What about us?
Last time we heard about three groans as this world awaits release, but we ended chapter 8 on a high: nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus! Chapter 9 brings a notable change of tone: Paul has great sorrow and unceasing anguish! Why? Because of his people Israel.
Profound changes in God’s relationship with his appointed people were taking place in Paul’s time. The change was of such magnitude that the church was much affected. Israel was the nation through whom God had worked since the days of Abraham. Now everything seemed to have changed. You may feel that this is just a bit of ancient history that we can ignore – surely we should just enjoy God and our faith rather than worrying about these matters, after all it’s an area of controversy and sometimes brings division and bitter argument, isn’t it? It may seem that way, but if we fail to do our homework and get to grips with this theme we could easily end up wrecking the wonderful life changing message of the gospel – it really is that important. So please stick with this, it really is important!
The church in Rome was almost certainly begun by Jews. But Satan has always been busy undermining God’s choice people. Some things never change: Israel is, and the Jews are, an unwelcome and badly treated group today: we see this in British politics, church politics and international politics. Why is this so? If you have been part of our studies in Revelation you will know that Satan’s demise is tied up with Israel, he has a lot to lose! If Satan can undermine Israel he can frustrate God’s plans for his demise.
It is recorded in the book of Acts (18:2) that the Roman emperor directed the expulsion of Jews from Rome sometime in the 40s AD. The church in Rome founded largely by Jews, thus became predominantly, if not exclusively, Gentile. But in 54 AD or thereabouts, the emperor Nero permitted Jews to return to Rome (Paul wrote his letter to Rome in 57/58 AD). Now you can imagine that the return of Jews to the church in Rome raised some serious questions: the Jews started the church but now that it had been run by Gentiles, what was the role of the returning Jews? – it is under these particular circumstances that Paul writes chapter 9.
Make no mistake, the Jews were God’s agents or representatives on earth. They had a remarkable history of privilege in this respect. Paul says: ‘Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.’ I find it interesting that Ken Livingston and some of his colleagues have such a hatred for these people, but I find it even more remarkable that so many who claim the name of Christ also hold the Jews in such disdain. Martin Luther said of the Jews: a ‘base, whoring people, that is no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.’ Since the atrocities of the holocaust, language has not surprisingly been moderated, but similar attitudes prevail in the church today in places not far from home. A well known Church of England vicar in Surrey, a member of Reform and described as a conservative evangelical said of the ‘Zionists’ (in 2011): ‘they’ve repudiated Jesus, they’ve repudiated the bible and they are an abomination.’
Is this fair? Shouldn’t we base our thinking on the Jews on what the bible says rather than what some Christians say? Here’s what did Paul said in verse 2: ‘2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel.’ Paul would give his life for these people! In fact he would give his eternal destiny for them: what a contrast in attitude!
So, serious questions arose in Paul’s day as to the role of Jews and how to understand their change of status. Before we go any further we should take a quick look at the end of chapter 9 to see where Paul’s argument is going to lead. He says in verse 30: ‘the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.’ Whatever has happened to the Jews and Israel is as a result of failure to choose the right way. They failed to put their faith in God. The situation they found themselves in was as a result of their own moral choice or to use Paul’s phrase ‘they stumbled.’ The conclusion Paul makes (faith failure) is of great importance: whatever he is about to say to explain the demise of the Jews, results primarily from their own failure to believe. This is the key that unlocks this chapter.
From time to time we hear of politicians being deselected by their constituency party. I think this is a reasonable way to think of the situation that confronted the Jews in Paul’s day. They had had a prominent role as God’s representatives on earth but that role was being transferred to Gentiles and the church. That was an almost impossible thing for Jews to get their heads around. Paul explained using two specific examples of how this de-selection was well within God’s rights and was consistent with his way of working.
