Part One can be found here.
Let’s briefly summarize what we have read so far. God, before His act of creation, set apart a specific group of people whom He promised to one day glorify. God assures them that He is continuously active in this world to bring about their good and nothing ever anywhere can stop God in His mission of glorifying His people. Re-read Romans 8:28-39 in its entirety to appreciate this message as a whole. Read it for yourself and take it to heart. Know that if you have faith, you are one of God’s chosen beloved. Rest in God’s conquering.
Let me warn you before we proceed. Romans 9:1-29 has been more startling and faith-transforming to me than anything since I first understood the Gospel and surrendered my life to Jesus. It is immensely hard to swallow, both because of its complexity and implications. You may not understand this passage. Even if you understand it completely, you may not want to believe it. Please pray for humility and understanding before you read. Do not forget your own faith and walk with the Lord. Instead, look back to His faithfulness and trust Him. Romans 8:28-39 is true regardless of your reaction to the following chapter. Do not be afraid to challenge your beliefs. God is with you, possibly more than you know.
Romans 9:1-2 “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.”
When has Paul ever said something along these lines before? I can’t think of anywhere else Paul affirms himself so strongly. This is just about as real, honest, and raw as Paul gets. What is he so honest about? His own misery. Paul is saying, “Let me be clear: I am heart broken.” There are two things I would like to draw attention to. First, Paul really feels this bad. He is not using hyperbole. He is truly so distraught his pain has produced “unceasing grief.” Paul is no stranger to suffering, and yet this particularly burdens him. Second, Paul is right to feel so bad. As he writes, “my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit” (NIV). It is easy to get upset about things that do not ultimately matter. God is agreeing with Paul’s misery; the Holy Spirit’s confirmation means his great sorrow is appropriate. We must now ask: What is Paul so upset about?
Romans 9:3-4a “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites,”
Seriously think about what Paul just wrote down. He is literally saying, “If I could, I would be damned and destined to hell so that the Jews might be saved.” That is an insane love. That is a love I simply do not have for anyone. Would I love someone enough to actually die for them? Probably not. Would I love someone enough to forfeit my own salvation? Definitely not. Paul is willing to suffer eternal torment for the sake of the Jews. Of course, this cannot be. Only Christ’s death can pay for the sins of others, and Paul knows this. His wish here is not one of actually desiring to go through with his proposed action, but instead serves to communicate his radical love for his own people. Two questions come from this powerful sentence. First, why is Paul so distraught about the Jews’ eternal standing? Second, why have the Jews not received Christ? Paul spends the rest of Romans 9 answering both questions and explaining his answers.
Romans 9:4b-5 “to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
Paul provides an enormous answer to our first question. In short, Paul says that if any people ought to have received the gift that is Christ Jesus, it should have been the Jews first and foremost. This is one of the great themes of Romans: “first to the Jew, then to the Greek”. Paul lists eight gifts God has already blessed Israel with. Let’s look at each one individually.
(1) Adoption as sons
Israel was the nation God chose from among all other nations of the earth to be His people. They were to come through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Exodus 4:22, God tells Moses “Then say to pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son.’” The LORD adopted Israel and brought them out of Egypt. In Exodus 6:7, God declares “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.” Deuteronomy 7:6 reads, “For you are a people holy to LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
Repeatedly God shows His discretion—His choosing the Israelites above all other peoples. It is important to remember what kind of children the Israelites were: forgetful (Judges 2:16-19, 3:7), unclean (Isaiah 5:6), stubborn (Exodus 32:9), and unfaithful (Hosea 1:8-9, 3:1). Essentially, they were no different than any of the other nations that surrounded them. If the Lord had not called them apart, they would have remained indistinguishable from any other people. God chose the Israelites not by their earning, but by His own will. It is through their adoption that they receive all of the other blessings.
(2) The divine glory
This specifically refers to the ark of the Testimony (Exodus 25:17-22) and the atonement cover or “mercy seat”. The ark was God’s throne on earth and was where Moses or the high priest would come to encounter God. The presence of the LORD was so powerful that those who witnessed His glory risked death. It was God’s most manifest glory before Christ, and it was given to the Israelites.
