understanding romans 9

In Romans 8, Paul makes an impassioned appeal that God saves those who live spiritually. To Paul, it is not the law that saves, but faith. Paul’s Roman audience (the Jews) would despise this (Paul was persecuted throughout the world because of this). After all, Paul’s audience is primarily Jewish Christians who are still zealous for the law. They, in turn, have proselytized Gentiles to keep the law. Paul is writing to a hostile audience. As such, Paul’s appeal in Romans 9 is likewise impassioned:

Rom 9:1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit,
Rom 9:2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart.

Romans 9 starts with Paul stating emphatically that he is not lying. This tells the reader that Paul’s next point is serious and striking. This is probably something the readers would normally reject, but Paul has to insist, against their preclusions, is true. Paul’s proof of sincerity is that this next theological point has caused him great grief. Paul is saying that his grief is evident to his viewers, and as such, they know he believes his own message. After all, why would Paul grieve over a lie?

Rom 9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh,
Rom 9:4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises;
Rom 9:5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.

The shocking point is that Israel is cursed (to Paul this means that Israel was cut off as the chosen people and, as a result, Israel was then considered equal to any Gentile without Gentile ritual conversion). Paul wishes that he could act as a substitute for Israel’s status (possibly an allusion to Exodus 32:32, Moses on Mount Sinai), but he cannot. In spite of Israel’s special status (to Israel pertains “adoption”, “glory”, “covenants”, “the giving of the law”, “the service of God”, and the “promises”), they still are being rejected in favor of the Gentiles whom were given none of these things. The point that Paul seems to be making is that Israel has failed in spite of all their natural and God given advantages (Paul’s audience would be insulted further by this). This makes the fall even more dramatic as Israel was equipped with enough tools to guide them on the right path.

The hostile audience of Romans might believe that God’s word would be violated if Israel was accursed. After all, God promised Abraham that “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Gen 22:18 ). Israel was meant to be a priest nation, a chosen people to lead the world to God. This cannot happen if they lose their place as a chosen race. This was a common claim among the Jews, that by privilege of being Jewish they were entitled to various benefits. Paul, pre-emptively, attempts to counter their natural response.

It is important to note that Paul needed to spell this theology out for his listener. The Roman church was not founded by Paul, but by Jewish Christians (probably Peter) and the Jewish Christians did not teach these things. Whereas James had to warn Israel that they were not saved by virtue of being Jewish, Paul warned that Israel was not entitled to a special place by virtue of being Jewish. James, Peter, and the 12 did not teach the latter. Hence, Paul had to use his own writings to defend this new teaching.

Rom 9:6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,
Rom 9:7 nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “IN ISAAC YOUR SEED SHALL BE CALLED.”
Rom 9:8 That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.

Paul begins to counter the natural counter argument of his readers. Paul brings the reader through a quick history of Israel to draw out his air tight case. Paul does not contend directly the promise of Abraham, for then he would lose his audience. He affirms the promise but then begins examining the line of promise.

Using Abraham, Paul’s first point is that not everyone who is considered “of Israel” is actually genetically Jewish. Judaism was a metropolitan religion, accepting as a Jew anyone who would adopt their practices. These non-Jews were given equal status with Jews, although not related. All that was required of them was to embrace all Jewish customs. Some of these foreigners would even be granted membership in the Levite caste, the priest class of a priest nation. Although they were not the “seed of Abraham”, no one could deny that outsiders were already allowed access to the Israelite identity.

Paul’s second point is that not everyone who is genetically Jewish should be counted as among Israel. Not all of Abraham’s descendants are “Israel”. Although Abraham had two sons, only one of his sons was given the chosen status. This was also not a contestable point.

The overall point is that the Jews could not claim some sort of genetic lottery as the reason they are the chosen people. Various descendants of Abraham were not chosen and various Gentiles were chosen. If God were to create a Gentile-Jewish equality, it would not be unprecedented.

Rom 9:9 For this is the word of promise: “AT THIS TIME I WILL COME AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON.”
Rom 9:10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
Rom 9:11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
Rom 9:12 it was said to her, “THE OLDER SHALL SERVE THE YOUNGER.”
Rom 9:13 As it is written, “JACOB I HAVE LOVED, BUT ESAU I HAVE HATED.”

This passage seems to be one of the most misused in the Bible. God called a lineage to be a priest nation. God did not call individuals to “salvation”. In context, Paul is continuing his point about not all of Abraham’s seed being the chosen people. Paul’s point is that not only are the descendants of Ishmael (fathered by Abraham) not considered “Israel”, but also not the descendants of Esau. Before the children were able to sway God through their actions (notice the Open Theist mindset of Paul), God had chosen one child but not the other.

When Romans 9:12 states that “the older shall serve the younger”, this was an event that never happened in the lives of Jacob and Esau. Instead, Jacob was so afraid of Esau that he lined up his family in reverse order of importance in case Esau were to attack and kill them all (Gen 33:2). Esau was much more powerful than Jacob throughout his life, and Jacob trembled in fear. Esau’s lineage, however, was not granted the chosen status. In this sense, Esau will serve Jacob. The decedents of Esau will bring sacrifices to the descendants of Jacob. The descendants of Jacob will intermediate between the descendants of Esau and God. This is Paul’s meaning.

Paul is building to an overarching point, because in Paul’s theology there is no longer room for this distinction between the “priest nation” and gentiles. Paul flips this point on its head, drawing the singular point that “because God arbitrarily chose one nation over another, then God is not wrong to disband that arbitrary choice.” Paul, being an Open Theist, is saying that God can revoke his promises, especially when those promised are not based on merit.

