We had just come off a steamy trek in the mission field and as we rested in the temporary structure that housed the church which had hosted us, one of us muttered those words. The kind that raise eyebrows, to say the least.
Everyone jumped in to silence the young man. What had just happened was what a Nigerian would call an ‘abomination.’
“How dare you?” one of us asked.
For a moment I thought the young man was just being funny. It turned out that he was serious. He had read it from scripture.
Not exactly in the very words he said it, but something close. “I can do greater things than Jesus. That is what the bible says.”
That statement still rings in my ears as if it was just yesterday.
Indeed, Jesus assures the disciples that they would do greater things than him. “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)
It seems to me that had that young man paid a little more attention to the context of this passage, he would not have sounded like an idiot. Jesus here talks about a specific work—not all the works he did during his earthly sojourn.
Jesus is speaking about the work of Gospel expansion. It is evident in the scriptures that the Apostles’ ministry was greater both in number and territory. While Jesus’ ministry was confined to Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, the work of the disciples by the urgency of the Holy Spirit after Pentecost ensured that the Gospel reached every corner of the earth.
In that sense, their works are greater than Jesus’.
The young man’s problem was exacerbated by Psalm 82 which seemed to suggest that we are gods. If we are gods, then we can do greater things than Jesus.
Makes sense? Not too fast.
You are Gods
Psalm 82 addresses its subjects as gods. “I have said, You are gods…” (Ps 82:6). One young lady who was convinced that she is a god quoted John 3:6 to defend her position: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
She explained that just as flesh produces flesh, so does God produce god(s). When you use unrelated bible passages to misconstrue the Bible, you never go far.
So, what is going on in this Psalm?
For starters, this wisdom Psalm is attributed to Asaph. Matthew Henry notes that “it was probably penned primarily for the use of the magistrates of Israel, the great Sanhedrim, and their other elders who were in places of power, and perhaps by David’s direction.”
The Hebrew word translated “gods” is elohim or ‘strong ones.’ In the Old Testament, Elohim usually describes God but is also used to refer to human rulers (see Exodus 21:6; 22:8-9), in this case, the magistrates. These were to serve justice on behalf of God who was the Ultimate Judge.
The writer of this psalm condemns these judges for perverting justice. Israel’s judges had sided with the wicked (vs. 2) instead of being just to the weak and fatherless (vs. 3), and rescuing the weak and needy from the hand of the wicked (vs. 4). He then called on God—the Ultimate Judge—to judge, not only these elohims (gods) but also the entire nations of the earth (vs. 8).
Stoning Jesus to the Glory of God
What makes Psalm 82:6 so controversial is that Jesus uses it on the Jews who were ready, stone-in-hand, to kill him. But it also has to be noted that we rarely ‘get’ the Jesus of the Gospels.
During the Feast of Dedication on a snowy day, Jesus walks to the Temple and there, the Israelites follow him begging that he assures them if he is the Christ. Jesus assured them that it was he and God was his Father. The Jews then picked up stones to kill him for calling himself a Son of God. The dialogue that follows is an interesting one:
The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands. (John 10:33-39)
Jesus’s point was that in the book of the law, God called Israel’s magistrates ‘sons’ (Psalm 82:6) and therefore it was not blasphemous for him to refer to himself as a Son of God.
Are we gods?
We can learn a lot from the wisdom coming off this Psalm, but its important to have this at the back of our minds that the Psalm is primarily written for “the use of the magistrates of Israel…”
Another important thing to note is that passages always have a context. When you strip a passage off of its context, then you are going to decide what that passage says instead of having it speak for itself.
It, therefore, appears that this Psalm is not alerting us to our hidden divine potential. Far from it, it is a Psalm of judgment for all those who have been placed in places of authority by God and have continued to misuse the authority handed down to them from above. It is a call for the Ultimate judge to judge perfectly.