It’s been several months since I posted Part 3 of this series, but a recent conversation with yet another member of the Watchtower Society has prompted me to continue this series. Sorry for the long gap between posts!
In this entry, I want to address some of the basics about certain of Jesus’ sayings found in the book of John.
Jesus’ Self Understanding in the Gospel of John
The Watchtower Society claims that Jesus was nothing more than a created being. They claimed that Jesus did not consider himself to be God and that he never claimed to be God. In light of this, we need to ask ourselves whether this is true or not. In getting that answer, we must first take a look in the book of Exodus.
In Exodus 3, God speaks to Moses from a burning bush and directs him to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Upon learning that God wanted him to accomplish this task, we read the following exchange between Moses and God:
13 Then Moses asked God, "If I go to the Israelites and say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, 'What is His name?' what should I tell them?"
14 God replied to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you."
Moses asks a very legitimate question here. The Egyptians had many gods and for Moses to tell Pharaoh “The God of your fathers has sent me to you”, it would have been quite normal for him to reply “Which god of my fathers?”. And as it happens, the name by which God described himself turns out to be far more than just a name.
On page 115 of Ron Rhodes’ book Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the author points out the following:
“…it is interesting that Bible expositor James K. Hoffmeier suggests that in Exodus 3, ‘Moses is not demanding to know God’s name per se, but the character behind that name. God’s answer supports this, because he does not [first] say ‘Yahweh’ (v. 14) but [first] interprets the name ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This may appeal to his infinite existence: ‘the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come’ (Rev. 4:8b).’ The name communicates the idea, ‘I am the One who is’”
In other words, when God gives the name ‘I AM’ to Moses, He is saying that He is the real God, the one who exists and has always existed. The one without a beginning or an end.
Now why is this significant when it comes to Jesus? The reason is because Jesus used the same name when describing himself in the Gospel of John. Collectively, these are known as Jesus’ I AM sayings.
The most well-known of these passages occurs in John 8 as shown below:
John 8: 48-58
48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I AM!”
Verse 58 certainly seems to show Jesus using the same name that God gave himself in Exodus 3. But since neither Exodus nor John were originally written in English, it’s important for us to take a minute to investigate whether the two words really are the same. The problem is that the original language in which Exodus was written is Hebrew while John’s is Greek. So how can we reconcile these two?
The answer comes from the Septuagint (or LXX), which was a Greek translation of the Old Testament in popular use before Jesus was born (around 130 BC). By looking at Exodus as recorded in the Septuagint, we are able to see whether the same Greek phrase is used as Jesus used in John 8. And it turns out that they are identical.
The Greek for I AM in Exodus 3 is 'ego eimi', and it’s the exact same Greek phrase used by Jesus in John 8. By looking at the Greek, we can clearly see that Jesus was deliberately proclaiming himself to be God and the Jews understood it as verse 59 clearly shows:
59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.
Why would the Jews seek to stone Jesus for what he said? Because the Mosaic Law declared stoning to be the punishment for blasphemy. In Leviticus we see a specific example of this:
Leviticus 24: 13-16
13 Then the LORD spoke to Moses: 14 "Bring the one who has cursed to the outside of the camp and have all who heard [him] lay their hands on his head; then have the whole community stone him. 15 And tell the Israelites: If anyone curses his God, he will bear the consequences of his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD is to be put to death; the whole community must stone him. If he blasphemes the Name, he is to be put to death, whether the foreign resident or the native.
Clearly the Jews understood that Jesus had uttered blasphemy when he said “before Abraham was born, I AM!”.
And this isn’t the only time that Jesus described himself in this way. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaimed himself to be the I AM. Below is a list of these verses (thanks again to Ron Rhodes and his excellent book Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses):
John 4:26; 6:35, 48, 51; 8:12, 24, 28, 58; 10:7, 11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5; and 18:5, 6, 8
Two of these verses further illustrate the point:
"I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I AM (ego eimi) [he], you will indeed die in your sins.”
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM (ego eimi) [he] and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.
In both of these verses Jesus identifies himself as the 'ego eimi'. And even though the word 'he' appears in both of these verses in the English, that word is missing in the original Greek. So Jesus is really saying the following:
"I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I AM, you will indeed die in your sins.”
So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.
The simple fact is that Jesus repeatedly proclaimed himself to be the I AM (ego eimi) throughout the Gospel of John. It’s very clear, from looking at Exodus in the Septuagint, that this phrase is the same one used by God when He spoke to Moses.
Answering the Jehovah’s Witness Perspective
Based on the discussion so far, it seems pretty clear that Jesus claimed the same title as God in declaring himself to be the I AM. So how do the Jehovah’s Witnesses handle these verses? Let’s take a look at what the New World Translation (NWT) lists for these verses:
Exodus 3: 13-14
13Nevertheless, Moses said to the [true] God: “Suppose I am now come to the sons of Israel and I do say to them, ‘The God of YOUR forefathers has sent me to YOU,’ and they do say to me, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?” 14At this God said to Moses: “I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT I SHALL PROVE TO BE.” And he added: “This is what you are to say to the sons of Israel, ‘I SHALL PROVE TO BE has sent me to YOU.’”
