Was Jesus Worshiped?

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/05/2013

I want to speak about a topic that was introduced a few weeks back by a couple of different callers who were contesting the deity of Jesus and whether or not the New Testament actually taught that. One of the arguments that I raised in favor of Jesus’ deity was that He was worshiped. We’ll get to that in just a moment.

I was actually paid a very nice compliment last week. One of my students from an ethics class I taught came up to me and said that he had recently been in a debate with a man who was in favor of capital punishment. This former student went into the debate armed with some material that he’d learned from the class and actually did a very credible job. In fact, after the debate his opponent said something to the effect, “I was surprised at how well you argued and how clearly you thought and how effectively you debated this issue. I didn’t expect it.” Apparently he didn’t expect a good clear argument from someone taking a more conservative Christian position.

What I’m about to show you are fair and reasonable conclusions to a textual problem of the alleged worship of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to consult a bunch of experts. You can be an expert by consulting the text in a reasoned fashion.

I was really glad to hear that for his sake. But this student made the comment that he had just parroted my material. I took exception with that because you cannot go into a debate situation and do an effective job by simply parroting somebody else’s material, especially in a debate where there is repartee—conversation back and forth, answering issues, new things brought up. You’ve got to know the material to be effective. I thought this individual did well because he’d studied, not because he simply had my notes and had attended class. He knew the material and he wasn’t simply parroting it; he was debating an issue he understood, though some of that understanding he got from the class.

That brings us to our topic today. A few weeks ago this issue came up about the deity of Jesus and the questions of whether He was actually worshiped in the New Testament. I got caught short on some information. The reason I brought up the student who was in the debate is that there are times where even I have to use somebody else’s research. I end up parroting what somebody else researched, their ideas, their opinions. Partly I do that because, like anybody else, my time is limited and the subjects are broad and deep. But the times that I can do my own research are the times when I really own the material.

What I’d like to do today is demonstrate for you how I did my own research dealing with a particular topic. I won’t give you just the conclusions of my research; I’ll walk you through step by step how I did the research so you can learn the process yourself.

When dealing with a biblical problem some of you say, “Well, I don’t know Greek.” Listen, you don’t need to know Greek in order to solve many of the difficult problems. I don’t know Greek either. But I think you’ll see that what I’m about to show you are fair and reasonable conclusions to a textual problem of the alleged worship of Jesus Christ. You don’t need to consult a bunch of experts. You can be an expert by consulting the text in a reasoned fashion and I’m going to show you how I did it in solving this question about whether Jesus received worship, as I would argue, as opposed to receiving mere respect, as others have suggested, and how you can do it too, in resolving other biblical issues.

Now, I want to add this caveat as well. Some of the details make this seem a little bit tedious, in keeping with Thomas Edison’s observation that genius—in this case theological genius—is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. A lot of discovery in this kind of study is just plain work. I’m going to show you how I did the work and explain the conclusions I came to by demonstrating this process.

Our conversation, as you may recall, went something like this:

Greg: Jesus received worship. Only God was to receive worship. Therefore, Jesus is God.

Caller: The word used to describe what people did with Jesus (proskuneo) was also used in Rev 3:9 where God says “...Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, come and bow down (same word—proskuneo) at your feet...” Therefore Jesus wasn’t being worshiped.

Greg astutely replied: Abadee, abadee, abadee, abadee.

The point was well made and I was caught short on information.

An observation at this point was that we simply couldn’t leave the issue here. For one reason, the point that my caller made really didn’t solve anything. He offered an alternative explanation, he didn’t offer an argument. He said that Jesus wasn’t worshiped, but He was merely bowed down to like the bowing down (which is obviously not worship) recorded in Revelation. Now, that’s not an argument; that’s an assertion. What he didn’t do was offer evidence why he believed that Jesus was being bowed down to and not worshiped in the same way as the word is used in other passages to denote worship of God.

Now words are equivocal; words by themselves can mean different things. But in context they are univocal, they are usually unambiguous. The context helps narrow and refine the focus of a particular meaning so that in many cases the meaning cannot be missed. The context always determines the meaning.

The second observation is that nothing really had been affirmed about the use of the word proskuneo. The only thing established was the fact that the use of this word in reference to Christ doesn’t necessarily and automatically mean men worshiped Him. So it remains for us to solve the problem, “What does proskuneo mean when it is applied to Jesus? How do we go about solving this problem?” I’m going to show you in detail how to answer this kind of question.

