I wonder what kinds of things keep you awake at night. That’s one area where there’s no shortage now. Uncertain times caused by COVID an energy crisis and fuel and food shortages are enough to cause plenty of anxiety.
But I suspect there are even bigger and deeper things that trouble us, wake us up in the night and leave us restless and unsettled. Do you ever wake up worrying about friends who you care about but just don’t seem to show any interest in Jesus? Then there’s the family member who remains angry at God? Perhaps it’s the kids that are on your mind. Will their childlike, love for Jesus grow into a real saving trust in him?
Our big question as we come to this passage is “Can I trust God with his plan and purpose?” It arises out of what we’ve seen in Romans up until this point. We’ve seen that we all without excuse, exception and escape fall short of God’s glory. We are sinners and deserve death but God in Christ has acted to restore and reconcile us, to forgive us and to make us right with him. Paul’s Gospel however raises questions and challenges. He’s already dealt with one “Does that mean we can do what we please.” The other one he deals with now. Does that mean that God’s plan A failed.
There are two aspects to this. First there’s our own assurance for my salvation. If God’s first plan failed, then can I be sure plan b will work? Secondly, like Paul I look around and see my own friends and relatives -will they actually get to benefit from God’s salvation plan?
Paul expresses his missionary concern (9:1-5)
V1-2 He expresses great love and anguish for the Jews. He would be ready to swap places with them, to be anathematised or cursed. This is a form of Christlike love, a willingness to take on the curse and exclusion of others so that they can truly be the kinsmen or brothers spiritually that they are physically. (v3).
V4-5 Note there is a unique and specific issue for Paul here regarding eschatology and the specifics of his Gospel . Israel have a unique position as heirs of the covenant. All the privileges of being God’s people rightly belong to them. It is God’s purpose that the Good News should go them first
However, there is also something to help us think about our own situations. Those two concerns we have raised both about our own assurance and the eternal destiny of those we love are wrapped up in questions about God’s character. Am I able to truly believe, trust in and rely on God.
- Is God good?
- Is God great?
Can I trust in God’s Greatness? (9:6-13)
In reverse order, the first apologetic concern is to do with God’s greatness and sovereignty. Has his plan been thwarted? It has been a criticism of Gareth Southgate hasn’t it. He’s okay at plan a but his failure to use substitutes early and often enough means that his England team are unable to change their game plan. Is God like a football manager who has given his first team and a 4-4-2 formation up until half time but decided it isn’t working and so decided to switch things around? Then, If God’s first plan was for the people of Israel to be his chosen people, loved, rescued, protected, and provided for by him then it can’t be good news if he has given up on that plan. Although we might be tempted to boast and become arrogant, thinking we are special (more of which is to come in chapter 11) it may also raise doubts about our own eternal security. If plan a could fail then so too could plan b. Could God one day change his mind about us?
Paul finds assurance in God’s election and promise
He insists that God is great because his plan has not failed or been thwarted (v6). What we see here is the God of surprises choosing to work through the weak and the unexpected and this begins with a crucial principle. We are not to judge on external perceptions. There are a true people of God hidden within the physical descendants of Abraham. Not everyone who is a descendant of Abraham is truly part of the Covenant. It’s all about the promise (v7-8). This is something we know today so that we often take time to remind our children and grandchildren that you can’t have second-hand faith because your parents are believers, you go to church or this was once considered a Christian country.
v9 The evidence for Paul’s claim is in the example of Isaac. God had promised Abraham descendants but Abraham did not have enough confidence in God’s greatness and so he did everything he could to make this happen by himself, even on his wife’s advice sleeping with a servant girl, Hagar leading to them having a son called Ishmael. Ishmael was Abraham’s physical descendant but God insisted that this wouldn’t be the one to fulfil the promise. That was going to happen through Isaac’s line. A true covenant son, loved by his father was coming. To Abraham and Rebekah this seemed ridiculous, a laughing matter, they were old and she was infertile. Yet God met with them and insisted that they could trust his promise and as we saw back in chapter 4:1-8, they learnt to trust him.
V9-12 Paul offers another example. Isaac himself married and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. She was having twins. God spoke to her and said that the older would be served by the younger. God’s promise was going to be fulfilled but not through the firstborn as we might expect. This leads us to perhaps one of the most difficult statements in Scripture.
“Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (v13)
We struggle with those words because they sound harsh to us. How can God choose some -and seemingly before they have done anything to deserve it? Worse still, the suggestion that God might actively and willingly hate someone is shocking isn’t it. Well, we are not going to get all the answers here today bur I would make three observations now.
- First that Paul has in mind here not so much God’s emotional reaction to two people. Indeed, we see that God does provide graciously for Esau in his life and an inheritance for his descendants. It is about God choosing the recipient of his blessing, the vehicle for his promise and choosing one to receive that specific love is to choose against the other.
- Second that if we struggle with Paul saying this, then our problem is not so much with him but with the whole of Scripture. Paul is quoting from Malachi 1:2-3.
- Therefore, the question is “will I allow God’s Word to disagree with me?” The difference between a real friend and an imaginary one is that real friends disagree with us and challenge us. We know God is real because he disagrees with us, he challenges us.
However, Paul also goes on to deal with the question of God’s injustice/unfairness.
Can I trust in God’s Goodness? (9:14-29)
This is the second question that we started with and Paul takes time to answer it here. Though how he goes about it may not be in the way we would expect. He doesn’t try to find lots of examples of how God is nice and kind. He doesn’t try to show how God’s decision about Jacob and Esau was justified by how their life stories turned out. Instead, as God did with Job, he challenges our right and ability to seek to hold God to account. He is the good and great God. He knows what he is doing and we as finite and fallen creatures are not in a place to disagree with him.
