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Romans (Series 2)

Israel, Part One

Romans 9

Lesson audio

Paul now takes on a subject which would be rather difficult. Just what is the role of the Jews, the chosen people of God, in the kingdom of Christ?

Paul’s agony for his people

Romans 9:1-5 NIV

I speak the truth in Christ--I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit-- (2) I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (3) 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, (4) 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. (5) Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised![1] Amen.

From our last lesson

One of the problems the early church faced – at least in logic, if not practice – was this: just why are the Jews so hostile to Christ? How is it that God could let this happen?

Paul, who is of course Jewish, sees the problem as one of personal anguish: these are his people, and they have refused Christ their Lord. This opening statement is an emotional one:

  • As Paul just taught us (last chapter) he can’t be cut off from Christ – nothing can do that. This is a heart cry, not a theological proposition.
  • Nor is this something Paul is writing to impress the reader. He is the apostle to the Gentiles; there is no glory in the Jews for him.
  • But this is an imitation of Christ. As Christ was cursed for us, so Paul would be cursed for the people he loves.
Personal agony

Note, please, that the sorrow he has is great – the word means “heavy” as well – and unceasing. Anyone who has agonized over a wayward child, over a long time, understands the problem well. The theological problem is one thing, and an important one. The emotional problem for Paul is what brings it to the surface.

Advantages of the Jews

Perhaps the problem seems remote to you. But consider: when someone has “all the advantages” we expect more out of them. When that someone fails, we think it a tragedy. The same results from someone disadvantaged might be quite reasonable. From a religious point of view, that’s what we have here. Consider the advantages the Jews had over the Gentiles:

  • they are “Israelites” -- the descendants of Jacob.  If you will, they have the right family connections.
  • it is not just biology -- they are also adopted.  (Have you ever picked out a puppy at the dog pound?  What love is given such!)
  • the glory of God -- they actually saw Him “face to face” at times such as
  • the pillar of fire in the wilderness
  • the filling of the Tabernacle
  • the filling of the Temple
  • the covenants (possibly singular in some manuscripts) -- with whom else did God deal?
  • the law itself -- above all others they knew right from wrong, and were often devoted to it.
  • true worship -- they alone knew enough about God to offer pleasing worship.
  • the promises -- and there are dozens -- were made to them alone.
  • the patriarchs -- and the tradition of wisdom and worship they started
  • and, finally, in God’s own time, through them Jesus came.

They were given so much – and thus their failure is much sharper. What a tragedy this is.

Did God Fail?

Romans 9:6-18 NIV It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (7) 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."[2] (8) 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. (9) For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son."[3] (10) Not only that, but Rebekah's children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. (11) Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: (12) not by works but by him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger."[4] (13) Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."[5] (14) What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! (15) For he says to Moses,

"I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,

and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."[6] (16) It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. (17) 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."[7] (18) Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Contention: God’s Failure

Later, more cynical authors have viewed the relationship of Christ and the Jews as being evidence that God’s “mission to earth” has failed. They assert:

  • The Jews, the chosen people, should not have rejected Christ. It was not right (this is correct). Therefore, God’s plan somehow went astray.
  • The proof of this view is said to be in the Resurrection – that Christ’s execution was not planned, and the Resurrection was God’s way of rescuing a plan which did not go as desired.

On the contrary, the prophecies concerning the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are numerous and detailed. It would seem that God knew this was going to happen – which isn’t the same as poor planning.

But we must ask: how does this square with the omnipotence of God? Couldn’t he have made it happen “right?”

Concept: election

The answer, simply, is that he did make it right – the first time. The argument assumes that God is somehow bound to the best answer in our view. But we may ask: is God forced to pick some person or group of people for his favor?

The answer seems to be that he is not only not forced, but often selects people who seem to be the worst possible choices:

  • Moses couldn’t handle public speaking.
  • Gideon was the great warrior-chicken
  • Priests weren’t chosen for holiness – but ancestry.
  • Indeed, Israel was selected for being the least.

It might even be argued that God didn’t select the “right” person to be head of household. Instead he assigned the task of love to the man (who finds it difficult, unlike the woman) and obedience and submission to the woman (who finds it nearly impossible). God often selects people DESPITE their merits. For example, the apostle to the Gentiles should be a gentile, learned in Greek wisdom – that’s seeker friendly, right? Somebody who wouldn’t object to the occasional orgy, as long as you went home with your husband, right? You’d never send a Pharisee, of all people, would you?

Right, you wouldn’t. God would.

God is not fair

So, in the matter of who he sends, God isn’t reasonable. He isn’t fair; he doesn’t pick the right people. He’s the same way about whom he blesses. Why did he pick the Jews in the first place? Why did he allow the Gentiles in; what did they ever do for him? The answer is simply this: God does things his way – that’s “election” – and sometimes we don’t understand it. He said his way is perfect. He never said you’d see it that way.

When God selects, it’s usually so that you can see the character of God. So our definition of “fair” may not apply. But consider this also: arbitrary is fair. Have you ever flipped a coin? Why did God pick out that man to be born blind so that we might see the glory of God?

Indeed, mercy and charity are not fair either. No one deserves mercy; that’s the very definition of the word. God is righteous – but in his sovereign power elects not to be fair. The problem is not God; the problem is our limited perception.

Blaming God

Romans 9:19-29 NIV One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" (20) But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "[8] (21) Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (22) What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? (23) What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory-- (24) even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (25) As he says in Hosea:

"I will call them 'my people' who are not my people;

and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one,"[9] (26) and,

"It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them,

'You are not my people,'

they will be called 'sons of the living God.' "[10] (27) Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:

"Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea,

only the remnant will be saved. (28) For the Lord will carry out

his sentence on earth with speed and finality."[11] (29) It is just as Isaiah said previously:

"Unless the Lord Almighty

had left us descendants,

we would have become like Sodom,

we would have been like Gomorrah."[12]

It’s not my fault

Of course, the next argument must be seen coming.[1] If God’s election is sovereign, then the reason I’m a failure is that God didn’t elect me – in other words, it’s not my fault. It must therefore be God’s fault. Right?

We forget what’s happening here: God is electing some few to rescue from their own sinfulness. That doesn’t excuse the rest; we are still free moral agents. If Pharaoh was really a nice guy, he would have let the Israelites go without Moses having to argue with him.

Where were you…

This argument has buried in it an implicit assumption that is wrong. Specifically, it assumes that God and the sinner are equals. God was merciful to Joe; he wasn’t merciful to me – and I’m just as deserving as Joe. Therefore God failed me.

Where did we get this idea? Our current excuse is the “good buddy Jesus” movement in the church, but the thought is much older. Either man is supreme, or God is. If man is, then it appears that God makes all sorts of mistakes.

But if God is in charge, do we really want him to be just? Or do we really want him to be merciful? You can’t have it both ways.

Answer: in Christ

Romans 9:30-33 NIV What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; (31) but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. (32) Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." (33) As it is written:

"See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble

and a rock that makes them fall,

and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame."[13]

As it usually does, it comes down to Jesus Christ. If you think you are supreme, and that God should do what you want him to, you are stuck in your own righteousness. That righteousness depends upon your own works – and we have seen how successful that approach isn’t. If you rely on your works, the standard you must meet is the life of Christ – sinless man. If you rely on Christ, the answer is found in grace. Either way, the answer is in Christ. You choose.

[1] If you’re going to construct logical argument, it is required that you anticipate counterarguments and be prepared for them. (See Aquinas).

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