Romans – Part Six (Chapter 9, Verses 1-18)

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PART SIX


God’s Righteousness in Dealing with “Israel”

(chapter 9, verse 1 through chapter 11, verse 36)

Paul closed chapter 8 with the firm assurance that nothing can separate the believer in Christ from God’s love. Christians may rest secure knowing that they are the objects of God’s loving care, chosen by him from eternity for eternal life.

As comforting as that truth was for Paul’s Roman readers, it was also bound to raise a serious question. Paul’s mixed readership of Jews and Gentiles was certainly aware that, in general, the Christian church was growing through the addition of gentile converts. The Jewish nation tended to stay aloof from Christianity or to be openly hostile toward it. One needs only to look into the book of Acts to see the vigor and persistence of Jewish opposition. Peter and the Twelve experienced it in Jerusalem (Acts chapter 5, verses 17 and 18), as did Paul and his coworkers in their worldwide mission outreach (Acts chapter 9, verses 23-25 and chapter 13, verses 6-8 and chapter 17, verses 5-14).

But if the Jews in their rejection of Christ were largely outside of the Christian church and its blessings, what about their status as God’s chosen people? What about his Old Testament promises to them? Paul addresses that issue in his next major section, chapters 9 to 11.

God’s free choice

When Paul proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Promised Messiah, he was preaching a message that was not at all congenial to the Jewish way of thinking. Viewing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, with its carefully prescribed rituals and ceremonies, seemed to pose a threat to traditional Jewish ways and customs. In fact, when Paul returned to Jerusalem after completing his third missionary journey, James and the Christian brothers in Jerusalem warned Paul of the danger to his life from his Jewish enemies. Paul was perceived by the orthodox Jewish community as being hostile to Jewish customs and virtually anti-Semitic (Acts chapter 21, verses 17-21). Actually, nothing could have been farther from the truth, as the apostle himself strongly asserts.

Romans chapter 9, verses 1-5
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Commentary

Far from being anti-Semitic in his dealing with the members of the Jewish race, Paul suffers “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart because of their rejection of the Promised Messiah. Paul emphasizes that thought with a triple assertion: I am speaking the truth; I’m not lying; the Holy Spirit has instructed my conscience.

But the real proof of his love for the Jewish nation comes in his next statement. Recall that after the incident involving Israel’s worship of the golden calf, God threatened to destroy the rebellious Jewish nation and make a great people from Moses (Exodus chapter 32, verses 9 and 10). Reminiscent of Moses’ offer (Exodus chapter 32, verses 31 and 32), Paul now says, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.” If it were possible, Paul would prefer that he himself would be eternally lost and condemned if only the “brothers” of his own race, the people of Israel, might be saved. So earnestly Paul longed for their salvation.

Nor is their salvation an unrealistic hope. Look at all the advantages God gave them. For example, “Theirs is the adoption as sons.” Of all the nations on earth, it was only regarding the Jewish people that God declared, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea chapter 11, verse 1).

“Theirs [is] the divine glory.” Paul seems here to be referring to the glory of the Lord, that unique phenomenon whereby God made his presence known among the Israelites. This glory of the Lord is referred to in numerous places in the Old Testament. A representative example occurs in Leviticus chapter 9. There, after prescribing which animals were to be brought for sacrifice, Moses tells the people, “Today the LORD will appear to you” (verse 4). Then the account continues: “They took the things Moses commanded to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the entire assembly came near and stood before the LORD. Then Moses said, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the LORD may appear to you.’ Moses and Aaron then went into the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (verses 5, 6 , 23 and 24). Among no other nation did the “glory of the LORD” appear in this way.

“[Theirs are] the covenants.” God struck numerous covenants with his chosen people—with Abraham (Genesis chapter 15, verse 17 and 18), with Moses (Exodus chapter 19, verse 5 and 6), with David (2nd Samuel chapter 7, verses 8-16), through Jeremiah (chapter 31, verses 31-40), through the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34, verses 25-31). By their very nature these covenants made a special people of Israel.

“[Theirs is] the receiving of the law.” Israel had the advantage of knowing precisely what God expected of them, both through the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai (Exodus chapter 20, verses 1-17) and through the five books of Moses (Deuteronomy chapter 31, verse 24-28).

“[Theirs are] the temple worship and the promises.” Other nations followed the natural knowledge of God within their hearts to devise ways of worshiping their gods. Israel not only had divinely given, God-pleasing forms of worship, but their worship had true content! It offered the comfort that only the promise of a Savior from sin could give.

“Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” Other nations had their philosophers and sages, but only Israel had heroes of faith like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and Solomon, who not only believed and proclaimed God’s promises but were themselves bearers of the Promised Seed. Jesus was born a Jew according to his human nature, a direct descendant of the patriarchs. But he was also more, much more! He was the promised Christ “who is God over all, forever praised!”

Paul is not biased against his own kinship, the members of the Jewish race. Far from it! Rather, he accords them a premier place in the world. They are, in reality, the nation that is at the center of all world history by virtue of their being the bearer of the promised Messiah. But with all this national prestige and with all these God-given advantages, why are so few of them in step with what is happening through the worldwide spread of the Christian church? Paul first heads off a wrong notion and then gives his answer.

Romans chapter 9, verses 6-9
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Commentary

If many of the Jews are not in the Christian fold, Paul states that it is not because God wasn’t in earnest when he extended his Word and promise to them. Israel as a nation retains the many advantages he previously listed. The promises are still good. The problem is not with God and his Word. The problem is that, by and large, the individual members of the Jewish race have rejected and spurned those promises in unbelief. This is what the apostle means with his paradoxical statement that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.

“Israel” is the name God gave the patriarch Jacob after he wrestled with God and by faith prevailed (Genesis chapter 32, verse 28). Hence all of Jacob’s physical descendants came to be called Israelites. But as Paul hints already here, and as he will be illustrating more fully later on, not all of Jacob’s descendants are true Israelites. True Israelites are those who in faith cling to the Savior promised to Jacob by God. The “true Israel,” therefore, is a spiritual Israel, the believers looking in faith to the promised Messiah found in Christ. Sadly, the majority of Paul’s compatriots did not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah. Therefore, Paul has to say, Not all physical Israelites are the true (spiritual) Israel—the way we might say, Not all Christians are true Christians. Simply holding membership in a Christian congregation is no guarantee of faith or spiritual life residing in the heart.

Not all of Jacob’s (Israel’s) descendants are true Israelites. Moving back two generations, from Jacob to Abraham, Paul repeats that same thought when he says, “Nor because they [members of the Jewish race] are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.”

When Abraham was 75 years old, God promised to make him into a great nation. Ten years later he still had no children. In an ill-advised attempt to help God fulfill his promise, Sarah suggested that Abraham take her Egyptian servant woman as a substitute wife. The result of this relationship was the birth of Abraham and Hagar’s son, Ishmael.

The conniving of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar had indeed produced a child, but this child was not God’s way of fulfilling his promise. Paul makes the observation, “It is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” Ishmael was a natural child of Abraham, but he was not God’s choice. We might say God had not “elected” to fulfill his promise through this child. Rather, God’s choice rested on a descendant of Abraham and Sarah. Quoting Genesis chapter 18, verses 10 and 14, Paul says, “For this was how the promise was stated: ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.’” By God’s choice, or election, this statement would be true: “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”

Keep in mind that Paul has brought up the case of Isaac and Ishmael to illustrate the matter of God’s election. Paul senses that some among his readers might take a logical shortcut and come to a wrong conclusion. The mistaken conclusion he wants to head off is the thought that there is some reason discernible to the human mind as to why God does what he does—in other words, that God’s election is in response to what people do or don’t do. Paul debunks that notion with a second example, also from the life of the patriarchs.

Romans chapter 9, verses 10-13
Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Commentary

In looking at the case of Isaac and Ishmael, it would be very easy for someone to reason as follows: Of course God wouldn’t choose Ishmael. He didn’t have the right mother. He was born of an Egyptian slave girl. Isaac had the advantage of being born of Sarah, the patriarch’s real wife.

To take away the possibility of seeing merit in the life and actions of an individual as the basis for God’s election, Paul now turns to the case of Jacob and Esau. God’s dealing with them will make it very plain that his election comes about “not by works but by him who calls”—that is, not by people’s doing or merit but by God’s sovereign choice.

Isaac, chosen over Ishmael by God to be the bearer of the messianic line, married Rebekah, and God blessed them with twins, Jacob and Esau. Actually, Esau was born first (Genesis chapter 25, verse 25) and would normally have been expected to receive priority. “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’”

Receiving the birthright of the firstborn involved advantages in family leadership and inheritance of property, but in the case of the patriarchal family, there was another factor involved. The choice of Jacob over Esau included the great distinction that Jacob, not Esau, would be the bearer of the promise and an ancestor of the Savior. Why did these distinctions go to Jacob? Not because of any inherent worth or value in Jacob but because God wanted it that way. It was his sovereign choice.

