Romans 8 closed with the exalted themes of new creation and the inability of this world’s suffering to separate us from Christ. Immediately in the opening verses of Romans 9 we get the sense that we have left those exalted heights behind for a much more somber matter. Paul does not indicate to us at first what the topic of these next chapters will be but he does indicate to us immediately that the topic will be serious. He begins with not one, not two, but three assertions of the truthfulness of what he is about to say - “(1) I am speaking the truth in Christ, (2) I am not lying, (3) my conscience bears witness in the Holy Spirit.” And the thing about which Paul asserts in triplicate that he is telling the truth is that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish”. It is only in v.3 that we even begin to get an idea of what Paul is so upset about and even there he doesn’t spell it out exactly. We only know that Paul is concerned about
Israel, his kinsmen. We learn over
the next three chapters that Paul is deeply and personally troubled by the fact
that so few of his own countrymen have come to see Jesus as their Messiah.
Despite much of
Israel’s rejection of Jesus, Paul
claims “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” After 2000 years of
mostly Gentile Christianity, one might wonder what Israel’s rejection of Jesus has to
do with the failure or success of God’s word. But if we are to understand
Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, we must see that they have everything to do
with each other. That is because the word of God to which Paul is referring is
the promises God made to Israel
- promises that they would be God’s people and the heirs of God’s kingdom. If
those very same people who are now rejecting the Messiah who came to fulfill
those promises while Gentiles are simultaneously accepting that same Messiah
and thereby inheriting the promises originally meant for Israel, we might ask
“Has God abandoned Israel? Has God simply taken what he promised to Israel and
arbitrarily given it to others?” Paul’s emphatic answer throughout these three
chapters will be “Absolutely not!”
That answer begins in the second half of verse six and the first half of verse seven. God’s word has not failed because “not all who are descended from
and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” It is that
idea for which Paul will argue over the next 22 verses and he will do it by
recounting the story of Israel.
If you are going to recount the story of
would be a natural place to begin and that is what Paul does. Paul quotes
Genesis 21:12 which God spoke to Abraham; “through Isaac shall your offspring
be named.” In other words, Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s only son. Ishmael was just as
much the flesh and blood of Abraham as Isaac so if bloodlines were what
mattered then Ishmael’s descendants would have been Israel as much as Isaac’s.
Paul is arguing that “ Israel”
was never defined by physical descendancy. It was always about those to whom
God made his promises. The same is true, Paul declares, with Isaac and
Rebekah’s sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was just as much Isaac’s son as Jacob. In
fact, Esau was the firstborn with every right to his father’s inheritance and
blessing. Additionally, Jacob was no saint but a liar and deceiver. In spite of
all that, God chose to enact his promises through Jacob who would later be
Once again, being Israel
was never about simply being of the lineage of Abraham. It was about God
fulfilling his promises to Abraham through whomever he chose.
This emphasis on God’s choice leads to a natural question. Is God unjust? If it is all about God’s choice apart from any human standard of worthiness, does that make God arbitrary and unfair? Not surprisingly, Pauls says no, and he turns to the next scene in
story, also God’s greatest act of justice in Israel’s story, to make the point.
Paul claims along with Exodus 9:16 that God actively hardened Pharaoh’s heart
so that he would not repent. But God did this for the express purpose of
showing mercy to the Israelite slaves. To be sure, God made a choice but it was
a choice for the salvation of a people. It was the choice that made Israel.
Paul says the same is true in the final movement of
history prior to the Messiah: the exile. When Paul starts talking about some
vessels prepared for destruction and others for glory in v.22-23, many assume
that those “vessels” are a metaphor for individuals, some of whom are
predestined for hell while others are predestined for heaven from before birth.
While I won’t deny that Paul had a very strong sense of the sovereignty of God
- I would guess nearly every first century Jew did and that even most Gentiles
took for granted some notion of fate or divine providence - I don’t think a
Calvinist doctrine of double individual predestination is exactly what he has
in mind here. This is because, once again, Paul is not telling the story of
individuals. He is telling the story of Israel
and when he uses the language of a potter and clay anyone who knows Israel’s story
will know that he is echoing the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 18, God tells
Jeremiah that Israel is like
clay in God’s hands and that God can make or remake Israel as God pleases. This is
precisely what Paul has been arguing all along: God is (and really has always
been) remaking Israel,
even to the point of calling those who were not God’s people “my people” as
More specifically, God is remaking
Israel into a remnant of Israel. Paul
believes that much as Isaiah claimed that God reduced Israel to just a remnant of Israel in the time of exile so also was God
currently reducing Israel
to a remnant in Paul’s day. But we will see later in chapter 11, that Paul does
not expect this to be Israel’s
permanent condition. Instead, this remnant of Israel
will eventually lead to the full salvation of Israel. Much like the hardening of
Pharaoh’s heart led to the redemption of an entire people, so the current
hardening of Israel
is meant for salvific purposes as well.
Paul’s claim in this chapter has been that “not all who are descended from
Paul demonstrated this through Israel’s
story. Starting with Abraham, then Isaac, Jacob and on through the Exodus and
the Exile, God has always been making and remaking Israel. Israel has never really been all
the physical descendants of Abraham because from the moment God chose Isaac
rather than Ishmael, a remnant within Abraham’s descendants was being formed.
Paul believes that this is what is happening is his own day; a remnant is being
formed around Jesus out of Jews and Gentiles that will eventually be the
salvation of his kinsmen, Israel.