We’ve just studied the meaning of four Greek words that are translated in modern English Bible versions as “worship”. True, each word is rendered in other ways as well, but they all have that one word in common.
All religious people—Christian or not—think they understand worship. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we think we have a handle on it. We know what it means and how it is to be performed and to whom it is to be directed.
That being the case, let us try a little exercise.
You may not be a Greek Scholar but with what you’ve learned thus far how would you translate “worship” into Greek in each of the following sentences?
- Jehovah’s Witnesses practice true worship.
- We worship Jehovah God by attending meetings and going out in field service.
- It should be evident to all that we worship Jehovah.
- We must worship only Jehovah God.
- The nations worship the Devil.
- It would be wrong to worship Jesus Christ.
There is no single word in Greek for worship; no one-to-one equivalency with the English word. Instead, we have four words to choose from—thréskeia, sebó, latreuó, proskuneó—each with its own nuances of meaning.
Do you see the problem? Going from many to one is not so much of a challenge. If one word represents many, the nuances of meaning all get dumped into the same melting pot. However, going in the opposite direction is quite another thing. Now we are required to resolve ambiguities and decide the precise meaning embodied in the context.
Fair enough. We are not the sort to shrink from a challenge, and besides, we’re pretty sure we know what worship means, right? After all, we’re hanging our prospects for eternal life on our belief that we are worshiping God the way he wants to be worshiped. So let’s give this a go.
I’d say we use thréskeia for (1) and (2). Both refer to a practice of worship that involves following procedures that are part of a particular religious belief. I would suggest sebó for (3) because it is not talking about acts of worship, but a demeanor that is on display for the world to see. The next one (4) presents a problem. Without the context we cannot be sure. Depending on that, sebó might be a good candidate, but I’m leaning more toward proskuneó with a dash of latreuó thrown in for good measure. Ah, but that’s not fair. We are looking for single word equivalency, so I’ll pick proskuneó because that was the word Jesus used when he was telling the Devil that only Jehovah should be worshiped. (Mt 4:8-10) Ditto for (5) because that’s the word used in the Bible at Revelation 14:3.
The last item (6) is a problem. We’ve just used proskuneó in (4) and (5) with strong Bible support. If we were to replace “Jesus Christ” with “Satan” in (6), we’d have no compunction with using proskuneó yet again. It fits. The problem is that proskuneó is used in Hebrews 1:6 where the angels are shown rendering it to Jesus. So we can’t really say that proskuneó cannot be rendered to Jesus.
How could Jesus tell the Devil that proskuneó should only be rendered to God, when the Bible shows not only that it is rendered to him by the angels, but that even while a man, he accepted proskuneó from others?
“And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped [proskuneó] him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” (Mt 8:2 KJV)
“While he spake these things unto them, behold, there came a certain ruler, and worshipped [proskuneó] him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. “(Mt 9:18 KJV)
“Then those who were in the boat worshiped [proskuneó] him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Mt 14:33 NET)
“Then came she and worshipped [proskuneó] him, saying, Lord, help me.” (Mt 15:25 KJV)
“But Jesus met them, saying, “Greetings!” They came to him, held on to his feet and worshiped [proskuneó] him.” (Mt 28:9 NET)
Now those of you who have a programmed concept of what worship is (just like I did before I started this research) are likely to be objecting to my selective use of the NET and KJV quotes. You might point out that many translations render proskuneó in at least some of these verses as “bow down”. The NWT uses “do obeisance” throughout. In so doing, it is making a value judgment. It is saying that when proskuneó is used with reference to Jehovah, the nations, an idol, or Satan, it should be rendered as absolute, i.e., as worship. However, when referring to Jesus, it is relative. In other words, it is okay to render proskuneó to Jesus, but in a relative sense only. It doesn’t amount to worship. Whereas rendering it to anyone else—be it Satan or God—is worship.
