Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus'
Resurrection, and the Gospel of John
Part 2: The Resurrection as
the Reason Jesus Came
By Robert M. Bowman
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that Jesus Christ was
raised from the dead with a "spirit body" rather than with an immortal, glorified
human body. In Part One we looked at the teaching of the Gospel of John as a
whole in relation to the question of the nature of Jesus' resurrection,
focusing on the narrative of Jesus' miracles and of his own resurrection. In
this concluding Part Two, we will consider what three specific sayings of Jesus
in the Gospel of John reveal about the resurrection of Jesus.
Raising the Temple (John
When Jesus first went to
Jerusalem during his public ministry, he drove the moneychangers and salesmen
out of the Temple (John 2:13-17). Some of the Jewish leaders responded to Jesus'
action by asking him for a sign - that is, for a miracle proving that he had
God's backing for doing such things (verse 18). In reply Jesus said, "Destroy
this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (verse 19). His Jewish
critics replied, "This temple was built in forty-six years, and you will raise
it up in three days?" (verse 20). "But he was talking about the temple of his
body" (verse 21). When Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples remembered this
saying and believed (verse 22).
The key sentence here is
Jesus' statement, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."
The sentence is really quite simple, but I will point out certain elementary
grammatical facts about this sentence in order to make sure the meaning is not
"It" (Auton) Is
First, we must make clear the function of the pronoun "it" (auton).
Pronouns take the place of a noun, whether stated explicitly or implied.
Writers and speakers most commonly use a pronoun to refer to an object that is
already designated in the immediately preceding context by a noun. For example,
instead of asking, "Please give the baby a bath and I will put the baby to
bed," my wife is likely to ask, "Please give the baby a bath and I will put her
to bed." We call the noun to which the pronoun refers its grammatical antecedent
(because the noun is customarily, if not quite always, expressed before the
pronoun is used). So, in my example sentence the antecedent of her is the
baby. Obviously, the pronoun refers to the same object as designated by its
antecedent: that is, in fact, what calling the noun its antecedent means.
In the sentence before
us, the word "it" (auton) is a pronoun that refers back to its
antecedent, "this temple" (ton naon touton). That this is the case is
clear enough in English and even clearer in Greek. The pronoun auton
agrees in gender, number, and case with ton naon touton (both are masculine,
singular, accusative), and no other antecedent (explicit or implicit) can be
supplied in the context. There simply is no credible way to construe this
sentence that would avoid the conclusion that "it" refers back to the object
designated by the expression "this temple."
Destroy this temple and in three days
I will raise it up.
Now, why is this
important? Because it absolutely rules out the usual explanation offered by
Jehovah's Witnesses for John 2:19. Typically they will argue that while the
Jews destroyed Jesus' physical body, what God raised up was a new "spirit body"
for Jesus. But this is an impossible interpretation of John 2:19. Whatever was
raised up, it was the same thing that was destroyed. But the Jews obviously did
not destroy a spirit body. What they destroyed, or killed, was Jesus' human,
physical body. But once it is realized that the word "it" is a pronoun
referring back to "this temple," it is impossible to maintain that one thing
was killed (Jesus' physical body) and another thing was raised up (a new,
"This Temple" Is Jesus'
But is the temple to which Jesus referred his physical body? Yes, it is. So
says verse 21 plainly: "But he was speaking of the temple of his body." In case
this statement does not seem clear immediately, the expression "of his body" (tou
sŰmatos autou) uses the genitive (a grammatical case commonly used to
denote possession) to denote identity. We do this in English, for example, when
we speak of "the city of Philadelphia" (which means "the city that is
Philadelphia"). Grammarians sometimes call this use of the genitive an
"epexegetic" genitive or a "genitive of apposition." Thus, John means that
Jesus was speaking about the temple that was his body.
Again, we know that this
must be referring to Jesus' own human, physical body because that body,
and that body alone, was what the Jews were challenged to destroy. When Jesus
said, "Destroy this temple," he must have been referring to something that men
might and actually did destroy. Again, this simple fact allows us to eliminate
the explanation that Jesus was talking about God raising up a spirit body for
him, since a spirit body cannot be destroyed (or even touched!) by men.
Putting Two and Two
All that is left is to put two and two together, so to speak. If "this temple"
was Jesus' physical body, and if the object referred to as "it" was the same
object as "this temple," then "it" was Jesus' physical body. But then what
Jesus was saying in John 2:19c was that he would raise up his physical body.
Destroy this temple and in three days
I will raise it up. . . .
But he was speaking about the temple of his body.
