Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”? (Romans 9:8-9)
There was a time when most people thought the world was flat. It looked flat, and they were comfortable with that. Then someone came along who said that the world was round. They said that it was one of many planets suspended in space. That bothered their way of thinking. Many argued that they had evidence from Scripture to indicate that the world was flat. It took a very long time for people to understand the truth. When they were willing to part with their comfortable and simplistic view, they also found that there were Scriptures, which, if looked at objectively, would validate such a theory. In fact, they saw that the work of God was greater than they had supposed. You have to understand that this change took many years—and made many people very angry. Why? Because it ran counter to the wisdom of the day—it contradicted what their traditions had taught them.
We feel more secure in knowledge which is simple, which is not very complicated or complex. We like to put God in a simple theological box where we can understand him, where we can see exactly what he is doing, and feel content and secure in that knowledge. However, when we come to certain truths of Scripture, we have to grapple with other realizations about God’s plan and purpose for our lives.
I brought this up in the Story of Job. His story has frustrated many of the “Theologians,” but when it came to the “common man,” they were able to understand his story very plainly. In Job’s story, all of our pre-conceived views of God were messed up. We saw a man suffer for no apparent reason, yet the Lord seems to use Job’s suffering to teach very profound lessons.
This is especially true when we come to this section of Romans. In chapters 9, 10 and 11, we come face to face with the sovereignty and purpose of God in election and predestination. Now, I am not altogether sure that I fully understand God’s predetermining process and his sovereign choice. Nevertheless, when we see His plan, revealed in Israel, we cannot avoid grappling with this important subject.
In fact, I will go so far as to say that if you remove the spiritual element from the history of Israel, you have nothing more to examine than yet another of the hundreds of histories of nations rising and falling since the dawn of Creation.
Yehoveh has been steadily moving Israel along a path towards the ultimate king, the Messiah, and giving glimpses all along the way of the Messiah’s attributes and character. First, the Lord gave Israel Moses. Moses presented a certain attribute of the future and ultimate leader, that of being a Mediator for the people. Then the Lord brought Joshua, and he bore another attribute of the future and ultimate leader, being a warrior chief. During the era of the Judges, the Lord demonstrated the attribute of deliverance from oppression by using various Judges to save Israel from the never-ending litany of enemies of Israel. Then they had an era of kings where the Lord gave Israel a leader who demonstrated ultimate central authority and how, if it was accomplished under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Israel would exist and operate as the intended Kingdom of God. Now, when this was done without paying attention to the Lord’s laws and commands, the kingdom was heading toward becoming another in a long list of kingdoms of men that was destined to fall and blow away like dust just like all the other kingdoms had done throughout history. However, He frequently intervened and delivered Israel, until He brought about His final deliverance with His Son.
We Gentiles are here because of God’s sovereign choice. We are here today because YHWH willfully set aside a people he had previously chosen in order to bring in a people like us. So, if we are going to enjoy salvation, we are going to have to deal with His sovereign act of choosing some and not choosing others. However, this is not very clean and tidy. It makes us grapple with YHWH; his nature, his justice, and his fairness.
Paul had just described his heartbreak over the lost condition of Israel. Now he begins to describe the reasons why YHWH is temporarily setting them aside. (Notice that I said, “temporarily.” He will soon turn all His attention back to fulfill all of His promises to Israel). Paul does this by answering three questions with which all of us grapple with. These three questions pertain to the nature, character, and attributes of God.
Paul says, “It is not as though God’s word had failed” (Romans 9:6). You may ask the question, “Is God untrue?” Did God lie to us? If God chose the people of Israel and now has set them aside, what’s up with that? Did God lie to them when he chose them and told them that they would be his people? Is God untrue? The answer is No! He goes on to explain why.
Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son” (Romans 9:6-9).
Abraham had several sons. Although the two most famous are Ishmael and Isaac, there were also Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah, the six sons born to him by Keturah, the woman he married after Sarah died. Ishmael was born before Isaac, so there were six men after Isaac was born However, only Isaac was the child of promise.
Before Abraham had any sons, God had promised him a son “through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed.” Unfortunately, God was not acting quite as fast as Abraham wanted. How many of us have ever done that? You know, you prayed and waited for an answer . . . but because it is taking so long to get your answer, you start thinking, “Well, maybe this is what he wants me to do;” or maybe, “Well, the Lord helps those who help themselves [ooh, how many times have we heard that being said?]. Oh, I realize you would never become impatient and try to make things happen on our own., would you?
Well, Abraham did! He and Sarah presume to know what God meant. Sarah looks at Abe and says, “Well, the Lord made that promise to you, but he didn’t really mean I would get pregnant . . . he meant my maid would get pregnant.” Abe shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, maybe that’s what he meant . . .”
So Sarah devised gave Abraham her handmaid, and by Hagar, he had a son. He thought that he would be the son of the Promise. His name was Ishmael. Yet, God came back to Abraham and said, “No, it is not through Ishmael, but through Isaac your descendants will be named.” Eventually YHWH brought the reality of his promise by causing a son to be born to Sarah. Now remember that Abraham and Sarah were both physically impotent at that point in their lives, because YHWH didn’t want it to be through human ingenuity and capacity, but through the power of his supernatural working—according to his promise. That is how he always works his wonders. He does not want to share any of the credit for working His miracles.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome