Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.
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The book of Romans is, arguably, one of the deeper and more comprehensive doctrinal books in the Bible. Paul was writing to a church that he had not yet visited. Unlike the other recipients of scripture epistles who were congregations that Paul had planted, the church in Rome was already established, presumably by the previous generation of Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem during the first wave of persecution that closely followed the formation of the church that is recorded in the fourth chapter of Acts. The church in Jerusalem was primarily comprised of Christian Jews. However, the further we travel from Jerusalem, we find a greater proportion of the church membership drawn from the Gentile population. The church in Rome also contained both Jewish and Gentile members, though the Jewish component may have been smaller than that which is typical in the Pauline churches of Asia Minor. Though the exact date of Paul's letter to the Romans is unclear, is it known that in A.D. 49 the Emperor Claudius brought heavy persecution upon Roman Jews. Historical writings refer to unrest caused by the conflict between the Jews and Christians as Claudius' primary motivation for his actions. The Christian church in Rome continued to grow, and by A.D. 60, a few years after the writing of this epistle, Emperor Nero interpreted the Christian rejection of his own deity as subversive, and brought heavy persecution on the Christians. It was in the mid 60's that Paul was put to death under Nero's reign.
Paul's letter to the Romans addresses many, if not all, of the basic doctrines of the faith. In chapters 1 through 8 Paul describes in detail the depravity of man and his knowledge of the One righteous God, and the power that sin has to keep man separated from God. Paul the describes God's plan of salvation, offering forgiveness for those who put their faith and trust in Him, forgiveness that is obtained, not by any act of man, but by the act of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on the cross of Golgotha. Though man is not freed from sin, salvation breaks the power of sin to separate man from God. Paul then describes God's relationship with those who put their faith and trust in Him as that of a father and an adopted child, a father who loves and supports His child, even when that child is disobedient. Paul describes how God works in the life of a Christian who is justified by their faith in God (no longer condemned by sin), sanctified (brought closer to the image of Christ), and will one day be glorified (brought into an eternal relationship with God at death.) God's continual work in the life of the Christian is a foundational precept of Pauline theology. Since sin loses its power to condemn at the point of salvation, sin cannot nullify that salvation. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that sin is defeated, never to rise again over His power to bring the faithful back into condemnation. Paul will return to this theme in the last chapters of this letter as he encourages the church.
Though Paul testified that He was called as an Apostle to the Gentiles, his heart still remained with the spiritual need of the Jews as well. Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who actively persecuted Christians. He was present in a leadership capacity at the stoning of Steven. Paul had a deep understanding of the heart of those Jews who rejected the gospel, as he was a violent objector himself until he met Jesus on the Damascus road. Consequently, when Paul would enter a new community in his missionary journeys, he would always go first to the Jewish synagogues in an attempt to bring the gospel to the Jews. The pattern of this effort was consistent: a few of the Jews might respond, but the majority would reject the message and turn upon him in any measure of violence and persecution. At this point in Paul's letter to the Romans, he moves to his deep concern for the Jewish community.
Romans 9:1. I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost,
If anyone were to argue that Paul rejected his heritage or replaced his concern for the Jews with his concern for the Gentiles, they simply do not understand Paul's heart. In the Greek writing, the word truth, comes first, with the remainder of the sentence grammatically supporting it. Paul learned the truth on the Damascus road when he learned of the truth of the resurrection and the truth of Jesus' identification as the Messiah, the son of God. As a Pharisee he had always sought truth, thinking that it was found in Jewish law, but when he met Jesus, he came to understand the Truth. Paul spent another three years following his conversion as the Holy Spirit brought him to the understanding that he shared as an apostle. As a Christian, Paul was first, and would always be a Jew.
