I have previously written several articles concerning the concept of Jesus as “God” in orthodox Christianity, including articles discussing particular Biblical verses that seem to teach Jesus’ Deity. See “Faith in God?”; “Is It Necessary To Believe That Jesus Is The One True God In Order To Be A Christian?”; and “Bible Verses That Seem To Teach That Jesus Is The One True God” Part 1 , Part 2, and Part 3. However, I have not yet written anything about verses that talk about “worshiping” Jesus, and in particular about Thomas’ exclamation “My Lord, and my God” when he finally saw Jesus after his resurrection (John 20:28).
Recently, though, while I was defending Islam against a number of false accusations, I was asked how I felt about the fact that Islam denies the Deity of Jesus. When I responded that this is a major point of agreement I have with Islam (and gave a bit of Biblical exposition defending my belief), someone said to me: “Jesus received worship on more than one occasion and only God is worthy of worship.” Well, that sounds like a conclusive argument, doesn’t it? The only problem is that the statement is partially true, but it’s also partially false. I did some studying on the Biblical use of a couple of the major words translated “worship” in the Old and New Testaments, and here’s what I found:
One of the main Hebrew words for worship is “shachah” (H7812 in Strong’s Concordance). According to Strong, this word means: “a primitive root; to depress, that is to prostrate (especially reflexively in homage to royalty or God).” When this word is fairly obviously referring to prostration before God, gods, or a god, it is usually translated as “worship”. For instance, Exodus 34:14 says: for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God (English Standard Version). There are numerous instances in the Old Testament where the Jewish people were warned not to “worship” (prostrate themselves before) any other god than the Creator of all things, Yahweh; and there are numerous warnings about what would happen to them if they did.
However this very same word (“shachah”) is used to refer to the accepted social custom of showing respect to strangers, relatives, public officials and kings by prostrating before them – and it is not seen as giving to men the homage due to God alone. Here are some examples:
Gen 23:7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. “Bowed” is the same word (“shachah”) rendered “worship” so many times. Did Abraham violate the principle that no other god than the One is to be worshiped (prostrated to)?
Gen 33:3 He himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. This was Jacob prostrating before his brother Esau. In verses 6 and 7 his servants and their children, and Leah and her children also prostrated before Esau.
Gen 42:6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph, as governor of Egypt, received homage from his brothers. Was he receiving “worship” that belongs to God alone? It’s the same Hebrew word, and the same kind of action.
1Sa 25:40 When the servants of David came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, “David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife.” 1Sa 25:41 And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” Abigail prostrated herself to the servants of King David, and David himself was of course only a human king.
2Sa 14:22 And Joab fell on his face to the ground and paid homage and blessed the king. And Joab said, “Today your servant knows that I have found favor in your sight, my lord the king, in that the king has granted the request of his servant.” “Paid homage” is that same Hebrew word, meaning to prostrate or bow down. Did Joab give to a mere human king the homage that is due to the King of all the earth, and did David blasphemously receive such inappropriate “worship”?
Okay, plainly in the Old Testament it was considered okay to “worship” human beings, so long as that “worship” was not “Divine homage” – homage to anything or anyone considered to be a ‘god’ other than the Creator of all things. But what about in the New Testament?
One of the primary words for “worship” in the New Testament is the Greek word “proskuneo” (G4352 in Strong’s Concordance), which has pretty much the same meaning as the Hebrew word “shachah”. Strong defines it as: “to fawn or crouch to, that is, (literally or figuratively) prostrate oneself in homage (do reverence to, adore).” It is the word used when Jesus was tempted by Satan, seeking to get Jesus to “worship” (prostrate himself before) him.
Mat 4:9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Mat 4:10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”
So here, it is specifically said that we are to prostrate ourselves only to the Lord our God, and serve Him only. Yet the very first usage of the word “proskuneo” in the New Testament is in Matthew 2:2 and 11 concerning the wise men who were seeking the one who was born to be the “king of the Jews” so they could “prostrate themselves” before him. When they found him, they did just that. Now, even if Jesus is really the “One True God”, the wise men were unaware of that “fact”. Their homage was the customary homage rendered to human kings, because that’s what they believed Jesus to be. Yes he was to certainly be a very great king – great enough to be worthy of being predicted in prophecy, and have a star guide them to him – but he was certainly only considered to be a God anointed human king, not God Himself. Why do we not condemn those “wise men” for their homage to someone whom they did not know to be God?
