What on earth is God doing? When people we love give up on Christianity, or just don’t seem interested, it can be hard to understand. What’s God DOING in situations like THAT?
I’m sure you all know people who’ve wandered away from following Jesus. People who’ve shown all the signs of being Christians. But then something happens. It might be a slow, gradual thing. Perhaps they’re not even AWARE of it.
Or it might be A SUDDEN DECISION to drop everything about church, and chase after something that looks more attractive.
Or maybe it’s someone who’s suffered a tragedy. And, rather than turning to God, it’s turned them OFF God. They’re ANGRY, and they want nothing to DO with him.
I see it more often than I care to. People who’ve been coming along to church for a while, but then who STOP. Sometimes it’s here one week, gone the next. But more often, it’s once every TWO weeks, then once every MONTH. Then the odd visit here and there. And finally, they don’t come back.
And visits and phone calls, letters and texts. Gentle words, firm words, pleading, encouragements. None of it seems to do any good.
But perhaps, for you, it’s closer to home. For some of you, it’s YOUR CHILDREN. They’ve gone along to Sunday School, seemed like they were taking it all in. But then, when they get older, they haven’t wanted anything to do with Jesus.
Perhaps it’s a husband who USED TO BE happy going along to church, but just seems to spend more and more Sundays sleeping in. Or filling up his weekend with work or sport or hobbies. So church is squeezed out.
Or maybe it’s slightly different. A family member who’s heard the gospel from you, or others, lots of times. Who KNOWS it all. Knows what sin is. What repentance means. Knows about heaven, knows about hell. But … does NOTHING. It’s like there’s a BRICK WALL there!
It was that way with my grandmother. Dad’s mum. And when she died it was tough. I remember, as a teenager, one moment in particular when it struck me that she was probably, as far as any of us could tell, destined for an eternity separated from God.
What on earth is God doing? Is the gospel powerful to change people, or not? Why is it the ones we love MOST, who hear the gospel the MOST, seem to reject it? It SEEMS like God doesn’t love them as much as WE do.
These are the questions the Apostle Paul answers here in Romans 9 and 10.
Remember the background? The church is Rome is a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. And, over the years, there’s been points of friction between them. About how the Gentiles squeeze into the people of God. Who USED TO just be Jews. But since Jesus came along, the message has gone to people EVERYWHERE.
Because it’s a message about simply trusting what JESUS did, rather than ticking off our own checklist. A message about trusting his PERFECT obedience, rather than our imperfect obedience. Trusting that he’s PAID the debt, rather than trying to pay it off OURSELVES.
And it’s been tough for some Jews to accept the new lay of the land. For the last twenty-odd years, Paul had taken the good news about Jesus to his fellow Jews FIRST. You can see his strategy in the book of Acts. Every new city he landed in, he’d go to the Jewish synagogue FIRST. Tell them about God’s Jewish Messiah, who’d been promised in the Jewish Scriptures. About how Jesus had come, and brought forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that all they had to do was TRUST it. They were the OBVIOUS ones to trust Jesus. First in line.
At which point, for the most part, he was booted out on his ear. Or beaten up.
Then he’d walk across the road, find somewhere the Gentiles met, and start telling THEM the same message. And when people became Christians, that’s how he planted churches.
But despite all the wonderful conversion stories, all the praise he could give God for how he’d been used. All the cities across the known world where churches were planted. There was this nagging doubt that wouldn’t go away.
What about his own people, the Jews? Why wasn’t God saving THEM? Every advantage imaginable. And yet most of them wanted nothing to do with Jesus.
And it was breaking Paul’s heart. V1 of ch 9.
9:1 I speak the truth in Christ-I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit- 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel.
When being first in line isn’t enough
And what he can’t understand is that they’ve got EVERY ADVANTAGE when it comes to knowing God. And yet, they’re still not there. Look from v4.
Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ,
It’s a case of when being first in line isn’t enough. It’s like you’ve lined up outside the grand final ticket office all night. You’re first in line, got your credit card, your cash, your sleeping bag and pillow. But when the tickets go on sale the next morning, you find out it’s already sold out. All the advantages, and you’ve missed out!
Same with the Jews. All the background, all the teaching, all the opportunities. It should have led them to Christ. But instead. Nothing.
Is God faithful? (9:6-13)
It’s a situation that makes Paul ask the tough questions. First, is God faithful? Has GOD’S WORD FAILED? He’s PROMISED that Israel would be his people, and that he’d be their God. Does that mean he’s BROKEN his promise?
Either changed his mind. Found someone BETTER.
Or perhaps his word, the message of the gospel, isn’t POWERFUL enough to do what he wants. Has his Word failed, in THAT sense? Hasn’t got what it takes to deliver what he WANTS? Is THAT the problem?