Romans 9:2-3. That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. 3For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:
To say that the apostate nature of the Jewish tradition broke Paul's heart would be an understatement. When Paul sees how the Jews have rejected their promised Messiah, he feels a "great heaviness and continual sorrow" in his heart. Paul's next statement is amazing, and reinforces his point: if it were possible, he would give up his own salvation and spend eternity separated from the love of God if that act would serve to bring the Jewish nation to the Lord. Probably the only more selfless act that is recorded in scripture is when God performed a similar act on the cross of Calvary when Jesus, the Son of God, Creator, and Messiah was separated from God, the Father when He took upon Himself the punishment for the sins of those who would place their faith and trust in Him: separation and death. Of course, Paul knows and teaches that this is not an option, since salvation is secure. Again, and it is worth repeating, that salvation does not end one's experience with sin. Salvation ends sin's power to separate one from God. Consequently, sin can never again separate a saved sinner from God's love, mercy, and grace.
What we see here is a response to any criticism that Paul has left his heritage. Paul has been called as an apostle to the Gentiles, serving as an evangelist among non-Jews. However, Paul always started his evangelistic work amongst the Jews, and his love for the Jewish community never changed. Though Paul suffered all of his persecutions as a direct result of Jewish opposition to his ministry, Paul understood their motives. He himself was a persecutor of the church. Paul's deepest desire was for Judaism to embrace the gospel.
Romans 9:4-5. Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
One can understand Paul's frustration and empathy when one considers the history of Israel. Paul has just described in the previous chapter and in wonderful detail how God's acceptance of sinful man is a form of adoption. Yet, it was through Israel that God chose to reveal Himself to man in the first place. It was the nation of Israel that was chosen for this purpose, adopted by God for His purpose, and it was through the lineage of Israel that He would descend from the throne of grace to dwell among man in Jesus. If anyone should be embracing the gospel it the Jewish community. Paul states numerous opportunities that the Jews have had that point the way to the truth.
They had the opportunity to see God's glory, His presence among men. It was His glory that was seen in the Pillar of Fire that led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage, and for another 800 years was an ever-present reminder of God's tabernacle with men as it stood first over the tent of meeting and then over the temple until the Glory of God departed during the Judean exile to Babylon. The Glory of the Lord came back, first seen by the shepherds when the Angels announced the birth of the Messiah, and followed by wise men as it came to rest, not over the Jewish temple, but over the home of the young Jesus child. God tabernacled with men in Jesus who referred to Himself as the "Light of the World."
They had the covenants. God first showed himself to Abraham and made a covenant with him that through his son would grow a large nation of people; that as long as they honored Him, He would provide them a land to live in and He would keep them safe in it; and that through this nation the entire world would be blessed. We see that all of the covenants that God made to Abraham came true. The nations that grew from the sons of Abraham is, indeed, a significant population, comprising the bulk of the middle-eastern portion of the world, a population of which the Jews are only a small part. God did give the promised land to Israel, but they broke the covenant when their kings led them into apostasy and God lifted His hand of protection. The nation of Israel, by then divided into two parts, were overrun and assimilated by Assyria and Babylon. Only a small remnant remained in Babylon that would later return to Jerusalem. Finally, the entire world was blessed by the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, that through Him the entire world has an opportunity for a resolution to the problem of sin that separates all Israel and all the world from God. They also had the covenants with the nation that were brought through Moses, covenants that called for their obedience, covenants that the nation rejected, again resulting in their destruction.
They had the law. Paul is not referring to the myriad of Jewish traditional laws that had become the foundation of Judaism, but the Law of Moses that is recorded in scripture. The Jews, unlike the other nations of the world, also had the benefits throughout their history of God's working directly in their behalf, performing miracles that started with the Egyptian plagues, continued in the battlefield, and were culminated in the birth of the Messiah. They also had the promises, the prophesies that described in detail the nature of the Messiah, His purpose, His ministry, and His vicarious death on the cross. This is the very history of Israel, and if anyone should be able to see that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who is over all, it is them.
Romans 9:6-7. Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: 7Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called.
This verse has brought no little contention over the years, so we will spend a few minutes looking into its context.
