Is it wrong to worship or pray to Jesus Christ?
Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that worship in the strict sense belongs to Jehovah God the Father alone, and that prayer should be directed only to the Father. Jesus is not the proper recipient of worship or prayer. However, the New Testament teaches Christians to worship, love, honor, glorify, obey, trust, and pray to the Lord Jesus Christ, just as we honor the Father in all of these ways.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position regarding honors properly given to Jesus is fairly straightforward. The Watchtower teaches that true Christians do not pray to Jesus and that they should not worship him. The Society’s publications categorize worship of Jesus and prayer to Jesus as an error alongside according such honors to Mary and the saints, as traditionally practiced in Catholicism:
Does the Bible instruct us to pray to Jesus, to Mary, to saints, or to angels? No—only to Jehovah.1
The Watchtower states that only Jehovah God, the Father, should be worshiped:
Throughout the centuries, many in Christendom have worshiped Jesus Christ as if he were Almighty God. Jesus himself, however, directed attention and worship only to Jehovah God.2
The logic of the Watchtower’s position on this subject is also simple enough to understand. In the view of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jesus Christ is a creature, made by God, and is not himself the Creator or Supreme Being. As a creature, Christ should not be given the same honors or religious devotion as the Father, who alone is the uncreated, Almighty God.
Evangelical Christians agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses that worship and prayer should be directed only to Almighty God (Exod. 34:14; Ps. 65:2; Isa. 44:17; 45:20-22; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). Jehovah’s Witnesses reason that since Jesus is not God, he must not be worshiped. However, the reverse argument needs to be considered: If the New Testament teaches that Jesus is properly worshiped, then he must be God. Indeed, this is one of several lines of evidence from Scripture that Jesus really is God incarnate.3
Honor the Son
Jesus stated that it was the Father’s purpose “that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). In context, Jesus has just claimed that he does whatever the Father does (v. 19) and that he “gives life to whomever he wishes” (v. 21). The Father has even entrusted the responsibility of rendering eternal judgment over all people to the Son (v. 22). If the Son is to receive honor in the context of performing such divine functions, then the honor he is to receive is divine honor—the honor due to God.
The Watchtower comments on John 5:23, “Jesus was not telling us to honor him as being the Father or as being God. He did not say we were to honor the Son as much as the Father.”4 Orthodox Christians do not think Jesus is the Father. However, in context the point is that the Son is to receive the same kind of honor as the Father because the Son does the same kinds of things that the Father does (vv. 19-22).
Imagine someone asserting that all people should honor the angel Gabriel just as they honor Jehovah, or that everyone should honor the apostle Peter just as they honor God. We instinctively recognize that such assertions would be inappropriate (and, of course, the Bible never makes such statements). Yet Jesus said that all of us should honor him, the Son, just as we honor the Father. That is an astonishing claim if Jesus was a created angel.
To Christ Be the Glory
A doxology (from the Greek word doxa, “glory”) is a stylized expression of praise to God acknowledging that he is deserving of honor or glory. A doxology is thus an expression of worship. As one would expect, in the New Testament we find several instances of doxologies to God, and in some cases specifically to the Father:
- “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36)
- “…according to the will of our God and Father, to whom bethe glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Gal. 1:4b-5)
- “To our God and Father beglory forever and ever. Amen.” (Phil. 4:20)
What might be surprising is that we find very similar doxologies to Jesus Christ:
- “…through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:21).
- “…in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:11).
- “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).
These doxologies clearly are not ascribing glory to Jesus Christ instead of to God. 1 Peter 4:11 explicitly states that God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ, so that glorifying Christ is done in a way that glorifies God (see also Rom. 16:27; Jude 25). Nevertheless, these passages ascribe glory forever to Jesus Christ in doxological language identical to other biblical doxologies assigning eternal glory to God. 2 Peter 3:18 even contains a doxology assigning eternal glory to Christ with no direct mention of God or the Father.
The biblical words commonly translated “to worship” (Heb., shachah; Greek, proskuneō) generally refer to an act of bowing low to the ground or prostrating oneself or, more generally, falling on the ground with or toward someone. The biblical writers express the same idea in other ways, such as stating that a person fell on his face before someone, that he bent or bowed his knee to someone, or that he fell at someone’s feet. Such an act, whether bowing low or prostrating oneself, was an expression of respect or reverence toward a superior such as a king. Thus, the mere use of one of these words does not necessarily indicate that the person shown such respect is God.