(3) The covenants
Notice the plural: there were multiple covenants. First in Genesis 17, God establishes the covenant of circumcision for Abraham and his family. Circumcision was a physical act and sign to demonstrate the promise God had made to Abraham. Covenants held both parties accountable. God promised Abraham many descendants who would become a powerful nation, a chosen people. Later, God made another covenant. In Deuteronomy 4:13, God establishes the “old covenant” through the Law. It was God’s promise to bless Israel and Israel’s promise to follow God’s commands.
(4) The receiving of the law
Often when Paul speaks of the law, he emphasizes how it was used to testify to our sinfulness and need of a savior. The law convicts us and Christ frees us (Galatians 3, Romans 3-5). How, then, was the law a blessing to the Israelites? For one, the fact that it made their inability to live in accordance with the will of the Lord undeniably forced them to ask God for mercy. It prepared them to ask for and receive deliverance. In truth, it prepared them for Jesus. Along side that, the law revealed much about the heart of their God. Even in the ten commandments God speaks of His own heart: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6). Furthermore, even if the law could not be followed perfectly, their efforts to adhere to their Lord’s commands did create a “holy nation,” an entire people set apart and dependent on the Lord. It was the practice of the law that displayed God’s adoption of them to the nations.
(5) The temple worship
By temple worship, Paul refers to the practice of giving sacrifices to the Lord. Among these sacrifices were the voluntary burnt offerings, drink and grain offerings, and peace offerings; mandatory sacrifices included the sin offerings and certain kinds of peace offerings. Did such offerings truly bring absolution? Look to David’s confession in Psalm 51:16-17 “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” God did not benefit in any way from the animals and cakes and wine that were presented to Him. Instead, the act of sacrificing to the Lord was the Israelite’s opportunity to display his/her genuine repentance and need of God’s mercy. The spilling of blood pointed forward to Christ’s blood that would be shed—the only sacrifice that could and did absolve sin. Temple worship was a chance to live out one’s faith in God’s mercy and lovingkindness.
(6) The promises
God made various promises to the Israelites throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham. In fact, God’s promises date as far back as Adam and Eve when He says “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel,” (Genesis 3:15). Jesus’ coming was promised as soon as the first sin was condemned. The promise given to Abraham speaks also of this ‘seed’ or ‘offspring’: “Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Elsewhere God makes promises; as already stated, God promised Moses and the Israelites at Sinai that He would be their God and they would be His people—that He would deliver them to the land of their forefathers and make them into a holy people. To no other nation did God bind Himself.
Among the most critical promises God made to His people was to send them a Messiah. The prophets spoke of the coming of this deliverer and what he would be like. David in the psalms (like Psalm 118), Isaiah (all throughout his book, but especially chapters 52-53, Jeremiah (31), Micah (5:2), Zechariah (throughout his book, but especially 9, 11, and 12), and Malachi (3:1) spoke plainly about the coming anointed one. What’s listed is only a brief overview of how Jesus fulfilled everything that was foretold about him in the Old Testament. Jesus Himself testified to these things in Luke 24. If only those on the road to Emmaus had recorded all He had said!
(7) The patriarchs
Though it is obvious enough to see why belonging to the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a blessing, Paul’s original audience would have held this in a far higher regard than readers today might. Lineage and ancestral pride was far more significant to ancient Jews than modern Americans. In fact, the Jews considered their lineage their salvation. Because they were descendants of Jacob, they thought themselves to be God’s people by birthright. God’s promise to bless the nations and strengthen His people was made to Abraham’s seed and Jacob’s offspring.
(8) The lineage of Christ
Paul draws special attention to the fact that Christ descended from the patriarchs—that the Offspring and the Seed God spoke of to the patriarchs was Jesus. The Jews are actually, physically kinsmen with the Living God. According to the flesh, they are considered brothers of Christ under their father Jacob. Paul speaks with incredible reverence here of the majesty and authority of Jesus. To be literally related to the physical Messiah is indeed an incredible blessing. However, Paul emphasizes this truth to illustrate why the Jews have not received Christ as their savior. As he established already, the Jews remain in their sin. They are cut off, “accursed.” In short, the Jews had all these blessings and prophecies to point them to Christ, and yet they missed Him. How can this be? If they are sons of Abraham and kinsmen of the Lord Jesus, how have they not received their long expected King?
