Romans Miniseries Part 1
In 1948 after World War II several nations took it upon themselves to reconstitute the nation of Israel in the middle of the Middle East. Today Israel is surrounded by enemies who seek nothing more than its demise. It has a few powerful friends.
This event and others like it are central to some Christian understandings about prophecy and the end times. But I want to talk about Israel in a different way, in the same way that Paul talked about it. I think he presents some powerful arguments and views about Israel.
Many theological stances either ignore Israel or put it central to their tenants. Some people see the nation of Israel as a key factor in the end times and others don’t even in knowledge it. But Paul raises a different matter about Israel in Romans 9-11.
When Paul talks about Israel he is really talking about God and what he has done with the nation of Israel. In his attempts to understand God’s sovereignty with Israel he is proclaiming God’s character.
God’s sovereignty is a very important theological discussion to have. And as we read through Romans 9-11 together, you will see that sometimes Paul talks about it from the human perspective and other times from God’s perspective. Let’s dive in!
Digging in to Romans 9-11
Few books of the Bible have more written about them then Romans. It is a deeply theological book with many weighty discussions. In the third section of the book, Paul begins a personal treatise on the nation of Israel including his personal thoughts and desires for them.
As a fellow Jew he desires for all of Israel to be saved. But in his time and in ours there were two different Israel’s. We’ll be getting into that throughout these three special posts. I want to go through these three chapters because there are several theological moves Christians make as they read and interpret these chapters.
This is how I interpret these chapters, doing my best to agree with the rest of Scripture on the subject of Israel as well. Israel can become a volatile subject impending on what theological camp you are a part of. It’s not my intention to offend anyone but to express my views on this three chapter passage.
Israel’s Inheritance (Romans 9:1-5)
We must not make light of Paul’s approach and honesty in the beginning of his discussion on Israel. He tells us that even the Holy Spirit can testify about his zeal for his people (Romans 9:1). His feelings about Israel start with sorrow and anguish because of their position in God (Romans 9:2).
He goes so far as to say that he is willing to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his own people, the Israelites, to know Christ (Romans 9:3). But notice the slight separation Paul makes that he saw that Paul goes on we’ll make clear soon. The nation of Israel are his kinsman in the flesh, making a distinction he will make obvious later (Romans 9:4).
Paul goes on to express the inheritance the nation of Israel received from God. He points out that Israel received:
- Giving of the Law
All of these things are their heritage but they have conditions that the Israelites must follow to enjoy such a great inheritance. These gifts from God culminate in sending this sign or chosen one, the Christ.
God’s Decision (Romans 9:6-18)
How did we get to this place where God offered such a wonderful inheritance to one group of people? At first glance it seems God gave one people group everything and left the rest of the world to rot. But that’s not how everything went down.
After all, there are many problems with just picking a group of people and giving them everything. What if they don’t want it, respect it, or take full advantage of it? Don’t worry. God thought of all of that.
If Israel abused its inheritance, God’s word and promised to them would have failed. Paul makes one of his most powerful opening statements that not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel (Romans 9:6). That statement either doesn’t make sense or blows your mind.
Paul goes the whole way back to Abraham and Isaac to explain his position. He will make the case that there are two Israel’s. One is the ethnic nation of Israel and the other is the spiritual Israel God is creating.
Romans 9:8 is the explanation. Abraham’s true children are not those that came from his seed, direct descendents physically of Abraham. His true children are those that came the same way Isaac came, as promised children. These are ones that do not trust in their physical heritage but in the promise of God. That is how God’s children are born (John 1:12-13).
The physical descendents of Abraham benefit from the promise and covenant God made with Abraham but they cannot rely on their physical heritage. They must become believers in the promise as Abraham did.
Paul goes to the source in history: Abraham and then Isaac’s wife, Rebecca. God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael. Ishmael was the firstborn but Isaac was the child of promise. Then with Rebecca, God also chose Jacob over Esau.
In the first case, Isaac was the child of promise that Abraham and Sarah were supposed to wait for. Ishmael was the human answer to God’s promise when they got impatient. Sarah gave Hagar, her maidservant, to Abraham to make offspring. But that is not what God promised. So God chose Isaac, the promised son, over Ishmael.
