Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they sanctify God’s name by extensively using it, by being ‘Witnesses of Jehovah.’ Before 1932 they were known as International Bible Students but Joseph Rutherford, making every effort to distance himself from their founder, Charles Russell, discovered a reason to rename the group. On their website’s FAQ section they explain:
‘Jehovah is the personal name of God, as found in the Bible. (Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18) A witness is a person who proclaims views or truths of which he is convinced. ‘Thus, our name Jehovah’s Witnesses designates us as a group of Christians who proclaim the truth about Jehovah, the Creator of all things. (Revelation 4:11) We witness to others by the way we live our lives and by sharing with them what we’ve learned from the Bible.—Isaiah 43:10-12; 1 Peter 2:12.’
In support of this position they will use several familiar New Testament texts to explain why every true Christian should Sanctify God’s name as they do, by speaking it. We will look at these, discover Jesus singularly failed to do just that, and go on to find how Christians are to sanctify God’s name.
‘Sanctified be Your Name’
A Jehovah’s Witness will typically take you to Matthew 6, where Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray:
‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified. Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also on earth. Give us today our bread for this day; and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the wicked one.’ (Mt.6:9-13, NWT)
Two other verses Jehovah’s Witnesses use to explain why we should sanctify God’s name as they do are both in John 17, in what is known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer:
‘I have made your name manifest to the men whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have observed your word.’ (17:6, NWT)
‘I have made your name known to them and will make it known, so that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in union with them.’ (17:26, NWT)
Jesus made the name of God known to his disciples, ‘the men whom you gave me out of the world.’ His promise ‘and will make it known,’ seems to anticipate an ongoing revealing of the name. On the face of it, it seems we should all be Jehovah’s Witnesses. As we will see, that is, indeed, Jesus’ intention, but take a few steps back and look again.
Did Jesus Sanctify God’s name as Jehovah’s Witnesses insist we must, by speaking it out? How does the Lord’s prayer begin again? ‘Our Father in the heavens, let your name be sanctified.’ What did Jesus teach his disciples they should call God? In John 17 Jesus definitely said, ‘I have made your name manifest to the men whom you gave me out of the world,’ but in teaching them to pray, it appears, he did no such thing. That’s awkward…
Furthermore, when we consider how Jesus both spoke to and spoke about the Father throughout the gospels it is more puzzling and awkward still, as the chart below demonstrates.
Let’s establish a couple of things here:
If you claim your faith is based on the Bible you must be prepared to allow the Bible to not just instruct you but also to correct you. It is the ultimate authority in a Christian’s life and, for Christians, this should not be a problem.
‘Jehovah’ is the worst possible choice of pronunciation. It is actually a hybrid name, combining the vowels of the GreekAdonai with the consonants of the Hebrew YHWH into JeHoVaH or YeHoWaH (the ‘a’ of ‘Adonai is changed for reasons of Hebrew pronunciation). The people who produced this name were medieval Christians and not Hebrews. For more on this go here. Whichever way it is pronounced, let’s agree on one thing, Jesus never used the name.
Did Abraham know God’s Name?
So, Jesus affirms in John 17, ‘I have made your name manifest,’ when it is clear Jesus didn’t speak God’s name. Something even more curious is found in God’s self-revelation to Moses. It is in Exodus 3 that God reveals his name:
‘This is what you are to say to the Israelites, ‘Jehovah the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this is how I am to be remembered from generation to generation.’ (Ex.3:15, NWT)
That reads like a confirmation of the Watchtower position. God goes on in Exodus 6 to say:
‘I am Jehovah. And I used to appear to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but with regard to my nameJehovah I did not make myself known to them.’(Ex.6:2-3, NWT)
To the patriarchs, then, God was not known as Jehovah but as ‘God Almighty,’ the Hebrew El-Shaddai.’
In the Genesis account of Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen.22), you will remember, the LORD staid Abraham’s hand, providing a ram caught in a thicket for the sacrifice instead. Abraham went on to call that place, ‘the LORD will provide,’ in the Hebrew Jehovah Jireh. Even earlier, in Genesis 15, God gives Abraham his name, ‘And the LORD said to him, ‘I am Jehovah who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans…’’ (Gen.15:7, NWT)
We have Jesus in John’s gospel insisting he has made known God’s name, when in fact he never used the name. Now we have God telling Moses in Exodus that the patriarchs didn’t know God as ‘the LORD’ or Jehovah, when Abraham clearly knew the name. Two questions present themselves:
Is there an explanation for these apparent contradictions?
How does it help us think about how we sanctify God’s name?
Relationship and Character
In Bible times names often reflected character. Abraham means father of a multitude, David means beloved, Jesus is the Greek form of Yeshua, meaning ‘Yahweh (Jehovah) is salvation.’ The answer to our questions is tied up with the relationship of God with Abraham and with Moses, how much of himself, or what part of his character, God revealed to each man.
Alec Motyer, in his Bible Speaks Today commentary on Exodus explains, ‘Abraham and the other patriarchs knew Yahweh only as one way of identifying El Shaddai, but as yet no distinctive revelation of God had been attached to it. Its meaning was not revealed until Moses.’
