Based on Rom. 9:6f
A story told among Jews in Yeman, Afghanistan, Iraq and Russia concerns two beggars who use to wonder in the streets collecting alms. They use to pass the king's palace, and he always gave them charity. One of the beggars always praised the king for his goodness and generosity, while the other always thanked God for being generous to the king, which enabled him to help his subjects. This was painful to the king and he asked him, "Why do you thank someone else when it is I who am generous to you?" The beggar answered, "If God were not generous to you, you would not be able to be generous." The king decided to teach this beggar a lesson. He ordered his baker to bake two loaves of bread and to put precious stones in one of them as a gift from the king. He ordered that his loaf with the jewels be given to the beggar that praised him, and the ordinary loaf be given to the other beggar.
When this was done and the two beggars left the palace, the beggar who praised the king observed that his loaf seemed heavy and badly baked. He asked his friend if he would exchange loaves with him. His friend wanting to do a good turn agreed, and they switched loaves and went their separate ways. The beggar who praised God began to eat and found the treasure. He offered thanks to God that he would no longer have to go to the palace to beg. The king could not understand why he did not return and the other beggar did. He asked him, "What did you do with the loaf given to you the other day?" When the beggar told him of the switch he made the king realize that it was God alone who makes rich. The finest and cleverest plans of men will not realized if God wills otherwise.
God is sovereign and His purpose is accomplished regardless of the actions of men. The Jews have always believed this, and that is how they account for their existence as a people in spite of all the efforts of men to eliminate them from the stage of history. The folk tales of Judaism are filled with stories of the sovereignty of God on their behalf. No people has endured so many efforts to destroy them. Sholem Asch in his book One Destiny describes how the
Germans in 1942 set out to eliminate the Jews. They surrounded the Jewish Ghetto and cut off all escape routes, and then they began to round up all Jewish children and pack them into freight cars to be taken to execution centers. Infants were torn from their mother's arms. Many a mother had to be killed before her arms could be wretched from the child. Others threw themselves and their children down from upper stories to die at their own hands. With bare fists they fought against guns and swords, and, of course, lost. Every child from a day to 16 years old was liquidated.
What they did with the adults then is too ghastly to describe. If ever there was a God-forsaken people, it was the Jews, and yet when the horror was over they not only survived, but in 1948, after many centuries of waiting, they even regained their homeland, and Israel was restored as a nation. Sholem Asch writes from a committed Jewish perspective: "Who will dare to assert that the fact that the Jews have survived every trial of their faith is a completely naturalistic phenomenon-that it was due entirely to their own will and strength of character? He who dares to say this is either spiritually a cripple who is entirely incapable of comprehending a transcendental occurrence, or a godless cynic whose heart is a nest for the lowest passions. Go down on your knees, man, from the miracle in front of your eyes, the miracle of the preservation of Israel. If ever there has occurred in human history and event that frightens us with its incomprehensiveness and unrealizability, an event which is shrouded in a veil of profound mysticism, it is this miracle of the survival of the Jewish people."
The Jews believed strongly in the sovereignty of God, and they know His purpose can never fail. This is precisely the theme that Paul is developing in this passage. He also believes that God's purpose for Israel can never fail, but he also knows that the rejection of Christ by the Jews makes it appear as if God's Word to them had failed. He has just listed all of the blessings of God that the Jews had, and yet he is in deep distress because they are lost without Christ. If they have failed to gain the ultimate benefit of their covenant with God, then the plan of God appears to have failed, and all of His efforts on their behalf seems to have been in vain. This is how it looks, but then Paul says in verse 6 that it is not so.
Do not interpret my sorrow over the lost condition of the Jews in general to mean that the Word of God has failed. This is not the case at all. Paul is a true Christian optimist whose belief in the sovereignty of God is not lost because he is in deep anguish. Paul is saying, "Yes, I lament the defection of the Jews. Yes, I am in anguish over their rejection, but God has not failed. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Word of God endures forever." Paul is filled with perfect assurance even as he is also filled with sorrow. It is man's sin and failure that brings sorrow, but God's sovereignty still brings assurance. The question is, how does Paul reconciled these two things?
He makes it clear that before you can know if a plan is failing or being fulfilled you have to know exactly what the plan is. If you misunderstand the plan, you are bound to come to false conclusions, which is exactly what the problem was in the minds of the Jews, and also some Christians. If you understand God's promise to be that all the descendants of Abraham would be saved, and would receive the Messiah, and would be a part of the elect to reach the world, then indeed, the events of history would lead you to conclude that God's Word had failed. But Paul says we need to go back and look at the facts before we jump to such a conclusion.
Paul shows that the principle of selection runs all through the history of God's purpose in Israel. The purpose of election of the few is for the good of the many. The more specific the blessing, the more narrow the selection must be. We must grasp this principle to understand God's plan and purpose. If you were God planning to introduce your Son into human history to be the sacrificial Lamb for the sins of all men, would you not need to be selective? Of course you would. God cannot just let history develop haphazardly and expect it to fulfill His purpose. Selection is essential to God's plan. This means there can be only one line of descent chosen, and all others will be not chosen. Only one woman in all of history can be chosen to give birth to the Messiah, and all others will be not chosen. The election of the few for the many gets narrower and narrower until it comes right down to the election of Christ for all. Jesus Christ was the goal of God's plan of election. He is the Elect One who was chosen to die for the good of all. The process began with Abraham, who was the father of Israel.
Paul says that the thing you have to keep in mind is the principle of selection. This means that not all Israel is truly Israel. That means that not all Jews who are physically descended from Abraham are a part of the Israel of God, which is a select remnant within the larger Israel. In other words, there are two kinds of Israel-a physical and a spiritual Israel. You also have the church composed of all who call themselves Christians, and then the spiritual church composed of those who are truly Christian by faith in Jesus Christ. The true spiritual church is the same as the true spiritual Israel. They both refer to the one people of God, who are the elect, and through whom God seeks to bless the whole world.
