If Jesus is not God, why must we worship Him?

Summary

Purpose

The Bible teaches that only God may be worshiped (Exo 34:14; Deut 8:19; Matt 4:10; Luke 4:8; Rev 14:7). Peter, Paul and the angel that gave the Book of Revelation to John all prevented people from worshiping them (Acts 14:14–15; 10:25–26; Rev 19:10; 22:9).

Magi from the eastYet, in the King James translation, in 13 verses, Jesus was worshiped. (See Worship verses.) For example, when the magi from the east “saw the Child with Mary His mother; … they fell to the ground and worshiped Him (Matt 2:11; cf. 14:32-33; 28:8-9; 16-17).

The purpose of this article is to determine whether that means that Jesus is God.

The English word “worship”

Cambridge dictionary

The word “worship” normally means that the object of worship is a god; either the true God or a false god (Cambridge, Merriam-Webster). Therefore, given these definitions of worship, if Jesus is worshiped, then He is God.

The Greek word “proskuneó”

The Greek word, translated as “worship” in the New Testament, is proskuneó. It is used in 43 passages. In 14, people and heavenly beings worship God. In 10, it is used for worship that is illegal in terms of Exodus 20:4-5, namely where people worship idols, the beast, or the image of the beast. We also find 13 passages where Jesus received proskuneó.

The following indicates that the meaning of the Greek word proskuneó is different from the English word “worship:”

(1) Dictionary Definitions

Strong's concordanceDictionaries define proskuneó, not as “worship,” but as “to do reverence to” (Strong’s Greek: 4352) or as “to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence” (New Testament Greek Lexicon). Synonyms for reverence are to show respect, admiration, or worship.

(2) Translated as “bow down

Consistent with this definition, the NASB translates 6 instances, where Jesus is the object of proskuneó, not as “worship,” but as “bow down.” In these 6 instances, it is clear from the context that Jesus was not worshiped, as per the meaning of the English word “worship.” People merely showed respect to Jesus by bowing before Him (Matt 8:1-2; 9:18-19; 15:25; 20:20; Mark 5:2, 6; 15:19).

(3) Not God in the context

And even when the NASB translates instances of proskuneó (before Jesus) as “worship,” there often is clear evidence in the text that it does not necessarily mean that people thought of Him as God:

For example, the magi “fell to the ground and worshiped” Jesus as a baby (Matt 2:11). However, they were looking for “he who has been born King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2); not for God. They did honor Jesus as God but as the “King of the Jews.” We see similar evidence in Matthew 14:32-33, Matthew 28:1, 8-9, and John 9:37-38.

(4) Proskuneó before people

In three instances, people proskuneó before other people (Matt 18:26; Rev 3:9; Acts 10:25).

(5) God instructed angels to proskuneó Christ.

According to Hebrews 1:6, “God” (Heb 1:1) instructed the angels to “worship” Jesus. That makes a distinction between Jesus and God. Consequently, that Jesus is worshiped does not mean that He is God.

Conclusion

The English word “worship” is not always a valid translation for the Greek word proskuneó because there is a marked difference between the meanings of the two words:

    1. Proskuneó merely means to show extreme respect to another being by bowing down.
    2. While the word “worship” implies that the one worshiped is a god (the true God or a false god), people also proskuneó other (superior) people.

Consequently, the fact that people and angels proskuneó before Jesus, by itself, does not prove that He is God, just like it does not prove that other people, before who some people bow, are God. On the other hand, it does not mean that He is not God. If He was merely a created being, God’s command to the angels to worship Him would be quite astounding. Other factors must be considered to make than claim. Nevertheless, the risk remains that proskuneó is translated as “worship” because the translators believe that Jesus is God.

END OF SUMMARY

Purpose

We may only worship God.

