Church history is a fascinating subject. Whether its the Reformation period or the Middle Ages, Christians have thought deeply about God and the Bible. However, the most vibrant (and vital) period in church history belongs to the Early Church era, spanning from the death of the apostles to the death of Augustine.
Why should this time period be so important? Because the church, after much reflection on scripture, formulated the orthodox understanding of the person of Christ as fully God and fully man. Arius, a presbyter in the church in Alexandria, Egypt, taught that the Son was merely a divine creature, the highest of all of God’s creation, but still only a created being.
Athanasius, a contemporary of Arius, argued vigorously against Arius’ ideas. Finally, a council met in the city of Nicaea to settle the matter. After much debating between the two sides, the council decreed that Arius’ ideas were heretical and drew up a creed confessing that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were united, three in one.
Whatever opinions that people may contrive about who Jesus is, the Bible contains many passages that suggest that Jesus is not only a great prophet, but is actually God himself in the flesh. One of the most famous, and controversial, is Romans 9:5.
Today on Wednesdays on the Word, we are going to explore this famous passage and seek to answer the question, “Is Paul explicitly calling Jesus God?”
Paul begins Romans 9 by lamenting the current state of unbelief among the Jewish community. While many gentiles have come to believe in Jesus Christ as the resurrected savior, the Jewish people as a whole have still rejected Jesus as a failed messiah, even a blasphemer.
God granted the Jewish people many great benefits and promises as his set apart people, including “the covenants”, “the giving of the law”, and “the promises”. Paul’s point in this passage is that God has not forsaken his people whom he has chosen to bear witness to himself to every nation. (Rom. 11:1-2)
However, the greatest gift that God has given to the world through Israel is the Christ, the Messiah who has come from the Jewish people. God’s ultimate act of faithfulness to Israel is the birth of Jesus. Not only does he act as the redeemer of Israel, he is also the promised seed who was to bless the whole world. (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8)
Jesus—God over all?
One of the passages that confounds interpreters of Paul’s letter to the Romans the most is Rom. 9:5. The ESV translates this passage as: “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” The Revised Standard Version translates the same verse as: “to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen.”
Do you see the difference? The translators of the ESV believe that Paul is making a direct statement about the divinity of Jesus. However, those who translated the RSV understood the same passage to simply be Paul giving thanks to God the Father.
Although the grammar of the passage can lend itself to either interpretation, many evangelical commentators opt for the ESV’s rendering. Jack Cottrell, in College Press NIV Commentary: Romans, Vol. 2, provides six reasons why Paul is referring to Jesus, not the Father, as God in this passage:
- “The Greek words at the beginning of the clause (ὁ ὤν, ho ōn) most naturally introduce a relative clause that refers to something in the immediately preceding context, i.e., ‘Christ.’”
- “Paul’s doxologies of praise in other places do not stand alone but are attached to a word in the preceding context (Rom. 1:25; Rom. 11:36; 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:5; 2 Tim. 4:18).”
- “In independent statements of blessing, the word “blessed” almost always precedes the word or words for God (e.g., 2 Cor 1:3; Eph 1:3; 1 Pet 1:3).”
- “The reference to Christ’s human nature in v. 5a calls for a complementary reference to his divine nature.”
- “Taking the latter part of the verse as a doxology seems out of place in a paragraph.
- “Taking v. 5b as affirming Christ’s deity is compatible with the climactic nature of this last and highest privilege bestowed upon Israel.”
Based on these reasons, Paul must be referring to Jesus when he speaks of the “God over all, blessed forever.”
Jesus Christ came down from heaven in human flesh, suffered, died, and was buried. Then, against everyone’s expectation, God raised him bodily from the dead. This was no accident of history. Nor was God simply providing supernatural care for one of his creations. God in Christ was offering himself to the world to save people from their sins. No creature could do this, no angel could accomplish this mission.
Only the Son of God, seated on the throne of David, God over all, blessed forever, could accomplish salvation for sinners. This is a glorious truth, and Paul’s ultimate point in Romans 9:5.