The theme of this year’s regional convention program is “Imitate Jesus!”
Is this a precursor of things to come? Are we about to return Jesus to his proper place of importance in the Christian faith? Before we get carried away on a wave of hopeful euphoria at the possibility of a JW renaissance, let us pause and give sober consideration to the words of Proverbs 14:15:
“The naïve person believes every word, but the shrewd one ponders each step.”
Perhaps Paul had that thought in mind when he described our namesakes, the Beroeans, this way:
“for they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)
Let us therefore receive the spoken word eagerly, all the while carefully examining the Scriptures for verification. Let us ponder each step.
The Convention Theme
We will begin with the convention theme itself. Perhaps a good place to start would be with the numbers. After all, the Organization loves its statistics. Let’s count the number of times:
- “Jesus” occurs in The Watchtower from 1950 to 2014: 93,391
- “Jehovah” occurs in The Watchtower from 1950 to 2014: 169,490
- “Jesus” appears in the NWT, Christian Scriptures: 2457
- “Jehovah” appears in the NWT, Christian Scriptures: 237
- “Jehovah” appears in manuscripts of the Christian Scriptures: 0
It is obvious there is a trend here. Even accepting the premise that the Governing Body is justified in its presumption of inserting the divine name into the Christian Scriptures, occurrences of Jesus’ name still outnumber God’s 10 to 1. Since the convention theme is all about imitation, why doesn’t the Governing Body imitate the inspired Christian writers and give more emphasis to Jesus in the publications?
What do the numbers tell us about the choice of the convention theme?
- Number of times the word “imitate” is used in the Christian Scriptures: 12
- Number of times the word “follow” is used in the Christian Scriptures: 145
Those are raw numbers using the NWT as a source. The ratio between the two numbers certainly makes one think: A 12 to 1 ratio. Why is our convention theme not “Follow Jesus!”? Why are we focusing on imitation rather than following?
The mystery deepens when we look at how “imitate” is used in comparison with “follow” in the Christian Scriptures. First century Christians were never directly told to imitate Jesus—only by extension, and even then, only twice. They were told to:
- imitate Paul. (1Co 4:16; Phil. 3:17)
- imitate Paul as he imitates Jesus. (1Co 11:1)
- imitate of God. (Eph. 5:1)
- imitate Paul, Silvanus, Timothy and the Lord. (1Th 1:6; 2Th 3:7, 9)
- imitate the congregations of God. (1Th 1:8)
- imitate faithful ones. (He 6:12)
- imitate the faith of those taking the lead. (He 13:7)
- imitate what is good. (3 John 11)
By contrast the number of scriptures that directly instruct us to follow Jesus are too numerous to list here. A few examples will serve to make the point:
Now after these things he went out and beheld a tax collector named Leʹvi sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: “Be my follower.” 28 And leaving everything behind he rose up and went following him.
“And whoever does not accept his torture stake and follow after me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:38)
“Jesus said to them: “Truly I say to YOU, In the re-creation, when the Son of man sits down upon his glorious throne, YOU who have followed me will also yourselves sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Mt 19:28)
Not once does Jesus tell someone, “Be my imitator.” Of course, we want to imitate Jesus, but it is possible to imitate someone without following him. You can imitate someone without obeying them. Indeed, you can imitate someone while following your own path.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to imitate Jesus, to be like him. However, they are told to be obedient to and follow the Governing Body.
Jesus will not tolerate those who follow men. Our reward in the heavens is tied directly to our willingness to follow the Lord. We are required to take up his torture stake so as to live and die as he did. (Phil. 3:10)
Why is an entire convention dedicated to getting Jehovah’s Witnesses to imitate Jesus, rather than to following him?
The main drama provides the clue. It is a video presentation enacted as a stage play and split into two parts. You can see the Friday presentation here at the 1:53:19 minute mark, and the second half on Sunday here at the 32:04 minute mark. The drama is titled “For a Certainty God Made Him Lord and Christ” and is narrated by a fictional character named Meseper who was a shepherd boy when the angels revealed the birth of Jesus. He explains that he later became one of Jesus followers, and an overseer in the Christian congregation in Jerusalem. His next words lay out the premise for the entire drama:
“You may think that after seeing with my own eyes a multitude of angels announcing the birth of Jesus, my faith would be rock-solid. The reality? Over the past 40 years I have had to strengthen my faith constantly, by reminding myself of the reasons why I believe. How do I know that Jesus is the Messiah? How do I know that Christians have the truth? Jehovah does not want worship that is based on blind belief or credulity.
