We’ve covered a lot of ground on the subject of Mormonism on the blog of late (and it really has been “we”: the contributions of Mormons like Seth, Murdock, and now James have proven invaluable). The latest topic has been whether or not it’s appropriate to worship Jesus Christ.
In a 1982 talk given by Elder McConkie, who was considered one of the Twelve Apostles in the LDS Church, he cautions of some who “have an excessive zeal which causes them to go beyond the mark,” and who “devote themselves to gaining a special, personal relationship with Christ that is both improper and perilous.” One of the “perils” of a personal relationship with Christ is that “those so involved often begin to pray directly to Christ because of some special friendship they feel has been developed,” and believe that all prayers go to the Father through Jesus. Now, Catholics view these “perils” as incredible spiritual blessings: things we would never want to be without. But whether this is a spiritual blessing or peril turns in no small part on the central question: was Jesus Christ the One True God, worthy of worship?
McConkie argues no; that while Jesus is a God, and while He’s part of the unified Godhead, He isn’t in His own right worthy of worship. He makes two arguments to further this point. First, that Scripture doesn’t show Jesus being worshiped, only honored:
We do not worship the Son, and we do not worship the Holy Ghost. I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense–the sense of standing in awe and being reverentially grateful to him who has redeemed us.
And second, that Jesus tells us to worship the Father:
True worshippers shall [note that this is mandatory] worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
For unto such hath God promised his Spirit. And they who worship him, must worship in spirit and in truth. [JST John 4:25–26]
There is no other way, no other approved system of worship.
In other words, if Jesus wanted us to worship Him, He’d have said so. I think both of these arguments are answered from Scripture.
I. Worship? Or Honor?
The first thing that needs to be noted is that the word translated worship, proskyneō, can mean something other than worship: it can mean something like “to show homage.” There is one example in the Bible where both Catholics and Mormons would agree, I think, that proskyneō probably doesn’t mean worship, in the sense we now use the term, Revelation 3:9, which says, “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible explains the two meanings of proskyneō, and how both of them might make sense here:
The word rendered “worship” here, means, properly, to full prostrate; and then to do homage, or to worship in the proper sense, as this was commonly done by falling prostrate. See the notes on Matthew 2:2. So far as the word is concerned, it may refer either to spiritual homage, that is, the worship of God; or it may mean respect as shown to superiors. If it is used here in the sense of divine worship properly so called, it means that they would be constrained to come and worship “before them,” or in their very presence; if it is used in the more general signification, it means that they would be constrained to show them honor and respect. The latter is the probable meaning; that is, that they would be constrained to acknowledge that they were the children of God, or that God regarded them with his favor.
So Revelation 3:9 either means to pay homage to the church, or to worship God in the presence of the church. But obviously, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be worshiping the Christians. Also, in Mark 15:19, it’s more likely that the soldiers were paying Christ sarcastic homage than sarcastically worshiping Him, since they thought of Him as a political threat, not a religious one. In any case, this linguistic ambiguity means we’ve got to read the passages carefully, and be mindful of context.
The second thing to be noted is that the normal sense of the term is Divine worship. There are four examples which make this unambiguously clear from Scripture. The first is Matthew 4:9-10 (and its parallel in Luke 4:7-8), where Satan tries to tempt Jesus into worshiping him, and Jesus replies, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” The second is John 4:24-26, the very passage McConkie cited above. It’s unambiguously about Divine worship, and the word used for worship there is the same proskyneō used in all the other examples. Third is Acts 10:25-26. Cornelius falls down to worship Peter, and Peter says, “Stand up, I am only a man myself.” And fourth is Revelation 19:10, in which John fell at the angels’ feet to worship him, only to be immediately stopped, and told to “worship God” instead — the same thing happens against in Revelation 22:8-9, with the same correction. These last examples are the most important to contrast with how Jesus responds to the exact same situation: a person falling down in worship before Him. Here, however, it suffices to show that when the term is used, whether regarding God, Satan, the angel, or Peter, it’s almost always used to mean Divine worship (even when such worship is inappropriate, as with the latter three). Given that, let’s see how the term is used about people’s encounters with Jesus, and how He responds.
II. Worshiping Jesus in the Bible
With one exception, I’m going to restrict myself to those times where proskyneō is used: the exception will be John 20:28, and I’ll explain its importance when we get there. The number of times we hear of Jesus being worshiped in the Bible is staggering.
First, there’s the Magi in Matthew 2. They come to Herod, and ask, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). Herod responds in part by asking them, “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Mt. 2:8). When the Magi do find Jesus, we hear that “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Mt. 2:11).
This strikes me as one of the strongest proofs of Jesus’ Divinity, since the Bible mentions this event favorably (other than Herod’s role, obviously). Some people disagree – Barnes’ lists it as a non-religious use of proskyneō, arguing that the Magi weren’t aware of Jesus’ Divinity, and thought of Him merely as a King. I see nothing in the text which requires (or even supports) that conclusion. Just because the Magi weren’t Jews doesn’t mean they couldn’t have understood the Divinity of Christ: after all, we hear of God communicating to them in a dream in Matthew 2:12. Instead, we see three gifts: gold (a gift for a King), frankincense (a gift for God, and for a Priest), and myrrh (a gift for a Man who is going to die). I discuss this in greater depth here, about how Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60:1-6 provide the Messianic context for these gifts, and how these show the Messiah to be God Himself.
Besides the Magi, there are plenty of examples. A leper worships Christ in Matthew 8:2, and “a certain ruler” does the same in Matthew 9:18, as does the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:25, as well as the mother of James and John in Matthew 20:20. In not one of these cases does Jesus rebuke them for worshiping Him. Likewise, in Mark 5:6-7, we hear of the man possessed by the demon Legion that “when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,and cried with a loud voice, and said, ‘What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. ‘” The demon, if not the man, recognizes the presence of God and trembles, which is exactly what James 2:19 says they do.
In John 9:35-39, Jesus is speaking to a man He healed of blindness:
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”
Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
Jesus not only doesn’t stop the man from worshiping Him, He seems to be suggesting that the man is doing so because his eyes have been opened, spiritually; that if we weren’t blind, we’d all do the same.
In Matthew 14:33, after Jesus walks on water, “those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.‘” This term was understood as a Divine title, unique to Christ, and John 10:33, 36 uses the term “Son of God” and “God” interchangeably. Msgr. Ronald Knox makes the case for that here. But even if the terms proskyneō and “Son of God” don’t require the sense of Divine worship, isn’t that the most logical understanding? John apparently mistook the angel in Revelation for God after a far smaller demonstration of spiritual power, and after having spent years in the service of Our Lord. So even if Jesus weren’t God, wouldn’t we expect the Apostles to want to worship Him after having seen Him walk on water?
On Easter morning, the Marys were at the Tomb of Christ. Hurrying back to tell the Apostles that the Tomb was empty, Jesus suddenly appeared to them, at which point they “came to him, clasped His feet and worshiped Him” (Matthew 28:9). McConkie notes in his speech that Jesus doesn’t let the women cling to Him, because He’s not yet been to His Father (there’s debate over why this is, but that’s tangential), but ignores that Jesus lets them worship Him. Even more telling, the Apostles went out to see Jesus, and “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). That sounds a lot like Divine worship. It’s supported by John 20:28. When Thomas touches Jesus’ hands and sides, and realizes it’s really Him, he cries out, “my Lord, my God!“
Let’s consider all of the above examples. Let’s concede up front that it’s possible that in some of those cases, what’s meant by proskyneō isn’t Divine worship. But is it really conceivable that none of these examples involve people worshiping Christ, even when it seems so blatant from context that’s what’s going on? We’re to believe that Peter’s doing miracles in the name of Christ was so stunning that Cornelius wanted to worship him, and that John was so blown away that he nearly worshiped an angel twice, but that Jesus driving out demons, healing the blind (intended as a testament to His own power and purpose: see John 9:5-6), walking on water, rising from the dead, and miraculously appearing didn’t cause any of the above people to think that Jesus was God? That all of those references to them worshiping Him were just poorly chosen words, even though every application of proskyneō to other people in the New Testament (except Rev. 3:9, discussed above) did mean Divine worship? This seems like special pleading: “proskyneō almost always means Divine worship… unless it’s applied to the Son of God. Then it just means honor.”
No, an honest and fair reading of these passages requires us to admit that in at least some of the cases, what’s being described as worship is worship. This proves only that some people took Jesus for God — but that’s no more than could be said for Peter or the angel. But what’s different is Jesus’ reaction. Unlike Peter and the angel, He doesn’t immediately stop them. He seems, in fact, to encourage this. He does miracles for the folks worshiping Him (e.g., Mt. 8:3; 9:23-35; 15:28); He ascribes the formerly blind man’s worship of Him as evidence of his new spiritual sight (Jn. 9:39); after the women at the Tomb worship Him, He sends them to go and “tell My brothers” to have them meet Him at Galilee (Mt. 28:10), which leads to the Apostles worshiping Him as well (Mt. 28:16-18). So Jesus is worshiped, and unlike Peter and the angel, He permits it, and even seems to encourage it. This is either a great sin, a violation of His own words in Matthew 4:10, or evidence of His Divinity.
It’s also worth noting that the earliest Christians clearly treated Christ as God, and as worthy of worship. In the Didache, for example, it says in Chapter 9 (one of the oldest sections, a chapter almost certainly older than at least parts of the New Testament):
But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: “In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations.”
