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Jesus is Called “Elohim”

J. Dan Gill

You are “Gods”; all of you are sons of the Most High (Ps. 82:6).

God speaks! In the verse above he addresses leaders of his people and reproves them (Ps. 82:1–5). Interestingly, he refers to them as “Gods.” In doing so, he is giving special honor to these people. We have seen two uses of the word “god/God” in the Bible: (1) False gods, as in the gods of the nations, and (2) God, the true God of the universe. There is actually this third use found in the Scriptures. Here, the word “God” or “god” is a title of honor given to certain people. For clarity, the author in this book is using “God” or “god” (in quotes) when referring to the word as a term of honor for human beings.[1]

Such a title implies importance. These “Gods” (“gods”) are people who have been given status and authority by God himself. They are his lords, kings, deliverers and judges. In the 82nd Psalm, they are rulers of the people.

Referring to these people as “Gods” (“gods”) is not a statement about their nature. They are never gods in the sense of idol gods — the gods of the nations. Neither are they God in the sense of the sovereign God. They are just human beings. They live and die as other people do (Ps. 82:7). Here, the word “God” is being used as an honorary title. They are called “Gods” because of the special rank, authority and privilege given to them. The Hebrew word for “Gods” in Psalm 82:6 is elohim.[2]

Such is the case with Moses. God chooses Moses to deliver his people out of Egypt. He empowers him for that task and sends him on the daunting mission of demanding that Pharaoh release the people. God says to Moses:

See, I have made you “God” to Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet (Ex. 7:1).

Similarly, human magistrates are referred to as “Gods” in Exodus the 21st and 22nd chapters. There, the people are instructed to bring issues before the authorities. Often translated as “judges,” the title given to those authorities in the Hebrew language is literally elohim — “Gods” (Ex. 21:6; 22:8, 9).[3]  Citing Exodus 21:6, Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon tells us that this use of “God” is for:

Rulers, judges, either as divine representatives at sacred places, or as reflecting divine majesty and power.[4]

These “Gods” (“gods”) are never the one true God, YHWH. Neither are they demigods or the gods of the nations. We can apply three tests which tell us those things with certainty:

  1. These are sons of God (Ps. 82:6) — The gods of the nations, on the other hand, are his enemies. Likewise we know that they are not God himself for the same reason. Those who are sons of God are not God.
  2. They are made “Gods” (Ex. 7:1) — They derive their station, authority and power from him. He derives his authority and power from no one. These are “Gods” because he declares them so (Ps. 82:6). Moses was “God” to Pharaoh because YHWH made him that.
  3. These “Gods” have a God (Ps. 82:1) — The sovereign God of the universe has no God. These “Gods” do his will. They are subject to him. He is subject to no one.

It is not wrong to call human beings whom God has exalted “lords.” Neither is it wrong to call them “Gods.” If it were, he would not have done so himself. It would be wrong to honor these “Gods” as though they were God himself or as divine persons alongside the Father — there are no such persons. However, when the people rightly honor these “Gods”, it brings glory to God himself. It is he who gives them their extraordinary position.

While this third use of the word “God” is not frequently found in the Bible, it is wonderful! Today, such language may at first strike us as odd. However, it was more common to the people of the Bible. Consider — through the centuries when people sang the 82nd Psalm, the words coming off their lips literally referred to human rulers as “Gods.”

These “Gods” are people: not God-men or angel-men.
They are true human beings in places of special honor.

Messiah Is Called “God”

Your throne, O “God,” will endure forever. The scepter of your kingdom will be a scepter of justice. You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore has God, your God, anointed you with the oil of joy beyond your fellows (Ps. 45:6, 7).

After he is born, the Messiah is also given the honor of being called “God.” The 45th Psalm cited above is widely agreed to be prophetic — looking from the day of the prophet forward to the day of the Messiah.[5] If such leaders as Moses and rulers in Israel were called “Gods,” (elohim) then it would be surprising if the Messiah would not be honored in that way.

When the Messiah’s day comes, his people call him “Lord” and “Christ.” It is estimated that Jesus is called “lord” (kurios) around 400 times in the New Testament. He is even more often referred to as “anointed” (christos). That word is used for him around 550 times. Those are key Messianic terms for one whom God makes king. That this is the meaning intended by the people of the New Testament regarding Jesus is made clear in Peter’s statement to the multitude on the Day of Pentecost that “God has made him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

On the other hand, the use of “God” (theos) is very rare in the New Testament when used for the Messiah. It is used regarding him only 2 times for certain.[6] That those uses are in the honorific sense of the word “God” is witnessed by the rarity with which they occur[7] and by the fact that the word God (as ho theos, literally, “the God,” translated as God) constantly references the Father. It is used for the Father over 1,300 times in the New Testament.

The rare occasions when “God” is used for the Messiah do not indicate or imply that he is the God of the universe. Rather, the God of the universe is his God (John 20:17). In the 45th Psalm itself, we find it is said of the king, “God has blessed him forever” (v. 2). It is the God of Messiah who anoints him with the oil of joy beyond his fellows (v. 7).

