Romans 9:6-9 “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 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.’”
In this section of Romans 9 Paul is dealing with some very common and practical problems that face every Christian and can rob him of his peace and comfort. The problem is this; God our Father has made wonderful promises to the Christian. We are in an unbreakable relationship with him, but then, after the courtship years of walking with a newly loved Saviour, troubles and barrenness may be permitted to come into our lives. Things go pear-shaped. Horrible providences – like the calamities that happened to the patriarch Job – happen to the mere Christian. Nightmares seems to come charging into our lives, one on the heels of another, and Mr. Christian is staggering; “Where is God? What is God doing? Doesn’t he know what is going on? Why are his enemies so strong? What about all he’s promised? Where is his loving care? Why isn’t he defending me and protecting me? Why isn’t he keeping his word? I think that his promises have failed.”
Eileen Saunders, a Christian housewife whose obituary I read this week, was once admitted into hospital in Eastbourne. She was told, utterly unexpectedly, that she had to have her right kidney removed. She was 62 years of age; she was shocked at hearing what had to be done. She felt she’d ‘sunk fathoms,’ saying, “I had no religion at all. I couldn’t find anything. It was black as midnight.” Those are the personal experiences that Christians can know. The morning of her operation she opened her Bible, and soon she came across these words, “Behold I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is there anything too hard for me?” She replied, “No, Lord, there is nothing too hard for thee.” The operation was a complete success and she lived for another thirty years, dying earlier this year. Christians can know great darkness. Why is God dealing with them in this way? I don’t think that I have quoted to you this particular poem of John Newton for a number of years. It is time we heard it again, though it is familiar to many of you: it has done pastoral work for ministers like me for over 200 years. I memorized it as a student over fifty years ago.
Might more of His salvation know,
2 ‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
But it has been in such a way
3 I hoped that in some favoured hour
4 Instead of this, He made me feel
And let the angry powers of hell
Intent to aggravate my woe,
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
6 ‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried,
‘Tis in this way’, the Lord replied,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
John Newton, 1725-1807
Nothing that happens to us can come out of chance alone. Nothing is allowed to come to us out of the devil alone. God knows us, and God measures our strength and our grief and gives us grace that is sufficient for our pain. I am saying that this is one perplexing problem that a Christian
faces, periods of spiritual darkness, with troubles crashing into his life. However there are other trials. How do you reconcile the astonishing promises of God to fill the world with the truth of Jesus Christ, to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, his desire to magnify his Son in the earth with the reality of resistance to the gospel and the apathy we face in a fallen world? How few are being converted in our own land. If only ten men were truly saved in our small town what a wonderful blessing that would be.
One response to the absence of the saving work of God is our feeling of overwhelming sadness and weakness. We are moved as we consider our community; we are filled with compassion for the people we see walking the main streets of our town. Paul begins this chapter by declaring his grief; “I have great sorrow and unceasing pain in my heart” (v.2). He pours it all out; he makes no attempt to hide it. It centres on his own fellow-country men, the nation he loves above all others, his kinsmen according to the flesh, those, he tells us in these verses, who’d been adopted by God as his children, those to whom the Lord had shown his glory, bonding with them in various covenants, giving them his word, telling them how they were to worship him, making wonderfully great and precious promises to them, raising up mighty leaders to guide and protect them, and finally sending his own Son to save. Why aren’t they turning to the Lord in their thousands? Why the hatred and resistance?
So what is our response? Certainly we have to tell ourselves that the Bible’s warned us of this. John says familiar words in his preface to his gospel; “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not” (John 1:10). The Creator became created and God the Son showed his power over his creation, over the winds and the waves so that they did what he told them to do, over H2O – to walk on it, or to turn it into wine – just as he determined, or again over a fig tree to will it to wither. Yet his own creatures whose breath is in his hands, looked at him scornfully, not recognizing him, not falling before him and not embracing him as God the Son. The world knew him not.