However, in a religious or spiritual context, when the act of bowing, kneeling, or prostrating oneself is performed toward a supernatural being (or an image representing such a being), the act is an act of religious worship. Context is the key to determining the significance of the act.
For example, in several places in the Gospel of Matthew we read of individuals “worshiping” or bowing before Jesus, usually with no suggestion that the individuals thought Jesus was anything more than a great man (e.g., Matt. 8:2; 9:18; 20:20). However, in two places something more seems to have been happening. On one of these occasions, Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a windy night and joined his disciples in their fishing boat. When they got in the boat, the wind stopped, and the disciples worshiped him and said, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:24-33). Here it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the disciples were viewing Jesus as more than a man, though they would not have fully grasped yet who he was. The most notable occasion comes at the very end of the Gospel, when Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain after his resurrection. “And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). Apparently what “some doubted” was that Jesus should be worshiped, because Jesus responded, not by assuring them of his identity or showing them the marks in his hands, but by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). If you don’t worship the one who has authority throughout the entire universe, whom do you worship?
Not only did human beings worship Jesus when he was here on earth, but all of God’s angels are required to worship him:
“And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘Let all God’s angels worship him’” (Heb. 1:6).
The Watchtower Society has had some trouble with this verse. Their New World Translation (NWT) rendered proskunēsatōsan here “worship” from its first edition in 1950 until 1971, when it was translated “do obeisance to” instead. “Obeisance” is another word for bowing or prostrating; as already explained, the word can have this physical meaning in ordinary acts of respect toward kings and other human leaders depending on context. The obvious problem here is that the context is the superiority of the Son Jesus Christ to the angels (Heb. 1:1-13). In a fairly old article, the Watchtower offered this rather weak comment on the matter:
Are you an angel of God in heaven? If you are, then Hebrews 1:6 applies to you. If you are not one of God’s angels in heaven, then Hebrews 1:6 is not directed to you.5
This comment misses the point, which is that angels in heaven are in the immediate presence of God himself and yet even they are commanded to worship Christ. If angels should worship the Son, then so should we.
Another problem for the Watchtower’s handling of Hebrews 1:6 is that it is a quotation from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The quotation could be from Psalm 97:7 or from Deuteronomy 32:43 (which reads slightly differently in the Greek than in the Hebrew original). In both of those Old Testament texts, supernatural beings are commanded to worship the Lord (that is, Jehovah). Thus, Hebrews 1:6 says that God himself commands the angels to give to the Son the worship they owe to Jehovah. The best the Watchtower can say on this point is that Jesus can be indirectly the recipient of worship because he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3). “So any ‘worship’ the angels give God’s Son is relative and is directed through him to Jehovah.”6 This explanation makes no sense. Again, the angels are spirits, like God, and have direct, unmediated access to God in heaven. They do not need a go-between through whom their worship passes to God. But if they do need to worship God by doing acts of worship toward Christ, then how much more do we need to do so, since we are on earth as physical beings!
To review: The disciples did acts of worship to Christ and the angels are commanded to worship Christ. In the contexts of these passages, the “worship” that Christ is receiving is equivalent to the worship due to God.
Call on His Name
The New Testament contains many references to believers praying to Christ. The expression most commonly used in these texts is that Christians “called on the name” of the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:59-60; 9:14; 22:16; Rom. 10:12-14; 1 Cor. 1:2). The Watchtower Society attempted to show in one article that “calling on the name” of the Lord Jesus did not mean praying to him in the following comment regarding 1 Corinthians 1:2.
