Commentary on Romans 9:7

10 Apr

Reading the book of Romans reminds me of a time when I was hiking. I went hiking and got to the top of a hill thinking I was done only to find another ridge that was really our final destination way off in the distance. In Romans, we study through chapters 1-8 and we’ve climbed a high theological mountain, only to find another higher ridge awaiting us in Romans 9-11. When we reach the top of the mountain at the end of chapter 11, we read these wonderful words, 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
These words at the end of chapter 11 are like the beautiful vista we see at the end of our climb. But along the way to these great verses there are many difficult verses. But in the end I want to keep front and center a heart of celebration. As we think, I want our hearts to sing. Part of the reason theological and truth-minded people have a bad reputation is because lots of people do not like the truth, because it reveals our unrighteousness. On the other hand, sometimes truth-minded people have a bad reputation because we are more concerned with being right than we are concerned with worshiping God. It is true that we worship in spirit and truth but in that we have to always guard our hearts against the tendency to love being right more than we love the truth we may be right about. So I pray for an attitude among us that as we wrestle through these things, we do so with a heart of joy, a heart that echoes chapter 11:33-36. We want to be able to say those words with Paul whether we fully grasp every idea in these chapters or even if we are wrong in some way about how we interpret these chapters. Every one of us should be able to affirm and rest in chapter 11:33-36.
Now last time we established two truths from verse 6. First, we saw that the word of God has not failed. Second we saw that not all Israel are Israel. These two truths are closely connected. Paul was concerned with the failure of the word of God because he saw how many of the Jews, God’s people, had rejected Jesus. This grieved Paul because he realized that his people were destined for hell. In fact he will later say that he would be willing to be cut off and accursed for the sake of his people. But this wasn’t just a personal grief for Paul, he also saw how it called into question the character of God. How could God be all-powerful if those He had chosen had rejected Him?
So Paul is dealing with the question of whether God’s character is trustworthy in light of the fact that the Jews had rejected Jesus. And His strong answer is that God’s word, by which we think he means the purposes and promises of God culminating in Jesus, has not failed.
Paul is clear that God’s Word has not failed because not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel. Now in context he is talking about the Jews. This is made clear from verses 1-5. There is national Israel and then there is within national Israel a portion who are true Israel. Now at this point in the text we don’t know what he is talking about exactly, we only know these distinctions because of context. The immediate and remote context of verse 6 tells us that he is talking about the situation of Israel, his kinsmen according to the flesh.
So Paul is talking here about a distinction between two kinds of Israel here, one that is Israel but is really not true Israel and one that is Israel and is true Israel. Now what Paul will illustrate is why this is so.
Now what might we expect Paul’s answer to be as to why there is one Israel that is not Israel and another that is true Israel? (One rejected and one received). The expectation most people would have is that the true Israel is the Israel of faith and the false Israel is the Israel of unbelief. And I want to say to you that this is true. But I want to also say that according to this text there is something even more fundamental and basic at the bottom of this distinction that is vitally important and which disturbs many. That is what we are going to be looking at in verses 7-13. We’ll start with verse 7 . . .

7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
Now this is a verse where I like the KJV much better than the ESV. I like it for the use of two words, “seed” and “called.” What Paul is doing here is that he is going to use two examples from the book of Genesis to show how there is a true Israel inside national Israel. In verses 7-9 he will bring up the example of Isaac and in verses 10-13 the example of Jacob and Esau. The point of the first example is to show that physical relation to Abraham does not guarantee salvation. This illustration is not exactly equivalent to the reality of what Paul is bringing out in verse 6, because all the people he is talking about there are physical children of Abraham through Isaac. But the point of the illustration is to show how God’s ways have not changed and therefore how His character is unassailable. God has always made distinctions. God has always had a chosen people to whom His promises applied, so His Word has not failed.
There is a difference here between the seed of Abraham and the children of Abraham, or as the ESV puts it, between his offspring and his children. Ishmael and Isaac were both Abraham’s children; yet it was through Isaac alone that God counted Abraham’s descendants spiritually.
The difference between seed and children here is the difference between physical relation and entrance into the covenant promises God gave to Abraham. And the illustration is referring to the immediate children of Abraham rather than to all his descendants. The illustration is intended to tell us that everybody who descended from the loins of Abraham is not automatically in the covenant, that everybody descending from Abraham is not automatically in the promise, and that everybody descending from Abraham is not automatically in the salvation blessing. The best way to prove this is to go right back to Abraham’s biography.
Isaac was not the firstborn son of Abraham. Ishmael was. But Isaac was the child of promise. God came to Abraham and promised that he and Sarah would have a son. But Ishmael was rejected, he was outcast, he was put apart from the line of promise. And God gave to Abraham and Sarah in spite of their sinfulness the child of promise who was Isaac.
Now the point here is this: God chooses some of the sons of Abraham to covenant blessing, not all of them. And it’s obvious from the very start, He rejected Ishmael. He accepted the line to come through Isaac. And I don’t know if you remember but Abraham had another wife by the name of Keturah through whom he had a couple more sons. And they too were rejected. So just being a child of Abraham doesn’t put you in the place of blessing. And that’s verified by the illustration of the case of Isaac. The chosen nation was to come through the loins of Isaac. Paul’s argument is very simple. Ishmael and Isaac demonstrate that God never intended all those naturally descending from Abraham to receive covenant blessing. The point is, God is selective…or better, God is elective. And the key word is “called,” chosen by God’s sovereign will.

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