Keep in mind our goal. Our goal is to determine the meaning of a word in its particular context. Now words are equivocal; words by themselves can mean different things. But in context they are univocal, they are usually unambiguous. The context helps narrow and refine the focus of a particular meaning so that in many cases the meaning cannot be missed. The context always determines the meaning. So we’re faced with the question, what clues, if any, does the context give us about this word proskuneo as it relates to the person of Jesus Christ.

Of course to know the context we have to know what the words are and where the words are located and here is where a couple of very useful tools come into play. You need two things, basically. First, you need an exhaustive concordance. Strong’s Concordance is one example. New American Standard Concordance is another. These concordances list where particular words are used in the text. They’re keyed to the English translation so you won’t get every place where the word proskuneo is used, you will get places it is translated into English as “worship.” But other times it is translated as “bow down.” That won’t show up under “worship,” you have to look under “bow down.”

How can you find every place in the New Testament that a particular Greek word is used so that you can examine all of the contexts and come to some conclusions about how the word is used? You do that by using a Greek concordance, a concordance that lists all the Greek words and not the English words. The Greek concordance that I use is called Wigram Englishman Concordance of the New Testament. You might say, “I don’t know Greek, how can I look it up?” Now what’s important about this is that this book is coded to the numbers in Strong’s and the New American Standard Concordances. You can look up an English word in Strong’s and find the number. You look up the same number in Wigram and it will give you the Greek word, in this case proskuneo. Then underneath proskuneo you will find every single reference of proskuneo in the New Testament, along with the way that it is translated in the King James Translation. It will enable you to look at all of the contexts so that you can see how the word is used.

Incidentally, if you’d like to get a copy of Wigram’s, I bought mine at The Christian Discount Bookstore in Whittier. The concordance will help you find the word and the corresponding number; the number will help you locate the Greek word in Wigram’s.

Having gone to Wigram’s and looked up the word in question, proskuneo, I found that the word actually occurs 59 times in the New Testament. As I read through every single one of those verses—and this is what you must do if you want to do a thorough job—I realized that there were some conclusions I could draw immediately that represented a series of facts which became my working material.

The first fact is this: Jesus said to proskuneo no one but the Father. This is in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, parallel accounts of Jesus’ temptation in which Satan asks Jesus to bow down. The word used is proskuneo. We also see the angel in Revelation 19:10 and 22:9 saying, “proskuneo no one but the Father.”

Second point, there are 22 references citing the Father receiving proskuneo.

Third point, we also see that Jesus received proskuneo (14 references).

Fourth point, 14 additional references indicate improper proskuneo of the devil, demons, idols or the beast of Revelation. In other words, people worshiping the devil, demons, idols, falling down before them, that was not right and it was clear from the context that it wasn’t right. And there are three other cases where men or angels are proskuneoed, worshiped. Cornelius fell down in Acts 10:25 and the Apostle John—surprisingly the beloved apostle himself—fell down before the angel of Revelation in 19:10, 22:8 and he was corrected for doing this.

The fifth fact is that we also see men receiving proskuneo, the point my caller was bringing up. One time the action was forced by God (Rev 3:9). The only other time was in Matthew’s Gospel (8:26), “The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself [proskuneo] before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’” This was the story Jesus told of the man who owed much and then was forgiven that debt after being threatened with being hauled off and thrown into the debtors’ prison.


The most important things about what I’ve done so far is that these five observations bring us to one simple conclusion and raise one simple question. The simple conclusion is that there is a type of proskuneo that is worship reserved to God alone, and there is a type of proskuneo that can be done with men—a bowing down, a courtesy, a sign of deference and respect, a tipping-the-hat, so to speak. In other words, sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it isn’t. What’s the difference?

Here’s the simple question: How would one distinguish between bowing low to a man in respect, which is allowed, and true worship, which is forbidden? Or more specific to our task, “Did people worship Jesus or did they merely bow low in respect?” To answer that we have to go back to the text.

As I looked at these texts, I realized something. There is a type of proskuneo that cannot be mistaken for mere courtesy. In Acts 10:25 Cornelius fell at Peter’s feet and proskuneo (“worshiped”) him. In Revelation 19:10 and 22:8 John fell at the angel’s feet twice and proskuneo (“worshiped”) him. Both Cornelius and John were seriously reprimanded. Why?

The reason they were reprimanded is that proskuneo is generally translated to bow down but—listen closely—if a person is already down, the addition of proskuneo must indicate worship. Cornelius didn’t fall at Peter’s feet and then bow down, he was already down. John didn’t fall down at the angel’s feet and then bow down, he was already down. They both fell down and worshiped. Ergo the strong words of correction: “Worship God, not me.”