Matt. 8:2-4 tells of a leper who came to Jesus and “worshiped” him (that is, knelt or prostrated himself before him). Certainly the leper did not consider Jesus to be the “Second Person of the Trinity”, and worthy of “worship” as being God! He just did the customary thing of giving honor to a great man by kneeling before him, and seeking his help. He truly recognized Jesus to be a “man sent from God” and anointed by Him to serve as a Prophet and Healer.
Matt. 18:23-35 tells a parable of a very human king who decided to settle his accounts. One of his servants, who owed a great deal of money, could not pay his debt; so the king was going to have the man, his wife, children, and everything he owned sold in order to collect the debt owed. But the debtor prostrated himself before the king, pleading for more time. The king responded by just forgiving the debt. Later, when the forgiven man refused to forgive someone who owed him a much smaller debt, the king “retracted” his debt forgiveness also. Now this was a very human situation with which Jesus’ hearers would be familiar and which they could readily understand. Subjects of a king as a matter of course bowed in his presence. The application is of course to God, both our Father and the King of all the earth. Just as a human king might respond in mercy to his subjects, even more so our heavenly Father will respond in mercy to us. And just as the human king expected his subject to “go and do likewise”, so our heavenly Father and King expects of us. But the parable presented a very human instance of bowing before a human king, and that was not blasphemous.
This is the kind of “worship” which is absolutely appropriate for “the man, Christ Jesus”. He has been chosen from among his brothers (and sisters) to be God’s representative to us, and “anointed” as “Prophet, Priest, and King”. As such he is worthy of our homage. But Divine “worship” is no more appropriate for him than it was for King David.
Notice that even in Hebrews 1:6, where the writer quotes from the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 32:43 – Let all God’s angels worship him (the phrase is not in the Hebrew Masoretic text) – it is as God’s “firstborn” that Jesus is to be honored by the angels (not as God Himself). The “firstborn” refers to Jesus as a human with many brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29).
If one thinks that the “worship” Jesus received indicates that he must be God Himself, what will we think of Rev. 3:9, where the church at Philadelphia was told that God would make the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie–behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you. There’s that word “proskuneo” again. Are the human members of the church (at the very least, that church at Philadelphia) members of the “Godhead”, coequal and coeternal with the Father, and therefore worthy of Divine worship? No; honor can rightly be paid to “God’s elect”, whether that be Jesus himself or his brothers and sisters, without violating the command to prostrate in homage to no other “god” than the One True God.
Now let me talk a little bit about Thomas’ exclamation “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28) when he finally saw the resurrected Christ. I am personally quite convinced that Thomas finally came to realize what Jesus had been teaching all along – but especially in John 14 shortly before his crucifixion: that he (Jesus) was so fully united with his Father in purpose, will, word, and action that to see him was to see the Father. This did not mean that Jesus was personally the Father, but that the character and power of the Father was perfectly reflected in Jesus’ life. (No Trinitarian should disagree with that statement, inasmuch as the doctrine of the Trinity expressly denies that Jesus is the Father. It maintains the “personal distinctions” between the “three Persons” in the “Godhead”). So Thomas was finally seeing and acknowledging that God, the Father (who is the only true God – John 17:3), was in, and visibly expressed by, Jesus. But it was not a personal identification of Jesus with God, any more than Christian believers are personally identified with God because Jesus said he and his Father would be “in” believers, and we would be “one” just as Jesus and his Father are “one” (John 17:20-23). It is certainly to be expected that the moral character and something of the power of God will be displayed in the lives of those who believe in Him – so that people can “see God in us” just as was the case with Jesus; but it will never be true that we are God. We may be the “sons” of God, but we are not God. In the very same way, Jesus is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God, and people could “see” God by his words and deeds; but he is not himself the Living God.
So Thomas was saying: “It’s true! You have fully revealed the Father to us. I can see His character and power fully made known in you. He has even made known His power over life and death in you!” But despite the way it may sound to our ears, Thomas’ exclamation was not an affirmation that Jesus was personally God, his Father. To have asserted such a thing would have indeed been blasphemy, and I’m sure Jesus would have repudiated the idea (though no doubt gently, considering the shocked state of mind of Thomas at that moment 🙂 ).