By Mark Scott
In the church at Rome, there was tension that you could cut with a circumcision knife. The Jews thought the Gentiles obeyed God’s laws rather flippantly. The Gentiles thought the Jews had squandered their place as God’s people. Paul’s teaching in this text is that both groups have to live under God’s mercy.
God’s plan to save the world through Jesus had been explained in Romans 1–8. The question that remained was how Jews and Gentiles related to that plan. Could God use the Jews if they have squandered his advantages and mercy (9:1-5)? Likewise could the Gentiles, who did not have God’s mercy (2:12-16, 25-29), get it somehow?
A Different Definition
It is always interpretatively best to understand words in their most natural sense. If that natural sense makes no sense in the context, then alternative meanings must be sought. Israel is such a word in our text today. In Romans 9–11 Paul used Israel rather consistently to refer to literal, physical Israel (the Jews). But a few times in this section, Paul gave a different definition of Israel. This different definition was foreseen in the Old Testament (Hosea 1:2-11).
First Paul makes use of word play called paronomasia. He said, Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. This is like, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). It is a play on words. Second, Paul said, Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. This is further detailed: It is not the children by physical descent (flesh) who are God’s children, but it is children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. This different definition of Israel indicates the total faithful remnant of God’s people consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.
Father Abraham had many sons—one by Hagar, one by Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31), and six by Keturah (Genesis 25:1, 2). Ishmael and Isaac were the most prominent. Their descendants grew into two nations. Ishmael occupied the place of firstborn, but Isaac was the designated son of promise (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:3-5). That is upside down. Three strange visitors (angels) had announced that Abraham and Sarah would have a child who would be the son of the promise (Genesis 18:1-15).
Isaac likewise had two sons—both by Rebekah (Genesis 25:21-26). They could not have been more different (Genesis 25:27, 28). God’s purpose in election was being worked out where the older will serve the younger. That is upside down. This contrast is further stated with God saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:2, 3). (The word hated probably should not be understood as animosity but meaning to prefer second place.)
The plan of God to save the world through Jesus came through Isaac and Jacob. But that does not mean that Ishmael and Esau do not count at all. If the descendants of both families appropriate God’s mercy, then they are part of the new Israel that God is building in the world and into the world to come.
A Ruler’s Example
In this section of our text there are no contrasting definitions of terms or children who are different from one another. Paul used one world leader to illustrate God’s sovereign choice in how his plan would work out. If the use of this one example seems out of place, think again. God’s Word does not fail (v. 6) nor is he unjust (v. 14). That person’s title is Pharaoh, king of Egypt.
Before citing the example of Pharaoh, Paul stopped off with Moses’ desire to see God (Exodus 33:19). God had reminded Moses that no man can see God and live; then he added that mercy and sovereignty work in harmony. The word mercy appears four times in the remaining text. It is a synonym for compassion. God’s loving kindness (mercy) drives his purposes.
Pharaoh played right into God’s hand by electing not to live under God’s mercy. Sometimes God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes Pharaoh hardened his own heart. God is a gentleman of the highest order. He will respect human autonomy. But be warned: if people refuse to love the truth and be saved, God will send on them a delusion to believe what is false (2 Thessalonians 2:10, 11). It is far better for Jews and Gentiles to live under God’s mercy.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.