1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.
– Romans 9:1-5 NKJV
Paul is grieved over the unbelief and spiritual danger of the nation of Israel in general. The New Covenant was specifically promised to the nation of Israel, though it was foretold to include Gentiles as well. But the situation in Paul’s day was that the majority of Jews had rejected the Jewish Messiah and the New Covenant in Him. In these verses Paul expresses his desire for their salvation and rehearses the reason why the promises are for Israelites first and foremost.
Salvation was promised to the world through the Jewish nation (John 4:22). God called Abraham and promised to bless all nations through his people (Genesis 12:3). Later God set Israel apart though the Old Covenant (i.e. the Law of Moses) after delivering them from Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:13). He gave them commands that kept them separated from other nations so that they would not quickly fall to corruption. When they did mix with the surrounding idolatrous nations, He brought cleansing judgement on them through exile into Babylon. A portion of the Israelites returned from exile into the Promised Land more or less purified from their idolatry. It was in this setting that God promised He would send the anointed king of Israel, the Messiah (i.e. Christ) to be king of the world (Isaiah 11:1,11,16).
After exile the Jews were waiting with anticipation for the coming kingdom of God and the Messiah that would set them free. But He came in a way that they could not accept. He came calling the nation to repentance for its corruption, oppression and hypocrisy. Though they had been cleansed for their idolatry, they had descended into hypocrisy and continued the long tradition of corruption and abuse of spiritual authority. The false prophets of old had lied in the name of the Lord to obtain favor and blessing. The Pharisees of Jesus day had used the authority of God’s Old Covenant law, and their position of power, as a way to lord over God’s people and obtain respect and wealth for themselves. The Sadducees acted similarly. Their authority over the temple was lucrative and gave them the political influence that wicked men are so drawn to. Corruption and sin were rampant, not only among the ruling elite, but among the common people as well. So a call to repentance, starting with John the Baptist, continuing under Jesus’ ministry and extending into the labors of the Apostles was in order.
Nevertheless there was a remnant of faithful Israelites like John the Baptist’s parents, Nathaniel and others who were longing for the righteousness of God’s kingdom. And of course there were the many sinners that were awakened by the gracious call of repentance who turned from rebellion to faithfulness. Though this group grew over the years of Jesus’ ministry and seemed to flourish under the ministry of the Apostles while they labored primarily in Israel bringing many into the kingdom of the Messiah, it was still a mere remnant. Most continued on in their formalism, corruption, sin and hypocrisy.
By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans he had experienced much persecution as he ministered to the Gentiles. Much of what he suffered was instigated by Jewish religious leaders. This grieved the heart of Paul who desired the best for his people. He knew that God had spent centuries preparing the Israelites for the kingdom of God, and yet now that it had arrived, they rejected it since it came with a rebuke to them instead of a rebuke to their enemies.
Paul spent the first 8 chapters of Romans explaining that both Jews and Gentiles have offended God and have justly earned His wrath. And that the only way to be reconciled to God is through faith in Jesus Christ. Natural descent does not make one fit for the kingdom of God; it is not enough to claim Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as one’s ancestors. Nor is it sufficient to cling to the Old Covenant (i.e. the Mount Sinai Law) as a means of acceptance into God’s family. Only through faith in Jesus Christ and clinging to Him can one be reconciled to God and counted among God’s covenant people. Simply put, people must come to God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not through adherence to the Law of Moses.
Paul is going to spend the next 3 chapters discussing why it is that a people that were specifically prepared for the New Covenant would fail to enter into it. And would in fact become some of its greatest opponents. Paul is going to lay out why this is, and how God is sovereignly using it to fulfill His purposes in the nations.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,
– Romans 9:6 NKJV
Paul here begins to make his defense of God’s righteous manner of dealing with the unbelieving nation of Israel. God had given many promises to Israel, and in light of the fact that the majority of the Israelites were not saved, it could be argued that God had not been faithful to keep His promise to the nation. He denies this charge outright. Though the Israelites have not entered into the New Covenant blessings which they were promised many centuries before, this does not mean that God’s word has been ineffective. And he immediately gives us the answer as to why this is so.
Being born of Israel’s (i.e. Jacob) line does not mean you are necessarily an heir of the promise given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is a shocking statement. Being descended from Jacob (i.e. Israel) doesn’t make you an Israelite! Some, at this point might say, “Of course, birth is not enough. They also need to receive the sign of circumcision and keep the covenant given to Israel (i.e. the Law of Moses).” But that is not where Paul is going with his argument.
