The Word and The Watchtower: An Exegesis of John 1:1
Why Such a Task Is Important
"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’" (Matthew 16:13)
This is, by far, the most important question anyone can ask. Is Jesus only a human prophet, or is he God incarnate? To be sure, what one believes about the nature of Christ has eternal consequences. The reason for this is that faith is only as good as its object. If I believe in something that is not true, then my faith, however genuine and sincere, is futile. It does me no good. It would be akin to saying, “I do not believe in gravity.” No matter how sincere the statement, gravity still exists; and I will not begin to float away anytime soon. Gravity, then, exists apart from my belief or non-belief.
Likewise, if one does not believe Christ is the second Person of the Trinity; and if it turns out that he truly is, then that person’s faith would have been in someone who is false, namely, a false christ. And a false christ cannot save. This is why sound theology is needed and especially in today’s time. While it is not an end in itself, solid theology leads to the true Christ; and the true Christ is whom we want to adore and worship.
If we are to accurately understand the person of Christ--who he is and what he has done--, then we need to dive deep into the Word of God. The ontological aspects of the Godhead may be mysterious but let there be no mistake that the Triune God of the Bible does, indeed, exist. A strong apologetic stems from a true theology, which is rooted and grounded in the revelation of God--the Bible; and it is from within the revelation of the Bible where we get our theology of Christ.
Where to Begin
While this article does not intend to be exhaustive in its treatment of the many important Trinitarian texts that the Bible contains, it is within our scope to look deeply into (arguably) the most principal and foundational of all texts contained in the entire Bible concerning the nature of Christ--John 1:1.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
This text from John’s Gospel is important in light of today’s highly religious and pluralistic atmosphere. The many heretical “offshoots” of Christianity which have appeared throughout recent history (especially in North America) are of significant importance as we consider John 1:1. More specifically, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, otherwise known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has from its very inception been unorthodox and heretical in its teaching and theology. For our concerns, then, we will look briefly at what they believe about Christ as well as their interpretation and translation of John 1:1.
Who is Christ for the Jehovah’s Witnesses?
According to The Watchtower Society, Christ was “directly created by God.”1 Moreover, in answering the question, “Is the firstborn Son equal to God, as some believe?,” they answer,
“This is not what the Bible teaches. As we noted in the preceding paragraph, the Son was created. Obviously, then, he had a beginning whereas Jehovah God has no beginning or end.”2
Christ, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is not eternal. That is, he had a beginning; and there was a time when he did not exist. Therefore, he is not God; but does this square with the biblical witness of John 1:1? We maintain that it does not.
The New World Translation
While this article does not have within its scope a detailed treatise on how to pick and choose a good Bible translation, it should be noted that Jehovah’s Witnesses use a very faulty and inaccurate Bible translation known as The New World Translation (NWT). How does their translation render John 1:1? According to the NWT, this verse is translated as,
“In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”
Notice the major difference between the NASB and the NWT’s translation of third clause: “ . . . and the Word was a god.” This is a significant shift between the two translations. The question needs to be asked: Is this variation warranted?
Now, of course, if we want to decide which translation is the best, it only makes sense to go to the original language in which the writers of the New Testament wrote. Since Koine Greek was the language in which John wrote his Gospel, it would do us well to look at how John wrote and arranged his words in this verse.
A Sound Exegesis of the Text
It would be best to look at John 1:1 in parts and taking into account each clause one at a time. Once we understand what the text says and what John meant for it to mean, we can better compare that with what Jehovah’s Witnesses claim about the Person of Christ. What does the Greek say, then?
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
Now for many, Greek is still Greek. An arrangement of unknown symbols means nothing to the average Christian; but what we would like to do is take you, the reader, through this simple, yet profound verse--one word at a time--and all the while equipping you with the information needed in order to translate properly.
First, let’s look at the first clause of the verse:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
If we were to transliterate this Greek clause into English letters, the following would be the outcome:
En archē ēn ho logos
First, it should be noted that this clause is extremely significant and important. Before we begin our in-depth look into the whole of this clause, though, what do these words mean?