We may often think of the sons of Abraham as being the nation of Israel, and certainly Israel is of the lineage of Abraham. However, Israel is only a tiny part of the nation of Abraham. The nation of Abraham started with Abraham's first son, Ishmael, born of his wife's handmaid, Haggar. Abraham and Sarah were sure that Sarah was too old to bear the son that God had promised, as she was well past the child bearing years. Sarah brought her handmaid to Abraham, and Haggar bore Ishmael. However, when Isaac, the promised son was born of Sarah, Abraham and Sarah rejected Ishmael and Haggar, sending them away into the desert. Like Jacob, Ishmael fathered twelve children, and an equally large nation was born. We need only go to the next generation when Jacob received the blessing of his father over his older twin, Esau. God knew that Esau despised Him, and Jacob would not, so it was through Jacob that the blessing of Abraham passed. This pattern continued through the history of Israel, so if we were to visualize the nation of Abraham, it might be illustrated like the triangle in the figure below. Israel is, essentially, the community of the first-born, or as in the case of Isaac and Jacob, who were not first-born, but those who received the blessing of inheritance. Often the son who was rejected, such as Ishmael and Esau, though still sons of Abraham, broke away and formed their own tribes that developed into nations that were separate from Israel. When we read of the military conflicts between Israel and its neighbors, many of those neighbors were actually nations formed from such divisions. As a result, the nation of Israel is a very small part of the nation of Abraham, and the conflicts that Israel has had with its breakaway brothers have been a continual issue. We may understand Ezekiel 12 as the end of this conflict that will come only by the intervention of God as He delivers Israel one last time.
Figure 1. The Progeny of Abraham.
In addition to the population of breakaway nations, the nation of Israel itself was not entirely pure. Through its history its people inter-married with other nations, and freely accepted into the community those who were not in the lineage of Abraham. As much as Israel would like to have declared itself "the chosen people," its disobedience over the length of its history diminished the purity of that definition. There were many, if not the majority, in Israel who could not trace both paternal and maternal lineage back to the tribe of Jacob's sons and their wives.
Romans 9:8-13. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. 9For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sarah shall have a son. 10And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; 11(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) 12It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
Finally, when Paul speaks of the adopted children of God, he is not speaking of Israel anyway. God's children are those who turn to God in faith, responding to His promise. We see an illustration of this in the rejection of Esau Cultural tradition demanded that Esau would receive the inheritance of his father. However, Esau despised the blessing, and the blessing went to Jacob, the second-born. God is does not adopt His children based upon their genealogical heritage, but rather on the relationship that they seek with Him. Paul understands that the blessing of Abraham is now extended to all who would place their faith and trust in God, for that blessing of Abraham is fulfilled in the salvation from sin that Jesus brings.
Paul notes that the blessing that fell on Isaac or Jacob had nothing to do with any particular good or evil that they had done. In fact, God had determined the path of the blessing even before they were born. Ishmael would reject God, Isaac would not. Esau would reject God, Jacob would not. Only God knew this. Jewish tradition copied middle-eastern tradition in that the first born son would receive the inheritance of the father. God illustrated that this would not be an inviolable rule, for it is not the lineage that will bring salvation, but the heart of the individual. Paul cried for a nation that misunderstood the blessing given to Abraham, seeing it only as the receipt of the property of the father held in the land of the promise. The blessing that God has for mankind transcends, not only the middle-east, but transcends the world itself, as God is offering His acceptance into relationship of all who would place their trust in Him as Abraham had done. In this way, Jews and Gentiles both have the opportunity to be the sons of Abraham that were identified in God's original covenant. Jews believed in an acceptance by works, by keeping of the law. However, every Jew knew that keeping of the entire law was impossible, and all were lawbreakers. Their only hope was (and is still) the same and only hope of the Gentile: God's grace.
Romans 9:14. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.