God commands us to worship only Him (Exo 34:14; Deut 8:19). There has always been one sin that God did not and will not tolerate, and that is worshiping any god other than the Creator. This is confirmed by the New Testament. We are told to “worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters” (Rev 14:7) which is identified as the Father (Rev 4:11). Jesus similarly said to the devil, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Luke 4:8; cf. Matt 4:10).

Peter (Acts 10:25–26) and Paul (Acts 14:14–15) both corrected others for trying to worship them. In the book of Revelation, John twice attempted to worship an angel, and both times the angel’s response was:

Do not do that;
I am a fellow servant of yours …
worship God
” (Rev 19:10; cf. 22:9).

Yet, Jesus was worshiped.

For example:

When the magi from the east “saw the Child with Mary His mother; … they fell to the ground and worshiped Him (Matt 2:11).

Jesus walks on waterAfter He walked on water, “those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, ‘You are certainly God’s Son!’” (Matt 14:32-33).

After His resurrection, “His disciples … came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him” (Matt 28:8-9).

“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped Him” (Matt 28:16-17).

In the KJV, there are 13 verses stating that Jesus was worshiped.  (See Worship verses.)

The meaning of “worship”

The Cambridge dictionary defines worship as “to have or show a strong feeling of respect and admiration for God or a god.” 

Merriam-Webster defines it as “reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power.”

In both definitions, worship implies a divine being, namely that either God or a false god is the object of worship. Therefore, if Jesus is worshiped, these definitions would imply that He is God. The purpose of this article is to determine whether that is the right conclusion.

The Greek word proskuneó

The Greek word, that is translated as “worship” in the New Testament, is proskuneó. It is used 43 times. (See Worship verses in the New Testament.)

In 14 instances, people and heavenly beings worship God.

In 10 passages, people worship idols, the beast, or the image of the beast. These are the illegal forms of worship, as defined by the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:4-5).

We also find 13 passages where Jesus received proskuneó.

Difference between worship and proskuneó

The following indicates that the meaning of the Greek word proskuneó is different from the English word “worship:”

(1) Dictionary Definitions

According to the dictionaries, proskuneó can mean “worship” but it has a much wider range of meanings, but as:

Strong’s

Strong’s Greek and the NAS Exhaustive Concordance define proskuneó as “to do reverence to.” Reverence means “honor or respect felt or shown” (Merriam-Webster).

In addition to worship, the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance gives the following meanings:

      • proskuneóto kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand,
      • to prostrate oneself in homage,
      • to do reverence to, and
      • to adore.

The New Testament Greek Lexicon

This lexicon defines it as “to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence.”

HELPS Word-studies

This gives the following meanings:

      • To kiss the ground when prostrating before a superior;
      • To worship,
      • To fall down/prostrate oneself to adore on one’s knees,
      • To do obeisance.

It adds that, on Egyptian reliefs, worshipers are represented with outstretched hands, throwing a kiss to the deity.

TDNT

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (the TDNT), states:

In the Septuagint (LXX) προσκυνεῖν is virtually the only rendering of הִשְׁתַּחֲוָה; both words have the basic sense “to bow.”

The Hebrew word, originally, denoted only a movement of the body. The further definitions which often accompany it, e.g., “to the earth” or “to do obeisance,” leave us in no doubt as to the meaning.

It makes no difference whether the proskynesis is to God or the gods or to men.

The element of kissing was still present in the Greek word at the time of the LXX.

In summary, proskuneó is a physical act of falling down or prostrating oneself before another being, but the content of that act can vary from worship, as defined above, to merely showing respect.

(2) Translated as “bow down”

We can see the meaning of proskuneó in how it is translated. The KJV always translates it as “worship.” The NASB, in contrast, translates 6 of the 13 instances, where Jesus is the object of proskuneó, not as “worship,” but as “bow down.” The reason is that, in these 6 instances, it is clear from the context that Jesus was not worshiped, as per the meaning of the English word “worship.”

The following are those six instances:

(a)There came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” (Matt 8:2; KJV).