Jesus Give Up His Flesh Forever? (John 6:51)
We turn next to a
statement of Jesus in the Gospel of John that the Jehovah's Witnesses think
precludes his having been raised with a physical body. In John 6:51 Jesus said,
"and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh."
Jehovah's Witnesses reason that if Jesus "gave" his flesh for our life, he could
not receive back his life in the flesh without depriving us of salvation. This
is the "ransom" doctrine of the atonement that is a central, though little
discussed, element in the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses.
While we cannot offer a
full-scale refutation of the ransom doctrine here, we can show that it is not
warranted by Jesus' statement in John 6:51. The metaphor that Jesus is using in
John 6 is not that of a ransom, redemption, or exchange. He is not talking
about giving up his life in the flesh so that others may live. The
metaphor that Jesus is using throughout the chapter is that of life-giving
bread from heaven. Jesus contrasts himself with the manna that fell from the
skies in the wilderness to sustain the Israelites during the Exodus. Whereas
the manna only appeared to come from heaven and was good only to sustain the
Israelites' physical life temporarily, Jesus really came from heaven and is
able to give eternal life to those who believe in him (John 6:31-58).
When Jesus says that he
will "give" his flesh for the life of the world, this does not mean he will
"give up" his flesh forever. This is clear when one considers another, related
statement in the Gospel of John. In the most famous verse of the Bible, Jesus
said that God "gave his only-begotten Son" so that those who believe in him may
not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). This "giving" is clearly not a
giving up forever, since the Son returned to God in heaven.
Jesus' point in John
6:51, then, is that he gives eternal life to believers through his death in the
flesh, not that he can never be raised back to life in the flesh. In fact, a
little later in the Gospel, Jesus flatly contradicts that idea.
Down His Life to Receive It Again (John 10:17-18)
When Jesus spoke of
himself as the good Shepherd (John 10:7-18), he pointed out that unlike other,
faithless shepherds, he is the good Shepherd who would lay down (tithÍsin)
his life (psuchÍ) for his sheep (John 10:11). Jesus concluded this
discourse by explaining that he will not be giving up his life forever, but
laying down his life in order to receive it again. "For this reason the Father
loves me, because I lay down [tithÍmi] my life (psuchÍ) in order
to receive it again [hina palin labŰ autÍn]" (John 10:17).
The last clause, "in
order to receive it again," is often translated "in order that I may receive it
again." While this translation is accurate, some readers are misled by the word
"may" into thinking that Jesus is saying that because he laid down his life
voluntarily he had permission to receive it again. But this reading is
mistaken. The word labŰ is commonly translated "I may receive" because
it is in the subjunctive mood, a verb form sometimes used to express
possibility or permission. However, here labŰ follows the conjunction hina,
"in order that," and hina followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood
regularly expresses intent or purpose, not possibility or permission. Thus, hina
. . . labŰ means "in order to receive" or "for the purpose of receiving."
This point refutes the
Jehovah's Witness interpretation of Jesus' statement. Their view is that Jesus
gained the right to receive back his human life because of his
faithfulness to the point of death, but chose to forego that right in order to
provide his physical death as the ransom sacrifice. But as we have seen, this
is not what Jesus is saying here. Rather, Jesus is saying that he died for the
express purpose of receiving back his life in his resurrection.
The whole sentence,
then, expresses the idea that Jesus will voluntarily die in order to be raised
from the dead. In making that point, Jesus says explicitly that he will lay
down his life (psuchÍ) in order to receive it (autÍn) again. The
statement is clearly parallel to John 2:19. Here that which is said to suffer
death is Jesus' life or "soul," in context meaning simply Jesus' physical life
as a human being. This life or soul is precisely what will be restored in
Jesus' resurrection, as once again the pronoun "it" (autÍn, here
feminine in gender to agree with the word psuchÍ) indicates.
I lay down my life
in order to receive it again.
What Jesus laid down,
then - his physical, human life - he received again in his resurrection. That,
as Jesus says here, was the whole point of his dying in the first place.
the other three Gospels, Jesus prophesied that he would be killed and on the
third day raised from the dead (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34;
Luke 18:33). These predictions are naturally understood to mean that Jesus
would be raised with a physical body. Jesus makes statements to the same effect
in the Gospel of John. Jesus' purpose in coming into the world and dying was to
rise from the dead (John 10:17-18) and so become the source of eternal life to
those who believe in him (John 1:12-13; 20:30-31). Jesus came in order to be
for us "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). These statements fit
perfectly with the narrative of the Gospel, which clearly presents as fact that
Jesus was raised from the dead in the same physical body in which he had died,
though wonderfully transformed, glorious and immortal.