We must keep in mind this distinction between the two kinds of Israel, says Paul, for when we are talking about the promises of God it is only the true Israel that has any claim on them, and so the success or failure of God's plan does not depend on what happens to all who are called Israel, but only on what happens to the select remnant.
In verse 7 Paul gives the first illustration of the principle of selection. The Jews felt that as descendants of Abraham they were automatically of the elect, but Paul says this is not so. It was only through the line of Isaac that the true Israel was to come. It is obvious that if there was to be one Messiah born to one virgin there would have to be a constant process of selection and elimination. The Messiah could not be born to Israel collectively. He had to be born to some one person. The selection process would start from the beginning because Abraham had two sons-Ishmael and Isaac. God chose Isaac to be the line through which he would fulfill the promise of a Messiah. By choosing the one he had to not choose the other. Even God cannot choose and make it as though He had not chosen. There is selection by necessity, which means that some are not chosen. If you have a capsule of a wonder drug that will save the life of a very ill person, and there are ten sick persons that are dying around you, you can either choose to give it to one, or keep it and let all perish. Which is the wisest choice? It is certainly the choosing of one, for then there are two healthy persons to care for the rest. This is what is involved in election.
In this context, however, we must keep in mind that Paul is talking about God's selection for the special privilege of being the people of God through whom the Messiah would come. He is not talking of selection to eternal life as if those not selected would be damned to eternal hell. By choosing the line of Isaac for the coming of the Messiah God did not cut Ishmael off from his love and blessing. By this choice He simply made it impossible for Ishmael's line to bring forth the Messiah. When God chose the Virgin Mary to bear His Son He eliminated the possibility of any other woman in all of history to have this great honor. Mary was chosen, but not all other women are damned because they were not chosen.
The point we must make clear is that God's selection or election is not the same as salvation. Gentiles who were not descended from Abraham at all can be saved even under the Old Testament by becoming proselytes to the Jewish faith, and by faith in God in obedience to His will. Ishmael's descendants could be saved, and any one who was not chosen to be in the elect line of the Messiah could still be saved. People were not cut off from God's plan of salvation just because they were cut off from being the line to the Messiah. Reading the false conclusion that being in the line of Messiah was the same as being elected to salvation is what makes it appear that this passage is so harsh. Those who jump to the conclusion that God's selection of some means His damnation of others have come to a false and dangerous conclusion. To clear this up is to clear up one of the most difficult problems in this chapter.
Let's go back to Genesis and see what it says about Ishmael even though he could not be in the bloodline of the Messiah. In Gen. 17:20-21 God says to Abraham, "As for Ishmael, I have heard you, behold, I will bless him and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly; he shall be the father of 12 princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac..." Abraham loved Ishmael and was hurt that he was not to be his heir, but in Gen. 21:13 God comforts him and says, "And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring." When he and his mother Hagar were sent away into the wilderness they ran out of water and they sat down and cried. Then we read this, "And God heard the voice of the lad, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, what troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.... and God was with the lad, and he grew up...."
God's love, providence and promises are all clearly revealed toward Ishmael, and the point is that he was not the one who received the promise of being in the line of the Messiah. Paul's whole argument here is to show that God's promise of a Messiah was very selective, and that He had an obligation to fulfill His promise only to those selected. If it can be shown that the true Israel to whom God gave His promise did receive the promised Messiah, then you see God's plan did not fail even if many Jews did not receive Christ. Those who did not receive Him were merely physical Israel, and not the select group known as the true spiritual Israel.
In verse 8 Paul says it is the children of promise and not the children of the flesh that are the true Israel-the children of God. Now the Jews knew that the Arabs, who were descendants of Ishmael, were not God's elect people, and that the Edomites, who were descendants of Esau, were not God's elect, even though they were of the physical seed of Abraham and Jacob. They were not willing to go on with the process of selection, however. They said all Jews were of the elect and were true Israel. Mere physical descent they said was sufficient. John the Baptist blasted their pride first. In Matt. 3:9 he said, "Do not presume to say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our father, for I tell you, God is able from these stones t raise up children to Abraham." In other words, mere physical descent means nothing to God. He wants spiritual children who have the same spirit and faith of Abraham.
Jesus makes it clear what He is looking for in John 8:39-40, "They answered him, Abraham is our father. Jesus said to them if you were Abraham's children you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did." Jesus is saying that a true child of Abraham will respond in faith to the revelation and promises of God.
Paul puts this into a clear theological doctrine that says the true children of Abraham are those of faith. In Gal. 3:6-9 he writes, "Thus Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture foreseeing God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preach the Gospel before to Abraham, saying, in thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith." Then he says in verse 29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."
The conclusion of Paul's reasoning here in Romans is this: God has not failed, nor has His Word been unfulfilled, for God's process of selection has narrowed down His elect to those of like faith with Abraham. All who had this faith among the Jews were the remnant, and they were the true Israel of God. They received Christ when He came, and so the promise was completely fulfilled to those who had a right to claim it. We have jumped ahead to Paul's conclusion and have not followed all of his illustrations of the process, but the point is clear: God is sovereign, and He chooses whom He will to fulfill His purpose, and regardless of how men fail Him, His plan and purpose go on, for He is faithful and will always have His remnant though whom He seeks to lift and save the world. The message of this chapter is not a gloomy one about a harsh unjust God, but it is a message about a God of love who sovereign freedom assures us that no matter what men do His purpose for their good shall prevail. God has not failed; God is not failing, and God shall never fail.
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