He had started this line of argument before in Romans 2:25-29:
25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
– Romans 2:25-29 NKJV
By saying that not all those who are descended from Jacob are true Israelites, he is saying that receiving the promise of blessing is not a natural birthright of those who are ethnically Jewish. Nor does the blessing come on all who are circumcised according to the Law of Moses, nor those that keep all of the commands in the Old Covenant. Instead, he is going to make the argument in Romans 9 that he has already presented in Romans 2, namely that those who trust in Christ and walk according to the Holy Spirit, not the letter of the Old Testament law who are heirs of the promise.
7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.”
– Romans 9:7 NKJV
He now begins to make an argument from Old Testament history to defend his argument. The assumption for the Jews of Paul’s day would be that those who have Abraham as their father should naturally be heirs of the promise. But Paul here begins to point out that the promise is not for every descendant of Abraham, but only those who come from Isaac. Now, this argument doesn’t seem to make Paul’s point completely. After all, everyone descended from Israel (i.e. Jacob) is not only a descendant of Abraham, but also Isaac, since Jacob (i.e. Israel) is Isaac’s son. But this is only the beginning of an argument which he will conclude in the last few verses of Romans 9.
So again, his argument is that not everyone descended from Israel (i.e. Jacob) is an heir of the promise of blessing given to Jacob (i.e. Israel). One might ask, “How can that be? Can God just change His promise?” To answer this Paul refers back to Abraham who was the first one to receive the promise to become a great nation and a blessing to all nations. Abraham, the argument goes, was given the promise, but the promise was not inherited by all of Abraham’s children, but through Isaac. So, God sovereignly narrowed the promise down to only one line of Abraham’s descendants.
No Jew would argue that God didn’t have a right to cut Ismael out of the promise and give it to Isaac instead. Unbelieving Jews would immediately feel the weight of the argument. If they object that God has now limited the promise of blessing to those that believe in Jesus the Messiah, they must also object to the fact that God did the same thing in the past with Isaac. But the Jew could never imagine objecting to what God did in that case, instead they take pride in the narrowing of the promise to one of their ancestors. They must admit that God has the right to limit who inherits the promise, because they accept that He already limited who inherits it in the past.
8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. 9 For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.”
– Romans 9:8-9 NKJV
Paul now makes a connection to the case at hand. His ultimate argument is that only those who believe in Messiah are heirs of the New Covenant blessings. He has brought up Isaac as a historical example of God’s right to narrow who receives the blessing. But now he uses Isaac as a type of those who will receive that blessing, namely Chirstians.
We must not get confused at this point. Paul is going to jump ahead to his conclusion later on in the chapter. But we must note, he is also referring back to previous chapters in which he has already made the same point. He has already taught plainly that people receive the blessing of reconciliation with God and entry into the New Covenant through faith in Christ, not through adherence to the Law of Moses.
How could we get confused? We might confuse the type with the fulfillment. Isaac was not a born again Christian. That is to ignore the biblical history as God has given it to us. The promise he received was that through his descendants the nations would be blessed. This is the promise he inherited from his father, Abraham. He had not received the blessing that was to come. Instead he was promised that the blessing would come to the world through his descendants. The blessing is that Jesus Christ has come to die for the sins of mankind, defeat death by rising from the dead and be exalted to the right hand of God as Lord, Judge and Savior. The blessing is the forgiveness of sins, freedom from sin’s power and the hope of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
God gave Abraham the promise that he would become a great nation and that through that nation God would bless all nations (Genesis 12:1-3). Then in Genesis chapter 15 Abraham believed the promise that God would give him countless descendants. He received another promise in Genesis chapter 17, namely that his wife Sarah would have a child in her old age, and that son would be the seed through which the promise would be fulfilled. God promised to supernaturally give Abraham a child in his old age. He was indeed a promised child, a miracle child.
Paul uses that historical event to illustrate that Christians who are born supernaturally of the Holy Spirit, not of natural descent, are the heirs of the blessing long ago promised to Abraham. Ishmael had been born to Abraham by natural means, according to human planning and cunning, when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine. Paul makes it clear that Ishmael is a type of those Jews in his day who had rejected the fulfillment of the promise, namely Jesus Christ. Just as Ismael was a product of human ingenuity, not of God’s will and purpose, so the unbelieving portion of Israel were also rejected regarding the receiving of the promise.
Consider the harshness of this rebuke. Paul, after making a historical point about God’s right to narrow the line through which people will inherit the promise, goes on to compare Christians to Isaac and non-Christian Jews to Ismael! Paul was not pulling any punches.
He made this same point in Galatians 4:
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar– 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–
– Galatians 4:21-25 NKJV
In the above passage Paul compared national Israel who had rejected Christ and chose the Old Covenant law as their boast to Hagar, a slave woman and a concubine! He said that the unbelieving Jews were in bondage, because they were born according to the flesh of a slave woman. But believers in Christ were born of promise, born of a free woman, Sarah. This is the same point Paul is making in Romans 9:6-9.
