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  • Writer's pictureJoel Strahan

Romans 9: Deep Dive

The Problem:

Romans 9:1–3 ESV1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

The problem to which Paul is speaking:

  • Paul is sorrowful about the state of his people, the Jews.

  • Paul asserts that if he could be cut off from Christ so that the Jews could be saved, he would do it.

The question Paul wants to answer:

  • Why are the people God chose to enter covenant with cut off from the salvation He promised them through that covenant?

(The same question asked another way) How is it possible for some Jews to not be saved (redeemed)? How is it possible that the Jews are anti-Jesus? How is it possible that the Jews have rejected Jesus as Messiah and missed the redemption God promised through Him and established them as a people for the purpose of redeeming a people from every nation, tribe, and tongue?

(REMEMBER) Paul, a Jew, at one time lived anti-Jesus. Now Paul is living in covenant with the Christ not primarily with Jews (the nation), but with Gentiles, who (with the Jews) have been established as the church.

What God intended for the Jews:

Romans 9:4–5 ESV4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. God called Abram out of a family of idol worshipers, and promised to make his descendants a great nation—a nation through whom the promise of the Messiah would be fulfilled; a nation through whom (because of the Messiah) every family on the earth would be blessed.

Paul acknowledges that God created the nation of Israel by SPEAKING (His word) to Abram, thereby choosing them as a people to be redeemed from their slavery to sin, adopted children of Creator God, and separated out from the world as a holy people unto the Lord.

God delivered first to the Jews (rather than any other nation) the revelation of Himself.

Throughout history, God has raised up stewards of His word (His revelation of Himself), and the Jews as a people are raised up as stewards of God’s instructions, promises, and prohibitions.

By grace, God made a sovereign choice to give the free gift of adoption. He by grace sovereignly chose to reveal His glory to them (No other nation can claim that Creator God spoke to all of them at once as He did to the Jews on Mount Sinai). By grace through sovereign choice, God entered into covenants with the Jews. He by grace sovereignly chose to give them the law. He did this only for the Jews. In order for any member of another nation to enter into covenant with God, they had to submit to God's covenants with the Jews. They had to become a Jew (Rehab, Ruth). By grace God sovereignly chose the patriarchs through election, revealing Himself to them and training them to walk by faith. By grace, God sovereignly chose to fulfill the promise of the Messiah (to Eve, Abraham, and David) through the nation of Israel.

Paul is careful to articulate the truth that the Messiah is God. Progressively, from Eve to Malachi, God revealed that the Messiah would be from the seed of the woman, “God with us.”

PROBLEM DYNAMIC: BECAUSE NOW THE JEWS ARE REJECTING THE MESSIAH (JESUS), IT SEEMS AS THOUGH THE WORD OF GOD HAS FAILED.

Romans 9:6–8 ESV6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. Paul explains that the word of God (choosing Israel for covenant and calling them His firstborn) has not failed at all.

Paul points out that all who have descended from Isreal are not from the bloodline of the nation. Not all who are children of Abraham are literally his bloodline descendants.

Through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants will be named (Gen 21 12). When God spoke this truth to Abraham, God was making the distinction that Ishmael, though he was a bloodline offspring of Abraham, was not named an offspring according to the promise. Abraham’s offspring would be named according to the promise (of the Messiah).

Until the Messiah was provided, God would preserve His promise to Eve (and now Abraham) through election. By grace, not according to works, God would keep a people of promise through election until He fulfilled the promise of the Messiah. Therefore, although Abraham attempted to provide a seed for himself (Ishmael), God determined that according to election, Isaac would inherit the promise from the seed of Sarah.

PAUL NOW UNPACKS THE KEEPING OF THIS PROMISE THROUGH ELECTION:

Romans 9:9–13 ESV9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Paul recounts that God made a sovereign choice to select Isaac’s seed through which the promised Messiah would come. He then establishes the doctrine of election with one more example. He uses the next generation.