Remember the words of the devil in the temptation in Matthew 4:9? “And he said to Him, ‘All these things will I give You, if You fall down and worship me.’” No possibility of mistaking that. Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”

There are six different references that include the phrase “falling down” with the worship of God. In fact, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures in Revelation were always keeling over at the foot of the throne and worshiping (proskuneo) the Father (1 Cor 14:25, Rev 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16 and 19:4).

By the way, it isn’t just falling down and worshiping that’s condemned. There are twelve references where demons, idols or the beast of Revelation are merely proskuneo, worshiped (no reference to “falling down”) and it’s condemned. But the addition of the notion of falling down in other places merely makes the meaning impossible to miss in the context.

Does this happen with any mere man? Only once in Matthew 18:26, “The slave therefore falling down, proskuneo (“prostrated himself”) before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’” Keep in mind, though no editorial comment is made whether this is right or wrong. And let’s face it, this guy is groveling for his life in the illustration that Jesus is giving. He may have been attempting to worship, we simply don’t know. This doesn’t tell us about the particular meaning of the word.

Now to the point of our study: what kind of proskuneo was given to Jesus?

The word proskuneo is used fourteen times of Jesus. There are six different times proskuneo is used of Jesus where it seems clear from the context that courtesy, respect or deference is in view. The leper came to Him and bowed down to Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” In Matthew 9:18, “While He was saying these things to them, behold, there came a synagogue official and he bowed down before Him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live.’” In Matthew 15:25, we see a Canaanite woman whose daughter was demon-possessed bowing down before Him and saying, “Lord, help me!” In Matthew 20:20 the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Him on behalf of her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. Nothing in the context indicates that anything other than deference or respect is going on.

There are two cases that are not clear. The demon possessed man from Gadarenes, Mark 5:6. And also Mark 15:19, the soldiers are bowing down and mocking Jesus. We don’t know if they are mocking deference or mocking worship. It just doesn’t say. So let’s just set those aside for the time being.

But what of the other eight references of proskuneo to Jesus? You tell me based on what we’ve already covered. Matthew 2:2, 8, 11, “‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him.’ ....[Herod says,] ‘Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him.’ ....And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother and they fell down and worshiped Him...” Matthew 28:9, “And they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.”

The Magi and the Christ child with the miraculous star overhead, the disciples with the risen Jesus, are not falling down and then bowing down; they’re already down. They are falling down and, as the New American Bible accurately translates it, worshiping Jesus Christ.

What of the other cases? Matthew 14:3, Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water. Peter starts to sink, Jesus reaches out and saves him. And when they got into the boat the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” These people are not just tipping their hats to an esteemed person. In Matthew 28:17 it says, “And when they saw Him, [the risen Jesus Christ whom they knew had been dead and was now alive] they worshiped Him.” And then in John 9:38 the man blind from birth is healed. He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped Him. Hebrews 1:6, “And when He again brings the first-born into the world He says, ‘And let all the angels of God worship Him.’”

These verses show much more than mere respect, much more than deference, much more than courtesy. Jesus is being worshiped. Yes, there are times when the word proskuneo is used of Jesus and other men and it doesn’t refer to worship. The context tells us. We looked at the context and especially the use of the phrase “falling down and worshiping.” It seems hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus is being worshiped.

We have just done an exhaustive analysis of the context and came to the fair and reasonable conclusion that Jesus was worshiped. Does that mean it’s right? No, we could be wrong. But the evidence is compelling that on some occasions Jesus received the kind of proskuneo, worship, that was to be reserved for God alone.

As I said, the context is the most important factor in determining the meaning of a word. We have just done an exhaustive analysis of the context and came to the fair and reasonable conclusion that Jesus was worshiped. Does that mean it’s right? No, we could be wrong. But the evidence is compelling that on some occasions Jesus received the kind of proskuneo, worship, that was to be reserved for God alone.

There are a number of places where the deity of Christ seems to be inferred (I would say implied, i.e., it was the intent of the author). All we need is one concrete anchor regarding Jesus’ deity to justify the inference. We have several; this is one of them. Jesus, clearly, received worship. If He did, then we’ve proven His deity.

I’ll close with the words of C.S. Lewis. He writes, “Among the Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He were God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among pantheists, like the Hindus of India, anyone might say that he is part of god or one with god. There would be nothing very odd about that. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God in their language meant the Being outside of the world who had made it and was infinitely different than anything else. And when you have grasped that concept you will see that what this man said was quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.” I agree.

At least that’s the way I see it.

Resources for Additional Study

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