[This article was contributed by Apollos]
What was the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth? It is one of the oldest questions in Christianity. It is a related, but separate question to that of his identity.
He said to them: “You, though, who do you say I am?” In answer Simon Peter said: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:15, 16)
Simply identifying that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and that he is rightly called “the Son of God”, still leaves much scope for understanding, or misunderstanding, who he truly is.
Now that Christendom has had nearly 2000 years to establish an answer to this matter, we can choose from a full spectrum of beliefs. The adherents of each belief are convinced that their own doctrine is fully established in scripture. All who call themselves Christians accept that he is “Christ, the Son of the living God”, but what does that really mean?
At one end of the scale we have Jesus as part of a Trinitarian Godhead in which he is Almighty God. At the other end, there are those who deny his pre-existence. These believe he was first brought into being in Mary’s womb, and only subsequent to his death and resurrection did he receive an elevated spiritual status.
Jehovah’s Witnesses take it for granted that their view is the absolute truth on the matter. They also misunderstand many of the opposing views, because these have often been misrepresented in our publications. For many it has simply become a binary question such as “is Jesus God?” or “should you believe the Trinity?”. Since it is Babylon the Great that apparently answers yes to these questions, the only viable option is to answer no, and to distance our doctrines as far as possible from those who believe otherwise.
I cannot here address the entire question comprehensively. Volumes of scriptural studies have been published on the subject. All I hope to do is open it up for thought and discussion using the question in the article title as a point of departure. Once you embark on this journey you might be surprised at where the scriptures lead you personally.
I should explain that my own view on the matter is probably not unique to me, but as yet I have not found anyone who shares it exactly. My conclusions are based upon my personal attempt to harmonize the full body of scripture. Neither the JW official doctrine, nor the strict doctrine of the Trinity does that for me.
Let’s begin by reviewing the JW understanding. First, there is the “beginning” as per Genesis 1:1. It is claimed that Jesus was the first created angel. He then became the master worker through whom all other things were created. Those other things came into existence in the order described in Genesis chapter 1.
I believe that God’s Word presents a number of serious challenges to that framework, to the point that it is unsustainable.
In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. (John 1:1, NWT)
Let’s not get into the controversy of John 1:1c for now, but simply focus on the first part. It seems clear that John’s gospel – the last of the inspired books in the order in which they were penned – opens by echoing the words of the the first inspired book (albeit in a different language). It is a beautiful symmetry that surely cannot be coincidental.
Just as Moses reveals the reality of the origins of our universe to his Jewish audience in Genesis 1:1, John layers an additional reality on top of that – the sacred secret unknown to those in pre-Christian times – the existence of the Logos, or Word. Although there is a similarity in language in both cases with the opening words “in the beginning”, there is a departure thereafter.
In Genesis a definite action by God is stated to have occurred “in the beginning”. He “created the heavens and the earth”. Assuming that “the heavens and the earth” encompasses everything in our universe, we could read this as “In the beginning God created the universe”. Now it is important to establish what we mean by universe. It could mean:
- Everything that exists.
- Everything that exists from our perspective, or perhaps better described as everything that we could ever in theory have direct access to.
To use the first definition would confine God himself to the universe and the constraints of its laws. Therefore I believe we must go with option #2. It is the idea that God is the creator of everything, and therefore exists outside of that “everything” that helps us to absorb the scriptural truth of a timeless God. Once we accept that time itself is one of the dimensional constructs of our universe, and is therefore a creation in itself, we can envisage that God himself is not bound by it. Since cause and effect, beginnings and ends, are only meaningful in the context of time, the questions that non-believers ask about who created God, or how something could exist without having a beginning, can be identified as illogical. I’m not saying that it’s easy to understand, but we at least see why we wouldn’t expect to find direct answers to those questions. No more so for example than “what color is the number 4?” (the perceptions of some synesthetes notwithstanding).
With all that in mind the language of John 1:1a is most intriguing. “In the beginning the Word was.”
The Greek verb ēn, translated “was”, is the imperfect tense of eimi meaning to be, to exist, or to be present.
Just as with the creation of the heavens and earth in Genesis 1:1, John could have employed language to indicate that in the beginning the Word came into being, or was created by God e.g. “In the beginning God created the Word”. And yet, the inspired Word says that at that very moment he already existed.
If it is true that Genesis 1:1 is describing the bringing into existence of our universe, including time itself as a created entity, then according to John 1:1 there could be no time that the Logos did not exist.
I would not be surprised if the first objection that comes to your mind would be that Jesus is described as “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). But that statement must be considered in context, and it must surely also not contradict John 1:1.
The point being made in Colossians chapter 1 is undoubtedly the primacy of Jesus Christ over every other thing in our universe. As a result of this he is supremely suitable to be the King of the kingdom and is the one through whom Christians can obtain their release by ransom. We are told in this context that he is the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; because by means of him all 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 things have been created through him and for him. Also, he is before all things and by means of him all things were made to exist.”
This last point is in complete harmony with John 1:1 in a temporal sense. Nothing exists before him. In the beginning he already was.
If we wish to sidestep the implication of this we must somehow conceive that Almighty God created time, and then in an instant created his Son. What length of time then passed between these acts?
If it was any amount of time, even an inconceivably small one, then John 1:1 would not harmonize.
We must accept that the Son was already existing when time was brought into being, in which case the answer to the question as to whether there was ever a time the Son did not exist is no. (If we try for a third option that the Son was brought into being in parallel with time, the conclusion is the same.)