Is God's plan revealing His own unrighteousness? Some might argue that God is acting in an unrighteous manner when the blessing is not being given to the first-born in the family, as is dictated by cultural tradition. Since Paul responds so firmly to this issue, there must have been some conjecture to this effect in the arguments brought by the Jews. Paul's response is a repeat of the Greek word that is an emphatic "No, never." The translation of this word to English using the name of God is a redaction that emphasizes the vehemence of Paul's opinion. "God forbid" was an early English idiom that would be used to express a similar and vehement rejection. The use of "God forbid" in the King James translation is actually adapted from the English translation accomplished by William Tyndale.
God will never make Himself unrighteous by failing to follow the traditions and mores of men. Paul certainly demonstrates his belief in God's sovereignty to do whatever He in his infinite wisdom chooses to do. It is we, when we express the sin of arrogance, who demonstrate unrighteousness when we reject what God is doing. These words would fall hard on the ears of the Jews who would never entertain any discussion of the unrighteousness of God, but at the same time would reject His plan by blinding themselves to it by their own self-righteousness.
Romans 9:15-16. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 16So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.
The Jew is convinced that he will receive God's mercy simply because he is a son of Abraham, and he keeps the Law. Paul has already shown that "son of Abraham" is a vague description, and that no person is able to keep the law. It is God who is sovereign, and it is He who chooses whom He will bless and the context of that blessing. Mercy is not obtained from God by any work of man. He cannot obtain it by any act of the will, nor by any act of behavior. We cannot will it. We cannot run a race for it. We cannot obtain God's mercy by any work of our own. Mercy is not obtained, it is given. God's plan of salvation is not man's plan. When we observe those in the Old Testament who "walked with God" it was always those who had faith in Him. God's plan for relationship with man has always been a plan predicated by man's faith in Him, not by the keeping of any law. Man has always been sinful, and always will be, so righteousness is not something to be grasped, but rather something to be given. God's mercy is a gift.
Romans 9:17-18. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. 18Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
Some have taken this verse out of context to absolve mankind of the responsibility for their own choices. Their argument is that God's act of hardening Pharaohs’ heart is an example of man's lack of choice as God intervenes and makes our decisions for us. To come up with such a theology is to stand in opposition to the preponderance of scripture that points out the nature of personal responsibility. Actually, the Pharaoh's stand against the God of the Israelites took place long before the reference of God's use of it. Egyptian tradition held that the Pharaoh was a god, directly in line with their primary God, Ra. The Hebrews refused to acknowledge the deity of their Pharaoh. As a result of their disobedience to the Pharaoh's requirement for worship, he brought tremendous persecution and hardship upon the Hebrew people. It was this persecution that precipitated the Exodus experience. God used a heart that was already hardened against Him. The Pharaoh could not acknowledge the God of the Israelites, for to do so would be to deny who he was and what he stood for.
The selection of those to whom God will show mercy is His choice. However, the issue of the hard heart should not be taken lightly. The hard heart of the Pharaoh made it impossible for him to submit to God in faith, so he found himself judged by, and separated from, God. Likewise, God's mercy is offered to all, but those who reject Him and still harbor a heart that is hardened towards the gospel will find themselves in the same predicament as the Pharaoh: separated from God.
Romans 9:19-24. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? 20Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? 21Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? 22What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: 23And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, 24Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Let us not lose the context of Paul's discussion: his broken heart over the hardened hearts of the Jews towards the gospel. The Jews think that they are faultless because they are children of Abraham and because they keep the law. So, who does God think He is to declare them at fault? Since they are the "chosen people," God has no right to point out their sin and hold them responsible for it. Paul's answer to this position exposes the arrogance of the Jews, even against God. What right do we, as the created ones, have to hold criticism over the One who created us? Just as the potter molds the clay into a form of his own choosing, God as the Creator has the sovereign authority to shape us into the form of His choosing. If God chooses to separate from Himself those who have a hardened heart against Him, it is His full and sovereign right to do so. If God chooses to demonstrate His mercy to those who turn to Him in faith, it is His full and sovereign right to do so. We cannot prescribe God's motives or choices, and to attempt to do so is simply ignorant of the true immensity of God's glory. When God made his covenant with Abraham, it was a covenant of faith. The writer of Hebrews illustrates in the eleventh chapter a collection of those Old-Testament patriarchs whom God blessed, and without fail those were individuals who demonstrated faith. They were not people who were perfect under the law, for each listed individual is also known for their sin. God's plan for man, like the potter's plan for the clay, is held by God. If the clay is of a nature that it can be shaped, the potter shapes it. However, if the clay will not yield to the potter's hand, that clay is thrown out onto the street to be trampled into the dirt from which it came. This is the point that Paul is making. When the Jews are rejecting God's offer of grace, they are like the clay that will not yield. When Paul sees that clay tossed out on the street, separated from God forever, his heart breaks.
