God’s Universal Sovereignty & Church Unity

In Rom. 3:29-30, Paul makes a second argument for the unity of all Jesus-followers in the Roman church.

Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith (NIV).

Paul is going right to the heart of Jewish identity here, building his argument on the Shema—the prayer / confession that Jews uttered in the morning and evening.  It comes from Deut. 6:4-9: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

It’s a confession of God’s absolute uniqueness and universal supremacy.  The God of Israel is without rival and has no equal. The gods of the nations are mere pretenders while the God of Israel is the Most High God, highly exalted above all gods.

The Psalms contain variations on this central tenet of Israel’s faith, mentioning constantly that the God of Israel is the “Great King over all the earth” (Ps. 47:2), and that “he is exalted above all gods” (Pss. 95:3; 97:9).

These notes emphasize that the God of Israel is not merely a regional deity, ruling over the little sliver of land called “Judea.”  He is, rather, the Creator God who rules over the whole of creation, and he is on a mission to reclaim all of it for the glory of his name.

Paul draws upon the Shema in vv. 29-30 to address the Jewish Christians’ claims to privilege.  He puts the question to them in v. 29: “is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?”

He’s asking them whether God’s sovereignty extends to non-Jews as well as Jews.  The answer is obvious—of course it does!

Paul is implying here that the Jewish Christians in Rome unintentionally are betraying a fundamental aspect of Israel’s faith.  Because God is the Great King over all the earth, Jews do not have priority with God.

That is, claiming that Jews have an inside track with God is, ironically, affirming that the God of Israel is not the Great King over all the earth.

The God of Israel, however, is not a regional god.  He is the Creator God, sovereign over Israel and the nations.  Because of this, salvation has no reference to one’s ethnic identity.  Justification before God is enjoyed by everyone and anyone who is “in Christ,” participating in the faithfulness of Jesus by faith.

This argument—along with the one in vv. 27-28—leads naturally to Paul’s point in v. 31 about “establishing the law.”  Because he builds his presentation squarely on the Scriptures of Israel, there is no ground whatsoever for the Jewish Christians in Rome to object.

The unity of Jew and non-Jew among God’s people in Rome flows directly from the identity of the God of Israel and a reading of the law in line with the aims of the Spirit.

Romans is not an abstract systematic theology but a vigorous pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church struggling to maintain unity in the face of emerging divisions.  Reading Romans as Paul meant for its first recipients to hear it sheds light on how practical it was then and how relevant it is now.

In the racially and socially divided cultures we inhabit and in which we minister, such a reading of Romans has the potential to powerfully transform our still-segregated churches so that we truly can make manifest that God is not the God of any singular group.  The God of Israel, the Father of Jesus, is indeed the Great King over all the earth.

20 thoughts on “God’s Universal Sovereignty & Church Unity

  1. Andrew

    Tim,

    Do you agree, Paul’s logic is building rhetorically towards a polemic crescendo that peaks in [Rom 9]?

    Isn’t that where (according to Paul) God specifically says to a people who were ‘not my people‘, that now they would be called ‘my people‘, ‘beloved‘ and ‘sons of the living God‘?

    Is Paul is speaking about ‘Gentiles’ in [Rom 9:25-26]as ‘not my people, as you suggest he’s doing in [Rom 3:29-30], or is he speaking about ‘Jews’?

    Could you also clarify whether or not you believe Paul understands the OT correctly and uses it in context; or does he seem to quote it out of context to make his point?

    1. timgombis

      There are several rhetorical high points throughout the letter, all building toward 15:5-7, perhaps including up through v. 13. The OT contexts typically govern the way Paul quotes these texts, though there is no small debate about how he’s using each one.

  2. Andrew

    Ok.

    Who (in your opinion) is Paul talking about as having a state change from ‘not my people‘ to ‘my people‘ in [Rom 9:25-26]; since your position asserts only 2 groups – ‘Jews and Gentiles’?

    1. timgombis

      It seems that Paul has in mind the Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, from v. 24. That’s not the referent in the Hosea text, of course, but I think Paul quotes it with reference to God’s new people.

  3. Andrew

    Ok, that’s an honest answer.

    However, I disagree with how it ‘seems’. What did Sherlock Holmes say about ‘twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts’?

    You conclude this from verse 24 because of how the word ἔθνος reads in English (not Greek). If you examine the lexical meaning of the word ἔθνος is secular Greek works (such as the 6 million Greek words in the Oxyrhynchus and Tebtunis papyri) or even in the LXX, the word ἔθνος has exactly one meaning, which NT scholars seem to avoid. That said, shouldn’t exegesis twist theology to suit scripture, rather than twist scripture meaning to suit doctrine?

    Without reservation, I believe Paul understands the OT (and Hosea) perfectly. Therefore, where it appears (to modern scholars) Paul is not using OT scripture honestly I believe the problem is not with Paul, but with the modern scholars. So who are the nations Hosea is talking about?

    Hosea calls the House of Israel “No Mercy” [vs 6] and “Not My People” [vs 8] while showing though Israel was being treated harshly (while the House of Judah would still receive God’s Mercy). Yet Hosea goes on to prophecy about the House of Israel “Yet the number of the children of (the House of) Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered, And in the place where it was said to them (again, the House of Israel) “You are not my people”, it shall be said to them “Children of the living God.