Then John goes on to say, “He came to his own people and his own people refused to receive him as their Messiah” (Jn. 1:11). There were exceptions of course, but by and large the body of his own nation under its leaders rejected him. “We won’t have this man rule over us,” they said. These people, favoured in all these ways, rejected their Messiah. They despised him, in fact it was their chief priest who was the one who organized his execution. After Calvary they began a campaign to obliterate every memory of him. They went on to throw his apostles into prison, and stone Stephen to death, and persecute the members of the church all over the middle east, wherever there was a synagogue, they went looking for renegade Jews who had become Christians, imprisoning them and forcing them to blaspheme. It was the chosen people, Israel, who did this! Those who had received those wonderful privileges and blessings! Why? Paul has heard that question many times on the lips of Jewish Christians who had been whipped and divorced by their non-believing husbands and lost their families through confessing Christ. Where was God in all this? What was God doing? Is God helpless? Can’t he keep his promises? Does he just talk that talk? God seemed to be a powerless spectator. Where is the revival we need? Why doesn’t he rend the heavens and come down? Is God’s arm shortened that it cannot save? Are his ears deaf that he cannot hear us?
That was the particular form in which this problem had affected Paul; puny men were defying God; his privileged fellow countrymen believed Christ was a blasphemer. Even his own family and friends hated Jesus; they believed that by crucifying Christ then Jesus had got what he deserved. Why did God allow this to happen? Why does God allow monstrous things to occur today? What is Paul’s response? What does he insist on?
“It is not as though God’s word had failed,” (v.6). Whatever God’s reason may be for our disappointments it is certainly not that God has failed to keep his word. What is Paul referring to when he speaks of ‘God’s word’? Is he referring to God’s promises to Israel? Or is it more broadly referring to all God’s words of revelation? Or is it narrower than that, referring to Paul preaching the gospel? Paul, I think, seems to be referring to the plan of God, the intention of God, the revelation of God to bless Jew and Gentile through Jesus Christ, that that has not ended in failure. It remains actual and effective. You can still rely on God and his word.
Then the question is this, how do you square God’s covenant promises to Israel to make them his people and save them with the way they have treated their Messiah and his followers? They have rejected Christ. But that doesn’t mean that God’s word has failed. Our problem is not with the word of God, that it is too big, not qualified enough, not careful enough. Paul says, “No! There’s nothing erroneous with what God has said in his word. It is not that it has failed.” He dismisses that lie immediately, but we can misunderstand his promises. For example he has said that if our priority is the kingdom of God and his righteousness then God will add all things to us. We can read a divine promise like that and soon we are asking why we still are not getting what we want. The problem one Christian faces is that she doesn’t have a husband, and someone else doesn’t have children, and someone else doesn’t have good health, and someone else can’t find a job, and someone is struggling to make ends meet and isn’t growing any richer, and so on. “Why doesn’t God keep his word and add to my life as a Christian all those things and many more, because that is what Jesus plainly said would happen if you seek first the kingdom of God? He will add all those things to our lives. So where are they?”
That is a plain misunderstanding of what God has said. We say to Christians, “It’s not that God’s word has failed. The trouble is that you have misinterpreted God’s word about his ‘adding all things to you.’ God has never promised that every Christian is going to get married, or that every Christian couple are going to be fertile, or that no Christian is going to be sick, or that every Christian will find a job and get wealthy, or that revival would be coming tomorrow.” God never promises those things to us anywhere in his word. Those are not part of the “all things” that God promises to add to our lives. He promises categorically that if we seek the kingdom of God as our priority in life (that is, if we live always under the rules of our King), then he will certainly add to our lives all that he has promised, that he will always work everything together for our good, that he will always supply all our needs, that he will never leave us nor forsake us, that he will make his grace always abound towards us, that he will fill us with his Spirit, that he will take us to heaven and when we see him we shall be like
him, and so on. Those are some of the “all things” that God promises to add to our lives, and those words of his never fail. He’s never talked putting a Mercedes in the drive of your fancy houses, or that you would never get flu, or that you would have a huge family. He makes no promises about those things, though he often gives them. He always gives us our cross to carry. He always adds that to the life of every believer. So one of the problems people have with what they think of as “God’s broken promises” is that he never promised to provide us with those things in the first place.
