"Two Strangers at the Door: How to witness to a Witness"
Feb.20, 2011 John 10:22-39
"SHOULD I INVITE THEM IN?"
About ten days ago, the doorbell rang, and upon opening it I saw two women that I didn't know. One was well up in years, the other somewhat younger. They explained they were visiting in the neighbourhood and inquired whether I would like to talk about the Bible. I responded to their question with another question, inquiring what agency they were with. They said, "The Jehovah's Witnesses." What to do? As a Bible-believing Christian, should I invite them in and try to out-evangelize them?
The setting probably played into this. Yvonne would be home shortly from the Day Centre and requiring some assistance. Also, it was late in the week and I was busy working on Sunday's service. The time was definitely not convenient; however I'm sure they would come back another time if I invited them. I didn't take too long to decide. I replied, "No thanks - I'm pastor at a church, Living Water Christian Fellowship." That probably ruled me out in their books right there. After all, their former leader Joseph Rutherford wrote: "the ecclesiastical systems, Catholic and Protestant, are under supervision and control of the Devil, and form a part of his visible organization, and therefore constitute the anti-Christ." He also referred to "pious frauds, called preachers or clergymen." A September 1 1979 Watchtower declared, "As the most reprehensible ones among the people of Christendom, the clergy and religious leaders will drink the potion of death."
So, did I wimp out? Should I have invited them in and tried to convert them - to witness to a Witness? It would likely have been a waste of time for two reasons. First, by 'talk about the Bible' they mean THEIR Bible - the New World Translation (NWT). You're sunk from the get-go because the NWT is already majorly skewed to undercut the major Christian doctrines. Second, these innocent little old ladies are unpaid professionals, 'pros' at this door-to-door stuff: they are backed by an autocratic, efficient organization that's had over 130 years to come up with answers to orthodox objections to their teachings. In his book Christian Deviations, Horton Davies writes, "the Witnesses are organized as a group of religious commercial travellers." (Sort of a 'Fuller Brush Man' of fraudulent faith.) Members are known as 'publishers'. One source states the number of homes visited by a typical publisher is an average of 10 or more a week. They are assigned certain 'territories' and attempt to make at least two calls a year at each house.
In retrospect, had the timing been better, I might have considered inviting them in on certain conditions - 'my roof, my rules' - if they would agree to: (A) leave all their literature in their vehicle and use MY translation of the Bible; (B) focus not on the 'Bible' as such but on who Jesus is and what He has done to save us - studying some particular scripture verses I had listed beforehand. THEN you might stand a chance at encountering God's convicting truth rather than a smokescreen for heresy.
But what if it's not this 2-strangers-at-the-door scenario: what if you have a longer-term relationship with someone who's a Jehovah's Witness, say, a neighbour, or someone in a community-based group or exercise class? If there's an opportunity to share your faith on a deeper basis, how can we witness to the Good News about Jesus?
UNDERSTANDING THE JW MINDSET
In order to share meaningfully, you need to start where the person's at - understand their background and existing beliefs. It's helpful to know a bit about the organization's history.
Charles Taze Russell, who grew up at a Congregational church in Pittsburgh, became influenced by Seventh Day Adventists and Christadelphians. In 1874 Russell founded a new religious organization named the Zion's Watch Tower Society (WS). He produced a magazine, Zion's Watchtower and Herald of Christ's Presence, which is today The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah's Kingdom (note the shift away from Christ - that came under subsequent leaders). Members commonly believe this magazine (and its companion, Awake) are inspired publications.
John Ankerberg and John Weldon in their excellent resource Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (used much for this message) offer this summary of JW doctrine. God: unipersonal; His proper name is Jehovah. Jesus: A created angel who has existed in 3 stages or phases (the archangel Michael, Jesus of Nazareth, an exalted Michael). [weird, eh? Now you see me - now you don't - now I'm somebody else.] The Christ: The anointed one; Jesus became 'the Christ' at His baptism, at which point He was also spiritually reborn. Holy Spirit: [always uncapitalized] The impersonal active force of Jehovah. Trinity: a pagan superstition devised by Satan to blaspheme Jehovah. Salvation: by faith and works (Man is capable of achieving salvation without spiritual rebirth [are you starting to feel tired yet? Just wait.]). Man: a material (not spiritual) creation of Jehovah. Sin: ...a weak view of sin is held. Satan: generally orthodox teaching, except for the fact of Satan's annihilation and Watchtower Society confusion over good and evil angels. Second Coming: occurred invisibly in 1874 (date later changed to 1914) [sorry you missed it!]. Bible: authoritative only when interpreted by the Watchtower Society [note that last bit - they hold the key]. Death: death brings annihilation - temporary for those 'resurrected' (re-created) to life, eternal for the wicked. Heaven and Hell: heaven is a place reserved for only the 144,000 'elect' [sorry, it's already booked up!]; the idea of an eternal hell is a 'doctrine of demons'.