    Hosea is speaking about the Messiah’s role healing the rift between Judah and Israel. Paul, unlike modern scholars, understands this.

    Paul quotes the OT prophecy frequently. In every instance the prophecy is about the House of Israel, or the (re)unification of Judah with Israel:

    [Rom 9:13] -> [Mal 1:2-3]
    [Rom 9:20] -> [Isa 29:16][Isa 45:9]
    [Rom 9:21] -> [Jer 18:6]
    [Rom 9:25] -> [Hos 2:23]
    [Rom 9:26] -> [Hos 1:10; 2:1]
    [Rom 9:27] -> [Hos 1:10; 2:1][Isa 10:22-23]
    [Rom 9:28] -> [Isa 10:22-23]
    (Though he quotes non-prophecy elsewhere [Rom 1:7]->[Gen 21:12], [Gen 9:9]->[Gen 18:10,14] etc)

    Your view favouring ‘Gentiles’ hinges on a false translation into English of a word in verse 24, yet notice in verse 27 Paul makes it perfectly clear he is talking about ‘Israel’ (rather than ‘Gentiles’) saying “And Isaiah cries concerning (the House of) Israel:“.

    All of the OT prophecy Paul quotes is about the House of Israel. Paul himself says he is speaking of Israel. The word ἔθνος can be taken at face value to mean what it means in Greek. The idea of ‘Gentiles’ is no where in the Greek, but imposed on the text by translators (with preconceived notions). It was the translator giving us this doctrine, not Paul. Paul was giving us documentary evidence Ezekiel’s vision of chapter 37 was coming to pass:

    And join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand.“.

      1. Andrew

        Just like that? (Isn’t that a bit dogmatic?)

        Aren’t you willing to defend Paul’s reading of Hosea? If I’ve argued falsely, I accept (and welcome) your instruction; I seek it. Truth still bears scrutiny. Besides, I expect you know what the bible says about those who teach? [James 3:1].

        I’m pressing you not because I’m contrarian, but because you are teaching scripture, and are held to a higher standard; except that what you are teaching (admittedly popular) is un-biblical. (I’ve shown that it fails to understand Hosea (as well as the other prophets), or attributes that defect to Paul. I’ve also shown that Paul himself contradicts this view (in vs. 27)).

        You may leave it as a simple disagreement if you wish – but God knows, you are accountable for dogmatically rejecting biblical evidence which appears to refutes a teaching you appear to accept unquestioningly.

      2. timgombis

        I’m not sure what else to say, Andrew. I’ve read and re-read your comments and can’t quite figure out what you find objectionable nor what you are proposing.

        I’ve considered what you’ve written, and I do not think you rightly treat all the evidence. You’ve already made your judgment about what I’ve written, so I don’t know what else there is to discuss. I’m articulating my understanding of the biblical text in this little corner of the blogosphere, but I don’t presume everyone will agree with me.

    1. gjohnston2244

      ANDREW WROTE
      You conclude this from verse 24 because of how the word ἔθνος reads in English (not Greek). If you examine the lexical meaning of the word ἔθνος is secular Greek works (such as the 6 million Greek words in the Oxyrhynchus and Tebtunis papyri) or even in the LXX, the word ἔθνος has exactly one meaning, which NT scholars seem to avoid. That said, shouldn’t exegesis twist theology to suit scripture, rather than twist scripture meaning to suit doctrine?

      The word ἔθνος can be taken at face value to mean what it means in Greek. The idea of ‘Gentiles’ is no where in the Greek, but imposed on the text by translators (with preconceived notions). It was the translator giving us this doctrine, not Paul.
      ——————
      Andrew, if I understand your argument (and I’m be no means certain I do) you are saying that ἔθνος in Greek should not be read as “nations” or “gentiles”? Amidst all of your critique of the alleged modern theological twisting and mistranslation, I am not sure what translation into English you are recommending. In my LXX, ἔθνος seems to be the word of choice in key passages such as Genesis 22:18 and Isaiah 49:6 for the Hebrew goyim or the non-Jewish people-groups or “nations” of the world. Surely the LXX translators were not using the wrong Greek word for “nations.” But even if they were, the English translators are simply following their mistake. How would you translate ἔθνος in (for example) Luke 24:47 and Acts 10:45?

      1. Andrew

        No, I don’t conclude that from a single verse. I start with what Hosea is saying (since Paul is quoting him).

        Hosea understood that the House of Judah and the House of Israel were separate. Most Christian’s don’t get that. Hosea was prophesying that while the House of Judah would go (and return) from Babylon they would not lose God’s favour, whereas God’s wrath against the House of Israel would be much greater. They would become “Not My People” and “No Mercy” and would be taken to Assyria under the Medo-Persian empire.