How was the name of Christ ‘called upon’ everywhere? One way was that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth openly acknowledged him to be the Messiah and “Savior of the world,” performing many miraculous acts in his name. (1 John 4:14; Acts 3:6; 19:5) Therefore, The Interpreter’s Bible states that the phrase “to call on the name of our Lord . . . means to confess his lordship rather than to pray to him.” Accepting Christ and exercising faith in his shed blood, which make the forgiveness of sins possible, also constitute a “calling upon the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Compare Acts 10:43 with Ac 22:16.) And we literally say Jesus’ name whenever we pray to God through him. So, while showing that we can call upon the name of Jesus, the Bible does not indicate that we should pray to him.7
The Watchtower’s argument here gives the impression of being thoroughly biblical, citing five different texts (in addition to 1 Corinthians 1:2) in this one paragraph in support. As is very often the case, however, the Society’s biblical citations do not back up their claim. Of those five additional texts, only one uses the expression “call on the name” (Acts 22:16).
The main Old Testament source for this expression as used in reference to Christ in the New Testament is the first part of Joel 2:32, which says, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” We know this is the source for the New Testament use of the expression because it is quoted explicitly in the New Testament (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13). Paul uses the expression in Romans 10:13 in the context of calling on Jesus as “Lord” for salvation (Rom. 10:9-12). In the book of Joel, the idea is not that those who “confess his lordship” will be saved but that those who appeal to the Lord (Yahweh, Jehovah) will be spared the impending judgment. The fact that the New Testament refers several times to calling on the name of the Lord Jesus clearly shows that the earliest Christians were expected to pray to him, as biblical scholar R. T. France has pointed out:
Not only does the phrase in itself indicate that prayer to Jesus was a normal and distinguishing characteristic of Christians in the 50s, but “to call on the name of the Lord” is a regular Old Testament formula for worship and prayer offered to God (Gn. 4:26; 13:4; Ps. 105:1; Je. 10:25; Joel 2:32; etc.).8
Praying to the Lord Jesus
There are several other references to praying to Christ in the New Testament. Before Pentecost, the disciples gathered in the upper room “prayed” to the Lord asking him to show them which of two men should take Judas Iscariot’s place as an apostle (Acts 1:24-25). The “Lord” here is the Lord Jesus (v. 21), the one who “chose” his apostles (1:2; see also Luke 6:13; Acts 9:15).
Paul says that he “appealed to the Lord” three times for him to take away his “thorn in the flesh,” and the Lord’s response was that his “power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then accepted the situation because he was glad to have “the power of Christ” dwelling in him (2 Cor. 12:8-9). Here again, the “Lord” to whom Paul appealed in prayer was Christ, the Lord Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples shortly before his death, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). Here Jesus invites the disciples to pray to him and states that he will be the one who answers their prayers. Some of the Greek manuscripts of John omit the word “me” in this verse, but the manuscripts that contain the word are generally older and from a wider range and geographical origin of manuscripts than those that omit it. Even without the word “me,” Jesus’ statement clearly means that he is the one who will be receiving the prayers because he is the one who will answer them.
The evidence surveyed in this brief article is by no means exhaustive, but it is sufficient to establish that Jesus Christ is properly the recipient of prayer and worship. The New Testament never suggests that there is any divine honor Jesus should not receive. Rather, it teaches us to give to the Lord Jesus Christ the honor (John 5:23), glory (2 Peter 3:18), worship (Phil. 2:10-11; Rev. 5:14), prayer (John 14:14; Rom. 10:12-13), faith (John 14:14), fear or reverence (1 Peter 3:14-16), and love (Matt. 10:37; Eph. 6:24) that belong to God.
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)
1. “Prayer, 2: To Whom?” Watchtower (Oct. 1, 2010): 5. See also “Should We Pray to Jesus?” Watchtower (Jan. 1, 2015): 14–15.
2. “Is It Proper to Worship Jesus?” Awake! (April 8, 2000): 26.
3. For more on the subject of the honors given to Jesus, see Robert M. Bowman Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 29–70. Some of the material presented in this article has been drawn from this book.
4. “Source of His Life,” Watchtower (Oct. 1, 1962): 592.
5. “Questions from Readers,” Watchtower (May 15, 1954): 317.
6. “What Do the Scriptures Say about ‘the Divinity of Christ’?” Watchtower (Jan. 15, 1992): 23.
7. “Should You Pray to Jesus?” Watchtower (Dec. 15, 1994): 25.
8. R. T. France, “The Worship of Jesus: A Neglected Factor in Christological Debate?” in Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology Presented to Donald Guthrie, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), 30.