Of course, that’s the point of God’s Word disagreeing with me isn’t it? When my friends disagree with me, sometimes they are right and I’m wrong, sometimes it’s the other way round. So, quite rightly we argue it out. When God disagrees with me, he is always in the right and my response should not be to argue with him but to get into line with his word and will.
So Paul’s answer to the question of whether God is being just and fair is that it’s God’s sovereign choice to save whom he wills. This arises out of undeserved grace, love and mercy (v14). Paul shows this with three examples
By reference to Moses and Pharoah(v15-18)
God raised up the Pharoah in Moses’ time and put him on the throne. Notice that God is sovereign over the nations. Isaiah will also say that Cyrus was raised up to rule Persia by God. President Biden, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin are all in office because God wills it for his purpose. As with Pharoah that does not mean they are good people or that we shouldn’t challenge, disagree, vote against, just accept but that God is sovereign over history and uses good and bad leaders to fulfil his plans.
Pharoah was of course a bad ruler who defied God and hardened his heart. God too heardened it and brought judgement on Egypt. God had raised up Pharoah so that we could all the more see his justice and his power to save.
By reference to the potter and his clay (v19-24)
There are echoes here of Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house. We did have the chance to have a go at pottery when I was in school. I think I managed to make a passing imitation of a bird once. But set me up with a wheel and there would be chaos, clay flying here there and everywhere and nothing of lasting beauty and usefulness at the end. However, I’ve seen master potters at work as they carefully shape the clay. And the thing is this. They get to choose what they are making. They can make a beautiful vase and they can make a chamber pot. It’s their decision and it would be ridiculous for the clay to get into an argument with the potter.
In the same way, God creates and predestines, working to his purpose. Some people will never turn to Christ and so face God’s judgement. Even in that, his goodness and glory is revealed as God is shown to be perfect, holy and righteous. But also, I think, because God’s wrath and judgement serve to further highlight his forgiveness and salvation.
The point is this. God does not have to forgive or save any. It is his grace, his compassion and mercy that leads to him saving some.
By reference to Isaiah and Hosea (v25-27)
Hosea was given a difficult task by God. He was to marry a prostitute called Gomer and to love her. Gomer has children but it is clear that they are illegitimate. Everyone knows it, Hosea knows it. His wife is making a fool of him. He calls his kids Lo Ami (not my people) and Lo Ruhama (not receiving love and compassion) or “not mine” and “unloved.” In his life, Hosea acts out the story of Israel’s idolatrous unfaithfulness to God. Yet God also tells Hosea that even through judgement and exile he will bring about repentance and salvation. One day “not mine” will be called “mine” and “unloved” will receive compassion and mercy. God’s promise is to those who are not a people that they will become his people and that promise includes rebellious Israelites but in the New Testament it extends through the Gospel to Gentiles, to you and me. We did not know God, did not love him yet he has chosen to draw us close to himself.
V27-29 Meanwhile a dominant theme in Isaiah’s prophecy is of a remnant. It looks like God is going to bring complete destruction upon his people through the Assyrians and Babylonians. I’m reminded here of some of the films and TV series we used to watch pre-pandemic like 28 Days later and The Last Ship. I mean if only the writers had known that a real pandemic wouldn’t involve zombified people but then I guess 7 series of people sitting at home trying to get Zoom loaded probably doesn’t have quite the same draw! Well those apocalyptic stories usually involved much of humanity being wiped out apart from a small handful who survive and start trying to rebuild life. God promises Isaiah that although destruction is coming and although this once mighty and numerous nation should be wiped out, he will rescue and preserve some. In fact that’s what God always does, he saves Noah and his family, he rescues Lot from Sodom, he keeps 7000 from bowing to Baal. Again, God chooses to love and have mercy on some.
And that I believe is the point. If you struggle with all this stuff about God’s sovereignty and election and predestination, then it is helpful to see that Paul doesn’t tell us about it in order to create an opportunity for philosophical debates and arguments. The doctrine of predestination is pastoral not philosophical. What we are meant to see through it is that God is in control, he’s never letting go. His plans cannot be thwarted. And despite the fact that we do not deserve his love and mercy, he chooses to love you and me, chooses to rescue us from sin and death, to forgive us, to bring us into his family and never let go of us.
So, how do I respond to this? What is expected of me? Well, I think there are two things here.
- I learn to cling to Christ and to trust him
It is hard, especially in uncertain times to understand exactly what is going on and to keep going. We may feel battered by the life storms of the past two years, a global pandemic followed by economic chaos. We’ve seen people we care about suffer and there is uncertainty ahead. Can I keep trusting? The answer is yes. God remains sovereign in the storm and God remains good. The trials of life serve to strip away all the things I might be tempted to hold onto. I hold less tightly to those things in order to hold tightly to Christ.
- I keep on sharing the good news
My responsibility as a believer (and this will keep coming up through the next 3 or 4 weeks) is to keep sharing the good news. You see, I’m not meant to second guess who God is going to save. Rather, like Paul, my passion and concern should be for those I love to hear and respond to the Gospel. So I tell them the good news and I leave the rest in God’s hands.
Questions to consider and reflect on
- What are the two things that people often struggle with concerning God? Is there one that you find harder to grasp/trust?
- We know that God and his word is real and not an imaginary friend when God’s Word disagrees with us. In what ways have you found this Scripture disagrees with/challenges you.
- Do you have particular friends/family who you are especially concerned to see trust in Christ. How can we be praying for each other and for them as we seek to reach them?
 See also Genesis 18.
 In addition for further comment see Love and Hate, Sovereignty and Freedom: A Copernican revolution in Romans 9 – Faithroots