. They didn’t have even the rudiment of faith His disciples had. He was the stone whom they rejected who had become the chief cornerstone, the stone which, since they would not fall on it and be broken, fell on them and ground them into powder (cf. Matthew 22:42-44). They insisted on being His adversaries, but were like an outclassed boxer whose opponent is six feet away from every punch he throws and, in passing, always lands a hard sucker punch right to the gut. He did this again and again and again. No wonder they wanted Him dead!
And yet Our Lord was always hoping that they would throw in the towel, that they would fall on the Stone and be broken. Just a little faith (and some serious thought), and His words would show them the path of life so that His presence would be to them the fullness of joy. Once they were so desperately unwilling to believe in Him that they attributed His miraculous casting-out of demons to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. What is His defense? “ ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?’ ” In other words, their accusation is obviously false, because it would mean that Satan was deliberately destroying his own work. But there was another meaning hidden beneath the surface of His response. In the words of Charles Williams (All Hallows’ Eve), “ ‘How shall Satan’s kingdom stand, if it be divided against itself?’ Messias asked, and the gloomy pedants to whom He spoke could not give the answer His shining eyes awaited: ‘Sir, it does not.’ ”
The Pharisees were making a blatantly false accusation but were, at the same time, half-articulating a deeper truth that Our Lord wanted them to see. They couldn’t see it because they were illustrating it by taking themselves too seriously. They didn’t know what they were saying. Satan’s kingdom is based precisely on the sin of pride of putting oneself at the center of the universe. But one cannot build a kingdom (or indeed anything else) on this principle, for each of its subjects will work to obtain the supremacy at the expense of all the others. Everyone’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s. Only on love, a love that completely forgets itself in order to obtain the good of the beloved, can a kingdom really be built. Satan’s kingdom is divided against itself, and it doesn’t stand. It is always in a state of tyranny, or else civil war; how could it stand? This the Pharisees could not see, precisely because they took themselves too seriously, and thus placed themselves in Satan’s ruined kingdom. Caiaphas, the high priest, was later to reason that “it is expedient that one man should die for the people,” and it is illuminating that John, the gospel writer, goes on to say, “Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52). Caiaphas, lacking faith and full of malice, makes a sophistical argument for putting Jesus to death, and does not know that he is prophesying a deeper truth about the nature of the divine love and salvation. So it always is: Christ’s enemies cannot really accomplish anything against Him. Their lies become truths and their plots of death become vehicles of eternal life and salvation, and they benefit from neither they only destroy themselves. But “we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
This brings us back to the context of John, chapter ten, which I so poorly understood when gleaning it for a proof-text to use in my argument with my Jehovah’s Witness friend:
He does tell them plainly, and they don’t believe. In Isaiah 7:9, God tells the faithless King Ahaz through the prophet that if the king won’t believe, he won’t be established. The Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, renders this statement as follows: “If you do not believe, you will not understand.” So it is here with Jesus’ wretched interlocutors: they don’t believe in Him, so they don’t understand what He means when He admits to being the Christ. To them the Christ is the son of David, the conquering king who will deliver them from their subjection to the hated Romans and restore the national greatness they have earned by being so obedient. They not only can’t understand Him; they’re not even speaking the same language as He. Indeed, in another place He defends His choice to address them roundaboutly in parables by quoting Isaiah 6:
They could not understand His words because of their unbelief; they missed the meaning of His actions also:
Indeed they saw His works, and were impressed; but they saw them, as He said, without perceiving what was behind them. They saw them through the eyes of their own righteousness, and tried to see Him as the conquering Messiah of their dreams, the royal son of David who would sweep away the Romans. When they saw the sick healed and the dead raised, they saw Him making the armies of Israel invincible. When He fed the crowds with a few small loaves of bread and a couple of fish, they saw Him provisioning the armies of Israel on extended campaigns in the desert. They couldn’t understand why he fled when they wanted to anoint Him as king after the latter miracle (John 6:15). They couldn’t pin Him down; He wouldn’t fit into the box they had made for Him (and so it was after His death He wouldn’t stay in the box). Then He made Himself out to be God not a god, as our Watchtower friends would have it; His mysterious reply to them by itself shows that they had no idea whatever of any kind of lesser god:
Who are these “gods, to whom the word of God came”? Christ is quoting the first part of Psalm 82:6 and it’s telling that the Jews had become so legalistic that they regarded all of the Scriptures as part of the law, even what is found in “the prophets” and “the writings.” The psalms are part of the writings. The psalm reads:
In this context, these “gods” are clearly judges in the nation of Israel, and at that ones who are being taken to task for injustice. Judges were first appointed in Israel at the advice of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, who saw Moses wearing himself out trying to mediate literally every dispute in Israel, no matter how petty. Moses took this advice and appointed rulers “over thousands, and hundreds, and fifties, and tens” (Exodus 18:25). The people were commanded to respect these judges: “ ‘You shall not revile the gods, nor curse a ruler of your people’ ” (22:28).
