Commentary on Romans 9:6

5 Apr

6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

This first line in verse 6 may be the most important phrase in the whole section from chapters 9-11. One of the great commentators on Romans, C.E.B. Cranfield says,“This half-verse is the sign under which the whole section of 9:6-29 stands – in fact, the sign and theme of the whole of chapters 9-11.”
John Piper has written a book on Romans 9 that has a very interesting title. It is called The Justification of God. That is really what we are dealing with in Romans 9-11 and I would say is also a big theme of the whole book, upholding the character of God. Remember that right in the beginning of the book Paul said the gospel has come in part to reveal the righteousness of God and that Jesus came in order that God might be just and the justifier, in other words that His character of holiness and mercy might be displayed in fullness to those who receive His grace.
So Paul raises the issue of God’s character here and then is quick to defend God’s character. The situation Israel is in of having rejected the Messiah while also having been long-term recipients of God’s favor is not a fatal blow to the character of God. It is not a black mark against God in any way.
We have to consider in this verse two terms: the phrase “the word of God” and the word “failed.” What does Paul mean here when he uses the phrase “the word of God”? I believe based on verses 4 and 5 that the phrase “word of God” is Paul’s way of summing up the privileges God gave to the Jews. It is this purpose of God, this plan of God, these promises of God, that has not failed.

Now the word “failed” is interesting because most of the time when it is used it means “fallen.” So there is a word picture there of something falling, in this case the blessings of God to Israel in verses 4 and 5. The picture I get is one of a wall tumbling down. So Paul says here that even though Israel largely rejected Jesus God’s promises have not become undone.
The passage that comes to mind here is Isaiah 55. 10 “For as the rain and the snow
come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Now what we see there is that the word won’t return void but God’s purpose will be accomplished. But the illustration in verse 10 is interesting. The rain and the snow is compared to the outworking of God’s Word. The rain waters the ground and causes the plants to grow. So it takes time. It is a process. Now think back to Romans 8:28, “God works in all things for good.” So God is working out His plan. So even though things on the surface look difficult or uncertain or dark, God is working and His word will not fail. The character of God has not changed.
The problem is not with God or His plan but with our understanding of who really makes up Israel. This is what Paul says in his next line, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”
So what Paul is bringing out here is two Israels. There are all those who have their physical descent from Israel and then there is true Israel. The second Israel seems to be from context those who are spiritually the people of God.
Of course, there is a similar thing for us when we think about the church today. We know that when we meet together as a church, that not all the church belong to the church. In other words, in every church there are lost members who claim membership in the church. People looking in from the outside would say all the people in the church are saved but we know it most likely is not the case. In the same way, looking at Israel from the outside we would regard every Jew as a part of Israel. But this is only true physically, just as church membership makes a person appear to be a Christian.
The Jews in the Bible often appealed to their physical heritage as a proof of their special relationship with God. But what Paul will say here is that real relationship with God depends not on physical lineage but on God.
There are two kinds of Israel and two kinds of election. There is a sense in which God elected the whole nation of Israel to receive His Word and to be the people through whom the Savior would come. And we will see later, when we get to Pharaoh in verse 17, that sometimes God elects a person or a nation to a certain purpose. This is a common theme in the Bible. But there is also an election to salvation, which comes by the grace of God through faith in the Savior, Jesus. All the promises of verses 4 and 5 culminate in the coming of the Messiah so to be a true recipient of the blessings of verses 4 and 5 requires faith in the end to which all of these blessings pointed, namely Christ. So all those past and present Jews who either looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah or trusted in Christ when He was revealed, these are true Israel. God does not promise to each offspring of Abraham that he is saved because he is an offspring of Abraham. To be a Jew by birth does not make a person a child of the promise. So the real Israel is contained within the natural Israel. Spiritual Israel is contained within physical Israel.
John MacArthur says it this way, “Though the nation was chosen as a nation to be a vehicle to transmit the Scriptures, to be a vehicle to propagate the message of monotheism, one God, though the nation was chosen to be a witness nation, the choosing of the nation as an entity does not mean that every individual within that nation was also chosen to salvation. So the fact that Israel does not believe, that many individuals don’t believe doesn’t cancel the promises because God never intended in His sovereignty that every Jew would believe but that within the physical Israel there would be a believing remnant. The nation was elected to privilege but only individuals are elected to salvation. The real Israel is the Israel of faith and throughout all of the history of Israel there have been faithless Jews.”
Now this concept shows up throughout the Bible. We see it in the days of Elijah. The great prophet feels all alone in serving God. He sees all his fellow Israelites fully immersed in worshiping Baal and he just wants to give up and die. But God encourages him and says, “I have reserved to Myself 7,000 men who’ve not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.” So there were the thousands of unfaithful Israelites but within that nation there was a true Israel that was faithful to God.
When Jesus talks to the Pharisees in John 8, they claim their relationship to Abraham makes them ok. But Jesus says they are not true children of Abraham because if they were they would do the works Abraham did. And going back to John 6, where Jesus says the work of God is to believe in the One God has sent and looking at verses 44-47 in chapter 8, we see that the Pharisees did not do what Abraham did because they did not believe in Jesus. Now you say, wait a minute, Abraham lived a couple of thousand years before Jesus. But look at John 8:56. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
And of course with these texts we have to also think of Romans chapter 2 verses 28 and 29, “for he is not a Jew is one outwardly neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh but he is a Jew who is one inwardly and circumcision is that of the heart in the spirit and not in the letter whose praise is not of men but of God.”
Now there are times, like Galatians 6:16, where Paul may use the term Israel to refer to both Jews and Gentiles, kind of like a short hand way of saying “God’s people.” But here in Romans 9 it is clear that in both cases in verse 6 he is talking about ethnic Israel, the distinction being one of saved Israelites vs. unsaved Israelites.
So not all Israel are true Israel, in terms of God’s word being fulfilled in their lives. Now where it gets really interesting is how Paul chooses to illustrate this fact because his illustration points to the reason for the separation between true Israel and the rest of Israel. What would most of us assume is the difference between true Israel and the rest of Israel? True Israel had faith and the rest did not but rejected God. That is right. But now what Paul is going to do in these next few verses is tell us why Israel had faith. And it is at this point that Paul gives an answer that surprises and even infuriates many.

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