The problem with this technique is that there is no real difference between “doing obeisance” and “worshiping”. We imagine there is because it suits us, but there really isn’t a substantive difference. To explain that, let us begin by getting a picture in our mind of proskuneó. It means literally “to kiss towards” and is defined as “to kiss the ground when prostrating before a superior”…”to fall down/prostrate oneself to adore on one’s knees”. (HELPS Word-studies)
We’ve all see Muslims kneeling and then bending forward to touch the ground with their forehead. We’ve seen Catholics prostrate themselves on the ground, kissing the feet of an image of Jesus. We’ve even seen men, kneeling before other men, kissing a ring or hand of a high church official. All these are acts of proskuneó. A simple act of bowing before another, like the Japanese do in greeting, is not an act of proskuneó.
Twice, while receiving powerful visions, John was overcome with a sense of awe and performed proskuneó. To aid in our understanding, rather than provide the Greek word or the English interpretation—worship, do obeisance, whatever—I am going to express the physical action conveyed by proskuneó and leave the interpretation to the reader.
“At that I fell down before his feet to [prostrate myself before] him. But he tells me: “Be careful! Do not do that! I am only a fellow slave of you and of your brothers who have the work of witnessing concerning Jesus. [Prostrate yourself before] God! For the witness concerning Jesus is what inspires prophecy.”” (Re 19:10)
“Well I, John, was the one hearing and seeing these things. When I heard and saw them, I [bowed down to kiss] at the feet of the angel who had been showing me these things. 9 But he tells me: “Be careful! Do not do that! I am only a fellow slave of you and of your brothers the prophets and of those observing the words of this scroll. [Bow and kiss] God.”” (Re 22:8, 9)
The NWT renders all four occurrences of proskuneó in these verses as “worship”. We can agree that it is wrong to prostrate ourselves and kiss the feet of an angel. Why? Because this is an act of submission. We would be submitting to the will of the angel. Essentially, we would be saying, “Command me and I will obey, oh Lord”.
This is obviously wrong, because angels admittedly are ‘fellow slaves of us and our brothers’. Slaves don’t obey other slaves. Slaves all obey the master.
If we are not to prostrate ourselves before angels, how much more so men? That is the essence of what occurred when Peter first met Cornelius.
“As Peter entered, Cornelius met him, fell down at his feet, and [prostrated himself before] him. But Peter lifted him up, saying: “Rise; I too am just a man.” – Acts 10:25 NWT (Click this link to see how most common translations render this verse.)
It is worthy of note that the NWT does not use “worship” to translate proskuneó here. Instead it uses “did obeisance”. The parallels are undeniable. The same word is used in both. The exact same physical act was performed in each case. And in each case, the doer was admonished not to perform the act anymore. If John’s act was one of worship, can we rightfully claim that Cornelius’ was less so? If it is wrong to proskuneó/prostrate-oneself-before/worship an angel and it is wrong to proskuneó/prostrate-oneself-before/do-obeisance to a man, there is no fundamental difference between the English translation that renders proskuneó as “to worship” vs. the one that renders it as “to do obeisance”. We are trying to create a difference to support a preconceived theology; a theology that prohibits us from prostrating ourselves in complete submission to Jesus.
Indeed, the very act that the angel rebuked John for, and Peter admonished Cornelius for, both these men performed, along with the rest of the apostles, after they witnessed Jesus calming the storm. The very same act!
They had seen the Lord cure many individuals of all sorts of diseases but never before did his miracles strike them with fear. One has to get the mindset of these men to understand their reaction. Fishermen were always at the mercy of the weather. We’ve all sensed a feeling of awe and even outright fear before the power of a storm. To this day we call them acts of God and they are the greatest manifestation of the power of nature—the power of God—that most of us ever come across in our lives. Imagine being in a tiny fishing boat when a sudden storms comes up, tossing you about like drift wood and putting your very life in peril. How small, how impotent, one must feel before such overwhelming power.
So to have a mere man stand up and tell the storm to go away, and then see the storm obey…well, is it any wonder that “they felt an unusual fear, and they said to one another: ‘Who really is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him’, and that “those in the boat [prostrated themselves before] him, saying: ‘You really are God’s Son.’” (Mr 4:41; Mt 14:33 NWT)
Why did Jesus not set the example and rebuke them for prostrating themselves before him?