In the previous chapter, it says to pray the Our Father, “as the Lord commanded in His Gospel.” So “the Lord” includes Christ. And it’s the Lord to whom we’re offering Sacrifice. It’s applying to the Eucharist the words of Malachi 1:11-12 (v. 11 is quoted, by v. 12 is directly on point for the subject of proper preparation for the Eucharist). Those words are said in Malachi by “the Lord Almighty” or “the Lord of Hosts,” Jehovah. He’s declaring that there are to be sacrifices to Him. Now, Catholics understand Jehovah as the Trinity, and we understand the Pure Sacrifice in Malachi to be the Eucharist: offering the Son to the Father – an offering of God to God. But Mormons understand Jehovah to be only Christ. If this is the case, Christ is demanding the sort of Sacrifice appropriate only to worship, as both Malachi 1 and the Didache attest. Under either interpretation, Christ is worthy of worship (even if, in the Catholic interpretation, He’s not the One who the Sacrifice to whom this particular Sacrifice is offered. This conclusion is also supported by even the most ancient of liturgies: the followers of Christ clearly believed Him to be God, and worthy of worship.
III. The Best Evidence
We haven’t yet gotten to the best and clearest evidence: the Book of Hebrews. Hebrews 1 is comparing Jesus with angels, and showing Jesus’ superiority from the Old Testament:
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” [Psalm 2:7]? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” [2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13]? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” [Deut. 32:43, Greek version]
In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” [Psalm 104:4]. But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” [Psalm 45:6,7] He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” [Psalm 102:25-27].
To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet” [Psalm 110:1]? Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
Let’s key in on just one part of this passage. Hebrews 1:6 doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christ is worthy of worship:
And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.”
The quote is from the Greek version of Deuteronomy 32:43. It’s part of an awesome hymn to the power of God. I suggest you read all of Deuteronomy 32:1-43 (the NIV has footnotes showing where the Greek version differs from the Masoretic text). This is no mere homage, but straight-up Divine worship. In Deut 32:39, Jehovah (who Mormons acknowledge as Christ) says:
“See now that I Myself AM HE! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.“
In the Hebrew, it’s Jehovah declaring Himself as the one true God, Elohim (something Mormonism denies). It’s in response to this that we’re told to rejoice, and the angels are told to worship Him. So the hymn is about worshiping the One True God, and Hebrews 1:6 is clearly applying the chapter to Christ. There’s no way to sever v. 43 from the rest of the hymn; but even if you could, the verse Hebrews is quoting is expressly about Divine worship by angels, and Hebrews is expressly applying it to the Firstborn of God, who we know to be Christ both from the context of Hebrews 1, and from plenty of other Biblical evidence (like Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:15-18, and the prophetic Zechariah 12:10). Finally, note that Hebrews 1 shows God the Father Himself as presenting God the Son as worthy of worship.
This really leaves us only with three options:
- Nobody in the Bible worshiped Jesus Christ. That is, nobody even mistakenly worshiped Him. To believe this, you’d have to interpret proskyneō in the least plausible manner, repeatedly. You’d also have to ignore both what we know of human nature, and what the Bible presents of it: namely, that at the sight of Divine power, folks often understand the messenger to be God Himself (again, Peter and the angel stand as NT evidence). You’d have to ignore all the other historical evidence which presents Christ as One worthy of worship. Or, accepting that the students of the Apostles believed Christ to be worthy of worship, argue that the Apostles were against this practice, and proceeded to combat it by writing Gospel accounts of His life full of what appears to a reasonable observer to be Divine claims, and encouraged Divine worship. Of course, even if you were willing to go through all the gymnastics, you’d still be left with a glaring problem. Hebrews 1 shows God the Father as presenting Jesus as worthy of worship, and instructs the angels to worship Him. This can’t be “Divine investiture,” since the angels already enjoy the presence of God the Father directly. Turning their worship towards the Son makes no sense unless the Son is worthy of it by His own right.
- People worshiped Christ in the Bible, but shouldn’t have. This view is obviously untenable since Christ permitting and encouraging worship would have been gravely sinful, even by His own teachings, if He’s not God (Matthew 4:10). And again, it still doesn’t explain why God the Father would demand worship of the Son in Hebrews 1:6.
- People rightly worshiped Christ in the Bible. This view easily accounts for all of the evidence, and there’s no gymnastics required. God the Son points to His Father as worthy of worship, as McConkie notes, in John 4:25–26. But God the Father points to His Son as worthy of worship in Hebrews 1:6. It’s the perfect Love and humility of God: each member of the Godhead points towards the others. Each are worthy of our worship, and worthy of the worship of the angelic hosts. This is, of course, the Catholic view.