Paul quotes the prophet Malachi (chapter 1, verse 2 and 3) to show just how sharp a distinction God made between the two. He says the matter is “just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Bible interpreters have struggled with this quotation. Rather often the explanation is given that hate is to be understood here as “to love less.” The problem with this interpretation is that when one arbitrarily softens the meaning of hate to something less, the degree of its opposite partner, love, is also called into question. Can love mean less than total devotion? If so, how does that affect “God so loved the world . . .”?

A better explanation is to let both terms have their full meaning and see in them the twofold quality exhibited by a loving and merciful God who is also just and holy. As a just and holy God, he is rightly angry with sin and hates the sinner. And who are the sinners whom God hates? Recall how convincingly Paul made the point earlier that all people are sinners lacking the righteousness that avails before God. By nature all of them are under his wrath. But God is also a loving and merciful God—so unalterably opposed to the sin he hates that in love he gave his very Son to die as the only acceptable payment for the sins of all the world.

Both these statements are therefore true: God hates the sinner; God loves the sinner. In the final analysis of this Malachi quotation, we have the tension that exists between law and gospel. The law thunders God’s hatred of sin and the sinner, voiced when the psalmist says of God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5, verse 5). But the same God who cannot tolerate sin also solemnly asserts, “As surely as I live, . . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel chapter 33, verse 11). This is also the God of whom Paul has said, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans chapter 5, verse 8).

The Lord hates sin and sinners, and the Lord dearly loves sinners and wants them saved. The resolution to this seeming paradox is found in the cross of Calvary, where Christ’s perfect sacrifice once and for all made it possible for a just and holy God to accept sinners—believing sinners with forgiven sins.

However, if we are totally candid, it is likely that such an answer still may not entirely satisfy us, nor answer to our satisfaction the rationalizing question, Why Jacob rather than Esau? We too may want to ask the question Paul expects from his readers.

Romans chapter 9, verses 14-16
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.

Commentary

In any discussion on the doctrine of election, it is almost inevitable that the question will be asked, Is God being fair? More specifically, Is it fair for God to condemn people in some far off continent who haven’t heard the gospel or who haven’t had the same advantages he has given us?

In addressing such questions, a couple of things need to be kept in mind. Note first of all that the Bible speaks only of an election to salvation. It never speaks of a double election, where some are designated from eternity for condemnation, thus creating a situation where they never had a chance to be saved. Verses 18 and 22 of this chapter have been misunderstood that way by some, and these verses will be discussed later in context.

Second, note that the real conundrum here—the area where one could more legitimately question God’s rightness and fairness—is, Why should God be merciful to anyone? After all, punishing the evildoer is simple justice. And keep in mind, in the first three chapters, Paul established beyond the shadow of a doubt that by nature all are under God’s wrath and thus deserve his punishment.

Gentiles have the natural knowledge of God written in their hearts, but they rebelliously suppress that knowledge. Hence “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Romans chapter 1, verse 18 and 19). The self-righteous moralists who think they are in God’s good graces because their outward conduct is a little better than that of others have to hear God’s verdict, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (chapter 2, verse 1). And the Jews who pride themselves on having the law are solemnly warned, “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (chapter 2, verses 23 and 24).

All have sinned and should justly be punished for their disobedience. That makes sense. That we can understand. What we can’t comprehend is why God should still be merciful to such sinners. And yet that’s the quality he reveals about himself when he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” From God’s declaration about himself, Paul draws the inescapable conclusion, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

This statement forces us to wrestle with some very weighty concepts, such as mercy and grace. “I’m saved by grace.” We say it easily; it rolls off our lips. But stop and think of what that really means: “I did absolutely nothing to qualify for being saved. I was as bad as the next person. God did it all. It is a pure gift.” Paul is right in telling the Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (chapter 2, verses 8 and 9).

And what is the “gift” that God’s grace has given us? Paul gave the answer to that question in the opening sentence of his letter to the Ephesians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (chapter 1, verses 3-5).

From eternity, “before the creation of the world,” God chose us to be his children. And why did he do it? Because it was “in accordance with his pleasure and will.” In other words, he did it because he wanted to.

