Romans 9 is a troubling chapter. It is not my favorite chapter in scripture, that's for sure.
We had to face it this week in BSF.
It often seems that when a particularly difficult portion of scripture comes up, study resources dodge the stickiest issues.
I will say this though:
Although I do not affectionately embrace much of Romans 9,
one of my favorite verses is in Romans 9.
Christians don't get to ponder this verse very much, because it is in the middle of Romans 9, and we are usually trying to squint and get around Romans 9 without looking too carefully at it. But nevertheless, there in Romans 9, we have one of my favorite Bible verses:
[Paul is referring to his brother Israelites]
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ,
who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
This is an incredibly important verse, the central key to interpreting all of the Bible.
First, and most simple and obvious: This verse clearly states in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ is God. This is the most important truth in all of scripture. Everything else hinges on this.
Everything hinges on Jesus.
God's entire plan for history centers on Jesus.
The whole Bible is about Jesus.
This verse, Romans 9:5, explains how the whole Bible is about Jesus and how the Old Testament and the New Testament work together.
The Old Testament is the history of the ancestry of Christ. Everything in the Old Testament points to the coming Christ, the promised Messiah. The Old Testament traces Christ's lineage, records the prophecies and promises of His coming, and includes many multifaceted symbols and types to illustrate what He would be like and what He would do. The Chosen People of God, in the Old Testament, were chosen to be the ancestors of Messiah for the salvation of the world. They were chosen to give birth to Messiah.
This is why the Israelites were special to God: not because they were in some way intrinsically better than other people, but because they were His chosen means for providing grace to all humanity. God knew He would take on flesh and complete His mission at just the right time (Galatians 4:4, Romans 5:6). From the beginning, God was working out His plan, choosing and preserving a line of people through whose genetics He Himself would enter creation. He even took care that the appropriate history and prophecies would be recorded long in advance, to document His plan. This is why the Bible is one story of redemption that comes to us through a collection of literary documents spanning a period of approximately 2000 years, catalogued by 40 or more different writers. There is no other religious book anything like this, because the Bible is the only book that comes from God, and only God could orchestrate a book like this.
It's easy to see that the New Testament is all about Jesus, because it just is. The New Testament includes four different accounts of Jesus' life. The book of Acts explains how Jesus left earth and sent His Spirit to empower the church to spread the Kingdom of God and finish the ministry. The epistles, or letters, describe what Jesus has accomplished and what this great salvation means, and how we should live as redeemed believers. Revelation describes the glory that is our ultimate hope, and encourages us to persevere through trials until we arrive at the unveiled presence of Jesus in the New Heaven and the New Earth.
The New Testament is obviously all about Jesus.
But the Old Testament is all about Jesus, too. Luke alludes to this when he writes about how the risen Christ appeared to some disciples on the road to Emmaus: "And beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself," (Luke 24:27).
Paul, who wrote Romans (and many other epistles), was a trained Pharisee, educated under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3, Philippians 3:4-6). Prior to his conversion by the bright light on the road to Damascus, Paul was a very active Jewish official, zealously persecuting Christians, whom he saw as a threat to the beliefs that were most precious to him. Paul knew the Old Testament inside out and forwards and backwards. He knew the Law, the prophets, and the history of his people.
These days, we are used to the idea that salvation is by faith, and that non-Jewish people can have access to salvation. However, we need to understand, as we read Romans, that these ideas were new and groundbreaking for Paul. He had always believed that the Jews were more special and more precious to God than any other people. He had always believed that Jewishness was first a matter of birth, and second a matter of keeping the Law, and--in any case--absolutely necessary for finding favor with God. Jewish tradition taught that Jewish people, and Jewish people alone, were God's people. A non-genetically Jewish person could maybe become a Jew by being circumcised and meticulously keeping the Law, but Jewishness was huge, and the Law was absolutely imperative.
This is why, in Romans, Paul spends so much time explaining that the Law is an impossible standard which no man could ever meet by the strength of his will. It is also why Paul goes on to say things like:
For God does not show favoritism. (Romans 2:11)
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly, and circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, not by the written code. (Romans 2:28-29a)
And then there's all of Chapter 4. I'll highlight a couple points here:
[Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:11b-12)
Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. (Romans 4:16)
Paul has spent eight chapters developing the idea that salvation, life and righteousness are available:
- Only through the atoning death of Christ.
- Only to those who believe in Christ.
