After taking a few weeks off for Advent, we are back in our Romans’ series. As a brief recap, Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses–it is one entire letter, so the context of the entire letter is important. In the first eight chapters, Paul, a trained attorney, has made the case that every human being is messed up, we are all in this mess together, yet God loves all of us deeply and provided the way into relationship with him through Jesus. Our role in this is to believe God.
I read a tweet recently that stated “Salvation is not based on believing the right *things*, but what happens as we trust the right *person*. We’re saved by Jesus Christ, not by theology.” (Brian Zahnd) This is exactly what Paul is teaching the Roman church, and what leads to Paul’s anguish in Chapter 9.
Before I dive into Chapter 9, if you’ve spent much time in the New Testament, you know that Paul sometimes writes things that are hard to understand. Two things to remember: 1. Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God. 2. Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)
Let’s remind ourselves that chapter 8 begins with …there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and ends with 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. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)
Chapter 9 begins with Paul expressing his anguish over the Israelite’s rejection of Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. Paul is Jewish and highly trained in Jewish law; however, Paul refers to his training as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. (Ph. 3:8).
Paul’s conversion to Christ was radical. He knows he met the real, living, loving, grace-filled God through Jesus Christ and his life is forever changed. He invites others to trust Jesus as well. Gentiles are believing in Jesus, yet Paul’s own people, those with whom he shares his ethnic identity and culture, are rejecting the grace of God through Jesus and choosing the heavy yoke of the law. It breaks Paul’s heart.
He writes: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel… from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! (Rom. 9:2 & 5)
Paul knows Israel’s history. Paul knows the promise given to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s lineage. Paul knows Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Paul knows how to use his knowledge of scripture to prove that Jesus is the Messiah–and yet his people are rejecting that message. He is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.
He finishes Chapter 9 with these words:
So then, what does all this mean? Here’s the irony: The non-Jewish people, who weren’t even pursuing righteousness, were the ones who seized it—a perfect righteousness that is transferred by faith. Yet Israel, even though pursuing a legal righteousness, did not attain to it. And why was that? Because they did not pursue the path of faith but insisted on pursuing righteousness by works, as if it could be seized another way. They were offended by the means of obtaining it and stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written:
“Be careful! I am setting in Zion a stone
that will cause people to stumble,
a rock of offense that will make them fall,
but believers in him will not experience shame. (9:30-33 TPT)
It’s important to note that, despite his questions, Paul is not writing the Israelites off. He begins Chapter 10 by saying: …the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. (10: 2). Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.
Romans 9 is a passage that can be confusing, and has been used by some theologians to deem some people are “in” and some are “out”. You could certainly come to that conclusion if chapter 9 were a stand-alone chapter; however, taking the full context of Paul’s letter to Rome into account, we see that in this chapter, he is expressing his frustration over the fact that more Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus than Jews, he’s frustrated that his own people are choosing tradition and law (their “works” theology) over Jesus. Why is he frustrated? Because he loves them.
Has God deemed them “out”? Let’s look to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is Jewish. He went to synagogues, taught in synagogues, respected the Jewish faith and traditions, and re-interpreted the Jewish law. In Mark 10, Jesus had an encounter with a rich man. They discuss eternal life and the commandments. The man says to Jesus:
“Teacher, I have carefully obeyed these laws since my youth.” Jesus fixed his gaze upon the man, with tender love (Jesus looked at him and loved him, NIV), and said to him, “Yet there is still one thing in you lacking. Go, sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then all of your treasure will be in heaven. After you’ve done this, come back and walk with me.” Completely shocked by Jesus’ answer, he turned and walked away very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Mk. 10:20-22 TPT) Jesus loved him, and Jesus let him choose.
In another account, Jesus, right before he is arrested and crucified agonizes over Jerusalem. In Matthew 23, he warns that their rejection will lead to their destruction and says in verse 37: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem—you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that stones the very messengers who were sent to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me…(TPT) Jesus loved them, and Jesus let them choose.
Where am I going with all of this? Do I believe God is supreme.? Yes. Do I believe that God is sovereign and above all? Yes. Do I believe that God is love? Yes. Do I believe that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish? Yes. Do I believe that God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us? Yes. Do I believe that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? Yes. Do I believe that our salvation (our healing, our wholeness) comes from believing in and trusting Jesus? Yes. Do I believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love. Yes. Do I believe that we human beings choose all kinds of idols to worship above God? Yes.
The Israelites, who Paul (and Jesus) agonized over, were choosing to worship their tradition, their law, their theology, their own effort. The rich man was choosing to worship his wealth. Did God love them all? Yes. Does God love you? Yes. God is love.
Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.
Adam and Eve hid from God, he came to them.
Cain killed his brother. God came to him.
Hagar was desperate and destitute. God came to her and she (a non-Jew) was the first person to give God a name in scripture; El-roi. The God who sees.
The Israelite nation turned from God over and over and over–he sent prophets and priests, and when they turned back to him, he was right there.
Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus came to him.
Paul persecuted Christians. Jesus came to him.
This is not biblical theory to me—it’s my story. I was a self-destructive mess, God drew me back, and when I turned around, there he was.
God is love and is right here. God, in his sovereignty, gave us freedom of choice. God, in his sovereignty, allows us to bear the consequences of our choices. And God, in his sovereignty, never leaves us nor forsakes us. God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.
Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in love. (Joel 2:13)
Return to Me,” declares the Lord of hosts, “that I may return to you.” (Zech 1:3)
Return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually… (Hos. 12:6)
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me… (Mt. 23:37)
I need to wrap this up, but I desperately want to communicate that God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him. Are we choosing our systems over God? Are we too stubborn to let Jesus be our Lord? Are we agonizing over those who don’t know Jesus’ love? Let’s wrestle it through before our sovereign, supreme, loving, living God whose arms are open wide, ready to receive us and those whom we love.
I don’t know how else to write other than honestly. So I will tell you plainly that, this week, I am hesitant to even begin. By begin, I mean actually start to put my own words on this page… I have spent no less than six hours digging into Aramaic and Greek words, scouring the entire Bible for the words sovereignty (which appears twice, both in Daniel, from an Aramaic word meaning “kingdom,” neither in reference to God himself) and supremacy (which occurs one time in the Greek in Colossians, in Paul’s description of Jesus), and rereading several chapters in books written by theologians much smarter than I’ll ever be about these things. I’ve looked up English definitions to these challenging words. I’ve read a few sermons from well known pastors about the ultimate power, control, and will of God, attempting to reconcile modern Christianity’s obsession over the picture of a mighty, willful, authoritarian God with the picture of God I see in Jesus, the One who bore his image perfectly–and the pictures simply don’t match.
Before I say anything else, I want to be clear– I am wrestling this week, not with any one point or any one person’s interpretation, but with the scriptures themselves, which I believe we are both invited and encouraged to do. Wrestling with words we don’t understand, asking God our hard questions–as Paul does in chapter 9 of Romans, and throughout his writings–honors both the text and God, because it means that it matters to us to get it right. None of us are smart enough to ever get it all right, however, so our lives ought to be spent wrestling, asking, growing, learning–it is an ongoing journey. If we think we’ve gotten it, we will become stoic, unteachable, unwilling to listen–even to the revelation of the Spirit. I don’t ever want to get there, and I’m assuming you don’t either.
Luanne articulated many things beautifully. I’d like for us to look at some of them again before moving on. She reminded us that:
Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God.
Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)
…there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . 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. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)
He [Paul] is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.
Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.
Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.
God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.
. . . God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him.
Luanne reminded us of the scope of Paul’s letter and the rawness of his wrestling; his love for his people, and his belief that the God who will one day restore all that’s been broken really does desire that ALL people turn toward his love. I, too, believe that this is what Paul was getting at in this challenging portion of his letter. Unfortunately, as Luanne also mentioned, this portion of his letter to the Romans has been misrepresented and used by many in damaging ways. In fact, much of today’s exclusionary theology can be traced back to a few early theologians’ expositions on this particular text. I want to share with you what pastor and theologian Bradley Jersak, PhD wrote regarding this passage, because he articulates it in a way that makes sense to me:
“Some disciples. . . parade Paul’s reflections in Romans 9 as an example of God’s will-to-choose. They see Paul bombarding readers with a series of Old Testament passages to assert God’s freedom, and so he does. But these interpreters exploit the text to pose the utter willfulness of God to hate, exclude and condemn–the flip side of God’s grace. . . If read through the lens of absolute will, this passage seems to describe a God worse than retributive and vengeful, because those attributes are merely angry reactions to wicked people. But these paragraphs (Rom. 9:13-21) don’t say that. They go further. They actually suggest that God made some people wicked–created them to be damned goats–in the first place, because he willed it. And if he then punishes them for it, don’t cry foul! Who are you to judge God? This interpretation of Romans 9 hails God’s sovereign will in pre-choosing (electing) some to salvation and actually creating others for the sole purpose of damnation–why? To glorify himself as we cower in gratitude. . .