        Except this is where lazy Christian’s leave it and think no more about it. Though there were lots of Pagans other than Greeks Paul always differentiates ‘Jews’ from ‘Greeks’. No one wonders how there came to be ‘Hebrews’ Paul always calls ‘Greeks’ in the part of Grecian empire that was formerly the Third Satrapy of the Medo-Persian empire. Paul says ‘Greeks’ or ‘nations’ and Christian teachers blindly substitute ‘Gentiles’ unquestionably (and capitalize the word to make it seem important). Except there’s both a biblical and a historical story here, that Christian’s would rather ignore, because it doesn’t fit nicely with the comfortable version of popular theology that’s been built up.

        [Daniel 8] explains clearly after the Medo-Persian empire would punish the House of Israel, that empire would be replaced by the Grecian empire (both under Alexander the Great and the Greco-Persian wars). Daniel goes on to explain how the Grecian empire (beast) would cede to the Roman empire as the House of Israel’s punishing beast – and still Christians blindly assume Jews and Israelites are without distinction.

        There were Greek Israelites because the Medo-Persian empire placed them there. Rome would later inherit them when Rome would invade. This is what Isaiah meant when he said God would ‘ sift the nations (of the House of Israel) with the sieve of destruction, and to place on the jaws of the peoples bridle that leads astray.” [Isa 30:28] reiterated more clearly in [Amos 9:9].

        Christian’s believe the ‘nations’ Paul is concerning himself with are ‘Gentiles’ because they stupidly fail to see that God prophesied over and over again that the House of Israel would become paganized by their sins and God’s rejection of them [Eze 28:10]. That they would no longer be called “Israel” because God no longer wanted His name profaned (Israel – the name God bestowed on a people pointed to back to God himself – as fulfillment of His promise to give Abraham a great name (and Israel was a Great Name)).

        This is the very story of the prodigal son before your eyes – where the Stay-at-Home son is “Judah” who returned after 70 years, and the Prodigal Son is “Israel” who didn’t. The jealously between the two brothers mentioned in [Luke 15:28] is Judah’s jealously of Israel – that is what Paul was addressing – yet blind, deaf, Christian’s think Jesus spoke quaint stories that had no real point.

        Paul got this. No one here apparently does.

        So when I say “ἔθνος” meant ‘nations’ not ‘Gentiles’ (in Greek) I’m being clear, honest, transparent and blunt. This is a test of how we understand Paul. It’s a linguistic not a theological claim. (Even if you don’t want to believe it because your theology won’t let you).

        There are ancient secular (non-biblical) Greek texts containing at least 6 million Greek words. “ἔθνος” is one. There is a Greek OT containing the same word – even look there for the meaning of this word. This is important, since theology is being built upon it …

        If ‘ἔθνος’ legitimately means ‘Gentiles’ find even a single example (of every day Greek) outside of the NT where this is true. If you can find one counter-example, I am wrong! On the other-hand, if it cannot be done – consider that Paul’s use of ‘nations’ must be taken in context, against the back drop of OT prophecy he cites. This will open up Paul in ways that resolves many difficulties.

    2. Rob

      I have just read and re-read Andrew’s comments above and find them incomprehensible. Andrew, mate, if three different people find your argument equally unintelligible maybe its time to rethink things.

    1. timgombis

      I have no plans just now, Greg, and I don’t have any long-term plans for putting anything together anything like that. I’d love it if a book idea came together on Romans, but a few other projects will have to be completed first. At least you’ll know where to find them!

  4. Brian LePort

    Glad to see that I am not the only one who doesn’t understand Andrew’s argument (which he has tried to make on my blog for months, without communicating anything coherent).

      1. Andrew

        I just kind of figured it was about reading the text faithfully, not whether we agreed or not.

        I read Hosea. Then I read Paul. I see Paul agreeing with Hosea. I see you reading Paul in a way that makes it seem he hasn’t got a clue about Hosea or Greek.

        I figure we should (all) be accountable for what we teach others about the text – so I was trying to point out that your treatment of Paul in Romans would benefit by actually taking his use of (OT) scripture in context, and crediting him with understanding what he’s citing ..

    1. Andrew

      Brian, that’s a bit under-handed. You’ve never once identified anything I’ve said on your blog as incoherent. If that’s what you think you should be honest about it when you encounter it – rather than level it as an off-hand insult after the fact.

      I don’t believe it’s a case where I’ve been incoherent on your blog (at least you’ve had readers that thought so), rather I believe it may be the case you lack courage to confront positions you disagree with …

      1. timgombis

        Okay, things have gotten very unpleasant here, so let’s put a stop to it with that. I don’t want my blog filled with invective and unkind speech. Just a reminder–no matter we construct the background to the letter, Paul is advocating unity and acceptance of others without passing judgment.

        Andrew, you’ve laid out your position at length in a number of comments. Others are welcome to consider it. I’ve read through what you’ve said and have attempted to understand how it fits with what Paul says. I think you are mistaken. I probably won’t respond to each of your points, mainly because your harsh rhetoric, sarcasm, and questioning of my integrity with the text lead me to believe that you are not interested in genuine dialogue.

        I realize that not everyone will agree with me. I am content with that and must treat others with charity. You must realize that not everyone will agree with you and you must treat others with charity, too.

  5. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

  6. Pingback: Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans | Imagine with Scripture

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