Immediately following the Ravens’ victory over the 49ers in the Superbowl the award ceremony began. As millions watched we heard from the owner of the team, the coach, the quarterback…and then we heard from Ray Lewis.
The Gospel According to Ray
If you’re not a huge football fan, Ray Lewis is the legendary (some would say infamous) linebacker and heart of the Ravens team. This year marks his 17th year as a pro football player and also his last one. He announced his retirement earlier in the season.
Ray Lewis has been vocal about his Christian faith, so when it was time for him to speak few were surprised that he quoted the Bible. In response to the host’s question about what it felt like to go out as a champion Lewis said, “It’s simple: when God is for you, who can be against you?” (View the entire clip here.)
There are lots of ways Ray Lewis may have meant for people to take that quote, but to most people it probably sounded like Lewis was assigning his team’s championship victory to God’s favor. But did the Ravens really win because God was “for” them?
Now I don’t want to lay unnecessary burdens on Mr. Lewis. He is, after all, a professional football player and not a professional theologian. But if we are going to quote well-known Scripture verses we ought to study their meaning in context first.
Context is King
Let’s look at the text. The full verse of Romans 8:31 says this:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
(Romans 8:31 ESV)
By itself the verse doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Lewis’ usage. But this is the perfect opportunity to practice one of the most basic truths about biblical interpretation: context is king. It’s easy to misuse and misapply Scripture when a single verse or phrase is divorced from its surroundings. The paragraphs, thoughts, and logical pattern leading up to and flowing out from a statment prove critical to understanding the true intent of a passage.
Looking at the entire chapter of Romans 8, we see that the author (God as the divine author and Paul as the inspired human author) is writing about spiritual freedom through faith in Christ.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rm. 8:1-2).
And again it says,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
(Romans 8:35-37 ESV)
While it would take a lifetime of intense study and reflection to unpack the meaning of Romans chapter 8, it is clear that the writer isn’t talking about football. Romans 8:31, taken in context, does not mean that God is “for” the Ravens or “against” the 49ers because Baltimore won. For that matter, God is not “for” the Union and “against” the Confederates because the North won the Civil War. Nor is God “for” Democrats and “against “Republicans” because President Obama won a second term.
God is not for one side or the other, but always for Himself. (See Joshua 5: 13-14 for a perfect example of this idea.) While that may sound selfish, and it is when it refers to human beings, God is the highest good. He is the most loving Lord, so for God to be for Himself also means that He is for our good.This is the principle that athletes, actors, and all the rest of us need to keep in mind when quoting Romans 8:31.
How Should We Use Romans 8:31?
Couched within the entire chapter we can begin to answer some basic questions. Focusing on the second part of the verse, who is the “us” in “for us”? The author is speaking of Christians. God is “for” all those who believe in Him. More specifically, God is for everyone who believes that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who became a human being, lived the life of perfect obedience to God we all should have lived but failed to, and through His death on the cross He took the punishment we all deserved, so that by faith in His life, death, and resurrection we could be declared holy before God the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 8:31 is a power verse. Looking at the last phrase, “who can be against us?”, show this verse is a rallying cry to persevere in the midst of the exhausting internal battle against sin and the relentless external battle against the brokenness of the world. In all these things we know that God is “for” us who believe in Him because He has stored up a glory for us that far surpasses our current struggles. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (v. 18). The “glory that will be revealed to us” is the new Heavens and the new earth when Christ returns.
God Is “For” Himself and Those Who Believe in Him
So, I have no doubt that Ray Lewis’ Christian faith empowered and encouraged him as a professional athlete. And it is entirely possible he may have felt especially dependent upon God in the weeks leading up to his final game and a possible victory in the national championship. But God was not “for” the Ravens.
God is for Ray Lewis as a believer in Jesus Christ. He is also for Colin Kaepernick,the 49ers QB and professed Christian who sports Christian Bible verses and images as tattoos. He is for any Christian in the stands or watching on T.V. God ultimately works for the good of all those who believe in Him (Rm. 8:28) and He owes allegiance only to Himself as the highest good of all.
My congratulations to Ray Lewis and the entire Ravens team for their victory in Superbowl XLVII. But the next time an athlete or any of us chooses to quote Romans 8:31, let’s remember this verse isn’t referring to victory in a game, but the cosmic victory that Christ won on the cross and shares with all those who believe in Him.