Nor is this simply Paul’s analysis of the situation. James says the same thing in a passage that the King James Version nicely translated as, “Of his own will begat he us” (James chapter 1, verse 18). We might paraphrase it, “Because he wanted to, he made us his children.” What child ever decided to be conceived and born? It just doesn’t work that way—neither in the biological world nor in the spiritual world. Our spiritual life, our becoming children of God, “does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

God’s sovereign will, reflected by his underlying mercy, is going to be accomplished. Everything that happens in this world is guided and controlled by him in the interest of his elect. Even the evil things that wicked people perversely do are used by a merciful God to accomplish his gracious purpose. A case in point is God’s dealing with Pharaoh at the time of the exodus.

Romans chapter 9, verses 17 and 18
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Commentary

Reread verse 17, carefully noting what it says and what it does not say. The point of emphasis is God’s mercy in action. God acts to display his power so that his name “might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God’s deliverance of Israel was a gracious display of his power, intended to win many to trust in him as their Lord or to strengthen weak faith by letting believers see his loving care of them. And it certainly accomplished that gracious purpose. God’s victory over Pharaoh not only was commemorated in the songs of deliverance sung by Moses (Exodus chapter 15, verses 1-18) and by his sister Miriam (verse 21), but its display of God’s powerful protection became a recurring theme throughout the whole Old Testament that strengthened many a fainting spirit.

Note also what verse 17 does not say. We do not hear God saying that he raised Pharaoh for the purpose of condemning Pharaoh. But what about verse 18: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden”? Doesn’t that have a negative twist to it? Indeed it does, but one that becomes more understandable if we take into account the force of the Greek verb used here. The translation “God has mercy on whom he wants to . . . , and he hardens whom he wants to . . .” here sounds arbitrary, almost capricious. It would help to retain the Greek verb’s emphasis on God’s will. One could reflect that with a translation such as “Therefore God has mercy on whom it is his will to have mercy, and he hardens whom it is his will to harden.”

In discussing God’s will, we need to distinguish between what has been termed God’s antecedent will and his consequent will. Using technical terms like these doesn’t help to explain why God does what he does, but it does help us to focus on what he does.

Scripture is filled with statements that clearly tell us it is God’s will that all people be saved. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God says, “As surely as I live, . . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekiel chapter 33, verse 11). A New Testament counterpart would be Paul’s clear testimony to Timothy, “God our Savior . . . wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1st Timothy chapter 2, verse 3 and 4). Clearly it is God’s basic, or antecedent, will that all come to faith in his Son and thus be saved eternally.

Sinful and perverse people, however, retain the awesome power to resist God’s grace. In stubborn unbelief they can reject the righteousness Christ has won for them. A just and holy God cannot let such wickedness and rebellion go unaddressed. Hence alongside the sweet gospel promise “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” stands the stern law declaration “but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark chapter 16, verse 16). The condemnation of the wicked is also God’s will, but in this case it’s his consequent will, following upon the sinners’ rebellion and rejection.

It is the consequent will of God we see directed against Pharaoh. To be sure, the miracles and wonders God enabled Moses and Aaron to do were signs for the children of Israel indicating that Moses was indeed God’s designated leader. But in the final analysis, the miracles and plagues were really a message for Pharaoh and his advisors (Exodus chapter 7, verses 1 and 2). God was revealing himself to Pharaoh and inviting Pharaoh to accept him. Pharaoh had to respond. And respond he did—by repeatedly rejecting God and hardening his heart against God. Here too the Hebrew text is very helpful in the verb forms it employs. First it uses forms indicating that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus chapter 8, verses 15 and 32). When, however, it came to the stage where his time of grace had run out, we are then told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus chapter 9, verse 12 and chapter 10, verses 1, 20 and 27).

It was not God’s antecedent will that Pharaoh should be lost, but it was God’s consequent will that Pharaoh’s stubborn unbelief be punished. And it is worthy of note that in this matter, through it all, God’s good and gracious will was served, in that God’s power was displayed and his name proclaimed in all the earth for the encouragement and strengthening of many faithful believers throughout the ages. Furthermore, the case of Pharaoh serves to illustrate the assurance Paul had earlier given the Romans: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (chapter 8, verse 28).

If God’s good and gracious purpose is served even when he punishes evildoers like Pharaoh, in reality aren’t all people playing into God’s hand? Instead of evildoers being blamed for resisting God’s will, shouldn’t they really be credited with advancing his cause? Paul anticipates this kind of question.