(b)There came a certain ruler, and worshipped him, saying, My daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live” (Matt 9:18-19; KJV).

(c) A ”Canaanite woman” who had a daughter who was “cruelly demon-possessed.” She came to Jesus, “and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me” (Matt 15:25; KJV).

(d)Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him” (Matt 20:20; KJV). She asked Jesus that, in His kingdom, her two sons may sit one on His right and one on His left.

(e) When a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit “saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him” (Mark 5:6; KJV). When Jesus asked the man his name, he answered, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (Mark 5:9; KJV).

(f) While taking Him to be crucified, the soldiers spit on Jesus, and mockingly were “bowing their knees worshipped him” (Mark 15:19; KJV).

In these six instances, “worship” is clearly not an appropriate translation. The people merely showed respect to Jesus by bowing down. The demon-possessed man certainly did not worship Jesus. For this reason, the NASB replaced “worship” in these passages by “bow down.” Matthew 8:1-2 in the NASB, for instance, reads:

When Jesus came down from the mountain, …
a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him.

(3) Not God in the context

And even when the NASB translates instances of proskuneó (before Jesus) as “worship,” there often is clear evidence in the text that it does not necessarily mean that people thought of Him as God:

(a) The magi from the east “fell to the ground and worshiped” Jesus as a baby (Matt 2:11). However, they did think of Jesus as God. They were looking for “He who has been born King of the Jews” (Matt 2:2). They did honor Jesus – not as God but as the “King of the Jews.” Consider the alternative translations of this verse:

        • to worship him” (NASB & NIV)
        • to do him homage” (Weymouth New Testament)
        • to bow to him” (Young’s Literal Translation)
        • To pay him homage” (NRSVA)
        • To do obeisance to him” (NWT)

(b) After Jesus walked on water, the disciples “worshiped Him, saying, ‘You are certainly God’s Son!’” (Matt 14:32-33). In other words, they did not proskuneó before Jesus because they thought that He is God: They said He is God’s Son. Believers are also sons of God, but the New Testament reserves the title “the Son of God” for one specific being, namely “the Christ” (Israel’s expected Messiah – Matt 26:63; John 20:31) which was “the King of Israel” (John 1:49). That is what the disciples meant when they confessed Him to be the “God’s Son;” not that He is God.

He is “the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18), which, in human language, means that He is the only being that was born out of the being of God, but that still means that He is not the Uncaused Cause of all things. Rather, the Father gave the Son of God to have life in Himself (John 5:25-26). However, at the time that He walked on water, the disciples did not understand these things yet (John 16:12).

(c) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him” (Matt 28:8-9). Since they “came to look at the grave” (Matt 28:1), they did not think of Jesus as God.

(d) The man that was born blind, whom Jesus healed in John 9, “worshiped Him” with the Pharisees looking on (John 9:35-42). Probably all the man did was bow down to Jesus. He did not for a moment think that this was God standing before Him.

(e) The remaining two instances, where Jesus receives proskuneó, are after His resurrection and after His ascension respectively (Matt 28:16-17; Luke 24:51-52). For that reason, it is more probable that the disciples might have thought of Him, at that time, as “God,” but even at that time, Peter described Jesus as “a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).

(4) Proskuneó before people

The meaning of proskuneó is also seen in the three instances where people proskuneó before other people:

Matthew 18:26(a) In one of Jesus’ parables, a debtor “fell to the ground and prostrated himself” before the king saying, “Have patience with me and I will repay you everything” (Matt 18:26; NASB). In this instance, proskuneó is translated as “prostrated:”

(b) Jesus promised the church in Philadelphia, “I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet” (Rev 3:8-9; NASB). All this means is that certain people will eventually acknowledge God’s true people as such.

Cornelius worships Peter(c) In a vision, “an angel of God” told Cornelius to invite Peter to his house (Acts 10:3-5). When Peter arrived, “Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him” (Acts 10:25). This does not mean that Cornelius thought that Peter is God, for Cornelius said, “Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord” (Acts 10:33).