Like Abraham before him, Isaac preferred that the SEED OF PROMISE would flow through Esau. However, before Jacob and Esau were born, God chose Jacob (the younger brother) to inherit the promise of Abraham. Although Esau was a bloodline descendant of Abraham, through sovereign choice, Esau was not selected as the seed through which the Messiah would come.

Note: The sovereign selection of election (the selection of the seed through which the Messiah would come) was not God’s choice of wrath for Esau. Esau was not doomed to hell and prohibited from a right relationship with God by faith. Rather, Esau’s descendants would be counted among the Gentiles. Like the example Rahab and Ruth provide, Edom (Esau’s descendants) would have to submit to the covenant God established with Jacob’s (Israel’s) descendants who would be called a nation by his name.

Paul is making the point that God’s word (His choosing of Abraham’s descendants) has not failed. God never intended or communicated that salvation was determined by a bloodline connection to Abraham. God’s terms for salvation have always been that through faith all people are redeemed.

By using Jacob’s descendants (ultimately Judah) and Esau’s descendants (Edom), Paul establishes the truth that God’s purpose of election continued throughout history and will continue in the future not according to the deeds of people, but according to God’s sovereign choice. God selected Jacob before He was born to inherit the seed of promise. Therefore, God obligated Himself to train Jacob to walk by faith. From a human perspective, we could say that God expended many more resources to bring Jacob to righteousness than He did to Esau. But we cannot make the claim that God withheld Himself from Esau or His descendants.

Paul references how history unfolded. Edom eventually rejected God’s covenant with Israel, and therefore God destroyed them. Rather than submit to the covenant (the law of Moses, including the land, and the mercy seat), Edom attempted to steal back what (from their perspective) was stolen from them.

At the time Edom attempted to take the land God had given Israel, Judah had also rejected God. They were committing all of the sins of the Canaanites, the northern kingdom of Israel, and the nations of the earth. God kept his promise to Eve, Abraham, and David by sending Judah into exile rather than destroying them like He did Edom and Israel.

PAUL UNDERSTANDS THAT THIS PRESENTS ANOTHER LAYER TO THE APPEARANCE THAT GOD’S WORD (HIS CHOOSING ISRAEL FOR COVENANT) HAS FAILED. IT ALSO APPEARS THAT GOD IS NOT JUST. WHY WOULD GOD DESTROY THE NORTHERN KINGDOM OF ISRAEL AND EDOM BUT PRESERVE JUDAH? AFTER ALL, JUDAH WAS COMMITTING THE SAME WORKS THAT THESE OTHER NATIONS WERE COMMITTING.

PAUL NOW ASKS THE OBVIOUS QUESTION. IS GOD UNJUST?

Romans 9:14–18 ESV14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

It seems that there is injustice in the way God is administering judgment and mercy. Paul is going to explain that ultimately God made a sovereign choice and made His terms for redemption known:


God entered into covenant with the nation of Israel and through election established the bloodline of the SEED OF PROMISE through this nation. However, God also offered all Gentile nations redemption through faith. His terms were that people must submit to His covenant with Israel. This would mean that any nation could be grafted in with Israel to inherit the promise by faith. They would have to show their faith by repentance. They would have to show their repentance by keeping the law of Moses (God’s terms of the covenant). Simply put, any Gentile could be grafted into the nation of Israel by faith. Rahab and Ruth prove this point.

Paul asserts that there is no injustice with God. God is sovereign. He chose the terms for redemption. Redemption could only come through the shedding of the blood of the innocent on behalf of the guilty. People could only show their faith in God by submitting to the law of Moses which was only given to the Jews.

All people understand that Judah was just as sinful as any other nation. However, God’s sovereign choice stands forever. The fact that Judah did not obey the terms of the covenant themselves did not nullify God’s terms for redemption or His covenant with His people. Paul explains God’s prerogative to show mercy to Judah while at the same time He was pouring out wrath on other nations, by reminding us that God told Moses at the beginning of the covenant that “He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy.”

The covenant God entered into with Israel was never dependent on their obedience. His covenant with them was for the purpose of fulfilling His promise of a Messiah. In order to fulfill this promise, God would have to show mercy to Judah.