The Hebrew word for “gods” is elohim, the plural of el, which literally means “god” or “mighty one” and generally refers to God Himself. The judges of Israel are called gods not literally, of course, but metaphorically, because they are like God in that they partake of a certain power and authority derived from God Himself. They are also supposed to resemble God by judging justly and by standing up for the helpless. Evidently some judges are raked over the coals in the psalm for not doing this.
So why does Jesus quote this psalm? Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses right is Jesus God only in a lesser sense, a god with a small g? No. Christ is not likening Himself to the judges of Israel, who are called gods in the psalm; he is contrasting Himself with them: “If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, “You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God” ’?” He is doing what is called “arguing from the lesser to the greater.” The judges of Israel are those “to whom the word of God came”; they are judges by the authority of God. The command of God had to come to them; Christ is He “whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world.” What’s more, He is the Word of God who came to those judges, those “gods”! He is the Word of God who in the beginning was with God, and was God not a god, but God together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. If the judges of Israel are gods by divine appointment, how much more so the Word of God who came to them, who is God the Son and the Son of God?
Christ told His interlocutors the truth plainly enough, and they were unable to understand it because they would not believe it. It wasn’t what they had in mind. In quoting the psalm to them, Christ was trying to sneak the truth past their defenses the truth about themselves, and the truth about Him.
The truth about themselves is that which, before His death, He would attempt to tell them once again in the parable of the wicked vinedressers who kill the Son of the landlord for the unjust judges in the psalm who are called gods, literally resemble the leaders of Israel in Christ’s time. They are unjust; they do not defend the poor, weak, and afflicted, but actually afflict them: they despise and ostracize them like they did the healed blind man in chapter nine; they even rob them, as at the tables of the moneychangers. And again, “They do not know, nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness” (Psalm 82:5). They shall meet the miserable end described in the psalm, or, as in the parable, the owner of the vineyard “will destroy those wicked men miserably” (Matthew 22:41).
Had they had even the slightest willingness to take themselves less seriously, could they but have responded to the gleam in His eye as He tried to make them think about what they were saying, they might have quoted the psalm back at Him. Still thinking Him arrogant beyond measure, they might have shot back, “ ‘But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.’ ” Then they might have begun to see Him as He is, if only for a moment: they might have recalled that, indeed, He did “defend the poor and the fatherless,” “do justice to the needy,” “deliver the poor and needy,” and “free them from the hand of the wicked.” They might even have known, after His resurrection, that, because of them, He had died like a man, and fallen like one of the princes, but precisely in so doing had delivered the poor and needy and freed them from the hand of the wicked in the ultimate sense, the sense of salvation! They might have been willing to see themselves as wicked, they might have known that (as the apostle Paul said) they had crucified the Lord of glory, and by that knowledge have joined the ranks of the poor and needy He died to save. Indeed, perhaps some of them did. Perhaps some of them were cut to the heart at the preaching of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost because they had crucified the Christ, the Son of God, and perhaps, please God, they did repent and were baptized in His name for the remission of sins, and received the Holy Spirit.
