Dan Popp
The other chosen people
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
March 30, 2011

Helpful as they are, chapter and verse breaks in the Bible can obscure connections. The original recipients of Paul's letter to the Romans, when they got about halfway through, would have read something like this:

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. [8:38-9:2 NKJV]

Now, that's a dramatic shift! Paul pens one of the most uplifting passages in all of Scripture; then tells us that, in all honesty, he's deeply, perpetually depressed! How could anyone ever frown again (we sometimes hear) after everything Jesus has done for us?

I would willingly be condemned and be cut off from Christ if it would help my brothers of Israel, my own flesh and blood. [Jerus]

The truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God prompts the apostle to write, I almost wish I could be separated from Christ, if that would save my fellow Jews. [My paraphrase]

Chapter 8 taught us that Christians have been chosen by God, and cannot be unchosen. But the Almighty already had a "chosen people." How can the Jews as a group remain in God's family while rejecting Him in the person of His Son? Yet how could they be unchosen without making God unfaithful, or at least unwise in choosing them? The answers are in the next three chapters.

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption...

Christians have received a spirit of adoption (8:15) and wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies (8:23b). The Jews are way ahead of us.

the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. [NRSV] ...the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. [ESV]

Paul finishes the list he started in Chapter 3: Advantages of Being a Jew. The unspoken challenge to God is, Haven't You blessed and preserved the Hebrews for thousands of years, only to snuff them out in the end? This had come up before, very soon after they had been rescued from Egypt.

    But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said: "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath, change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them...." (Exodus 32:11-13a, NRSV)

Paul will borrow these three arguments by Moses — God's prior investment in the children of Israel, His reputation among the heathen, and His promises to the patriarchs — to show that God has not abandoned the Jews. But first, both they and we need to understand something about election: God has been selecting and rejecting individual sons of Abraham since the very beginning.

It is not as though God's word had failed. For 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 though Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." It 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. [NIV]

Abraham had more than just the two famous sons (Gen 25:1). But only one of these children of Abraham was the child of the promise. Here Paul uses Ishmael and the others to stand for unbelieving Jews — children of the flesh only, not of faith. Jewish and Gentile believers, then, correspond to Isaac — the heir of the heavenly promises.

Someone might propose that, since Isaac had a different mother than the others, this is a matter of "racial purity." But that wouldn't explain God's choice of Jacob over Esau. Verse 10:

And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for although the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might 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." [NASB]

    Not only some of Abraham's seed were chosen, and others not, but God therein wrought according to the counsel of his own will. God foresaw both Esau and Jacob as born in sin, by nature children of wrath even as others. If left to themselves they would have continued to sin through life; but for wise and holy reasons, not made known to us, he purposed to change Jacob's heart, and to leave Esau to his perverseness. This instance of Esau and Jacob throws light upon the Divine conduct to the fallen race of man. — Matthew Henry

Not because of works.... Works salvation is worse than a dead end (3:20, 4:4,5); it is blasphemy. It transfers glory from the Giver to the recipient of grace.

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." [ESV]

No one can demand that God show him mercy, because no one deserves mercy — by definition. I may demand what I rightly deserve, but I have no grounds for demanding what I don't deserve.

Thus it does not depend on man's will or effort, but on God's mercy. [NEB]

Those two categories seem to cover all our choices, don't they? "For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure," wrote Paul to the believing Philippians (2:13, NRSV).

For Scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for this very purpose, to exhibit my power in my dealings with you, and to spread my fame over all the world." Thus he not only shows mercy as he chooses, but also makes men stubborn as he chooses. [NEB] ...hardens whomever he wills. [ESV]

I can almost hear you retort: "If this is so, and God's will is irresistible, why does God blame men for what they do?" But the question really is this: "Who are you, a man, to make any such reply to God?" When a craftsman makes anything he doesn't expect it to turn round and say, "Why did you make me like this?" The potter, for instance, has complete control over the clay, making with one part of the lump a lovely vase, and with another a pipe for sewage. May it not be that God, though he must sooner or later expose his wrath against sin and show his controlling hand, has yet most patiently endured the presence in the world of things that cry out to be destroyed? [Phillips]

And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among the Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. [NASB]

What is God's plan for the Jews? We've seen that it rests on His sovereign choice; and that His choice may not be what we expect. The Jews certainly misunderstood it when they claimed right standing with God at least partially on the basis of Abraham's DNA. But Christians may misunderstand it as well. Please accept my invitation to be part of the next meeting of the Romans Book Club.

© Dan Popp


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