26 Oct 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The apostle’s anguish over unbelieving Israel is the more poignant because of her unique privileges, some of which he has mentioned earlier (2:17ff, and 3:1ff.), but of which he now gives a fuller inventory. *Theirs is the adoption of sons*, since God has said ‘Israel is my firstborn son’ (Ex.4:22; cf.Ho.11:1) and ‘I am Israel’s father’ (Je.31:9); *theirs the divine glory*, namely the visible splendour of God, which filled first the tabernacle (Ex.29:42ff.; 40:34ff.), and then the temple (1 Ki. 8:10f.) and which came to be permanently localized in the inner sanctuary, so that Yahweh could be described as ‘enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark’ (2 Sa.6:2; cf. Lv. 16:2; Heb.9:5). Theirs too are *the covenants*, especially of course God’s foundation covenant with Abraham, but also its multiple renewals and elaborations to Isaac and Jacob, Moses (Ex.24:8) and David (2 Sam.23:5); *the receiving of the law*, the unique revelation of God’s will spoken by his voice and written with his finger (Dt.4:7f.); *the temple worship* (though ‘temple’ does not occur in the Greek sentence), comprising all the prescribed regulations for the priesthood and sacrifices; *and the promises* (4), particularly those relating to the coming of the Messiah as God’s prophet, priest and King. In addition, *theirs are the patriarchs*, not only Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but also the progenitors of the twelve tribes and other great figures such as Moses, Joshua, Samuel and David; and above all, *from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ* (5a), literally ‘the Christ according to the flesh’, whose genealogy Matthew traces back to Abraham, and Luke to Adam. Calvin justly comments: ‘If he honoured the whole human race when he connected himself with it by sharing our nature, much more did he honour the Jews, with whom he desired to have a close bond of affinity’.
Paul does not stop there, however. The final words of verse 5 are: *who is God over all, for ever praised! Amen*. The question is whether these words refer to Christ or to God the Father. And the difficulty in deciding for certain is due to the absence of punctuation in the original manuscript. We have to supply it. Three main positions are held.
First, the traditional view from the early Greek fathers onwards has been to apply all three expressions (‘over all’, ‘God’ and ‘for ever praised’) to Christ, as – with slight differences – in AV, JB, JBP and NIV, and in the margin of RSV and REB. The second view applies the expressions to God the Father. By placing a full stop after ‘Christ’, what follows becomes an independent sentence: ‘God who is over all be blessed for ever’ (RSV; cf. REB). The third way is a compromise. It applies the words ‘over all’ to Christ, but the remaining words to God the Father (REB mg).
The real problem is not whether Paul would have described Christ as ‘over all’, since he regularly affirmed his universal sovereignty (E.g. Rom.14:9; Eph.1:20ff.; Phil.2:9ff.; Col.1:18f.), but whether he would have called him ‘God’ and ascribed to him everlasting praise. It is argued that Paul usually designated Jesus ‘Son of God’ (e.g. 1:3f., 9; 5:10; 8:29) or God’s ‘own Son’ (e.g.8:3, 32), not ‘God’, and also that biblical doxologies are normally addressed to God (e.g. 2 Cor.1:3; Eph.1:3; cf. 1 Pet.1;3)) not to Jesus.
On the other hand, Paul gives Jesus the divine title ‘Lord’ (E.g. Rom. 10:9, 13; Phil.2:9ff.), calls him ‘the Lord of both the dead and the living’ (14:9), affirms his pre-existence (Gal,4:4; 2 Cor. 8:9), describes him as both ‘in the form of God’ and having ‘equality with God’ (Phil.2:6 mg), and declares that ‘all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form’ in him (Col.2:9). These expressions accord him divine honours and powers, which are tantamount to calling him ‘God’. Further, Hebrews 13:21 appears to contain a doxology to Christ.
Charles Cranfield regards it as ‘virtually certain’ that Paul intended to describe Christ as ‘God over all, for ever praised’. He adds: ‘There is…no good ground for denying that Paul here affirms that Christ, who, in so far as his human existence is concerned, is of Jewish race, is also Lord over all things and by nature God blessed for ever.
One would think that Israel, favoured with these eight blessings, prepared and educated for centuries for the arrival of her Messiah, would recognise and welcome him when he came. How then can one reconcile Israel’s privileges with her prejudices? How can one explain her ‘hardening’ (11:25)? Paul now addresses himself to this mystery. He asks himself, or his imaginary interlocutor, four questions.