10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”
– Romans 9:10-13 NKJV
After rebuking the unbelieving Jews by comparing them to Ismael, he returns back to his primary argument that God has the right to limit who can receive the promise. He has already said that God limited the heirs of the promise to Isaac’s lineage, now he goes on to say the same thing about Jacob. Isaac had two sons, but only one was the heir. Not all of Isaac’s descendants were chosen to inherit the promise of becoming a great nation that would bless all nations, only the descendants that came through Jacob (i.e. Israel).
He makes sure to point out a couple important issues about the Old Testament narrative. The first is Jacob was chosen before the children were born, while they were still in their mother’s womb. This means that the children were not good children, nor were they evil children. They had done nothing to earn the inheritance, nor had they done anything to be disqualified for the inheritance. Paul points this out to prove a point, namely that being chosen by God (in this case to become heir of the national promise) is not something that is earned by works.
What is Paul’s point here? Once again, he is using the historical narrative as a type (i.e. symbolic representation) of what he is primarily concerned about. He is not concerned with Jacob and Esau as much as he is concerned with the point he is trying to reinforce. He uses every chance he can to point out that the New Covenant blessings are not received by doing the works of the Law of Moses, but by clinging in faith to Jesus Christ. So he makes the observation that children in the womb have not done anything. They are not rebels, or obedient servants. They have done nothing to recommend nor to disqualify themselves. Therefore, God’s election of one and not the other is not according to works.
The unbelieving Jews would feel the sting of that remark. They took great pride in the works of the Law. The Law and its works were a badge of honor to them. The Law made them unique from all the other nations. But here Paul points out that Jacob was chosen, not because of his character, but because of God’s purpose. But Paul is unrelenting. He not only pierces their skin with the off the hand comment about the works of the Law, but he goes straight for the heart with his next comment. He points out that while the babies were still in the womb, God determined to bless the younger and make the older one his servant!
Why would this cut the heart of the unbelieving Jew that might listen in on Paul’s argument? Because Paul was saying these johnny-come-lately Gentile Christians were the chosen and the elder brother nation of Israel would serve them! Paul held no punches! His love for his people according to the flesh caused him to use the strongest possible illustrations he could to get their attention. He was telling them that though they had come first in the history of redemption, God has chosen to bless those that have come in the latter days.
Jesus proclaimed a parable about workers in a vineyard in Matthew chapter 20. He spoke of workers who had been working all day getting the same pay as those who had only worked for the last hour of that day. Those who had born the burden of the heat all day were angered when they saw the late comers get the same salary. This parable was spoken to humble the pride of the Jewish nation. The Gentiles were going to be welcomed into the Messiah’s kingdom, and this would anger the Jews who had been God’s people for centuries. Jesus concluded his parable in verse 16 by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” This is the very issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 9. And this is his exact point when he quotes God’s word to Rebecca, “The older shall serve the younger.”
Paul deals with this issue in another way in his letter to the Ephesians. That letter deals with the fact that God has now done a new thing by allowing believing Jews and Gentiles to become one body in the Messiah, Jesus. But though this situation only arose after the coming of Christ, it was not a spurt of the moment decision by God. Instead, God had chosen the Church, those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, long before He called the family of Abraham. God had chosen the Church in Jesus Christ before the world began. So though the Church was founded towards the end of history, they were long before chosen to be God’s holy people. A people made up not only of believing Jews, but also believing Gentiles.
Before Paul moves on from the narrative about Jacob, he makes one more piercing statement towards the unbelieving Jews. He has already compared the unbelieving Jews with Esau, a man they despise in their ethnic pride. But now he takes it a step further. He quotes God’s statement about the nation of Edom found in the first chapter of Malachi. And what a statement it is! “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Paul shows the nation of Israel, the nation that has rejected their Messiah and persecuted His saints, what He really feels about them in their rebellion. He compares them with the nation of Edom, which they despise, and shows them what God thinks about them as long as they remain in unbelief and rejection of Christ. As Paul explains elsewhere:
14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, 15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, 16 forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they may be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.
– 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 NKJV
So in conclusion thus far. Paul is using Romans 9-11 to explain why it is that the nation of Israel had by and large rejected the Messiah, and defend God’s justice in how He dealt with that nation. He begins by making it clear that though God had promised so much to Israel, He had the right to define who Israel really is. He uses the history of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to point out that God can limit who and on what condition people receive the blessings of the New Covenant. And while using those historical narratives to make His point about God’s sovereign prerogative, drives the point home that God has not chosen unbelieving Israel, but has chosen both Jews and Gentiles to receive the blessings of the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not through natural lineage or adherence to the Law of Moses.