NOTE: When we read the story of the Divided Kingdom Era and the Captivity Era, we see that God did not show mercy to all people of Judah. God killed many people in Judah who rejected Him. However, He demonstrated His wrath in this way in order to bring a remnant to repentance. God’s “mercy” to Judah was not demonstrated as a “whatever sin you commit I will overlook.” Rather, God simply refused to destroy Judah because of the SEED OF PROMISE.

Paul illustrates God’s sovereignty over nations and their kings by pointing to Pharaoh. God declared about him, “I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Paul concludes from Pharaoh’s example that God indeed is just in His dealing (in mercy) with Judah as a sinful nation. Everyone understood the judgment God poured out on Judah—using foreign nations to rip them out of the promised land, destroying the temple and the city of Jerusalem.

Paul uses God’s dealing with the pagan Gentile nation of Egypt as another example of God pouring out His wrath. Using the entire story of the Old Testament as a context, we can infer Paul’s point. Rather than destroying Egypt in the same way He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He allowed Egypt to flourish (in their rejection of Creator God that Abraham and later Joseph introduced them to). Although God pronounced judgment on Egypt in Gen 15 13-14, God gave Pharaoh power over the nation (raised the man called Pharaoh to power) in order to declare His name throughout the earth.

Paul concludes that the word God told Moses--”I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”-- God has remained faithful to. However, Paul is in no way saying that God has shown mercy and judgment without explanation. Making sure this point is communicated, Paul continues...

Romans 9:19–23 ESV19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—

First, notice verses 22-23.

Paul is pointing out that sovereign God may pronounce judgment (like He did on Egypt…before pharaoh was born) beforehand while waiting to execute that judgment. After being introduced to Creator God by Abraham, God, looking forward and seeing no repentance, He may allow a wicked people to flourish until the fulness of time to execute judgment according to His purposes. In Egypt’s case, God made a distinction between His people and the people of Egypt; the gods of Egypt. He did this in the way that He did it to make a magnificent show of His mercy and redemption of His people, Israel.

God speaks future things to Abraham (Gen 15 13-14). He is able to pronounce judgment on Egypt beforehand because even though He has acted and will act to bring them to repentance, He foresees that they will not repent. Because God is preparing Israel for glory, God may choose to withhold the execution of judgment from Egypt until the time of perfect justice for them (Egypt), and perfect declaration of glory of His name for the world and for His people, Israel.

Backing up from verses 22-23, Paul addresses the fact that judgment was made on Pharaoh and Egypt before that generation of Egyptians were born (Gen 15 13-14). The obvious question that arises is, “Why does God still find fault in Pharaoh?” He wasn’t even born yet when God pronounced judgment. Reading the story, we see that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he could not repent.

The same thing happened to the Jews during Jesus’ day. This makes Pharaoh and Egypt a perfect example for Paul to use as he explains the answer to the appearance that the word of God (His choosing of the Jews for covenant) has failed. During Ahaz’s day, God pronounced future judgment on Judah. In fact, Isaiah reveals that the coming of the Messiah will be the sign that God will be getting ready to execute this judgment. God is going to cut off His people, but He will save a remnant. The sign that this will happen is the virgin birth.

In order to explain God’s justice in pronouncing judgment on Egypt and Pharaoh before he was born, Paul quotes Isaiah and Jeremiah. We must look to what Isaiah said in order to understand why Paul is using this example with regard to Pharaoh.

Isaiah is pronouncing this future judgment on Judah when he makes this statement:

Isaiah 29:11–16 ESV11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.” 13 And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, 14 therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” 15 Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” 16 You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

vs 11-12. God points out that His people are so hardened, that they cannot understand the vision of judgment.

vs 13. God places the responsibility for their rejection of Him on them.

vs 14. God will respond to them by tearing down their leaders.

vs 15-16. (What Paul is quoting) God points out that the people are thinking wrongly about Him. They think that God does not see their wickedness or perceive the games they are playing with Him. They are unaware that they are not fooling Him when they “honor Him with their lips.” But God knows their hearts! To illustrate this, God uses the picture of the potter and the clay. God is saying, “I know you because I made you.”