You too can benefit by asking yourself, ‘How do I know that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the truth?’”
Notice how the narrator equates doubting that Jesus is the Messiah with doubting that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the truth? This sets us up for the logical conclusion that if we can again convince ourselves that Jesus is the Son of God, we must also believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses do have the truth.
The irony is that just before Meseper makes this link, he cautions his audience with these words: “Jehovah does not want worship that is based on blind belief or credulity.”
With that in mind, let us consider Meseper’s logic in explaining to us how it was the apostle Peter came to believe that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. At the close of the drama, Meseper says, “It was Peter’s spirituality, his friendship with Jehovah that revealed that Jesus was the Messiah to him.”
This would be one of those moments where, had I been seated in the audience, I would have had to fight the urge to stand up, spread my arms, and shout, “WHAT! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”
Where does the Bible speak about Peter’s friendship with God? Where is any Christian referred to as God’s friend? Jesus was teaching Peter and all his disciples to accept adoption as sons of God. That adoption began at Pentecost. He never spoke about being just friends with the Almighty.
When Peter confessed the Christ at Mt. 16:17, Jesus told him why he knew this. He said, “flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, but my Father who is in the heavens did.” We’re putting words in Jesus’ mouth. Jesus never said, “It’s your spirituality that revealed this to you, Peter. And also your friendship with the Father.”
Why use such an odd turn of phrase and ignore what the Bible actually says? Could it be that the target audience are the many of the rank and file who after 100 years of failed prophecies are finally starting to doubt? These are the ones who are told they are not sons of God but only friends. These are the ones who are told to work on their spirituality by preparing for and attending all meetings, going out in the door-to-door and cart ministry, and by studying the JW.ORG publications in their family study.
Jehovah’s Witnesses view the Organization as their mother.
I have learned to view Jehovah as my Father and his organization as my Mother. (w95 11/1 p. 25)
When the “great crowd” appeal to their “mother” organization for help, this is given instantly and in good measure. (w86 12/15 p. 23 par. 11)
A son is subject to his parents. Jesus is the son. Jehovah is the Father. But if we make the Organization the mother, then…? You see where this takes us? Jesus becomes the child of the mother organization, the heavenly one and its earthly extension. It is now understandable how it is that the organization demands unconditional obedience from us and why the convention is about imitating Jesus and not following him. Jesus was loyal and obedient to his parental Father. In imitation of him, we are expected to be loyal to our parental mother, JW.ORG.
Jesus followed the Father.
“I do nothing of my own initiative; but just as the Father taught me I speak these things.” (John 8:28)
Likewise, Mother wants us to do nothing of our own initiative but just as She taught us, she wants us to speak these things.
Let us not be naïve persons who believe every word, but shrewd ones, loyal to our Lord, who ponder each step. (Pr. 14:15)
A Tangential Thought
The resurrection of Lazarus is one of the most touching and faith-inspiring accounts in all of Scripture. Its theatrical representation deserves our best efforts.
Now ask yourself which one is a more faithful representation of what actually happened? Which most closely adheres to the inspired Word of God? Which one is more inspiring, more moving? Which one builds the most faith in Jesus as the Son of God?
Some might accuse me of being picky, claiming that the Mormons have the money to spend on high production values, while we poor Witnesses are only doing the best we can with the resources at hand. Perhaps at one time that argument would have been valid, but no more. While our drama might have cost one or two hundred thousand to produce at a level matching what the Mormons have done, it is nothing compared to the money we spend on real estate. We just bought a 57-million dollar housing development so that we’d have a place to house construction workers building our resort-like headquarters in Warwick. What does that have to do with preaching the good news of the Christ?
We speak volumes about the importance of the preaching work. Yet when we have an opportunity to really put our money where our mouth is to produce a video that epitomizes the hope of the Good News, this is the best we can do.
[i] While I do not subscribe to the Mormon interpretation of Christians, I have to acknowledge in honesty that the videos they’ve produced and made available on their web site are very beautifully done and are more faithful to the inspired accounts than anything else I’ve seen. Additionally, each video is accompanied by the Bible text from which it is drawn so the viewer can verify the events depicted against the actual Scriptural account.