John 8: 48-58
48In answer the Jews said to him: “Do we not rightly say, You are a Sa·mar´i·tan and have a demon?” 49Jesus answered: “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and YOU dishonor me. 50But I am not seeking glory for myself; there is One that is seeking and judging. 51Most truly I say to YOU, If anyone observes my word, he will never see death at all.” 52The Jews said to him: “Now we do know you have a demon. Abraham died, also the prophets; but you say, ‘If anyone observes my word, he will never taste death at all.’ 53You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died, are you? Also, the prophets died. Who do you claim to be?” 54Jesus answered: “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father that glorifies me, he who YOU say is YOUR God; 55and yet YOU have not known him. But I know him. And if I said I do not know him I should be like YOU, a liar. But I do know him and am observing his word. 56Abraham YOUR father rejoiced greatly in the prospect of seeing my day, and he saw it and rejoiced.” 57Therefore the Jews said to him: “You are not yet fifty years old, and still you have seen Abraham?” 58Jesus said to them: “Most truly I say to YOU, Before Abraham came into existence, I have been.”
By looking at these verses in the NWT, we can see how they’ve solved this problem. They’ve done so by deliberately altering these verses so that they no longer bear any resemblance to each other!
Exodus 3 – Response
Examining more closely at the passage in Exodus, we see that the Hebrew words which are translated I AM WHO I AM are ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’. This is one of the seven names for God given in the Old Testament and is literally translated as “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. This is consistent with the English translation of “I AM WHO I AM” (and, indeed, this is exactly how the LXX translates it), but the Jehovah’s Witnesses attempt to explain it a different way.
Looking online at one of the official websites for the Watchtower Society, we see the following:
God himself explained the meaning of his name to his faithful servant Moses. When Moses asked about God’s name, Jehovah replied: “I shall prove to be what I shall prove to be.” (Exodus 3:14) Rotherham’s translation renders those words: “I Will Become whatsoever I please.” So Jehovah can become whatever is needed in order to fulfill his purposes.
This quote is taken from an article entitled The Divine Name – Its Use and Its Meaning. The problem is that Exodus does not allow us to conclude that God was talking about becoming “whatsoever I please”. Instead, He was giving a description of His nature. The Jews realized this when they translated the Old Testament into Greek (the LXX) and today Exodus 3 is considered to be one of the seven names of God. This was a name God applied to Himself. It was not a statement about what He would or could do to fulfill His purpose, and any attempt to claim this is merely a distortion of the text.
John 8 – Response
Having dealt with Exodus 3, how do we answer the claim from John 8 that Jesus was merely stating that he pre-existed (I have been) rather than claiming to be God (I AM)? To do this, it’s important to understand the basis on which the Jehovah’s Witnesses make their claim in the first place.
On page 467 of the Greek Interlinear Bible used by the Watchtower Society, we see how they attempt to explain this difference:
I have been = ego eimi after the a'orist infinitive clause prin' Abraam genesthai and hence properly rendered in the perfect tense. It is not the same as ho ohn', meaning "The Being" or "The I Am") at Exodus 3:14, LXX
What this indicates is that Jesus was using the perfect tense when he made his statement, and since he used this tense the better translation of his quote is “I have been” rather than “I AM”. But is this right?
Turning once again to Ron Rhodes’ book Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we read the following excerpt (from page 116):
"Scholars agree that the Watchtower Society has no justification for translating 'ego eimi' in John 8:58 as "I have been". It is highly revealing that at one time, the Jehovah's Witnesses attempted to classify the Greek word 'eimi' as a perfect indefinite tense rather than a present tense. (Such a tense would allow for the translation "I have been.") HOWEVER, THIS CLAIM PROVED TO BE VERY EMBARRASSING WHEN GREEK SCHOLARS POINTED OUT TO THE JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES THAT THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT INDEFINITE TENSE IN GREEK GRAMMAR. Eimi is clearly a present active indicative form – as any beginner’s Greek grammar will show. (emphasis mine)
The highlighted sentence is important because it points out the intentional and ongoing deception by the Watchtower Society. Even after Greek scholars have shown them that there is no such thing as a perfect indefinite tense in the Greek language, they persist in their translation and even discuss their reasons for it (as shown above). The only possible explanation for this is that they are aware of their mistake, but maintain it nonetheless. If someone is aware of an error and yet retains it even after they’ve learned of the mistake, there doesn’t seem to be any other explanation other than that it’s intentional.
We’ve seen how Jesus used the same language when describing himself that God did when speaking with Moses. We’ve further seen that while the Jehovah’s Witnesses attempt to dismiss this (and, indeed, rewrite scripture), their attempts are deeply flawed.
The conclusion from all of this? Jesus claimed to be God and it was for this that he was crucified. In fact, if any final concerns remain about whether Jesus claimed to be God, all we need do is look to John 10.
John 10: 31-33
31 Again the Jews picked up rocks to stone Him.
32 Jesus replied, "I have shown you many good works from the Father. Which of these works are you stoning Me for?"
33 "We aren't stoning You for a good work," the Jews answered, "but for blasphemy, because You—being a man—make Yourself God."
The Jews understood that Jesus was claiming to be God. And Christians today also recognize that Jesus did this. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, unfortunately, deny the facts in this matter. But in order to do so, they must twist scripture and do damage to the Greek language itself.