Romans 9:6 “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;”
Paul immediately addresses the natural question that arises. His response has two assertions: first, that God’s promises in Scripture are still sound; second, that “not all [are] Israel who are descended from Israel”. Paul’s second assertion will be explained and supported with Scripture. God’s promise still holds true, but the typical understanding of how they are true might be off.
What exactly does Paul mean when he writes “they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel”? I find this phrasing to be unclear and unnecessarily difficult. Though the NASB is by far the closest word-for-word translation of the Bible, its precision sometimes comes at the cost of clarity. For this reason, let’s try the NIV’s translation of this sentence: “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Hopefully what is confusing now is only the sentence’s content and not its structure. Let’s break down what we can from the sentence before looking forward. Paul is drawing a distinction between two types of people. There are those “who are descended from Israel” and those who are actually “Israel.” The group “Israel” does not necessarily include all who are of the group “descended from Israel”. To me, it seems Paul is using the same word “Israel” to speak about two distinct things. What, then, is Israel?
An answer requires additional passages. First, Look to Genesis 35:9-12.
“Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him,
“Your name is Jacob;
You shall no longer be called Jacob,
But Israel shall be your name.”
Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him,
“I am God Almighty;
Be fruitful and multiply;
A nation and a company of nations shall come from you,
And kings shall come forth from you.
The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac,
I will give it to you,
And I will give the land to your descendants after you.”
The lives of the patriarchs are vital to understanding the Gospel. Paul constantly writes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in his epistles (as we’ve already seen in verse 5) when explaining who God is, what man’s relationship is with Him, what faith looks like, and all sorts of other matters. This brief account in the life of Jacob helps provide insight into who Paul’s “descended” group is. “Israel” in this sense refers to Jacob the patriarch, so “all who are descended from Israel” are his actual children, his literal progeny. Those who trace their ancestry back to Jacob and his twelve sons are considered Israelites in the sense that they are one family, one nation, one ethnic and cultural and genetic people group. By Paul’s time, the only remaining tribe of Israel was Judah; all other tribes had been destroyed by the Assyrian empire.¹ Therefore, by referring to the “descendants of Israel”, Paul focuses on people who are ethnically Jewish, those to whom God promised the land of Canaan. The Jews are citizens of the country Israel by birth.
So, “Israel” can be both an individual—the patriarch Jacob—and his children whom God promised a land and a kingdom. How does Paul use “Israel” in another way? Though not explicitly stated before now, Paul often distinguishes between Jews “of the flesh” and Jews “of faith”. Romans 2:28-29 highlights this well: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter…” In this sense, the term “Israel” refers to God’s chosen people who partake in an inward connection with the Lord, regardless of lineage.
Israel could refer to three things, then: Jacob as an individual, the historical person and patriarch; Israel as the ancient nation God established, descending from the twelve sons of Jacob and surviving to Paul’s time as the Jews; or, Israel as God’s chosen people—“inwardly Jews” that include people of every tribe and tongue who proclaim Jesus is Lord. In short, Israel is either Jacob himself, the nation of Israel, or the Church.
I see verse 6 working in two ways. In one sense, Paul could be declaring “Not all the current citizens of Israel—that is, the Jews—are like Jacob.” Jacob’s life serves as an example or a paradigm that not all of his progeny emulate. In another sense, Paul could be saying “Not all people who are legally, culturally, and genetically Jewish are a part of God’s elect.” Either Paul means that Jacob’s descendants do not always follow in their forefather’s example, or he means that not all ethnic Jews are true “inwardly Jews”. In the following verses, Paul will explain that both understandings apply and use Scripture to support his assertion. In fact, Paul will use the first understanding to illustrate and clarify the second. Verses 7-13 focus on the first understanding.