The Expositors Bible indicates regarding the use of “God” (elohim) for the Messiah in Psalm 45:

The designation, therefore, of the king as Elohim is not contrary to the Hebrew line of thought. It does not predicate divinity, but Divine preparation for and appointment to office. …August, then, as the title [elohim] is, it proves nothing as to the divinity of the person addressed.[8]

Gill, J. Dan (2016). “Gods” He Has Made. In, The One: In Defense of God (pp. 181-185). Nashville, TN: 21st Century Reformation Publishing.

____________________

[1] In the present book, normal conventions are used by capitalizing the word God when referring to the God of the Bible. The lower case is normally employed when referring to other gods. Translators of the Bible have been somewhat uncertain about how to indicate the less frequent but important third use of the word — as an honorary title referring to those exalted by God (judges, rulers, the Messiah, etc.). In Psalm 82:6, diversity of translation includes use of the lower case (gods) in the NRSV, AV (KJV), etc., uppercase (Gods) in Youngs Literal Translation, Rotherham, and lower case with quote marks (“gods”): NIV, New Century, etc. The present book employs either “Gods” or “gods” when referring to such exalted  persons.

[2] The Hebrew word used in Psalm 82 and Exodus 7:1 with regard to people being called “God(s)” is elohim. Elohim refers frequently to the one true God of heaven and earth and on rare occasions (as here) to people of great honor and position. It is also used for the false gods of the nations. The ISBE states: “[elohim] is therefore a general term expressing majesty and authority.” The encyclopedia also sees Judges 5:8; 1 Samuel 2:25 and Psalm 58:11 as examples of the use of elohim to refer to honorable persons. God, 3. The Names of God, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 2:1254. Also note Psalm 58:1 which is a similar case. In that example, el is used rather than elohim.

[3] Translations are divided between rendering elohim in these passages as “Gods,” “gods,” “judges” and “God.” It should be noted that while many translations render elohim as “judges” in Exodus 21:6 and 22:8, 9 (NIV, AV, etc.), elohim is not normally defined as meaning judges and typical Hebrew words for “judge(s)” are not in the text of those verses. Those words are paliyl (e.g. Job 31:11) and shaphat (e.g. Num. 25:5).

[4] The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 43.

[5] The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 45:6, 7 in Hebrews 1:8, 9 and sees the Psalm as being Messianic.

[6] Raymond Brown, the noted Roman Catholic scholar, concludes with regard to Messiah being called God that there are “three reasonably clear instances” in the New Testament. There are five others that he thinks have “probability.” Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), 189.

Trinitarian scholar Alister E. McGrath notes Brown’s “three clear instances” and argues (against himself I think) that there were so few instances because of the New Testament writers’ “background in the strict monotheism of Israel” and the idea that “anyone could be described as ‘God’ would have been blasphemous within this context.” It seems to me that we could hardly make our point on that matter better than Dr. McGrath here makes it for us. Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology — An Introduction, 4th Edition (Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 280, 281.

[7] It should be noted that some supposed instances of Jesus being called God do not hold up at all. In Romans 9:5, the last part of Paul’s statement should not be seen as indicating that Jesus is God in any sense. That would be very awkward for Paul and completely disregards his context. Rather, his last phrase should be understood as another of his short doxologies addressed to God himself (Rom. 1:25; 11:36 and 2 Cor. 11:31). There is no difficulty with Paul’s statement so long as context is observed. In Romans (and otherwise in Paul’s writings) context finds Christ and God as two individuals — not one (e.g. Rom. 1:7, 8; 5:1). The NIV, Holman (HCSB) and some others recognize that there are at least three different translations which are possible in this verse — two of which do not make Christ God (see HCSB translation footnotes). For more on Romans 9:5, see Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity — Christianity’s Self Inflicted Wound (New York: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 281–283.

Context is also the key with regard to the so-called “Granville Sharp Rule.” Sharp’s grammatical theorem works only if one begins with the presupposition that the words “God” and “Christ” describe one being in certain verses. However, context disallows that possibility in every case in which the rule is supposed to apply (e.g. Eph. 5:5 cf. Eph. 1:3; Titus 2:13 cf. Titus 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:1 cf. 2 Pet. 1:2). Likewise, many exceptions must be invoked for Sharp’s rule to work. To that it must be said that a rule with significant exceptions is not really a rule. David Maas rightly observes that Mr. Sharp’s “discovery” of this supposed rule was “self-serving and self-validating.” For overviews of the fallacies of Granville Sharp’s rule, see David Maas’ full comments in “Does Peter Call Jesus God in 2 Peter 1:1?”  Also see Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity — Christianity’s Self Inflicted Wound (New York: International Scholars Publications, 1998), 279–281. At the end of the day, nothing definitive regarding Christ being God should be attached to such doubtful grammatical issues as are found in Romans 9:5 and Scriptures supposedly covered by the Granville Sharp Rule.

[8] A. Maclaren, Expositor’s Bible: The Psalms, Vol. 2, W. R. Nicoll, ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891–1894).

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