When we look at Paul's concern for the lost state of the Jews (as well as the Gentiles), we should look into our own hearts and examine our thoughts concerning those around us who have hearts that are hardened toward the gospel. Some may be hardened, like the Pharaoh, by a deliberate choice to reject God. Others, and probably most of those who we meet, are not lost by choice, but are lost by ignorance. Like the Jews, they think they are saved because they are "good" people. Yet, Paul clearly teaches that all have sinned, and no person is good. Are you as concerned for these as Paul is for his lost Jewish brothers and sisters?
Romans 9:25-29. As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. 26And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God. 27Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved: 28For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth. 29And as Esaias said before, Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been as Sodoma, and been made like unto Gomorrha.
Finally, Paul includes in his argument the testimony of the prophets. The prophesies declared that the blessing would be taken outside of the nation of Israel. Paul draws from the prophesies of Hosea (Osee) and Isaiah (Esaias) as each declared that a time would come when God would reject those who think they are His people while He embraces those that the Jews reject. God's promise to Abraham that the seed of his faith would grow into a nation of many people will come to its promised end. The Jews think that this is the physical lineage of Abrahams many ancestors, and we can argue that this group also extends to those breakaway nations mentioned earlier in this study. However, Paul shows that the prophesies refer to a different set of Israel's children, a set that will be numbered like the sane of the sea, a righteous remnant. Paul quotes the prophets as he presents the argument that this nation of the faith will be drawn from both within Judaism and without. It is is a nation that is drawn out of God's work with man, not man's work for God. Paul notes that it is this remnant of faithful that will always remain, and without that remnant of people who seek to live in obedience to God, the entire world would be lost, and characterized as Sodom and Gomorrah.
It is certainly easy to see a current world that looks like Sodom and Gomorrah. We can also see that there is a large community of the faithful who do not compromise to this pagan and secular culture and embrace its sodomy. God's offer of grace is extended to all people, not merely to the Jews. God's offer of grace is not predicated by our ability to free ourselves from sin by keeping to any set of laws, but is rather predicated only by our faith and trust in Him. When we turn to Him in faith, we do not leave this world of sin behind. Sin will still vex us on a regular basis. However, Christians are free from the law that defines sin because sin no longer condemns. When I falter in my sin, God catches me, stands me back up, and offers forgiveness and direction. This promise of eternal presence is offered to all. Who would every choose to reject such an offer? Paul tried to bring this message of hope to hard-hearted Jews and ignorant Gentiles. Likewise we have an opportunity to spread this message to a world that has not changed much since the time of Paul. Those who reject God may come from those who willfully reject Him or from those who simply do not know Him.
Jesus was the "Light of the World," the tabernacle of God with man. However, prior to His ascension, Jesus declared that a comforter, the Holy Spirit, would come and would indwell the hearts of the faithful, and through Him, the faithful would become the light of the world. "Let your light so shine that they may see your good works and Glorify God who is in heaven." This is the duty and responsibility of every Christian, to let that light shine by sharing the love of God with all people. This is not man's plan. This is God's plan. We would gain much by setting aside the plans that we have prescribed for our own goodness, and take part in God's plan. The reward for obedience is profound.