The implication of this is profound, because it means that from our perspective, within the confines of the universe that we can perceive, the Son of God is without beginning just as the Father is.
If you are unconvinced by this reasoning and feel that you are having to jump through some mental hoops, or that I am appealing to some metaphysics that we should not be required to reason on, I don’t blame you. Let me propose to you that if we are going to enter into this discussion at all, then there is a basic misleading premise on which we have been required to hang our hats – that the nature of the Son of God should not be any sort of mystery. Well I’m sorry, but it is simply not true. If you say that you fully understand the eternal nature of God and furthermore understand the relationship of the Son to Him in that context, then I respectfully suggest that you have not attempted to fully reconcile all of the scriptures on the matter.
The same chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians describes the revelation of the Christ as a “sacred secret” (NWT). The Greek word thus translated is mystērion which unsurprisingly carries the sense of mystery, or that which is not obvious to the understanding. It is used a number of times in the Christian Greek scriptures in relation to the hidden nature of the Son of God from the viewpoint of those in pre-Christian times. So let us not deceive ourselves that if a concept appears to be complex from a human perspective then it must be the wrong conclusion. It is the scriptures themselves that we must allow to freely convey truth, even if we have to adjust our human thinking to accommodate them.
Quite possibly at this point you might be thinking that if we exclude time itself from the list of created things, then all this goes away. But consider this extract from Proverbs 8:
22 Jehovah himself produced me as the beginning of his way, the earliest of his achievements of long ago. 23 From time indefinite I was installed, from the start, from times earlier than the earth … 27 When he prepared the heavens I was there;
It is a passage written in poetic terms, and we infer the application to the Son of God, although literally it is the wisdom of God that is being described.
That being so we can ask – from the standpoint of anything within our universe, was there ever a time when the wisdom of God did not exist? Such a thought would surely be nonsensical.
Don’t be easily thrown by the phrase “Jehovah himself produced me”. The Hebrew word qanah here translated “produced” is more frequently rendered “possessed” and in human terms is applied most commonly in the sense of acquiring something through purchase. It never carries the sense of creating something. Clearly none of us thinks that Jehovah God had need to acquire wisdom however. He evidently possessed that wisdom as part of his character rather than being something that he gained along the way. So what is this passage truly saying if wisdom is to be interchangeable with the Son of God – the one who at the time of its being written was still a sacred secret? From the perspective of our universe is there any way to temporally detach the one being described here from his Father? I cannot see how that could be.
Verse 27 declares “When he prepared the heavens I was there”. If the Son was pre-existing in relation to the preparation of the heavens then where would he have existed? We can surely only conclude that just as the Father was not bounded by those dwelling places being described, then neither was the Son.
When we consider the metaphorical use of the quality of wisdom to allude to the person of Jesus Christ, we can also see the parallel with the idea of the Logos or Word. Just as wisdom is not precisely the same entity as the one possessing it, neither is a word precisely the same entity as the one uttering it. And yet, crucially, one cannot be wholly detached from the other either. My word is not me. And yet my word cannot exist independently of me. How appropriate then the language employed throughout Genesis chapter 1: “God proceeded to say …”.
And so it is. God’s Word does not go forth from him and return without results (Isa 55:11). How true that was in the case of creation. And how true is was when “the Word became flesh and resided among us” (John 1:14).
Somehow then, the Son is the one through whom God chooses to perform his creative will and express himself to us in our universe. In essence he is the very manifestation of God even though he is a separate person. That thought is in complete harmony with texts such as John 1:18 and Heb 1:2.
Have you ever seen one of those optical illusions whereby you are looking at an object from one angle, and then the object is turned so that you suddenly perceive it quite differently. I believe that the revelation of God was like that. From the Jewish monotheistic perspective the Son of God was a sacred secret or mystērion. Christian writers maintained the concept of monotheism while perceiving that there was more to God than was previously known. He expresses himself to us through a Son who is distinct from all created beings, because he himself existed alongside his Father and shared his glory in a way that created beings could not (John 17:5; Heb 1:5).
You yourself can understand the distinction between a son and other things you have created. Perhaps you are a carpenter and you create furniture, and houses. But if you have an actual genetic son, you do not consider him in the same category as the things you have created do you? He is a part of you in some way, not just a product that you have brought into being. Even if it was in your power to create animate objects, the distinction would remain.
This is the reality and glory of the ransom sacrifice also. Jehovah created billions of angels. If you created billions of things and sacrificed the first one that you had created, there is a certain meaning to that. If however, you created billions of things, and yet separate from those you had your own fleshly son that you were prepared to allow to suffer and die then the depth of the sacrifice truly becomes immeasurable. That becomes real self-sacrifice, and it then becomes true enough to say that God gave Himself, or that he purchased the congregation with “His own blood” (Acts 20:28, most translations. Also see Appendix 6C of the NWT Reference Bible for an interesting analysis of this passage with this view in mind.)
Without a doubt this subject can be extended much further, and I do have other thoughts I would like to express, but for now I hope this will suffice to open a meaningful discussion.
I will however address a different question to set the tone for any discussion. Does it matter if you and I come to different conclusions on this subject? If you are a Witness, then like me, you will certainly have become accustomed to thinking that any differences we might have are the dividing line between truth and falsehood, between a true Christian and apostate Christendom. Nevertheless if we can agree with the apostle Peter that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, then can we really be so divided?
Everyone believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God, and everyone who loves the one that caused to be born loves him who has been born from that one. (1 John 5:1)