Does John 17:3 Negate the Deity of Christ?

By Wayne Jackson

“If Jesus Christ was ‘God,’ while he was upon the earth, why did he refer to the Father as ‘the only true God’ in John 17:3?”

This question was submitted by a gentleman who identified himself as a “Jehovah’s Witness.” It is important to understand that the Watchtower folks repudiate the deity of Christ, alleging that Jesus, as he lived upon this earth, was nothing “more than a perfect man” (Let God Be True, Brooklyn: Watchtower Society, 1946, p. 87). In response, we offer the following.

In his prayer on behalf of the spiritual welfare of “all flesh,” i.e., the whole of humanity, the Savior petitioned that the family of man “should know you [the Father], the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.” There is absolutely nothing in this passage that would allow the sincere and responsible Bible student to dismiss a host of other passages that emphatically affirm the divine nature of Jesus Christ. There are two things of supreme importance in considering this passage. First, what is the thrust of the immediate context? Second, how does this text relate to other biblical data on the same theme?

It must be stressed that no text can be isolated from its immediate context and forced to teach that which plainly is in contradiction to other relevant passages of scripture on the same topic that are of the clearest import. Yet this is exactly what the “Watchtower Witnesses” attempt to do in manipulating this text. Several very important observations must be made to put this passage into focus.

(1) As noted above, this prayer was directed on behalf of the vast masses of humanity, a great majority of whom were (and are) idolaters, worshipping many gods, indeed “false” gods. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that Christ pray that they might become acquainted with the “only true God.” As R.C.H. Lenski observed, this portion of the prayer was “directed against pagan polytheism” (The Interpretation of John, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943, p. 1122).

The tragic fact is, “Jehovah’s Witnesses” are themselves polytheists to a degree. They believe that the Father is God, and that he created another “god,” namely Jesus (which idea, incidentally, scripture denies — Isa. 43:10). Hence, according to the Watchtower organization, Father and Son (and Spirit) do not constitute a united Deity; rather the former two are God/god, i.e., two gods. Our Watchtower friends thus frustrate this very prayer from the Savior.

(2) The companion phrases “the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” demonstrate the unique relationship between the sacred two. The construction hints of a unity of nature that is taught quite emphatically in numerous other texts. In fact, several times subsequently in this very chapter (see vv. 9,15,20), in referring to requests that he is making of the Father, Jesus selects the Greek term erotao. This is a word that Christ employs exclusively of the communication between himself and the Father, which suggests a relationship not shared by others (see R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1890, pp. 144-145; also: W.E. Vine, “ASK,” Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. The Savior was not repudiating his own deity.

In addition to the above, John refers to Christ himself as “the only-begotten God, who is at the Father’s side” (Jn. 1:18), as the language reads according to the best Greek texts (see Merrill Tenney, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, ed, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983, Vol. 9, p. 34). Or, as the ESV has it, “the only God.” Does the expression, “only God,” as used of Christ, exclude the Father? Certainly not, and neither would the phraseology of 17:3 exclude the Son.

Or consider these texts.

(1) “Only” God was worthy of worship (Mt. 4:10), and yet Christ accepted such (Mt. 14:33), thus Christ was not excluded from the deity class

(2) “Only” God is absolutely wise (Rom. 16:27), yet Paul affirms that it is “in him [Christ] that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [are] hidden” (Col. 2:3). The language clearly exalts the wisdom/knowledge of Jesus beyond that of mere humanity (cf. Rom. 11:33), and identifies him as divine (see Col. 2:9).

(3) “Only” God is “holy” in the absolute sense (Rev. 15:4), and yet that unique sense of holiness is repeatedly attributed to Christ (Lk. 1:35; Acts 2:27; 3:14).

(4) Then there is also this affirmation in one of John’s epistles. He writes concerning Jesus, “we are in him that is true, even in his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20). A very strong case can be made for the identification of “Jesus” as the one designated as “the true God” (see Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, pp. 326-327). If Christ can be “the true God,” with no reflection cast upon the Father, then the Father can be “the true God,” with no disenfranchisement of Christ intended.

(5) John’s writings are replete with declarations of the full deity of Jesus (see 1:1,18; 5:17-18; 8:58; 10:30; 20:28). To dismiss all of these, in deference to an agenda-laden, forced interpretation of one phrase in John 17:3, reveals a cultish bias that is blinded to a consistent, common-sense approach to the Holy Scriptures.

The Watchtower contention regarding John 17:3, therefore, is entirely void of merit.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.