2. PAUL EXPLAINS THE FAILURE OF ISRAEL TO RECEIVE THE LORD JESUS.
Let’s understand what God had promised about Israel and the arrival of the Messiah. Had he affirmed categorically that when the Messiah came everybody living in the land of Israel who was descended from Abraham would fall on their faces before Christ and worship and serve him? Was there such a divine promise? Paul in fact reminds his readers of this, that “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 . . . , it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise wo are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (vv.6, 7 & 8). God never promised that every single one of the great-great-great-etc-grandchildren of Abraham would rejoice that Jesus Christ was his or her Lord and Saviour, bowing before him and following him all his or her days. There was no such promise made. Paul makes this clear in three ways in our text so that we can build up the picture.
i] Not all who are descended from Israel were Israel (v.6). That will remind some of you of something else Paul had written earlier in the book of Romans. I was once visiting Jerusalem and we had gone to the Garden Tomb. I wandered around the grounds and visited the Gift Shop. I listened as the European behind the counter was asked by a customer whether he was a Jew. The man behind the counter replied by quoting Romans chapter 2 verses 28 and 29, “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” He told the customer, “In that sense I am a Jew. My heart has been circumcised by the Spirit of Christ.” Paul is making it clear that the prime issue is not whether you’re a physical Israelite, and have had physical circumcision, because God looks upon the heart. Your heart has to be changed. Circumcision in the Old Testament spoke of dealing with the reign of sin over us. It pointed forward to regeneration and mortification by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. The promises of God to bless the people through Christ, the glorious seed of Abraham, were fulfilled only in those Israelites whose hearts had been renewed. Jeremiah prophesied of a new covenant which promised that men and women would have a new heart. Some of those would be believing Jews with new hearts, outwardly circumcised Israel, while others would be uncircumcised Romans and Greeks whose hearts alone would have been circumcised. So you see that distinction, not all who were physically descended from the patriarch Jacob (or as he was later called, ‘Israel’) would be owned by God as “My beloved Israel.” There were just some in Israel to whom the promises of the word of God applied.
ii] Not all Israel’s descendants were Abraham’s children (v.7). One of Jesus’ dialogues with the Jews is recorded in John chapter 8, beginning in verse 32 and continuing all the way down to verse 44 I am not going to read the whole section, but we will look at it and I’ll point out some snippets in it. You remember what’s going on. Jesus is talking about what it means to be a true disciple, one of his genuine followers. Really he’s talking about what it means to be true Israel, the real thing. So in the course of the conversation he offended these people by talking about the wonderful freedom that following him would bring to every disciple. He told them, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (v.32) They got angry and they said to Jesus, “What do you mean that we will be ‘set free’? We’ve always been free. Children of Abraham have always been free.” And in verse 33 they say to Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants,” and you see what happens over the next few verses. Jesus tells them, “Oh I know that you’re descendants of Abraham, but you are trying to kill me and Abraham wouldn’t have done that. Therefore, by your deeds, you’re showing everyone, and me in particular, who your real father is.” Then you see what he says in verse 44, “By the way, you belong to your father the devil. You’re descendants of Abraham, but your father is the devil.” Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. And now we learn that not all descendants of Abraham have Abraham as their father. They may be in the family tree of the patriarch, but their spiritual father is Beelzebub. It’s not Abraham, because they want to kill the seed of Abraham and prevent all the nations of the world being blessed by him.