- To all people who believe in Christ, regardless of their background.
He crescendoed to a magnificent peak in Chapter 8, describing all the hope, glory and victory that belong to those who put their faith in Christ Jesus.
Now, in Chapter 9, Paul turns to face the destiny of the Jews. Are they God's special, treasured possession? Or aren't they? Apparently not exactly, Paul laments in Romans 9:1-3. He grieves for his people, to the point of wishing he himself could be cursed in order to change their outcome. I do not think this is in the Bible to tell us that we should rather go to hell than see our loved ones perish apart from the Lord. I think it is here to show that the fate of those without faith is a very serious problem. Paul has been grappling with this, and it is a bitter pill for him, with his background and all its assumptions of favor for the Jewish nation. Yet, Paul has come to the realization that people's eternal destiny depends solely on whether they put their faith in Jesus, not on whether they are Jewish.
I've been doing sudoku, so I'm thinking in grids.
Here you go:
This grid shows two ways you can divide humans up, and how the divisions intersect.
As you see, all people can be described as either Jewish, or not Jewish (non-Jew).
All people can also be described as people with faith, or people without faith.
When you chart out these divisions, you get four types of people:
1. Jewish people with faith in Christ.
2. Jewish people without faith in Christ.
3. Non-Jewish people with faith in Christ.
4. Non-Jewish people without faith in Christ.
This grid has been marked to show which of the four types of people
from the above divisions have salvation.
1. Jews and non-Jews who have faith in Christ have salvation.
2. Jews and non-Jews who do not have faith in Christ do not have salvation.
It can get a little bit confusing as you read Romans, because Paul sometimes calls those who have faith a Jew or Israel. When he does this, he means God's people are the ones who are saved through faith, and those who are saved through faith are God's people. Paul is so programmed to think of Jewish people as God's people, that he still calls God's people Jews, or Israel, even though that means redefining "Israel" to mean those who put their faith in Christ. Paul explains what he means by his term Israel in Romans 9:6, when he says, "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel."
Paul summarizes the point in Romans 9:8--
In other words, it is not the natural children [those born genetically of Jewish descent] who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise [those who walk in the faith of Abraham] who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.
Through the rest of the chapter, Paul struggles with the idea that Jewish people who do not put their faith in Christ are not the people of God. I don't think he likes it any more than anybody else, probably less. I get the feeling that Paul is preaching to himself through these verses, reminding himself--and us--that God has mercy on whom He will have mercy (Romans 9:10-18). God is our Creator; we are created beings, in no way qualified to judge God's actions or second guess His choices (Romans 9:19-21).
There is a very troubling section in Romans 9:22-23, where Paul asks (and I paraphrase), "What if God created certain people only to be objects of wrath? What if the sole purpose for some people's lives is to be destroyed, doomed pawns in God's process of bringing His rich glory to those He lovingly created to save?" I am not convinced that Paul is saying God actually works this way. I think Paul may be postulating that even if God did do this, we wouldn't have any right to criticize Him, because He is God, and we are not. There are many other places where scripture reveals God's heart full of love (John 3:16-17, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9). These are clear teachings about God's character and His desire to bless humanity, save us, and help us flourish. Paul might not be saying that God pragmatically designates certain people to perdition for the sake of His elect.* Maybe Paul is only reminding us that we need to humble ourselves before God and accept what is difficult and confusing as well as what is clear and comforting. (See the book of Job, especially chapters 38-42 where God asks, "Who is this that darkens my counsel without knowledge?" and, "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him?" Clearly, the answer is that we are unworthy, as Job readily admits.)
Paul reminds himself--and us--that the prophet Hosea prophesied long ago how God would call into His kingdom those who had not been His people, in other words, Gentiles (Romans 9:23-26). Of course, today when the church is so heavily populated by believing Gentiles, this seems like a no-brainer. However, in Paul's day it was a new, liberal thought. God lovingly welcomes Gentile believers into His Kingdom.
Paul finishes Chapter 9 with a quote from Isaiah, referencing "the remnant." This idea will be explored further in chapters 10-11. The remnant is those Israelites who will surely be saved, because they walk by faith. Paul deeply longs for all his people to put their faith in Christ and be saved. Romans 10:1 says, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they might be saved."
Romans 9 takes the centrality and paramount importance of Christ's function in salvation--the theme of Romans up to this point--and examines the Jewish condition in light of this truth.
