When Jesus Isn’t God

I recently had a conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses about the identity of Jesus Christ. As a Catholic, I obviously believe that Jesus is God, but Jehovah’s Witnesses disagree. Instead, they believe that he is a created being, just like humans and angels. More specifically, they believe that he’s God’s greatest and most exalted creature, but he’s a creature nonetheless. As proof of this, they pointed out that the New Testament often distinguishes between God and Jesus. For example, St. Paul does this in his Letter to the Romans:

“But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-9)

In this passage (as well as many others like it), the one whom Paul calls “God” is clearly someone other than Jesus, so Jehovah’s Witnesses conclude that Jesus isn’t God. On the surface, this seems to make perfect sense. There is only one God, so if we can distinguish between him and Jesus, it seems to follow pretty clearly that Jesus isn’t God. So how should Catholics understand these kinds of passages?

The Key Principle

When the Jehovah’s Witnesses brought up these passages, my initial reaction was to say that they simply distinguish between the Father and Jesus, but that didn’t work. There does not seem to be any indication that the texts are using the word “God” to refer to only one person of the Godhead; rather, they simply seem to be distinguishing between Jesus and God, plain and simple. Consequently, I had to do something other than simply assert that these passages are describing two persons of the Trinity.

After this failed strategy, I realized that they key to understanding these texts lies in the title they usually ascribe to Jesus: Lord. While not every one of these passages calls Jesus the Lord, many of them do, and that is extremely significant. In the Bible, “Lord” is a divine title, and it’s no accident that the New Testament uses it to describe Jesus.

Who is the Lord?

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God described with the Hebrew word Adonay, which means “Lord” (for example, Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 7:22, Psalm 8:1, Isaiah 4:4), and the New Testament follows suit by calling him Kurios, the Greek word for “Lord” (for example, Matthew 1:20, Acts 2:47, Revelation 4:8). As a result, when the New Testament describes Jesus with this same exact word, it’s giving us a subtle hint that he really is equal to the Father and thus God himself.

However, we have to be careful here. The word “lord” in the Bible doesn’t always refer to God, so the mere fact that the New Testament uses it to describe Jesus doesn’t automatically mean that he is divine. Rather, to really clinch the argument, we have to look a bit deeper and see if Scripture ever explains exactly what it means when it calls Jesus “Lord.”

The Divine Lord

Luckily for us, there is a passage that does just that. In the middle of one of St. Paul’s letters, he gives us a little refresher course on the God we worship:

“Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)

In this passage, St. Paul is contrasting the many pagan gods with the one true God that Christians worship, but he does this in a strange way. He contrasts the pagan deities with both the “one God, the Father” and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ,” implying that Jesus is included in the identity of the Christian God. If that is not what he means, why would he mention Jesus here? Why would he include a mere creature in this context? Since he is talking about the God we worship, the one who is infinitely above any and all creatures, the mention of Jesus makes sense only if he really is God.

Moreover, St. Paul also tells us explicitly that “Lord” is a divine title. Before he mentions the true God, he describes the pagan deities as “gods” and “lords,” subtly foreshadowing the “one God” and the “one Lord” of Christianity. He uses these two words to describe the pagan deities because he’s going to use them later on to describe the true God. As a result, it’s clear that when St. Paul calls Jesus “Lord,” he is using it as a divine title; he is using it to teach that Jesus is in fact God.

Different Terminology

Even though the other New Testament writers don’t explicitly tell us what they mean when they call Jesus “Lord,” it’s fair to conclude that they used the word for the same reason St. Paul did; they too used it as a divine title. However, this this still leaves us with one question: if the first Christians believed in Jesus’ divinity and used the title “Lord” to express it, why did they often distinguish between him and God?

The key here is to realize that they did not have the sophisticated theological terminology that we use today to describe the Trinity. We talk about God as one being (or one nature) in three persons, but that language developed centuries after the New Testament was written. Instead, the writers of the New Testament had to describe the relation between the Father and the Son some other way, and they did so by giving them two different divine titles.

Despite what we often think, God’s name isn’t actually God; rather, it’s Yahweh, as the Old Testament tells us. The word “God” is simply a title, just like “Lord.” When the New Testament writers distinguished between God and the Lord, they were attempting to simultaneously express both the distinction between Jesus and the Father and their unity. They expressed their distinction simply by distinguishing between them, and they expressed their unity by giving them two equally divine titles. Simply put, whereas we today describe the relation between the Father and the Son with the language of multiple persons within the one divine nature, the first Christians used the language of one God and one Lord to mean the exact same thing.

Conclusion

Any time we read Scripture, we have to make sure that we let the text tell us what it means rather than tell it what it has to mean. In other words, we have to try to understand what the biblical authors were trying to tell us rather than simply interpret their words according to our preconceived ideas about what they could or could not have meant. When we come across difficulties like the distinction between Jesus and God, we can’t just assume that the authors of the Bible used terms and expressions the same way we would today. Rather, we have to delve more deeply into the text and see how they used that terminology, and when we do that, we can see that the first Christians didn’t believe that Jesus was a mere creature. Rather, they believed that he was in fact divine, that he was included in the identity of the one true God yet also distinct from the Father, and they simply expressed this belief with different language than we use today.

By

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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  • bwc

    Thank you for this! I work with a guy who is a Jehovah’s Witness who is perhaps the nicest person I’ve ever worked with. I could never understand how anyone could buy into that religious belief. Now I have a better grasp…

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