Chapters 9-11 return to the theme of defending God’s steadfast faithfulness, described as “the righteousness of God” in the early chapters of Romans. The righteousness of God, that is, God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe (Romans 3:23). Turn back to Romans 3:1-8 and recall that there was a discussion there about God’s faithfulness. The question Paul rhetorically asks is, “What advantage did Israel have?” “What was the point of being a Jew?” “What was the value of circumcision?” Paul gives only one answer in Romans 3. One advantage was that Israel was entrusted with the oracles of God. Israel was given the will and word of God and they were to teach God’s will and word to the world. We mentioned in Romans 3 that Paul stops describing the advantages and purposes of Israel at that point but returns to that thought in Romans 9.
Paul’s Anguish (9:1-5)
After such a powerful conclusion of Christian hope and assurance in chapter 8, the ninth chapter can easily catch us off guard. Rather than announcing his personal joy because we are children of God awaiting the glory to be revealed in us, Paul shifts to great sorrow and unceasing anguish. Notice the emphasis Paul wants to impart in these words. Three times he says something as a testimony of his feelings. Paul says, “I am speaking the truth in Christ,” “I am not lying,” and “my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” Three times Paul says that he is not lying about the great pain he has when he thinks about his countrymen, the Jews. It is interesting to notice that Paul never states what exactly his great sorrow is over, but it is fairly easy to deduce. Israel’s rejection of Christ greatly pains Paul. Paul would do anything to save his kinsmen. Paul wishes that he could be the one cut off so that his people would not be cut off from these great blessings in Christ. Paul appears to be tormented because so many Jews are not saved.
Application: Do we have this kind of love for lost souls? Do we experience the same anguish when we think about how many people who live in this city are going to eternal punishment? Do we have great sorrow when we think about all the people in this county who are separated from Christ? Even more, are we moved to do something like Paul is moved to do? Are we so moved for the lost in our area that we wish we could be cut off if it would bring about the salvation of thousands or millions? Paul is declaring a powerful love for Israel to be saved. I think it is worth mentioning at this point that if in chapter 11 Paul teaches that every Jew is going to be saved, then why is Paul in so much anguish now for their souls? Clearly we will need to carefully consider how all Israel would be saved and reconcile it to Paul’s unceasing anguish for Israel.
Verses 4-5 reveal that Israel had all the advantages and privileges for success. Israel had everything going for them and given to them. They had spectacular privileges and blessings. To Israel belonged adoption, the glory, the covenants, the Law of Moses, the worship and sacrifices, and the promises. They had everything. They had the patriarchs, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and more. Finally, they had the Messiah, the anointed one, who came through their lineage, who is God over all. Israel had it all. Israel had everything promised to them. Blessings and privileges were within their reach. So what happened? This is the question of verse 6. Did the word of God fail? Did God not bless Israel? Did God not fulfill his promises and covenants to Israel?
Not All Who Descended From Israel Are Israel (9:6-13)
Paul establishes the answer for what happened. It is not that the word of God failed. That is not the answer at God. God has kept his promises. God has kept his covenant. God has offered the blessings and has fulfilled his word. God’s righteousness (his covenant faithfulness) has been revealed. Rather, the answer is that not all who descended from Israel are truly Israel. This must have been shocking words. Put yourselves in the mind of the person who belonged to Israel. They thought they would be justified because they were descendants of Abraham. They had circumcision, Sabbath, separation from the Gentiles, clean and unclean foods, and the like to show that they were the people of God. They are Israel and the blessings and promises were to come to all of them. But Paul tells them to wait just a minute. Not all who are Israelites by blood are the true Israel, the people of God. Paul says that the Jews were in error for thinking that God’s promises applied to the whole of physical Israel. This is not the first time Paul has said something like this. But this is the first time that he has said it quite like this. Notice where Paul already mentioned this truth in passing.
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29; ESV)
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9–12; ESV)
Notice that Paul was saying the same thing earlier in Romans. Not all who are physically circumcised are the people of God, the true Israel. In fact, those who are not circumcised can be recipients of the promises and those who are circumcised can miss out on the promises. The prophets had spoken of a remnant of Israel. It had become obvious that the nation as a whole was not responding to God’s leading. It was a smaller group within the nation of Israel that was really God’s people. Therefore, it was foolish to think that since the whole nation had not entered the blessing that the promise of God had failed. Romans 9:6 is a very important text to understanding the fulfillment of the promises found in the first covenant. Most scholars and churches teach that the promises that we read about in the prophets have not been fulfilled. Therefore, Israel must be a political nation to inherit God’s promises. Paul’s words here defeat such a thought. God’s promises were not to physical Israel, but to true Israel. The rest of Romans 9 is to prove this point to be true.
Proof #1: Abraham’s children. The first proof used by Paul is the children of Abraham. Paul points out that Abraham had other children (like Ishmael and the many children with Keturah), but the promises would only come through Isaac. God’s promises were not to all of Abraham’s children. Being descendants of Abraham does not make them children of promise. I think the NLT does a good job here: This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children (9:8: NLT). You are not children of promise just because you are descendants of Abraham. Being Jews does not mean you are people of God.
It is useful to observe that the contrast is between being children of promise and children of the flesh. Paul makes the same distinction in Galatians 4 and is worth reading for yourselves to grasp the point Paul is making. Recall that when Paul speaks about something “in the flesh” it has been a reference to the works of the Law (circumcision, Sabbath, defilement laws, clean and unclean foods, etc). I believe the other point Paul is making is that keeping the works of the Law does not make one children of promise. You may be children of the flesh (by blood and by works of the Law), but neither make you the children of promise.