Paul states that there were occasions in Israel’s history in which God deselected descendents of Abraham. Thus the situation under which Paul writes is not new. The Jews were proud of their descent from Abraham, after all, the key promise God made to Israel came as a promise to Abraham – a promise involving nationhood and permanent land rights. The first example of de-selection comes from no less than Abraham’s first two sons: had the Jews considered that God’s promise only applied to Isaac and not his half brother Ishmael? God had a right to deselect Ishmael from the promise made to Abraham. Secondly, had the Jews considered the fact that God selected Jacob to receive the line of promise from Abraham rather than his twin brother (Esau). God has the right to deselect as well as select. Before we go any further we need to just address Paul’s statement about Jacob and Esau: ‘Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.’ A survey of the character of God in the bible will lead one to the conclusion that God’s key feature is one of love and righteousness. Jesus encouraged love for enemies and Paul said that the entire law was summed up in love for one’s neighbour as one’s self. There are few instances in the Bible of God hating anything other than sin and zero references of God hating any specific individuals. So what do we make of this statement about Jacob and Esau? Remember that Paul is developing an argument relating to God’s rights to select and deselect the Jews: the statement about Jacob and Esau is about God having the right to choose one of the twins to inherit his promise. Paul is actually quoting from Malachi and it becomes very clear that the original quotation uses hyperbole (just as Jesus did when he said that to become a disciple one must hate father, mother, wife and children!). The point in Malachi is that God selected the line from one twin to be his people and not the other. Was this about the personal standing of these two individuals before God? No. Was it about the faith of one and not the other? No. Was it about the eternal salvation of one and not the other? No. it was about God’s selection of a special group to be his representatives on earth. Incidentally I think there is good evidence that Esau as an individual developed a godly character (see Genesis 33).
So we have two examples of how it was quite within the rights of God to de-select groups from Abraham’s line. An objector could reasonably ask (as Paul does in verse 14) – isn’t this a bit unfair? Now the context of that objection is the current de-selection of Jews. What is that basis of this? So is this unfair? Paul answers: ‘not at all.’ And cites a sentence from Exodus (33:19) ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ The context of this verse was that Moses was meeting God and the circumstances were not all that great: the people were playing up and God himself described them as a ‘stiff necked people.’ In spite of this, God chose to bring this generation of Abraham’s descendents out of the wilderness and to have compassion on them. It was God’s decision to offer them a chance to enter the Promised Land, even although they deserved much less! If this is the case, then shouldn’t God have the right to give Israel what it currently deserves (de-selection)?
At this point it is vitally important to be reminded that this was not about individuals coming to God for rescue from their sin nature – that comes by faith. Let me repeat that, it is only by faith that we have our sins dealt with, God’s decision about the selection or de-selection of his chosen corporate people is an entirely different matter. Failure to spot this difference leads us towards a view that is not only wrong but a view runs against the grain of the bible and more importantly gets God a bad name.
3. God’s actions in de-selection are influenced by human behaviour
In spite of Israel’s special place they had made a right royal mess of things. They had rejected the fore-runner in John the Baptist (he was beheaded), their religious leaders had branded Jesus as the prince of devils and they had as a group of people rejected and executed the Messiah. There surely would only be one outcome – some sort of rejection by God. But what does Paul actually say? He says that it is in God’s hands whether he chooses to work with them or de-select the current generation. An example from Israel’s history is given, but not this time from Israel themselves. Pharaoh was repeatedly asked by Moses to let God’s people go. In spite of a series of dreadful plagues on Pharaoh’s people, he repeatedly refused God’s people their request. The sequence of his refusal is of great interest. We read at the start of the series of plagues that Pharaoh’s heart was hard and that he himself hardened his heart, but as the plagues proceed we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The lesson is clear, continued refusal to acknowledge God’s obvious revelation of himself will result in a judgement and the form of that judgement is an inability to respond. As a matter of fact God dealt quite patiently with Pharaoh, he was given many opportunities to do the right thing. God revealed himself in spectacular and obvious ways. But Pharaoh repeatedly denied the obvious and refused Moses’ repeated requests and this in spite of overwhelming evidence that God was with Moses. Eventually God rendered Pharaoh incapable of responding to the evidence. The lesson? if by your own will you harden your heart against the obvious, then God will harden your heart in preparation for judgement. Paul seems to be saying that Israel had done the same thing, they had been afforded opportunity after opportunity to do the right thing, the evidence of God’s activity was overwhelming, but the people formally rejected the obvious. Eventually God judged them by removing their ability to decide the right thing. You may remember when Jesus wept over Jerusalem he said the following: “37O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23). Luke adds some more information to this incident when he records “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 21). Note that Israel had repeatedly by an act of their will refused the obvious but by the time Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday they were no longer capable of doing the right thing. Just like Pharaoh! Remember that the context is about the place of Israel in God’s plans and the way he is setting aside the nation – this is exactly the theme Paul is explaining. God can choose to be patient but can also choose to bring an end to the place of the Jews as his special people. Incidentally we will see in the next chapters that God will do this within the parameters of his own promises to Israel. It turns out that this is a temporary de-selection.