JWs suffer from a 'caste' system, two classes of believers. The 144,000 'anointed class' will rule with Jehovah in heaven as God's 'elect' and only they are 'born again'. All other Witnesses are relegated to the second class 'other sheep'; among the millions of Witnesses the average person today has virtually no expectation of being the elect. They have no desire to be 'born again', they don't expect to go to heaven, but instead to live on a 'paradise earth' forever - IF they pass the many future divine tests required of them. [feeling sorry for them yet?]
For a Witness, the Watchtower alone is the arbiter or judge of truth. In 1909 some leaders of study classes asked that Watchtower publications should no longer be referred to in their meeting, but only the Bible. Founder Russell replied, "This [suggestion] sounded loyal to God's Word; but it was not so.It was merely the effort of those teachers to come between the people of God and the Divinely provided light upon God's Word." [ie his own made-up material] Dr.Montague notes, "Conversion, in the Witness sense, is actually conversion to accepting the idea that the Watchtower Society is God's channel...The key goal of the Witnesses is to help the JW to become loyal to the organization, and once loyalty is achieved, passive consent in all other areas usually follows..." Ankerberg & Weldon state, "Practically speaking, in the lives of most devoted members, the Watchtower organization is more important than Christ is." "Dissent, criticism or independent questioning and reading of 'unauthorized' literature is not permitted.One may ask the questions, but one may not question the answers.To do so is to invite disfellowship, which, practically speaking, constitutes the rejection of and by Jehovah God.This carries a potential sentence of eternal annihilation at the judgment..."
Witnesses believe only the Watchtower Society can properly interpret the Bible for them, because only the WS receives 'divine illumination' as to its true meaning. So Watchtower literature becomes 'a Bible above the Bible' as it were.
When it comes to the version of the Bible the Witnesses use, the presumptive arrogance of the translators becomes particularly apparent. The New World Translation was produced by an anonymous committee in 1950 to serve as a modification of the Biblical text that agreed with Witness doctrine. In many places it's more a 'twisting' than a translation. Some examples...
In Matthew 25:46 'punishment' is translated 'cutting off' in order to escape the text's teaching of eternal punishment and to support their theology of annihilation of the wicked or conditional immortality. In John 8:58, "I AM" is translated "I have been" in order to circumvent Christ's deity. In Luke 23:43, when Jesus is speaking to the thief on the cross, a comma is inserted AFTER 'today' to support their belief in soul sleep. In Colossians 1:15-20, the word 'other' is inserted in parenthesis to deny the eternal existence of Christ: "by means of him all (OTHER) things were created..." And the classic one, my favourite, is John 1:1, where NWT changes "the Word was God" to "the Word was A god" to deny Christ's eternal deity. Here the inconsistency of their translating approach is glaringly apparent: in that chapter (John 1) alone they violate their principle at least 5 times. Ankerberg and Weldon list over a dozen other examples; see also gotquestions.org and allaboutcults.org
Well-known Bible scholar Dr Bruce Metzger remarked their translation incorporated "several quite erroneous renderings of the Greek". Dr Anthony Hoekema points out the NWT "is a biased translation in which many of their peculiar teaching of the Watchtower Society are smuggled into the text of the Bible itself."
TELL ME THE OLD, OLD HERESY
The teaching of the WS bears remarkable resemblance to the Arian heresy of the 4th century AD, for they assert the Son of God is a created being. Russell wrote that Jesus was "the first, the direct creation of God...Neither was Jesus a combination of the two natures, human and spiritual.The blending of two natures produces neither the one nor the other, but an imperfect, hybrid thing, which is obnoxious to the divine arrangement."
Other teachings about Jesus include that he was actually Michael the Archangel; he never incarnated; he's dead - when he died, he ceased to exist as a human being; he wasn't bodily resurrected, there was just an improved spiritual recreation of the old Michael; and that his second coming has already occurred invisibly.
It's a cultish trick that would lower Jesus to rob Him of His saving combination of humanity and divinity. Any religious system that argues 'Jesus is not enough' only does it to try to insert ITSELF in Jesus' place - you need to serve the 'agency' to gain salvation.
Witnesses also reject the classic Christian understanding of the Trinity because it supposedly developed from paganism; the word isn't found in the Bible [but then, neither does 'Jehovah']; they think it's satanic because it defames Jehovah's name; it's a polytheistic doctrine that teaches 3 gods; and it's irrational [particle physics is beyond our full comprehension too, but that doesn't make it irrational].