Do we really believe that is Paul’s intent in Romans 9? The reason he wrote the epistle? The point and flow of his argument? Ludicrous! That approach makes nonsense of Paul’s life mission and his purpose in writing Romans. Worse, it represents God as unjust, unholy and unloving. Because this text is so critical to one’s view of God’s love and will, and because it’s misread when isolated, let’s pause to see its piece in the bigger puzzle of Romans.
-Paul begins Romans with the content of his ministry: ‘the Gospel of God’ (1:1-4)
-He describes his call to bring the good news of God’s faithfulness to all nations (or Gentiles) (1:5)
-He proceeds to argue at length for the universality of the gospel’s availability and significance. He announces the inclusion of Greeks and barbarians, Gentiles and Jews (starting in 1:14-16), even those in Rome.
-Thus, the apostle’s theme is the universal availability of divine salvation to all: past, present, and future. Understanding the arc of Paul’s argument opens up what he’s doing in Romans 9-11 by addressing Israel.
-Throughout his letter, Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles.
-Then Paul answers another question: Does God’s faithfulness include Israel, even when they’ve rejected Christ? Yes, God is free-in-love to save them also!
-God’s redemptive plan–his freedom rooted in love–is irrevocable and his mercy will reach the Jews, just as it had also been reaching the Gentiles.
Given the context, we at least know this: Paul’s enemies never accused him of preaching a willful and exclusionary God. Their angst was always about his message being too gracious, too inclusive and too willing to save anyone. Their God–not Paul’s–was the ‘goat-hater’ of raw will.”
As Jersak asserts, it would be ludicrous for us to read Romans 9 and decide that Paul meant to paint us a picture of an unjust, unholy, and unloving God. We must remember that Paul was highly educated in the Hebrew scriptures, and he was a skilled lawyer–a master in the art of argument. He said of himself in his letter to the Philippians:
It’s true that I once relied on all that I had become. I had a reason to boast and impress people with my accomplishments—more than others—for my pedigree was impeccable. I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! (Philippians 3:4-7, TPT)
Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the premier teachers of the Law in his time. Before attaining the honor of learning at this rabbi’s feet, Paul would have had to complete his educational prerequisites at an impressive level. This education included memorizing–word for word–all 39 books of the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. His knowledge of the scriptures he referenced in his letters was thorough. So we can be confident that he was not flippantly tossing around verses. There was purpose in every word he wrote.
I want to focus on one specific word he wrote, and it relates to the last verse I included from the Philippians passage above: “Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!”
All of Paul’s education and accomplishments–which were vast–he regards as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. Hold onto that…
Pastor John spoke to us about two words in particular: sovereignty and supremacy. I mentioned both briefly in my introduction. I won’t spend any further time on sovereignty–my study of this word has left me frustrated and confused by its frequent usage within Christianity, as it does not appear in scripture even one time in relation to God and Jesus. I don’t know enough to discuss it further, so I will continue to study it on my own and I encourage you to do the same.
Supremacy, however, I will briefly touch on. A word search reveals that it appears in some of our English translations exactly one time, in Colossians 1:18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. It is Paul who wrote it in its Greek form, prōteuō, meaning “to be first, to hold the first place.” It appears in a verse sandwiched between verses about how God was revealed–and pleased to be so–in Jesus. I want to show you this passage from the Message paraphrase because Eugene Peterson wrote it so beautifully:
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
The NIV translates verses 19-20a this way: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…
This is why Paul was happy to forsake all that had previously made him who he was, to count it all as nothing. He had met the fullness of God in the person of Jesus. He knew personally that God doesn’t willfully exclude any, but wills that all come to him–he was one of those ‘all’. He grieved that some had not yet turned toward the love that, as Luanne gorgeously stated, had already turned toward them, but he knew that there was nothing powerful enough to separate us from the love of God in Jesus. He had experienced that love firsthand, and was desperate for everyone else to experience it, too. He wrote of Christ’s supremacy in his letter to the Colossians to explain that Jesus was–and had always been–first. Before all. The one who bore the original purpose of God in creation, the first of all who would be reborn among the dead as the reconciling of all things to himself began with his resurrection.
This is the supremacy, the first-ness of Jesus, with whom Paul was so enamored. He knew that Jesus was, as the gospel writers testified to, the image of God himself. He emphasized that God was pleased to have his fullness–all of his God-ness–dwell in Jesus. We understand through the writings of Paul that the character of God, his divine attributes, are most clearly demonstrated through the person of Jesus. So when we get to hard passages like Romans 9, we must remember the broader context in which it is found. We must remember, to borrow Luanne’s words once again, that: Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith.
Or, as pastor and author Brian Zahnd loves to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.