First, we will notice the words “En archē” (Ἐν ἀρχῇ). “En” is a preposition, which is translated as “in.” Archē, it should be noted, turns out to be an interesting word in light of the overall context of this passage. Archē can mean “a beginning,” “first place,” and/or “headship.”3 It would not be wrong to render this word as “chief.”
To better illustrate this word, it might be good to recall the word “archbishop.” We’ve often heard this word in church circles and particularly in reference to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox ecclesiastical hierarchy. The word “archbishop” comes from two corresponding Greek words, namely, archē and episkopos (meaning “bishop” or “overseer”). Therefore, “archbishop” means “chief overseer” or “chief bishop.”
So we can see from this example that “archē” is a word which brings the idea of “foundation” or “headship.” Within the context of John 1:1, we can better see from these definitions how this might make sense. “In the beginning was the Word . . . " We see that this part of the text refers to the foundation of the universe--that is, to its origin.4 As we can see, the word “archē” actually gives this idea of beginnings a “thicker” meaning than what we English speakers are used to, for it speaks of the “origin” and of the “foundation” of the universe. That is why, given the context of John 1:1, Bible scholars translate “En archē” as “In the beginning.”
The next part of the first clause is “ēn ho logos” (Gk: ἦν ὁ λόγος).
The word “ēn” is, no doubt, loaded with significance. It is a verb that conveys a ton of information and insight into the deity of Christ. As noted above, we have, so far, translated “En archē” as “In the beginning.” So, we see that, at the start of time, something was going on; or, more specifically, Someone existed. That is where “ēn ho logos” comes in. So what was going on “In the beginning?" We find that Christ was.
But first, what does “ho logos” mean? Logos simply, but very profoundly, means “word.” We also know that “the Word” is speaking about Jesus Christ. (It should be noted that all biblical scholars hold to the idea that “the Word” is Christ.)
The verb “ēn” (Gk: ἦν) is in the past tense. It is a third person, singular verb, which means “was.” Without going into too much detail, it should be noted that, contrary to the English language, there are a couple of ways of rendering Greek verbs in the past tense.5 The first way is to render a verb in the imperfect tense, and the second way is the aorist tense. William Mounce defines the two tenses:
“The imperfect tense describes a continuous action usually occurring in the past, while the aorist . . . describes an undefined action usually occurring in the past.”6
The word “ēn” in John 1:1, by way of Divine inspiration, happens to be in the imperfect tense. This means that “the Word” (i.e., Jesus Christ) was “continuously in existence before the beginning.”7 Furthermore, the imperfect tense of was has inherent within it the idea of eternal past existence. That is, there is no beginning to the Word, Jesus Christ.
So far, we have the first clause translated: “In the beginning was the Word . . . ” We have seen that, at the beginning or creation of the universe, the Word was already in existence. He was existing at the creation of the universe and was existing continuously into eternity past. How much significance one little Greek verb makes!
From the previous section, we have shown that Christ--the Word--always existed. In other words, there was never a time when Christ was not in existence. This section draws our attention to the second part of the verse of John 1:1.
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
Once again, if we were to transliterate this Greek clause into English letters, the following would be the outcome:
kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon
We already know how to translate a few of these words. For example, “ho logos” means “the Word.” The verb “ēn” means “was.” But what do the other words mean?
“Kai” is a conjunction that means “and.” Therefore, “Kai ho logos ēn” can be translated as, “and the word was . . . "
But what about “pros ton theon?" “Pros” is another preposition that means “with.” Moreover, “ton theon” means “the God.” We can therefore translate this whole clause as “and the word was with God.”
John MacArthur sums up this clause rather well,
“ . . . John took his argument one step further. In His eternal preexistence the Word was with God. The English translation does not bring out the full richness of the Greek expression (pros ton theon). That phrase means far more than merely that the Word existed with God.”8
What, then, does this phrase mean? One commentator has said that the preposition “pros” is hard to translate.9 “It is equivalent to ‘was in relation with God,’ ‘stood over against,’ not in space or time, but eternally and constitutionally.”10
To make this clearer, it would do us well to turn back to John MacArthur, who, in his own commentary, quotes W. Robert Cook as saying,
“ . . . it ‘[gives] the picture of two personal beings facing one another and engaging in intelligent discourse.’”11
We can see, then, that not only was Christ preexistent but also he was in loving fellowship with the Father. “Pros ton theon” actually shows the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son. This text proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Father is not the Son nor is the Son the Father. They are, as it were, eternally distinct.