iii] Not all the natural children belonging to the twelve tribes of Israel were God’s children (v.8). Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, but the line of the promise of the coming Messiah went just through one son and his family, the line of Isaac. Paul quotes Genesis chapter 21 and verse 12 in our text; “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (v.7). All the others, though they were in the family tree of Abraham, were set aside. No international blessing spreading through the world came through one person of that whole line of Ishmael. Only the children of the promise through the line of Isaac are Abraham’s spiritual offspring. What a vivid phrase, ‘the children of the promise.’ Who are these people? Maybe we can find some help if we turn to Galatians chapter four and read from verse 22 to verse 28. This is what Paul writes there; “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: ‘Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labour pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.’ Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.” Paul is contrasting those descended from mother Hagar and son Ishmael with those descended from mother Sara and son Isaac, and he says, “Isaac alone is the child of promise, and you (speaking to Gentile
believers in Galatia in what is called today Turkey), you are also sons of the promise, you are children of the promise just like Isaac.” In other words, the promise God made to Abraham that his line would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth was not directed at every single descendant of Abraham without exception. It was not made to Ishmael and all his pagan descendants. The promise of blessing comes to the true children of God alone, those who have received the Holy Spirit and who by preaching and living the gospel of Jesus Christ become the light of the world.
So this is how Paul answers this problem which every converted Jew in the decades after the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost felt so keenly. “Why are my fellow countrymen rejecting their Messiah? How could the majority of Israel approve of the death of Jesus as a criminal blasphemer?” The answer was not that God’s word has failed, because God’s word was not directed to every circumcised Jew without exception. It was focused on the children of the promise, the true Israel of God, the seed of Abraham after the Spirit not after the flesh. In other words Paul is making it clear that the Kingdom of God is not inherited by physical descent.
This principle of course has immediate application to us today. Our parents are wonderful Christians but that is no guarantee that we will be joining them in heaven. You were born of them, but have you been born of God? Have you personally received Jesus Christ into your life? Do you remember how John emphasizes that very clearly in the opening chapter of his gospel, both positively and negatively; “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12 & 13). You must personally know in your hearts the new birth. That birth is from above. In other words, it does not come by believer’s baptism nor infant baptism nor confirmation by a bishop’s hands on your head nor by partaking in bread and wine in holy communion nor by church membership. That is not the way that this essential new birth comes to you. It is from above; it is sheer vertical sovereign grace; it comes from heaven as a gift of God, the Holy Spirit entering your heart and life. Some of those ordinances might be the visible entry into a religious community, but you remember what the apostle is saying here so clearly, that all the males within the visible religious community of Israel were outwardly circumcised, and yet many of them, perhaps most of them, were lacking a circumcised heart dedicated to God. They had never experienced his saving life-giving work. We must be in vital relationship with God. Church membership must flow from that saving relationship, and it must be nurtured and nourished by the gospel ordinances. They are among the great privileges and duties of those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ, but gospel ordinances don’t cause salvation. We can sit in church Lord’s day after Lord’s day and never embrace God’s promises or warnings, and not be in any credible sense in a living growing relationship with God.
In this passage Paul is explaininh why the majority of the Jews rejected Christ. But it doesn’t give us the usual explanations – that Jesus wasn’t militant enough for Israel under Roman oppression, that he was meek and lowly of heart, that he didn’t take the side of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but rather rebuked them and told them all that they needed to be born from above and get new hearts or they would perish, and that his message insulted them. All that is true, but what Paul does in our text is to explain that throughout their entire history it was only a remnant had ever had come to trust in the Lord, and when the Messiah came it was still just a subset of the people of Israel who confessed him as their God, everywhere in the land and in the dispersion in Asia Minor and Greece and Rome, from the days of Isaac down two thousand years to the time when old Hannah was in the Temple with aged Simeon and he held the baby Christ in his arms. They were part of the a remnant who were waiting for the Messiah to come, and knew him when he came, who sang the psalms from their hearts, who rested on the Lord’s promises, and who enjoyed the blessing of his salvation. Paul is making that clear in these verses isn’t he?