Proof #2: Isaac’s children. Paul goes further to use the example of Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau were both children of Isaac, but only one of the two would receive the promises of God. Even within Isaac there is a distinguishing that must occur. Even within Isaac there has been a winnowing process. The point is that this winnowing process has been in effect since the inception of Israel.
So how did God choose between Jacob and Esau? It was not by human works. God did not select Jacob to be the nation through the promise based upon Jacob’s works. Israel did not merit its selection. It was not by works of the Law or by any action that Israel was selected. God elected Israel of his own plans and purposes. This was God’s doing. This was God’s choice, even before the children were born. Humans could not thwart God’s purpose. God would use Jacob (Israel), not Esau, as his nation.
Now here is where some make a big mistake. Some take this passage to mean that God chooses which individuals will be the elect (saved) and which will not be the elect (condemned). This greatly misses the point that Paul is making. It is important to see the context and the text to defeat this false teaching. First, the context has not been about individuals but about the nation of Israel. Go back to Romans 9:6. Not all of Israel are truly Israel. Paul is explaining the destiny of the nation of Israel, not each individual. The context also reveals this as Paul is in great anguish over the nation (9:2-3), not for each individual. Second, the text also reveals that Paul is talking about the nation, not individuals. Look at the quotation in verse 12, “The older will serve the younger.” However, Esau never served Jacob. Instead, Esau was trying to kill Jacob for most of his life. Esau and Jacob are not being referred to as individuals, but as the nations that came from them. Esau’s descendants were the Edomites and Jacob’s descendants were the Israelites. Edom served Israel. Edom did not have power, but Israel did have power over Edom and the surrounding nations. Therefore the text and the context reveals that Paul is talking about Israel as a nation. When we understand this, then we do see God’s electing purposes. God selected Israel to be the nation before Jacob was born. God chose Israel. We could even use the Calvinistic term, unconditional election. God chose Israel to be his people without any works or acts on Jacob’s part. The choice was made before Jacob was even born. Thus, verse 13 concludes the thought: God chose Israel, but rejected Edom.
Is God Unjust (9:14-18)
Is there an injustice on God’s part to select one people to be his chosen nation and not another? Is God unfair to elect Jacob to be the one through whom the covenant blessings would come, and not Esau? Notice Paul’s answer to this question. Verse 15 quotes Exodus 33:19, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” This does not seem to answer the question, but press the problem deeper. How can God have mercy on whom he desires to have mercy? Isn’t this an injustice on God’s part?
We need to understand the context in which these words were original stated. Exodus 32 is the incident of the golden calf. Moses is angry and breaks the tablets of stone. God is angry that he says he will not go with the people to the promised land because if he did, he would consume them. Moses goes into the tent of meeting and intercedes on behalf of Israel. Moses says that if God does not go, then he will not go either. If God is not going to go, then there is no point for anyone going. At this moment Moses asks the Lord to reveal his glory. The Lord says that no human can see the full face and glory of the Lord and live. However, God says he will make his goodness pass before Moses. Then God says these words, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
God, rather than consuming the nation in his anger, would spare the sinful nation. God’s mercy came in spite of our human will and human exertion to rebel against him. The point is that God is free and does not have to show mercy at all! No one deserves mercy. No one works for God’s mercy! Is God unjust? Not at all because everyone deserve God’s wrath. We are crazy to ask for justice from God! We are losing our mind when we want to demand that God is being unjust. God is acting in mercy not to snuff out our lives. In this context of Paul’s point to the Christians in Rome, God is acting in mercy to choose his people (true Israel), not unjust. The stunning thing for Paul was not that God rejected Ishmael or Esau, but that God chose Isaac and Jacob, for they did not deserve to be included in God’s merciful and gracious purposes. Human effort leaves us in condemnation. We cannot clear ourselves of sin. God shows mercy because God chooses to do so, not because of us.
This is the point Paul is making with Pharaoh. Again, just as Jacob and Esau represent their corresponding nations, so Pharaoh represents Egypt. Egypt as a nation deserved judgment and wrath for its oppression and rebellion. But God spared the Pharaoh and the nation up to a particular point in history so that God’s glory could be revealed. God in his mercy spared Egypt to bring about his own purposes. The parallel to Israel is strong. God kept the nation of Israel intact and showed mercy toward it, not because of the human effort or will of the people, but because God chose Israel to be the vehicle to reveal his glory.
The point is powerful. The Jews thought that they were privileged and deserved justification because they were Israel. Is it unjust that not all Israel is the true Israel? Is it unjust that the conditions to belong in the family of God is more than simply the works of the Law or being Jew? Absolutely not. Who can complain at God’s conditions for mercy in who will be his people? No one can question God’s purposes because all of us deserve wrath, not mercy.
What a merciful God we have who decided in advance that he would have a people who would receive mercy rather than condemnation! The people who are recipients of this mercy are not those who are physical descendants of Abraham. The people who are recipients of this mercy are those who are spiritual descendants of Abraham. Paul has described who are spiritual descendants of Abraham: Circumcised in the heart (2:28-29), walk in the footsteps of faith of Abraham (4:12), joined with Christ in baptism (6:4), dead to sin and alive to God (6:11), slaves of righteousness (6:18), live according to the Spirit (8:5), Christ lives in us (8:10), and conformed to the image of his Son (8:29).