In other words, for Abraham, Jehovah was the name of El Shaddai, God Almighty, but that name did not yet carry the significance it subsequently carried for Moses and Israel. In GenesisEl Shaddai,God Almighty, is sufficient to meet his people’s needs in particular circumstances. In Exodus Jehovah is revealed as the God who goes with his people. Motyer, again, explains:
‘In Genesis 17:1 Yahweh said to Abraham, ‘I am El Shaddai’ and this is typical of Genesis in that the God who is called Yahweh is known as El Shaddai, the God who is sufficient. Here, however, the situation is reversed and El Shaddai says, ‘I am Yahweh.’ (Ex.6:2-3) This sufficient God is about to redefine his sufficiency.’
Indeed, the name Yahweh is used only when the Bible is talking about God’s relationship with his people. The relatively remote God of Abraham, El Shaddai, the God who is God, becomes the relational God of Israel, Jehovah, the covenant keeping, unchanging God who is among his people. The God who is here.
God revealed himself to Abraham as El Shaddai, God Almighty. He further revealed himself to Moses as Jehovah, the God who is present and actively involved with his people. In what way is he revealed? In his character, reflected in the name he gives to each man. Abraham knew God’s name, Jehovah, but he knew the character of God as El Shaddai. Moses knew El Shaddai, but he now knew the character of God as Jehovah.
When we return to the New Testament we find the same happening but with even greater, I would say the greatest clarity.
‘I Have Made Your Name Known’
Jesus made God’s ‘name’ known in Jesus’ own person and character, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ (John 14:8, NWT)
The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus, ‘he is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact representation of his very being.’ (Heb.1:3, NWT) The ESV is the better translation, ‘He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.’
Paul, in his letter to Colossae, writes, ‘He is the image of the invisible God…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.’ (Col.1:15-20) As Doug Harris was fond of asking, ‘How full is full Mr. Jehovah’s Witness?’
Jesus also made God’s name known in his teaching. There is no space here for every example, but there is an interesting passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus often condemned the scribes and Pharisees for taking pride in outward observance of the law:
‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ (Mt.23:27-28, ESV)
So, he begins an important revelation of the character, the name of God with, ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt.5:20, ESV) before he launches into a series of ‘You have heard that it was said’ sayings. If we look at the fifth of these five sayings we begin to understand what Jesus is doing.
‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of the Father who is in heaven.’ (Mt.5:43-45)
Jesus is correcting something here, but it isn’t the Old Testament. Nowhere does the Bible say, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ This is simply something people have heard said. It does not align with the character, the name of God to think such a thing. In fact, if we are to be sons of the Father, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
In the other ‘you have heard that it was said,’ sayings, Jesus reveals the heart of God, the character of God. He sanctifies God’s name among his people.
Anger, verses 21-26: Murder is prohibited by the sixth commandment but anger, insults, animosity are equally worthy of judgement because they are destructive, the root of murder.
Lust, verses 27-30: Adultery is wrong (Ex.20:14) but lustful intent begins in the heart, and God requires purity of heart (Ex.20:17)
Divorce,verses 31-32: Divorce was widely accepted and easily entered into in the ancient world. Jesus rejects the practice of easy divorce and he further makes clear God’s original intention in Mt.19:3-9.
Oaths, verses 33-37: Invoking God’s name to guarantee the truth of your statement is forbidden. Believers of good character should have such integrity as to be considered trustworthy without an oath.
Retaliation, verses 38-42: God introduced the law of retaliation, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ (Deut.19:20-21) to maintain justice, to prohibit extreme, vengeful, and inappropriate punishment. He was effectively saying that the punishment should fit the crime, not literally poke out someone’s eye. It was a law for the people of Israel and would have been administered by civil authorities. In the same way, we are not to take the law into our own hands, not to repay evil with evil, but love our enemies (v.44)
Finally, Jesus ends, if you remember, with, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of the Father who is in heaven.’(v.44) There is purpose in this far beyond correcting bad teaching. We strive to have hearts devoid of anger and lust, filled with love and compassion, and lives lived with integrity to friend and enemy alike because we want to be like our Father. This strikes one as a tall order but we must remember the provision of God in fulfilling his purposes in us. Paul writes to believers in Ephesus:
‘For this reason I bow down before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’ (Eph.3:14-21, ESV)
From Abraham, who knew God as El Shaddai, through Moses and the children of Israel, to whom God revealed more of himself, as Yahweh, to Jesus, who is the fullest revelation of God, ‘the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature,’ there is an unfolding revelation of God’s character, God’s name.
Jesus teaches us we, too, are to grow increasingly into the likeness of God, sons of the Father. Paul reminds us, ’And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.’ (2 Cor.3:18)
Unveiled because, in Christ, we have seen the true character, understood the name of God. Transformed because it is a work of God in the life of the believer. God’s image because it is his character, his name, we are to increasingly reflect to a dying world.
‘You will be my Witnesses’
Jesus didn’t speak God’s name, but Jesus did sanctify God’s name by precept and example, ‘this is what God is like.’ We, too, are called to sanctify God’s name in our faithful witnessing, and in the way we live before the world. We don’t insist faithful Christians must speak God’s name, but faithful Christians must reflect God’s character.
Finally, Jesus told his disciples, ‘You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) In light of the unfolding revelation of God, and of this commission, Christians are witnesses of Jesus, the fullest revelation of God. We say to the world in thought, word, and deed, ‘If you want the clearest picture of what God is like, look at Jesus.’