It happened again when God chose Jacob over the firstborn, Esau. But this was not a choice for better over worse. It was God’s choice. Paul explains that the choice was God’s and that it wasn’t over better or worse. Neither Esau nor Isaac had the chance to make good or bad decisions when God chose in the womb (Romans 9:11).
One of the favorite words of Calvinists appears here: election (Romans 9:11). But the idea of being elected or chosen isn’t because of some special requirement before the creation of the world. It is simply God’s choice. Paul is speaking of God’s choice from his point of view, not ours.
God’s Mercy (Romans 9:14-29)
Then in Romans 9:14-18, Paul switches to the human point of view of God’s sovereign right to choose. He asks if God is unjust in his choice. But the thing is that humans don’t get to tell God whether he is unjust in his choices.
God chooses of his own will and none of us can correct him. We are finite beings and he is our infinite Creator. We are clay and he is the Potter (Romans 9:20-22). It would be horrible if God made us simply for his own whims.
But it would only be horrible if God were to vindictively use his power over us for whatever he felt like doing at the time. But this is not the case. Paul argues that God is merciful and compassionate (Romans 9:15-16, 18). Unlike every human being who has power in history God uses it to bless and empower us.
We must not forget that Paul also does not completely understand all of God’s purposes from beginning to end. He is just like us, trying to understand how the sovereignty of God and human free will coincide. And so he asks questions like, “What if God endures with patients the vessels he made for wrath so that he can show even more his glory through the vessels he made for mercy” (Romans 9:22-24)
He does mention Pharaoh in Romans 9:17. Many people bring up how the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But when you read the context of the account of the ten plagues in Egypt, you will find that Pharaoh hardened his heart first and God finalized that hardening through the plagues.
Paul refers to Hosea has one of his examples. In Hosea’s day Israel had turned from the Lord but he had not yet kicked them out of his land. He explained to Hosea that he would make his people who are right now not his people to be his people (Romans 9:25-26). We know from history that God had to take his people out of his land to make them his people again so he could give them the land back.
It begs the question of all of us, “Who can know the mind of God?” God is looking at an infinitely larger picture than any of us. He sees everything as a finished product while we are crawling through the midst of the timeline. We can’t even go backward into history.
God is creating a remnant out of the original people that he promised his salvation to (Romans 9:27). Isaiah confirms that God is gracious even to Israel because if he had not made his people out of them they would be like the other nations on the earth (Romans 9:28). It’s not Israel that was holy and righteous and chosen by God. It is God who is holy and righteous and chose Israel.
Israel’s Unbelief (Romans 9:30-33)
All of this historical discussion about who and why God chose among humanity now turns to his offer to every human being through the sacrifice of Christ. Christ died on the cross to save all people but not all people will choose Christ over their own sinful passions.
Do Gentiles (everyone not a Jew and part of the chosen Israel) get a free pass into God’s kingdom without knowing God’s law like the Israelites did (Romans 9:30)? He gave that law to them as a special gift to know his expectations and standards, unlike the other nations of the world.
All the other nations had no idea what God expected, nor did they know with their own false gods expected. Gentiles crawled around in the darkness while the nation Israel relished relationship with God in the light of his covenants and commandments (Romans 9:31).
But Israel made a big mistake. They took God’s laws as things they must do rather than trusting the God who gave them, like Abraham trusted the promise (Romans 9:32). God gave them the law as a gift but they turned it into a system of works.
The Gentiles came to Christ, the stumbling stone for the Jews. They placed their faith in Christ like Abraham placed his faith in God’s promise (Romans 9:30, 33). The Israelites stumbled over Jesus Christ, the Messiah who is the end of the law, and they missed the Messiah because they focused on doing the law only (Romans 9:33).
This is how Paul saw the peril of his people, the Jews. In his day he wished that everyone would come to know Jesus as their Savior among his own countrymen. And yet what he saw was that so many of them had rejected Jesus.
Paul is working out in these three chapters his understanding of how God could allow some to go astray, save a remnant, and then include the Gentiles. He is happy that God has included as many as he has but he also realizes that it’s not his choice how God will do what he will do.
You don’t want to miss this as Paul continues to talk out his understanding of what will happen to his fellow countrymen. How has God used the church to bring in people based on belief instead of genetics? Stay tuned to find out how Paul works this out in Romans 10-11!