Worshiping God the Way He Approves
We are all so cocksure of ourselves; sure that we know just how Jehovah wants to be worshiped. Every religion does it differently and every religion thinks the rest have got it wrong. Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, I took considerable pride in knowing that Christendom had it wrong by claiming that Jesus was God. The Trinity was a doctrine that dishonored God by making Jesus and the holy spirit part of a triune Godhead. However, in denouncing the Trinity as false, have we run so far to the opposite side of the playing field that we are in danger of missing out on some fundamental truth?
Do not misunderstand me. I hold that the Trinity is a false doctrine. Jesus is not God the Son, but the Son of God. His God is Jehovah. (John 20:17) However, when it comes to worshiping God, I do not want to fall into the trap of doing it how I think it should be done. I want to do it as my heavenly Father wants me to do it.
I’ve come to realize that generally speaking our understanding of worship is as clearly defined as a cloud. Did you write down your definition as the start of this series of articles? If so, have a look at it. Now compare it with this definition which, I’m confident, most Jehovah’s Witnesses would agree with.
Worship: Something we should only give to Jehovah. Worship means exclusive devotion. It means obeying God over everyone else. It means submitting to God in every way. It means loving God above all others. We perform our worship by going to meetings, preaching the good news, helping others in their time of need, studying God’s word and praying to Jehovah.
Now let’s consider what the Insight book gives as a definition:
it-2 p. 1210 Worship
The rendering of reverent honor or homage. True worship of the Creator embraces every aspect of an individual’s life….Adam was able to serve or worship his Creator by faithfully doing the will of his heavenly Father….The primary emphasis has always been on exercising faith—doing the will of Jehovah God—and not on ceremony or ritual….Serving or worshiping Jehovah required obedience to all of his commands, doing his will as a person exclusively devoted to him.
In both these definitions, true worship involves only Jehovah and no one else. Period!
I think we can all agree that worshipping God means being obedient to all his commands. Well, here’s one of them:
“While he was yet speaking, look! a bright cloud overshadowed them, and, look! a voice out of the cloud, saying: “This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved; listen to him.”” (Mt 17:5)
And here’s what happens if we don’t obey.
“Indeed, anyone who does not listen to that Prophet will be completely destroyed from among the people.’” (Ac 3:23)
Now is our obedience to Jesus relative? Do we say, “I’ll obey you Lord, but only as long as you don’t ask me to do something that Jehovah disapproves of”? We might as well say that we’ll obey Jehovah unless he lies to us. We are stipulating conditions which can never occur. Worse, suggesting even the possibility is blasphemy. Jesus will never fail us and he will never be disloyal to his Father. The Father’s will is and always will be the will of our Lord.
Given this, if Jesus were to return tomorrow, would you prostrate yourself on the ground before him? Would you say, “Whatever you want me to do Lord, I will do. If you ask me to surrender my life, it is yours for the taking”? Or would you say, “Sorry Jesus, you’ve done a lot for me, but I only bow down before Jehovah”?
As it applies to Jehovah, proskuneó, means complete submission, unconditional obedience. Now ask yourself, since Jehovah has granted Jesus “all authority in heaven and earth”, what is left for God? How can we submit to Jehovah more than to Jesus? How can we obey God more than we obey Jesus? How can we prostrate ourselves before God more than before Jesus? The fact is we worship God, proskuneó, by worshipping Jesus. We are not allowed to do an end run around Jesus to get to God. We approach God through him. If you still believe that we do not worship Jesus, but only Jehovah, please explain precisely how we go about that? How do we differentiate the one from the other?
Kiss the Son
This is where, I’m afraid, we as Jehovah’s Witnesses have missed the mark. By marginalizing Jesus, we forget that the one who appointed him is God and that by not recognizing his true and complete role, we are rejecting Jehovah’s arrangement.
I do not say this lightly. Consider, by way of an example, what we have done with Ps. 2:12 and how this serves to mislead us.
“Honor the son, or God will become indignant
And you will perish from the way,
For His anger flares up quickly.
Happy are all those taking refuge in Him.”