I find it strange that the NASB did not replace “worshiped” in Acts 10:25 with something that would have been more appropriate, such as bowing down or showing respect.

(5) God instructed angels to proskuneó Christ.

According to Hebrews 1:6, “God” (Heb 1:1) commanded the angels to “worship” Jesus. This statement makes a distinction between Jesus and God and means that Jesus is not God but subordinate to God.

Conclusion

The purpose of this article is to evaluate the claim that Jesus is God because He is worshiped by people and angels. Above, we saw that:

The underlying Greek word (proskuneó) is defined as different from “worship” and is sometimes translated as “bow down” or as “prostrate.” Sometimes, proskuneó describes people showing respect to other people.

Even when the NASB translates it as “worship,” it does not mean that the worshipers thought of Jesus as God.

We “worship” Jesus because that is God’s command.

For these reasons, “worship” is not always a valid translation for the Greek word proskuneó. There is a marked difference between the meanings of the two words:

    1. Proskuneó merely means to show extreme respect to another being by bowing down.
    2. While “worship” implies that one worshiped is a god (the true God or a false god), people may also proskuneó other (superior) human beings.

Consequently, that people and angels proskuneó before Jesus does not prove that He is God. The opposite is probably true, namely, that translators are inclined to translate proskuneó as “worship” because they believe that Jesus is God.

Worship in Phillippians 2

This article focuses on the word proskuneó, but there are also other passages that refer to worship without using the word proskuneó. Philippians 2:9-11 reads:

God highly exalted Him,
and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW,
of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This very important chapter is discussed in the article – Jesus had equality with God. In brief, some key observations from this passage are:

(1)Every knee will bow” before Jesus; not because He is God Himself, but because “God highly exalted Him.” This is similar to Hebrews 1:6.

(2) Every knee will bow to Jesus “to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus is not worshiped independently from the Father. Rather, to worship Jesus is to worship God.

The article Jesus in Philippians concludes that Jesus is the link between God and the universe. Through Jesus, all creative and sustaining power flows from God to the creation. And, through Jesus, the worship of the universe flows to the invisible God (Col 1:15). By giving honor to Jesus, we give honor to “God the Father.”  Conversely, if we do not honor Jesus, we do not honor God:

All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father.
He who does not honor the Son
does not honor the Father who sent Him
” (John 5:23).

Although He is not God, we must honor Him equal to God. Although He is not God, for us He is everything that God is.

Worship in Revelation 5

We see the Son honored in Revelation. Revelation 5 describes what happens when Jesus arrived in heaven at His ascension (see Revelation 5). In that chapter, heavenly beings worship Jesus:

The “four living creatures and the twenty-four elders
fell down before the Lamb
(Jesus – see John 1:29),
each one holding … golden bowls full of incense,
which are the prayers of the saints
” (Rev 5:8-9).

The word proskuneó also does not appear in this quote but, as discussed, “fell down” is often associated with proskuneó. The Lamb (Jesus), therefore, here receives reverence from the 4 living creatures and the 24 elders. Then John saw “myriads of myriads” of angels around the throne, giving the Lamb seven-fold honor:

‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing’” (Rev 5:11-12).

God commanded all angels to worship His Son (Heb 1:6). In Revelation 5, they worship the Son. In the quoted verses, Jesus receives honor, but in the next verses, God and the Lamb receive honor together when “every created thing” says,

‘To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb,
be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever’.
And the four living creatures kept saying, ‘Amen.’
And the elders fell down and worshiped
” (Rev 5:13-14).

Jesus said that the Father and Son will receive equal honor (John 5:23). In Revelation 5:13-14, “every created thing” brings equal honor to Him who sits on the throne (the Most High) and to the Lamb. For a discussion of worship in Revelation 4 and 5, addressing the question of whether that identifies the Son as God, see Worship in God’s throne room.

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