So far, then, we have translated the first two clauses of John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . . ”
Finally, we have come to the very last clause of John 1:1:
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
As done in the previous sections, we will transliterate this clause into English letters:
kai theos ēn ho logos
Since we already recognize these words, let’s quickly translate them:
“and God was the word”
Is this a good translation of the Greek? No, it is not. First, it should be observed that “logos,” not “theos,” is the subject. Why? Because theos does not have an article in front of it like logos does. The clause is not, “kai ho theos ēn logos.” John recorded this differently. He, under divine inspiration, writes, “kai theos ēn ho logos.”
“Ho logos,” then, is the subject since it contains the definite article. This is why, in our translation, we would place “logos” before “theos.”12
Furthermore, if John had written, “ho theos ēn ho logos,” then he would be advocating Sabellianism, which basically states that God the Father and God the Son are one and the same, thus denying the Trinity.13 If he would have constructed his sentence that way, we could have roughly translated it as, “The God was the Word.” But this is not what John records. John actually leaves out the article from theos. Even more so, if John had stated, “The God was the Word,” he would have contradicted the second clause, which states that the Word was with God. This would have denied the eternal distinction between the Father and the Son. After all, if the Son was the Father, then how could he have been distinct from himself?
But since there is no article before theos, does that mean Jesus was “a god” and not “God." After all, John leaves out the article before theos. Should we then translate this as “the Word was divine” or “the Word was a god?" In short, are the Jehovah Witnesses right in doing this? After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses say that, “John 1:1 highlights the quality of the Word--that he was 'divine,' 'godlike,' 'a god,' but not Almighty God.”14
This is hardly the case. Under divine guidance, John actually constructs this clause to refute such an idea. As MacArthur rightly notes, if John had wanted “to say that the Word was merely in some sense divine [“a god”], he could have used the adjective theios (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).”15 But, as we can see, he does not use theios at all. John is saying something more than “Jesus was ‘a god.’”
The only resulting conclusion is that Christ, being eternally distinct from the Father (refer to our discussion on clause two), was nonetheless God.
Embracing Mystery, Not Destroying It
There is one God. The Son is God; and the Father is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. However, the Son is not the Father; and the Father is not the Son. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor is he the Son.
What Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are really modern-day Arians) want to do is abolish all mystery about God. Because the Trinity does not make sense, it must be wrong. So, after mistranslating Holy Scripture, they deceive themselves into thinking the Trinity is unbiblical. In the end, human reasoning has the final say for them.
But with the Triune God of the Bible, mystery is a good thing, and it should be embraced. After all, why would we, mere dependant humans, want to serve a God who is exhaustible and as one who can be figured out? To be sure, God has revealed himself in Scripture, and he is known personally through Christ. But it is our job—as responsible exegetes of Scripture and as obedient children—to not allow that revelation of God to be distorted or repackaged into something nice and tidy.
Any divergence from what we know to be biblical truth about the nature of the Godhead is heresy. It conveys to the world a false god and ultimately a false christ.
And a false christ does not save.
Soli Deo Gloria!
3 William D. Mounce, ed., Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1,098.
4 John MacArthur, John 1-11, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 2006), 16.
5 William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003) 2nd Edition. 181.
7 MacArthur, 16.
8 Ibid, 17.
9 H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, eds., The Gospel According to St. John, vol. 17. The Pulpit Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1950), 6.
11 MacArthur, 17.
12 It should be noted at this point that word order is very significant. Word order in Greek is often used to show emphasis. In fact, the word order in this particular clause shows us, as Daniel B. Wallace has said, that the Son “has all the divine attributes the Father has.” For more information on this, please refer to http://randphoenix.livejournal.com/44388.html
13 MacArthur, 19.
15 MacArthur, 18-19.
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