What should delight us is this, that there were so many who did confess Jesus as the Christ the Son of the living God, that on the day of Pentecost 3,000 men acknowledged him as the Son of God and were baptized in Jerusalem and continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayers. Later we are told that there were 5,000 more who did the same, and many priests. With all the might of the Jewish system opposed to them and persecuting them, and the Roman empire worshipping is emperors and killing them, and Greek philosophy disdaining the message of the early church there were yet thousands of Jews and Gentiles who acknowledged Jesus to be the one sent by God to be the Saviour of the world.
There is John’s great prologue to his gospel and in it he speaks of the coming of Christ and he describes him as the arrival of real light in this world; “In him was life and that life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it” (footnote to John 1:5). I heard a preacher this summer who was a widower, who had married a widow a few months ago. He spoke of his new wife, and that she could only sleep in a room which had heavy drapes over the windows. She did not like to see a chink of light entering the bedroom. So in the morning he felt his way across the dark room to the window and drew the curtains. “Then what happened?” he asked us, “Did the darkness of that room pour out of the window and swallow up all the light outside? No, the darkness did not overcome the light; the very reverse happened, the light entered the room and banished the darkness. So it was when Christ came that his Spirit and his teaching and his life transformed and lit up the lives of the remnant, and they became the light of the world. Who is worshipping Roman emperors today? Who is following Greek philosophers today? Where are the Jewish evangelists today? But millions of men and women from every nation today have been shining forth the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. PAUL ENDS BY GIVING THEM THE HOPE OF THE ‘APPOINTED TIME.’
The apostle says, “For this was how the promise was stated: ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son” (v.9). You remember how God at his appointed time burst into Abraham’s life in Ur of the Chaldees and told him to leave his home city and go to a land that God promised him, and that immediately Abraham set out. God told him that though he and his wife Sarah had been married for many years and were childless now in old age that she would yet conceive and give birth to a son. Through that son’s line a child would one day be born and all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. That was how the great promise God made to Abraham was stated; “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” Those words are found in Genesis chapter eighteen.
Abraham first heard the voice of God and received the promise of the land and becoming a great nation he was 75 years old and his wife was ten years younger. Now you would think that within one year Sarah would give birth to a son, but it was not to be, and God caused Abraham and Sarah to live by faith, and trust in that promise for 25 more years. Sometimes their faith was sorely tested and at one such time in her exasperation that Abraham would have a son Sarah persuaded her husband to have a child by her serving maid Hagar. That was not God’s way. Ishmael was not the child of promise, and the parents had to continue to live their daily lives, and eat and drink and do everything to the glory of God for many more years. God taught them year after year to trust in him with all their hearts and lean not on their own understanding. In all their ways they were to acknowledge him and he would direct their paths. They had to wait for God’s time, God’s appointed time when he returned with fertilizing power and ended the barrenness. It was not that they did nothing and were waited on by their servants for all those years. They abounded in all the work that God gave them to do. They feared God and kept all his commandments, but they were incapable of saying, “Child, be born now.” That was God’s great prerogative. He alone could give them the promised child at his appointed time.
Paul was in the precise relationship to God that Abraham and Isaac were. He could not convert a single Jew. He could not remove one stony heart and replace it with a heart of flesh. God alone could do this but there were all the duties that daily he had to fulfil in praying and preaching and writing letters and defending the faith, visiting synagogues and the homes of his fellow country men, longing and praying that his words would not fall to the ground and that appointed time for their salvation would come. Today you and I are in exactly the same state. There are all the good works that God has called us to do. We are to plead with men and women, telling them that Jesus Christ is worthy of their trust. We are to plead with God that the set time to favour our church and community with his saving power should come. He will determine when that time comes. He tells us of times of refreshing from his presence. We are to make his presence most welcome in our midst and pray that when he visits us it will be in abundance of grace, and until then that we magnify Christ and show men the exceeding sinfulness of sin and urge them all to put their trust in him, that Jesus will be their refuge and help. May the appointed time come, and the Lord return in blessing to us!