Romans 9:7-9 “nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” ”
I hope my explanation of what “Israel” is made sense because Paul throws another example into the mix. To strengthen his point, Paul cites Abraham and his offspring to demonstrate God distinguishing between His true people and mere descendants of the patriarchs. Again, the sentence structure and verse division in the Bible are tricky, so let me rephrase what we’re working with, incorporating part of verse 6: “Not all who are descended from Israel are [like] Israel, nor are they all [God’s] children because they are Abraham’s descendants.” The same two-fold understanding of Israel applies to Abraham and his descendants as well. Paul is referring primarily to Isaac and Ishmael, and by extension, “inwardly” and “outwardly” Jews.
If Paul had chosen to use Isaac as his main example, Romans 9:6 could have read like this: “For they are not all Isaac who are descended from Isaac.” Paul again distinguishes between two groups: children of the flesh, and children of the promise. These are not only general, metaphorical labels; Paul is referring to Abraham’s two sons. Ishmael is the child of the flesh and Isaac is the child of the promise. Remember the life of Abraham and the history of his two son’s births. Ishmael was quite literally conceived and born apart from faith. Because of Sarai and Abraham’s doubt in Genesis 16 Abraham had a child by Hagar. According to the law and tradition of Abraham’s world, Ishmael was his rightful heir. As the firstborn son, Ishmael was to receive his father’s inheritance and leadership role in the family. Yet, God asserted that this rightful heir was not the one from whom His nation would come. Several years later, Sarah miraculously conceived Isaac (Genesis 21). The rightful heir was rejected and exiled. Isaac took his older brother’s place. God’s choice was the last choice.
Paul relates this historical, personal account of Isaac and Ishmael to his own context of Christians (both Greeks and Jews) and the unrepentant Jews for whom he grieves so deeply. The “outwardly Jews” are analogous to Ishmael. Though they are truly Abraham’s sons, they do not receive God’s promise. The “inwardly Jews” are the true Isaacs, born of a miracle—born of God’s own will and power according to His promise.
Romans 9:10-13 “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” ”
Now Paul returns to his first example from verse 6. Jacob and Esau serve as better examples than Isaac and Ishmael because, as Paul notes, they come from the same parents. Closer still, they are twins. From birth there is no distinction between them outside of birth order (and body hair).² With Abraham, one could argue that Ishmael never should have been born. He was destined to be rejected from his very conception since he was not from Sarah. The same dismissal cannot be applied to Esau. By any and every human measure, God had no reason to pick Jacob over Esau. His choice wasn’t based on merit. Neither child had been born when the Lord made His decision; how could Jacob have deserved God’s favor? Paul is clear on this matter. Jacob was selected only because “of Him who calls,”—because of “His choice” alone. That still feels insufficient to me. I want to know exactly why God chose Jacob. Paul’s getting there; he spends the rest of this chapter forming an answer. For now, that will have to wait. More needs to be said about verses 10-13.
I flinched on my first reading of verse 13 when I learned God actually said “I hated Esau.” How can this be? It may seem entirely out of God’s character to even say He hates someone. Yet, He says it clearly enough. Paul is quoting Malachi 1:2-3. See Malachi 1:1-5.
“ The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.
“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have You loved us?” “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness.” Though Edom says, “We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins”; thus says the Lord of hosts, “They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever.” Your eyes will see this and you will say, “The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel!” ”
How strange! God is actually admitting to hating Esau. To ensure the problem is not a translation issue, I’ve looked up verses in the Old and New Testaments that use the same word—both in Greek and Hebrew—in different contexts. The Greek word used in Romans 9:13 is emisēsa, derived from miseó, which Strong’s concordance defines “I hate, detest, love less, esteem less,” (Greek 3404). This word is used 41 times in the New Testament. One context particularly catches my attention. Jesus frequently uses miseó in the Gospel of John to explain how the world, and the pharisees in particular, feel about Him.³ It is also the same word that Jesus used to describe the world’s reaction to, and treatment of, His disciples because they followed Him.4
The most telling example of Jesus using miseó is in Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Matthew features a similar verse, but the wording is slightly different. Matthew 10:37 reads as follows “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew doesn’t use miseó anywhere in this verse; in fact, he uses the Greek word for love. The core message is still kept.