The Calvinist will take these verses and claim that Paul’s point is that God can condemn people to hell regardless of merit. This is the opposite of Paul’s point. Because the original choice was not based on merit, it can be abolished. If the choice was based on merit that would give Paul’s critics at least some ground to stand upon (then Paul couldn’t make his point). If God revoked a promise to someone who earned the promise, that would be unjust. If God revokes a promise to someone who did not earn the promise, that is not reprehensible. Paul explains:

Rom 9:14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!
Rom 9:15 For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOMEVER I WILL HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOMEVER I WILL HAVE COMPASSION.”
Rom 9:16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.

But Paul’s critic might object that this would make God unrighteous: choosing some people arbitrarily over others. Paul refocuses the critic to the unmerited nature of the original choice. Paul quotes a passage in Exodus where Moses is speaking to God. Moses requests to see God. God, instead of saying “that is logically impossible” alternatively states that no man can see His face and live. God compromises with Moses and shows Moses God’s backside. That is the context of God’s declaring that He will be merciful to whom He wishes. The action of mercy was showing Moses God’s backside. Moses was not entitled to seeing God’s backside. Instead, this was a favor by God towards Moses. Paul compares this event (choosing to show God’s backside) with choosing a nation to be his priest people. The idea is that if the choice is arbitrary, then there is no unrighteousness involved.

Rom 9:17 For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I HAVE RAISED YOU UP, THAT I MAY SHOW MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MAY BE DECLARED IN ALL THE EARTH.”
Rom 9:18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

These two verses seem strangely out of context unless it is understood that Paul is pre-emptively answering objections. Paul’s overall point is that Israel has lost their place as the chosen people. He then shows that Israel has no right to their calling, because it was not based on merit. God can show favor to the Gentiles when he wills. Paul then shows that this action is not immoral.

But because Israel’s rejection of God has led to God rejecting Israel (turning to the Gentiles), an astute critic might then ask why God has not revoked God’s promises earlier. After all, Israel has an entire history of rejecting God. Paul’s answer is that God sometimes uses people who have rejected God in order to achieve purposes. God’s forbearance was to show a point. This leads to a further critical question that Paul must likewise address:

Rom 9:19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”
Rom 9:20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”
Rom 9:21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
Rom 9:22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
Rom 9:23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,
Rom 9:24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

Paul references Jeremiah (the parable of the potter). In the parable, the clay disfigures itself in God’s hands. God takes the clay and shapes it into a lesser vessel. The point of this passage is explained by God. God will change blessings to curses if the people become evil. God will likewise change curses to blessings if the people become good. In all, Jeremiah shows that God is in control. God can use bad people for his will. But it is not God making the people bad. This is the context of “For who has resisted His will?”

Paul uses Jeremiah to say “you were evil, so God used you for a purpose.” The purpose is to show deeper wrath, make His power known, and make Himself known to the Jews and Gentiles who are faithful. In essence, Paul is forming a third people group. They are not normal Jews or normal Gentiles, but equal Jews and Gentiles united in living spiritually. This would anger Paul’s Jewish audience, who believed Gentiles had to become Jews to be equal. Paul tries to counter this by misquoting Hosea:

Rom 9:25 As He says also in Hosea: “I WILL CALL THEM MY PEOPLE, WHO WERE NOT MY PEOPLE, AND HER BELOVED, WHO WAS NOT BELOVED.”
Rom 9:26 “AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS IN THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS SAID TO THEM, ‘YOU ARE NOT MY PEOPLE,’ THERE THEY SHALL BE CALLED SONS OF THE LIVING GOD.”

Here Paul is saying that God is accepting the Gentiles. The Gentiles were once not God’s people, but now they are. As a proof text he quotes Hosea 2:23. But the thing is that Hosea is not at all talking about the Gentiles. The prophecy concerns a remnant of Israel which is faithful. Hosea 1 and 2 talks about how Israel will return to God in the future. Paul, here, makes the opposite point that the text makes. But this near quasi-quoting was common in Paul’s time. If not for a hostile audience, the Romans might actually not think anything of this type of allusion to Hosea. Paul’s point is that God wanted a remnant, and that remnant might as well contain spiritually acceptable Gentiles.

Rom 9:27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “THOUGH THE NUMBER OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL BE AS THE SAND OF THE SEA, THE REMNANT WILL BE SAVED.
Rom 9:28 FOR HE WILL FINISH THE WORK AND CUT IT SHORT IN RIGHTEOUSNESS, BECAUSE THE LORD WILL MAKE A SHORT WORK UPON THE EARTH.”
Rom 9:29 And as Isaiah said before: “UNLESS THE LORD OF SABAOTH HAD LEFT US A SEED, WE WOULD HAVE BECOME LIKE SODOM, AND WE WOULD HAVE BEEN MADE LIKE GOMORRAH.”

Paul quotes Isaiah in the same manner of Hosea and for the same purpose. He then has to quickly deal with counter-arguments about counting spiritual Gentiles as the remnant:

Rom 9:30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
Rom 9:31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
Rom 9:32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.

Paul, like many Jews of those times, was not very keen about the current leadership of the Jewish temple. To Paul, the temple leaders were fake. The temple leaders only showed fake actions of righteousness, but were not real Jews. Although they performed the right acts, they were destined to be killed by God. Paul was not alone in these thoughts.

Paul uses his audience’s agreement to augment his own point. There were Jews performing the works of the law, but who are not saved. Why could not Gentiles be saved; those who are seeking God and not performing the works of the law. Paul then discredits the works of the law (by extension: the temple) as a trap for the power hungry:

Rom 9:33 As it is written: “BEHOLD, I LAY IN ZION A STUMBLING STONE AND ROCK OF OFFENSE, AND WHOEVER BELIEVES ON HIM WILL NOT BE PUT TO SHAME.”

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to understanding romans 9

  1. Pingback: Apologetics Thursday – Knowing Pharaoh Beforehand | God is Open

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