Through the letter to the Romans – Part 14. God’s choice to love is our hope

Jesus told his disciples at the end of the gospel of Matthew: “I am with you, to the end of the age.” In John 14 he tells them “In my Father’s house there are many abodes; were it not so, I had told you: for I go to prepare you a place; and if I go and shall prepare you a place, I am coming again and shall receive you to myself, that where I am ye also may be.” He reiterates this a few verses down: “I will not leave you orphans; I am coming for you.” Why did we need that assurance?

Because he already told us that this world will not be kind to us. And when the times get hard, it is human to worry. Will He keep His word? Yes. How do we know? Because He already proved His Love by taking the most extreme of measures for our sake.

Romans 8:31-39 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Here Paul, like Jesus, has not spared us the hard truth. This is “truth in advertising”, the world will hate us. But Jesus already overcame the world. This is our hope. It is by embracing this truth that Paul tells the people of Philippi: rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.

But it is not all joy

Have you ever carried a deep sorrow in your heart? If so, clinging to those passages of chapter 8 that remind us that the Holy Spirit understands that pain and will not leave us alone, can help us make it through another day. But there is a different kind of sorrow, a sorrow that Paul knows very well. And he tried to deal with it over and over again.

As we read about his ministry in the Book of Acts, we see that every time he got to a new city, he first went to the synagogue and tried to tell his fellow Jews about the good news. It wasn’t just because he knew that the Scriptures equipped them best to understand the message of the Messiah, it was because he loved his people. Yet many rejected that message.

Romans 9: 1-5 I say [the] truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience bearing witness with me in [the] Holy Spirit, that I have great grief and uninterrupted pain in my heart, for I have wished, I myself, to be a curse from the Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen, according to flesh; who are Israelites; whose [is] the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the law-giving, and the service, and the promises;  whose [are] the fathers; and of whom, as according to flesh, [is] the Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.

This is a sorrow he shares with the Jewish Christians of Rome. They know where he is coming from.

Now, he has to address the point that he made way back in Chapter 3: Not all Israel has believed the good news. Yet, God’s promise to Abraham should have applied to all Israel as his descendants. The argument he used to point out that salvation is for all mankind, was the argument that that salvation was based on Promise, and that that Promise regarded the children of Abraham by faith as being the true Jews, the heirs of that Promise. Now, he is going to prove from Scripture that that is how God has always made His choices.

The first example he uses is again that of Abraham. His first child in the flesh, the one who by right of bloodline should have inherited the preferred status and portion of the firstborn, was Ishmael. Yet, he was not the child God had promised him. Did that invalidate the Promise in any way? No, because what God promised came to pass.

Romans 9:6-9 Not however as though the word of God had failed; for not all [are] Israel which [are] of Israel; nor because they are seed of Abraham [are] all children: but, In Isaac shall a seed be called to thee. That is, [they that are] the children of the flesh, these [are] not the children of God; but the children of the promise are reckoned as seed. For this word [is] of promise, According to this time I will come, and there shall be a son to Sarah.

Then, lest the argument be made that, obviously Ishmael was just a child of a handmaiden, and not a legitimate part of the “family”, Paul brings up the twin brothers, sons of Isaac:

Romans 9:10-13 And not only [that], but Rebecca having conceived by one, Isaac our father, [the children] indeed being not yet born, or having done anything good or worthless (that the purpose of God according to election might abide, not of works, but of him that calls), it was said to her, The greater shall serve the less: according as it is written, I have loved Jacob, and I have hated Esau.

painting by James Tissot Jacob deceives Isaac
Painting by James Tissot: Jacob deceives Isaac

Again, by the right of the firstborn, Esau should have inherited the promise. Yet, before they were born God said the first would serve the second. God made a choice about which of them would carry the promise forward.

Notice that this doesn’t mean God made Jacob good and Esau wicked. And it doesn’t say that God chose Jacob because He knew he would be a better person than Esau. In fact, the passage acknowledges that they would go on to do things of their own accord: good things and worthless things. (And if you know the story, you know that Jacob was not beyond lying and cheating to get his way.) But God, being sovereign, gets to choose the path that His promise will take. Then we get a verse that taken out of context could be confusing: Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.

Now, if you want to believe in predestination as God choosing whom He saves, this sounds like evidence. However, in the context of what Paul is saying to his brother Jews, who know they have brethren that have rejected the good news, that verse is saying: ‘Jacob and Esau were both children of Isaac, legitimate descendants of Abraham, legitimate inheritors both of the Promise. Did they both do what was pleasing to God? Didn’t Esau take a path that eventually led to his descendants, the Edomites, becoming enemies of Israel? Isn’t that what led God to say Esau I have hated by the time of the prophet Malachi?

The point there is that our bloodline does not guarantee what our heart will choose. Esau’s bloodline certainly didn’t. And that choice of the heart is what matters to God. Furthermore, the Messiah was promised to come from the line of Abraham. God had here two choices. And He decided that Jacob was a much better bet than Esau in that regard. That is not necessarily a moral judgment on their hearts. But it certainly is a decision that makes sense based on the environment God knew each would create for his descendants in the future. And we have no right to tell God on what basis He can or cannot make His choices.

This discussion again points out how easy it was for the people of his time (or for that matter the people of our time) to try to blame God for their choices. We come up against that argument again…

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