NOT A CHEERY PROSPECT
Jehovah's Witnesses often claim they are the 'happiest and most content' people on earth. But when you examine their doctrine about the future, there's not a lot to be happy about. Russell taught that Jesus' 'ransom' "does not give or guarantee everlasting life or blessing to any man; but does guarantee to every man another opportunity or trial for life everlasting." Far from being saved by Christ, each person must work out their own salvation; Russell wrote some are recovered from death "that they, each for himself, may have a full chance to prove, by obedience or disobedience, their worthiness or unworthiness of life eternal."
The Witnesses limit the atonement: Christ's death alone did not atone for everyone's sins; in the end, good works and good character do this. Their term 'corresponding ransom' is of limited value, while the Biblical view of 'substitute-ransom' pays for the sins of all the redeemed and is of infinite value. Jesus' sacrifice is accepted not as a finished work, but only as a foundation from which man works to provide his own salvation.
Lacking assurance of salvation, having to earn it yourself, is not good for mental health. Both the rate of mental illness and the suicide rate are very high among the Witnesses. Therapist Havor Montague monitored admissions to mental health facilities in Ohio from 1972 to 1976; in these 102 cases, he estimated the mental illness rate for JWs is 10-16 times higher than the rate for the general, non-Witness population. He notes, "JW's tend to look out for their own interests, and especially their own ego needs, and are only outwardly concerned about others.Probably the most common complaint among the congregations today is that there is a 'lack of love'.This 'lack of love' is commonly bemoaned among Witnesses everywhere."
Does that suggest an approach you might use to share Jesus with a Witness? Love them! Share God's kindness and grace. They must be starving for it. Your assurance of salvation, knowing Jesus died for you, must be very attractive to them - or to anyone who feels they have to earn their salvation, and fears never being 'good enough' to make the grade.
LET JESUS SHOW HIMSELF
If you do find yourself having the opportunity to sit down with a Jehovah's Witness who's open to discovering more about who Jesus is and what He's done for us, there are passages even in the New World Translation (biased as it is) that still yield the proper sense. Ankerberg & Weldon list several passages dealing with such topics as: salvation by faith alone; Christ as God; How many Lord of Lords; Who was with the Israelites (Yahweh / Christ the Rock); Who is the Eternal Light; Who sheds the light in the New Jerusalem; Eternal punishment; and Assurance of salvation.
A more focused approach I'd suggest is to skim through John's gospel looking for passages dealing with opposition to Jesus from the religious leaders. Ask the question, "Why did they want Jesus to die?" It's obviously not because of the good works He did, but because He Himself claimed to be God. John 5:18, "For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." 7:28-30, Jesus cried out, "I am not here on my own, but he who sent me is true.You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me." At this they tried to seize him..." (Why? Because He's claiming oneness with God.) Then in chapter 8:58f, ""I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I AM!" [adopting a phrase God used to identify Himself when speaking with Moses (Ex 3:14)] At this, they picked up stones to stone him..." Each time this happens, the Jews acknowledge Jesus is claiming to be God.
And especially in the passage we read today from John 10(22-39). The Jewish leaders surround Jesus in a show-down and demand to know if He'll tell them He's the Messiah. V30-31, "I and the Father are one." Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him..." Why? Jesus clarifies - is it because of His good deeds? V33, ""We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.""
There it is, very plain - Jesus' claim to be God is at stake. Does Jesus back off and say, "Oh, no, you've got it all wrong, you misunderstood Me"? No, He re-asserts His divinity - with predictable results: vv38f, "But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp."
One last one - John 19:7, "The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God."" Even the NWT claims here that to be God's Son meant claiming to be God.
So, even though their version is a mis-translation, looking at the context makes it clear the Jewish leaders were after Jesus because He claimed to be God. That's who He was. Then you could also ask, "Why did Jesus die - what meaning does He Himself attribute to His death? How does He interpret it?" and flip back to Matthew 26:28, the cup at the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Keep bringing the conversation back around if you can to who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
A BIRD OUT OF A CAGE
As in the case of people trapped in other cults, once you start to understand the burden they're under in that framework, you begin not so much to fear them as to feel sorry for them. What joy and grace and peace can be savoured by those who through the Holy Spirit experience the full blessing of all Christ has won for those who trust Him!
One former Jehovah's Witness tells what happened when He came to know the real Jesus through studying the Bible on his own. "After I looked through the publications and found other similar problems, I set them aside and began studying the Bible without literature aids of any kind. I read chapter by chapter, looking up cross references wherever necessary. The Holy Spirit revealed many things to me, and I was amazed to find that orthodox Christianity was really true. I discovered that the Bible taught such doctrines as: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the immortality of the soul, and the visible return of Christ - all the doctrines the Watchtower Society had brainwashed us into rejecting!
"...I spent the most of my life in an organization of HATE, until now I feel like a bird out of a cage. Keep a bird in a cage for 25 years, then turn it out, it is slow learning to fly again...I have been taught the Watchtower language so long I feel very weak in learning the language of love." Let's pray.