The idea of hating one’s own life is addressed in every Gospel. John 12:25 and Matthew 10:39 are similar, yet distinct. Matthew 10:37 reads “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” John’s verse seems more radical: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” Note that John uses both philos (love) and miseó in the same sentence. Mark 8:35 is closer to to Matthew’s version: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Still, the core message prevails.
Why have I taken such a tangent on these verses and this word play? Partly to show how difficult it can be to understand word usage, and mostly to cite John Piper’s exegesis of Mark 8:35.5 My brief explanation of his 10-minute video will be poor; I recommend you watch it to better understand what Jesus means by “hating” and “loving” one’s own life. Essentially, all this is to show that Strong’s definition including “love less” is fair. If I may, I’d suggest this: an integral part of love is hating the right things. It is inherent in the nature of love to hate things opposed to one’s love. Why does the world hate Jesus and His followers? Because they love darkness and hate the Light (John 1). In what sense do Christians hate their own lives and their mothers and fathers and siblings? In the sense that they count them as loss for the sake of Christ; Christians sacrifice everything that is not Jesus when they are born again. Jesus explains in John 12:24 that the act of rebirth, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, is a death of one’s self. In fact, Christians count death, the ultimate enemy of the world and the thing most hated by those without faith, to be gain according to Philippians 1:21. Hatred is not removed altogether from the Christian life; it is redirected.
I am afraid that this has still been a tangent. Let’s return to the verse in question. In what sense does God hate Esau? Again, I’d like to draw a distinction between names referring to individuals and to nations. In the account provided in Genesis 25:19-34, God seems to hate Esau in the sense that He loves him less and esteems him less than Jacob. Paul’s interpretation fits with Genesis; the reader is given no reason for why God chose to love Jacob and not Esau. Yet, there is no explicit proclamation from God saying He hates Esau. Malachi’s language is much stronger, but the prophet speaks about nations, not patriarchs. Edom, the nation descended from Esau, is considered a wicked land, receiving the Lord’s eternal indignation.
Is there really any effective difference between “esteeming less” and “detesting”? It doesn’t seem like it. Malachi 1 and Genesis 25-36 tell the same essential story: Israel is glorified, Esau is disgraced. Jacob is blessed, Esau is cursed. Isaac’s narrative tells the same story. Isaac was chosen, Ishmael was rejected. Isaac was the child of promise, Ishmael was the child of unfaithfulness.
I still have many questions. One of the first questions I posed has yet to be answered: why have the Jews not received Jesus as their Messiah? The answer seems to be that some Jews aren’t true “inward Jews” and aren’t a part of the elect. Paul has tried to explain how that may be the case without God breaking His promises. Now, my question is almost the opposite of the one first asked: why did God pick Israel in the first place? Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? Drawing out the implications of this might start to get scary, especially in light of Romans 8:28-39. Luckily for us, Paul tackles such implications in the rest of the chapter.
I’ve written far more than I planned on writing. I still have much to say, but all will have to wait for the next part. Take some time to process what you’ve read. Go through Romans 9:1-13 on your own without my commentary and write down your own questions. Come back for part 3 to see if Paul answers those questions for you. Feel free to ask me anything in the comments below. Questions or not, let me know what you think of all this! Thanks for reading.
1 The tribe of Benjamin also survived the assault of the Assyrian empire. Following the northern kingdom’s destruction, it was absorbed into the southern kingdom with Judah. However, when the Babylonians destroyed the southern kingdom a century and a half later, the Benjamites were totally destroyed. All remaining Israelites were called Jews.
2 It would be absurd to believe God preferred Jacob over Esau because of something as trivial as body hair. Physical appearance is clearly not one of God’s priorities when choosing His people. See 1 Samuel 16:7 “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.””
3 John 7:7; John 15:18, 23-25
4 Matthew 10:22, 24:9-10; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:17; John 15:18-19
Part Three can be found here.