This section of Romans, chapters 9-11, is Paul's anguished discussion of the fate of the Jews in light of the truth that salvation comes by faith in Christ, and only by faith in Christ. Jews can be saved, but they must put their faith in Christ.
When we get to Chapter 11, we will see that Paul has great hope for Jews, that their background, knowledge of scripture and previous exposure to the Father will have trained and formed many of them to be receptive to the gospel. I am especially interested in Romans 11:26 and Romans 11:32, but if I write about those verses, I will do it in a couple of weeks, when we get there.
In the meantime, how do we apply what we learn in Romans 9?
I think I would divide Romans 9 into two sections,
the function of Israel (verses 1-5),
and the fate of Israel (verses 6-33).
The function of Israel is easy to understand: Israel was God's chosen instrument, the nation through which He chose to take on flesh and blood and enter into the world. "...[F]rom them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen" (from Romans 9:5).
Applications we can take from this truth include:
1. The more we understand about the divinity and supremacy of Christ, the deeper and more heartfelt our worship will be.
2. The more we understand about the eternal nature and scope of God's plan of redemption, the more awed we will be by the miracle of the Bible, which is the collected record of all He has done, and the more confident we will be in its truth.
3. Natural Israel's function was to bring Messiah to earth as a baby who would grow up and be crucified for the sins of the world. We are the new Israel, the spiritual Israel, the children of the promise. Natural Israel gave birth to Christ. The Spirit of Christ gave birth to us. Now our job is to carry the Spirit of Christ throughout the world, bearing witness to what Jesus has done and what His Spirit is doing even today. So, as Israel, we still have the job of bringing Messiah to the world, albeit in a slightly different way.
4. Although Paul clearly explains that Jewish people are not automatically set up for salvation, he explains here (and also in Romans 3:1-2) that Jewish people have been especially blessed by God. God gave them a very important role to fulfill, and He protected, preserved and provided for them so they would be able to fulfill it. We should never be anti-Semitic. We should respect and esteem Jewish people and Jewish culture, and join Paul in praying that Jewish people will find Christ and come to a saving faith.
Application #4 bleeds into applications we can take from looking at what Paul writes about the fate of Israel. The fate of Israel depends on whether individual Israelites come to faith in Christ. The same is true for all humanity. Those who believe in Jesus will be saved, and those who reject Him will not. How do we apply this?
1. We pray for mercy. God says that He has mercy on whom He will have mercy. This is His decision and not ours. It is absolutely imperative that we never make our own determination that God has decided against showing mercy to someone. As long as there is life, there is hope. As long as a person lives, we pray for God's mercy, for the dawning of saving faith. We should pray this for Jews and Gentiles alike. God is mighty to save. Jesus died so that men could be saved. Our job is to hope and pray and demonstrate the joy of the Spirit and (when the opportunity arises) share the gospel for the salvation of many souls.
2. We humble ourselves before God and remember who He is. God is worthy of praise regardless of who believes in Jesus and who rejects Jesus. We must not accuse God of being unfair. We must not demand that God do things our way instead of His way. We must never, never presume to correct God. We must admit that our knowledge and understanding are limited and flawed, while God's knowledge and understanding are infinite and perfect (Isaiah 55:9-11). We must humble ourselves before the Lord and surrender in trust to whatever He brings into our lives.
3. We maintain a spirit of joyful wonder and gratitude that, however it came to be, we have been granted faith unto salvation. God has given us righteousness through faith; this is glorious and we celebrate it! As we hope and pray for others to come to faith, we rejoice in the faith that we ourselves have. As we grieve for those whose lives are passing by in a state of separation from Christ, we appreciate every single moment God gives us to worship Him.
* We know that God is omniscient (all knowing). His knowledge and wisdom are perfect. He exists outside of time and space and knows all things simultaneously. Therefore, God definitely must know the outcome of every person's life from before the beginning. How this all works out in terms of the doctrine of election (and particularly objects of wrath prepared for destruction) is beyond my understanding. I know that God is love. God rescues. God saves. God delivers. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11). God loves the world so much that He was willing to incarnate and die a tortuous death to redeem people from the penalty of sin. 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. God is good, and He demonstrated His goodness by dying for us while we were lost in sin. I know all these things about God, so I am going to trust Him, and be thankful for my own election, and not worry about anybody else's election, and pray for the salvation of the souls He lays on my heart.