(Ps 2:12 NWT 2013 Edition)
Children should honor parents. Congregation members should honor the older men taking the lead. In fact, we are to honor men of all sorts. (Eph 6:1,2; 1Ti 5:17, 18; 1Pe 2:17) Honoring the son is not the message of this verse. Our previous rendering was on the mark:
Kiss the son, that He may not become incensed
And YOU may not perish [from] the way,
For his anger flares up easily.
Happy are all those taking refuge in him.
(Ps 2:12 NWT Reference Bible)
The Hebrew word nashaq (נָשַׁק) means “kiss” not “honor”. Inserting “honor” where the Hebrew reads “kiss” greatly changes the meaning. This isn’t a kiss of greeting and it isn’t a kiss to honor someone. This is in line with the idea of proskuneó. It is a “kiss toward”, an act of submission that recognizes the supreme position of the Son as our divinely appointed King. Either we bow down and kiss him or we die.
In the earlier version we hinted that the one becoming incensed was God by capitalizing the pronoun. In the latest translation, we’ve removed all doubt by inserting God—a word that does not appear in the text. The fact is, there is no way to be certain. The ambiguity of whether the “he” refers to God or the Son is part of the original text.
Why would Jehovah allow the ambiguity to exist?
A similar ambiguity exists in Revelation 22:1-5. In an excellent comment, Alex Rover brings the point out that it is impossible to know who is being referred to in the passage: “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will [render sacred service to] (latreusousin) him.”
I would submit that the apparent ambiguity of Ps 2:12 and Re 22:1-5 isn’t ambiguity at all, but a revelation of the unique position of the Son. Having passed the test, having learned obedience, having been made perfect, he is—from our point of view as his servants—indistinguishable from Jehovah as regards his authority and right to command.
While on earth, Jesus showed perfect devotion, reverence and adoration (sebó) for the Father. The aspect of sebó found in our woefully overworked English word “worship” is something we achieve by imitating the son. We learn to worship (sebó) the Father at the feet of the son. However, when it comes to our obedience and complete submission, the Father has set up the Son for us to recognize. It is to the Son that we render proskuneó. It is through him that we render proskuneó to Jehovah. If we try to render proskuneó to Jehovah by circumventing his Son—by failing to ‘kiss the Son’—it doesn’t really matter whether it is the Father or the Son who becomes incensed. Either way, we will perish.
Jesus does nothing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing. (John 8:28) The idea that our bowing to him is somehow relative—a lower degree of submissiveness, a relative level of obedience—is nonsense. It is illogical and contrary to everything the Scriptures tell us about Jesus’ appointment as King and the fact that he and the Father are one. (John 10:30)
Worship Before Sin
Jehovah did not appoint Jesus to this role because Jesus is God in some sense. Nor is Jesus equal to God. He rejected the idea that equality with God was anything that should be snatched at. Jehovah appointed Jesus to this position so that he could bring us back to God; so that he could effect a reconciliation with the Father.
Ask yourself this: What was worship of God like before there was sin? There was no ritual involved. No religious practice. Adam didn’t go to a special place once every seven days and bow down, chanting words of praise.
As beloved children, they should have loved, revered and adored their Father all the time. They should have been devoted to him. They should have willingly obeyed him. When asked to serve in some capacity, like being fruitful, becoming many, and holding the earthly creation in subjection, they should have happily taken up that service. We’ve just encompassed all that the Greek Scriptures teach us about worshiping our God. Worship, true worship in a world free from sin, is simply a way of life.
Our first parents failed miserably at their worship. However, Jehovah lovingly provided a means to reconcile his lost children to himself. That means is Jesus and we cannot get back to the Garden without him. We cannot go around him. We must go through him.
Adam walked with God and talked with God. That was what worship meant and what it will one day mean again.
God has subjected all things under the feet of Jesus. That would include you and me. Jehovah has subjected me to Jesus. But to what end?
“But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone.” (1Co 15:28)
We talk to God in prayer, but he does not talk to us as he did with Adam. But if we humbly submit to the Son, if we “kiss the Son”, then one day, true worship in the fullest sense of the word will be restored and our Father will again be “all things to everyone.”
May that day come soon!