Paul picks up on this theme with one more illustration. The picture is one of a potter and the quotation comes from Isaiah. In that prophecy the Lord speaks to Israel with an unusual message. The message is that Israel will one day come under judgement and the instrument of that judgement will be their enemies. But when the enemies strike, their capability to inflict damage will be removed: “8as when a hungry man dreams that he is eating, but he awakens, and his hunger remains.” (Isaiah 29). The strange thing is that because of Israel’s disobedience they were incapable of understanding this wonderful prophecy of deliverance! The prophet says that in their disobedience Israel tries to take on God’s role as the potter failing to recognise that they are the pot in God’s hands. It’s another example of God altering his plans in response to Israel’s unbelief. Paul’s conclusion is this: ‘Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some for special purposes and some for common use.’ What does Paul mean here in the context of Israel’s situation? Surely that God’s choice people to whom the covenants and promises etc. have been made are not immune from God reacting to their disobedience. The Jewish believers returning to Rome would be beginning to understand that the response of the Jews to Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit was precipitating a reaction in God’s dealing with their nation.
4. A new people
In verse 22 Paul goes on to say the following: ‘22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.’ So what does that mean! The answer actually comes in the next verse…’24even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?’
Paul seems to be saying that his people Israel had prepared themselves for wrath by their repeated rejection of the obvious. But rather than jumping to judgement God was patient. How so? After the rejection of the Messiah what did God do? Did he bring judgement on Israel for their dreadful refusal to accept Jesus as their Messiah? Not at all – in fact God gave them another chance – all of the early part of Acts takes place in Jerusalem and the Jews are given another chance. Here’s Peter speaking to the ‘men of Israel’ in Acts 3 men who had just witnessed the miraculous healing of a man crippled from birth. ‘19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you--even Jesus.’ How did the religious elite in Jerusalem respond to Peter’s message? They jailed Peter and John! Another official rejection of Jesus! But not everyone responded in the same way as the Jewish officials. Another group was emerging: a group who accepted Jesus. Acts 4:4 - ‘But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.’ Paul indicates that this group of believers who were going against the national trend now included Gentiles.
Paul shows through a series of Old Testament quotations that the presence of just a few true believers amongst Israel is not a new phenomenon. Throughout Israel’s chequered history there has always been a few who have remained true. But there is something new too, God will bring a new people into fellowship with him: ‘As he says in Hosea: I will call them 'my people' who are not my people; and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one.’ (verse 25).
So there it is. The Jews in Rome would be beginning to get the message that the place of Israel had changed. Something new was happening. God was reacting to Israel’s continual refusal – as was his right. He had the right to choose a group of descendents from Abraham, he had the right to select some of the offspring, he had the right to be patient, he had the right to respond to their disobedience with patience and now he has the right to respond to their continued disobedience with de-selection.
So we’re getting a picture of how God deals with his people collectively. But what of our personal relationship with God? Whether Jew or Gentile? Some people at this point completely fail to get Paul’s point and they state that people are just a lump of clay in God’s hands for God to do as he pleases- a thousand times no! – That’s about his collective people Israel - Go back and read the passage again! So just what is the basis for personal fellowship with God? Paul has already told us earlier in Romans, but he tells us again in verse 30: ‘What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith:’ And what is faith? Believing what God says is true neither more nor less.