All this, and no doubt much more, was comprehended in Our Lord’s intention when He replied to the Jews as He did in the gospel. So it is always, with all of His mysterious sayings: If we are willing to exercise a little faith and a lot of thought (but never the thought without the faith), we shall find in them layer upon layer upon layer of wisdom and love. As He says in Matthew 13:52: “ ‘Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.’ ”
Those of the Watchtower Society will not accept the divinity of the Son of God, so they cannot understand it. It is incomprehensible to them how the Father and the Son can both be God without there being two Gods. In faith, we believe what God says through John the evangelist, that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But how do we understand this? We can’t, perfectly. Not being divine ourselves, our understanding will not be absolutely perfect even when God grants us a relatively perfect knowledge of Himself in the age to come; much more so now. The best that faith seeking understanding in the minds of great theologians has attained so far is something like this:
A word is what we form in our minds when we want to communicate something that we understand. More than that, we form a word in the very act of understanding a thing, whether we communicate it to someone else or not. For example, if I picture in my mind a tall cylinder made of glass with an open end at the top and a lid that can be screwed on and off, I form the word jar. If I think of a thirty-four-year-old gentleman with blond hair, a receding hairline, a pot belly, and an unnaturally fast walk, whose height is five-nine, whose weight is . . . well, never mind that part . . . , who is married to a beautiful piano-playing brunette, who is of reasonable intelligence, has a self-deprecating sense of humor, and (just in case you haven’t figured it out), is speaking to you right now, I form the word Darren.
In John 1:1, Jesus is called “the Word.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” Which word? “ . . . and the Word was God.” Finite beings such as we can never comprehend God that is, we can’t understand Him perfectly. Only God really and thoroughly understands God. In fact, God’s understanding of God is so perfect, so utterly complete in every respect that this understanding is a Person the Person who is also, by virtue of the Incarnation, the Man we know as Jesus Christ.
In John 1:18, and elsewhere in that gospel, Jesus is called “the only-begotten Son . . . of the Father.” In God’s act of understanding God, the Father begets the Son. Of course, we don’t reproduce this way; our children are not only different persons from us, but different beings from us. Our language does help us to understand this somewhat, though: when we understand something, we say that we have, in our minds, a concept of that thing we conceive of something, as though our understanding of that thing were our child. Granted, for us this is only a metaphor, but we do notice that, the better we understand a thing, the more that thing becomes a part of us. In God this is ultimate Reality: When God understands God, God who understands is one Person, the Father, and God who is understood is another Person, the Son. Yet they are not two Gods, but one God, the same God, because they are literally of one Mind. This is part of what lies behind Our Lord’s statement, “I and My Father are One”: they are different Persons, but the same God.
No doubt all of this is rather hard to grasp, and to keep straight. I’ve been trying to do so for several years, and it still blows my mind when I think hard about it for only a few minutes. As well it should we worship a God who is greater than anything we can possibly imagine, and if we ever think we’ve got Him entirely figured out, we’re not really worshiping the true God. The better we truly know Him, the more we know about His nature, the more clear it is to us that there is an infinity beyond. We exclaim, with the poet John Donne, “Blessed be God that He is God only and divinely like Himself.”
So why try to know God’s nature as well as we can if we can never really succeed? Because He wants us to. He made us in His image: He gave us minds to know Him and wills to desire and love Him, and He expects us to do as much as we can with them. More than that, we will only be truly happy when, in the age to come, we know Him and love Him as well as He can make us capable of doing. The preparation for that great vision starts here, in this life. Even here, the better we know Him and the more we love Him, the happier we are.
Of course we must, while always striving for a better understanding, make sure that that understanding is based on a faithful acceptance of what is revealed in the Scriptures. If we cast aside our faith, we run the terrible risk of worshiping a God of our own making, instead of the true God. This is what Arius did, back in the fourth century, and in this error the Jehovah’s Witnesses, well-meaning or otherwise, follow him, “wresting the Sciptures to their own destruction” and cutting themselves off from the body of Christ. We must keep the faith of those who, like Athanasius in the fourth century, stood for the truth even when everyone and everything else seemed to be against it. That worthy man of faith came to be known as Athanasius contra mundum “Athanasius against the world.” There indeed was one who would stand for the right though the heavens fell.
In closing, I commend to you a document known as the Athanasian Creed. Christian scholars tell us that it probably wasn’t written by Athanasius himself, and that it was most likely written in the fifth century rather than the fourth. Nevertheless, even if he didn’t write it, he would no doubt have affirmed this great statement of faith, which embodies the true Scriptural understanding of the nature of God and of Christ:
But, as the apostle wrote in Hebrews 10:39, “we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” By the grace of God, may that be true of all of us here today.
In the one blessed Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Author’s Note: I presented this sermon at the Handley Seventh-day Adventist Church on Saturday, June 16, 2001.