By Jon Topping | September 19th, 2022
When addressing the issue of whether Jesus is God or not, a major component of the debate is the fact that Jesus accepted worship. We see many places where people worship Jesus, and He doesn’t correct them. However, opponents to the deity of Christ will claim that the word in Greek for “worship” actually just means “to fall down at the feet of”, or “to fall prostrate”. Here we will look at how the word is used and what it can apply to. This will then show that it really does give a strong argument that Jesus accepted worship, and thus, Jesus considered Himself to be God.
The Greek Word for Worship
The word used in the New Testament for “worship” is proskuneo (προσκυνέω). When looking the word up in lexicons and dictionaries, it is said to mean “to fall down at the feet”, “to kiss the feet”, or “to fall prostrate”. Additionally, while the Orientals and Persians used this word to mean bowing before a king, the Greeks used it for deity worship (and importantly, the New Testament is Greek).
The more important issue here, rather than just trusting a lexicon, is to see how the word is used in the context of the New Testament. It seems that the root words involved are something like a dog licking its master’s hand. It would make sense that this could be the origin of the word, and it gradually progressed to meaning a servant towards a king, where the servant kisses the king’s hand, just like a dog with its master. This could then come to mean any type of sign of respect towards a king. However, it doesn’t look like this is what the word means in terms of how it’s used in the New Testament. As an English example, the word “kidnap” is a compound word, where the original words used “kid” and “nap” no longer convey the meaning we intend. The word “nap” and “nab” used to mean the same thing – to snatch or seize something – but today “nap” no longer carries that meaning, even though we still use the word “kidnap”. So while the origins of the word “kidnap” make sense, it no longer conveys the meaning of the compound words. I believe a similar thing is happening with the word for “worship” in the Greek, where
the origins of the compound words for “proskuneo” have been left behind, and the overall meaning has progressed to mean religious worship.
In order to show that, we need to look at how the New Testament uses the word.
Worship Applied Religiously
The Greek proskuneo (προσκυνέω) is used towards God many times, and there’s also quite a few cases where it is used towards demons and false gods. Both of these sorts of cases show there is a heavily religious meaning for the word. While it is still possible it simply means to give respect to, or to offer allegiance, the fact that the word is being used towards spiritual realities, in a way that implies religious observance, shows that the word had religious meaning. For example, we see a few different cases where “worship” is used for people going to Jerusalem to perform religious observances towards God at the temple (John 4:20-24; 12:20; Acts 8:27; 24:11; Rev 11:1). In these cases, it is explicitly and undeniably a religious meaning for the word, because they are going to the temple in Jerusalem to worship.
We then also see many cases where the word is being used towards God, in a highly religious manner (1 Cor 14:25; Heb 11:21; Rev 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 6; 14:7; 15:4; 19:4). For example, in Revelation we see many cases where people and angels are in heaven, around the throne of God, crying out praises to God, and the word used is proskuneo. That looks like worship, and not the sort of thing a person would do towards a mere king (unless the king was blasphemously demanding to be treated like a god).
There are also cases where the word is applied to false gods, demons, or idols (Acts 7:43; Rev 9:20; 13:4, 8, 12, 15; 14:9, 11; 16:2). In most of these cases God is warning of punishment towards people who worship falsely. For example, quite a few of these refer to the beast in Revelation, where people will worship the beast. The meaning of proskuneo seems pretty obviously religious, where it’s a bad type of religious worship towards evil spiritual realities.
There are a few verses that make a very strong argument that proskuneo is meant to be understood as a religious form of worship. In these verses, someone is worshipping inappropriately, and they are corrected by someone who says that only God is worthy of being worshipped (Mat 4:9-10; Luke 4:7-8; Acts 1:25-26; Rev 19:10; 22:8-9). For example, a man runs to Peter and falls down at his feet and worships him. Peter responded by lifting the man up, and telling him, “Stand up, I too am a man”. In other words, Peter recognized that he didn’t deserve the treatment the man was giving him, because he was worshipping. In the two cases in Revelation here, John falls down and worships the angel bringing the message from God, but the angel’s response is to demand that John not worship him, because only God is worthy of worship. It’s undeniable in these cases that the word for “worship” is being given a very high degree of respect, where it should only be applied to God. In other words, it’s not just falling down prostrate in respect; it’s actually worshipping with religious devotion. If nothing else,
the fact that angels are saying that only God is worthy of “proskuneo”, and we then see Jesus accepting “proskuneo”, shows us that Jesus understood Himself as God.
If He didn’t, He would have rejected the worship, just like Peter and the angel did.
Worship Applied to Jesus
There are many times in the New Testament that proskuneo is used in reference to Jesus, and Jesus never corrects them (Mat 2:2, 8, 11; 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 20:20; 28:9, 17; Mark 5:6; Luke 24:52; John 9:35-38; Heb 1:6). There are three cases where a person worships Jesus, and then asks for a healing. When Jesus walked on water, the response of those present was to worship Him. After Jesus’ resurrection He appeared to some of the women, and their immediate response was to worship Him. After Jesus ascended into heaven everyone worshipped Him. We also see in Hebrews 1:6 that God tells the angels to worship the first begotten of the world (which is Jesus), where earlier in that chapter it is said that Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature. Then in Revelation 5:12 Jesus is given praises by all those present around the throne of God, and these praises are the same wording they used when they worshipped God on the throne.
In some of these cases it is quite explicitly religious devotion as we would understand the word “worship” to imply. However, even in the cases where it’s not perfectly clear that it’s a religious devotion like you would give to God (like how some “proskuneo” Jesus before asking for a healing), it’s still very important to recognize all the previous examples given. The word, in the context of the New Testament, has a very strong relationship to religious devotion. So even if there are a few cases with Jesus being worshipped that aren’t as explicit, when appreciating the context and how the word is used, it still looks like Jesus accepted worship. It’s also important to remember that others like Peter and angels reject worship, and they respond that only God is to be worshipped, and yet Jesus is worshipped and accepts it.
There is one case in the New Testament where proskuneo is used, but it’s directed towards someone who is not God. In Matthew 18:26, Jesus is telling a parable, and the servant “worships” his master. However, the master in the story actually represents God, so in a sense it’s actually still appropriate. This is interesting because it shows us that every single case of proskuneo is applied either to God, or Jesus, or is an improper type of proskuneo towards demons. The only counter example is when it’s applied to someone representing God in a story. So, if we want to understand how the word is used in the New Testament, it seems quite clear that there is a religious devotion meaning behind it, and not merely to fall prostrate before someone.
When looking at what the Greek word “proskuneo” means, and whether it implies worship, it seems obvious that it’s such a religiously important word that it should only be applied to God. The fact that it is applied to Jesus shows us that Jesus was willing to accept the type of worship that belongs only to God. Peter rejected this type of worship for himself, and the angel not only rejected it, but even said that only God is to be worshipped like that. Since Jesus accepted this type of worship, this solidifies the fact that Jesus considered Himself to be worthy of God’s worship, and thus, He understood Himself to be God.
Jon Topping is a speaker with Engage International and is based out of Canada.