God is not saying in this passage that He created them to disobey Him.

AGAIN ISAIAH USES THE PICTURE OF THE POTTER AND CLAY:

Isaiah 45:5–10 ESV5 I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. 8 “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; let the earth cause them both to sprout; I the Lord have created it. 9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? 10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”

Here again, the picture of the potter and the clay is not meant to communicate that God made the people of Judah to disobey Him and reject Him. Instead, God is using the picture to point out the foolishness of their rejection of Him.

ISAIAH USES THE PICTURE OF THE POTTER AND THE CLAY AGAIN:

Isaiah 64:6–9 ESV6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 8 But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.

Here, in repentance, Isaiah acknowledges that the picture of the potter and the clay that God used is true. He is saying to God, “We have sinned. Be merciful to us and do not destroy us forever…you made us…we are yours.” God answers this prayer. Even though God executed judgment on the Jews through the crucifixion of Jesus, He allowed them to be saved afterward according to the terms of the new covenant.

JEREMIAH ALSO USES THE PICTURE OF THE POTTER AND THE CLAY:

Jeremiah 18:5–11 ESV5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’

This is probably the most articulate explanation of this picture and should be used to interpret what Paul is saying in Rom 9.

Notice vs. 7-10. God first states that He is the potter and Israel is the clay. Then He explains how He acts concerning nations and kingdoms. When He declares judgment and a nation repents, He relents from the judgment. When He plants a nation and they do evil, then He relents from the good He planned. God is trying to call Judah to repentance.

NOW, BACK TO PAUL AND ROMANS 9 19-23:

As Paul states vs 21, he is aware of the Scripture he is quoting. Paul is not communicating that God made Pharaoh to disobey Him and reject Him. Paul is communicating that God is acting in the way that He said He would act (explained by Isaiah and Jeremiah). Paul is clearly communicating by quoting the prophets that God acted concerning Egypt and pharaoh consistently in accordance with His character—and consistent with how He says that He acts.

The inference would not have been lost on the Jews. God said through Jeremiah that if He planted a nation and they did evil, then He would relent from the good He had planned for it. Paul is signaling: “Hey guys…this is what has happened to you!”


CONCLUSION

The rest of this passage is not difficult.

Paul explains that according to God’s purpose of election, Jesus (the Messiah) was delivered according to God’s covenant with Israel. According to election, Jesus was the stumbling stone Isaiah mentioned to Ahaz (the one born of a virgin). According to election, Jesus established a new covenant: faith would now be demonstrated not through the works of the law of Moses, but through submission to Jesus as God. According to election, the Jews may come to God, but must now submit to the terms of the new covenant.

God’s word has not failed.

Paul communicates not that God has caused people or nations to disobey Him and reject Him. Rather, he communicates that God sovereignly accomplished a redemption work according to His purpose of election by setting terms for redemption and preserving His promise of a SEED (the Messiah) through covenant with Abraham’s offspring—and offspring by faith which would always include those who are not attached to Abraham by bloodline.

I believe this chapter, because of Paul’s use of Pharaoh as an example, is a good summary passage to help us come to terms with what we believe about God. Paul is either saying that God created Pharaoh to reject Him, or that God looked out ahead to see that pharaoh would reject Him and chose to raise him to power over a nation that rejected Him.

Obviously, I hold the latter view. However, many have debated the truths in this passage.

I know that all believers eventually agree that:

  • God desires all to be saved.

  • The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus.

  • Jesus commanded us to bear witness to Him.

  • God’s word communicated to the hearer is the means through which depraved man may come to faith.

  • We must make disciples of all nations. We must spend our lives helping others come to faith in Christ and teaching believers to obey Jesus.

  • May the Holy Spirit continue to make Jesus known, and may we continue to be used by Him to proclaim the gospel!


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