From v6, Paul ANSWERS the question, Is God faithful? And he jumps back to something he said in ch 4. That the children of Abraham aren’t necessarily those with the right bloodlines, but those with the same FAITH as Abraham. THOSE are the ones God’s promises are for. V6.
6 It is NOT as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 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.” 8 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.
You might remember Abraham had TWO sons. Ishmael and Isaac. ONE son, Ishmael, DIDN’T get God’s promise. And Isaac, the other one DID.
And the DIFFERENCE was to do with Abraham TRUSTING God.
With Ishmael, he tried to bring God’s plans about HIMSELF. Tried a “PLAN B.” But it wasn’t God’s PROMISE. But with Isaac, he TRUSTED GOD, and God delivered. God had PROMISED the son would come from Sarah. And, eventually, that’s how it happened. And God’s PROMISE went with the side of the family where Abraham HAD FAITH.
What Paul’s saying is that God’s promise is CLAIMED when you TRUST it. His PROMISE was for ALL of Israel. But not all of Israel CLAIMS it. TRUE Israel responds with FAITH. The same faith of their Father Abraham.
And it’s the same with US TODAY. We can’t automatically assume someone belongs to God simply because they’re in church. Or they’ve been baptised. Or their PARENTS are Christian.
God USES all of that stuff to OFFER his promises. But then people have to TRUST the promises.
The problem’s not with the FAITHFULNESS of THE WORD, but the faithfulness of the RESPONSE.
That’s considering things from the HUMAN SIDE. But Paul’s got ANOTHER point to make. This time, from GOD’S point of view. V10. “Not only that”. Jump ahead to the NEXT generation. Isaac’s twin sons. There in v11.
11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad-in order that GOD’S PURPOSE IN ELECTION might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls-she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
God CHOOSES which of the sons he’ll build into a nation. Nothing to do with their qualifications. Completely up to God. Nothing to do people. He did it with Jacob and Esau. He did it with the Jews in Paul’s time – chose SOME, and didn’t choose OTHERS.
And it’s the same TODAY. There are people God chooses, and others he DOESN’T.
I don’t know WHO. NONE of us do. So our job is simply to present God’s offer to EVERYONE. Invite them to respond to his promise by TRUSTING it. And when they DO, that’s how we know that God’s CHOSEN them.
And, while we mightn’t UNDERSTAND it, there’s actually a COMFORT in God’s election. Because it means that someone responding, or not, is about GOD’S choice. Not about how clearly we’ve explained things, or how consistently we’ve lived things. Those things MATTER, but in the end, we can leave it with God.
It keeps us from GUILT, because all God calls us to do is be FAITHFUL, not SUCCESSFUL. Faithful in telling others about him, and then leaving the election, and the saving, up to God.
Is God fair? (9:14-10:21)
But someone might complain, “That’s not FAIR! If it’s got nothing to do with us, then it’s not someone’s FAULT if they’re not chosen.”
That’s the question Paul answers from v14. What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!
And here’s his answer. V15.
15 For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s MERCY.
Paul says when you focus on those who AREN’T chosen, you’re looking in the wrong place. Your focus should be on those he HAS chosen. On God’s MERCY. Not his FAIRNESS.
Because there’s a sense in which God ISN’T fair. GRACE isn’t fair. Grace is to freely give something you don’t deserve. If he was completely FAIR, NO ONE would be chosen. Because no one DESERVES mercy. Everyone deserves judgment. That’s FAIR.
But the incredible good news is that he shows mercy to ANY AT ALL! And it’s THAT DECLARATION OF MERCY that’s behind his election. In fact the goal of people declaring how merciful God is / is behind EVERYTHING God does. That’s the point of the WHOLE WORLD. It was certainly the way it worked when he brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt. V17.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Pharaoh was God’s instrument to show the world how powerful he was, and how merciful he was to save his people Israel.
But that leads to ANOTHER question: “If we’re just INSTRUMENTS, how can God BLAME us? If he’s just moving everyone around like chess pieces, if we’re nothing more than robots, then what right does he have to JUDGE us?” That’s the question he asks in v19.
And his answer is a surprising one. It’s basically NOT an answer. See it there in v20?
20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
It’s impossible for us to get our heads around how God can ELECT, how God can CONTROL HIS WORLD, using us as INSTRUMENTS, on the ONE hand. At the same time as we have REAL CHOICES to make. We RESPOND to God, and are accountable for our choices.
BOTH are true. And if we have a hard time understanding that, it’s not surprising. It’s like a clay pot being able to understand why the potter’s made it a certain shape. The pot doesn’t have the BRAIN to comprehend things from the potter’s point of view. And if God’s God, and we’re NOT. If we’re just CREATURES, then we just have to accept God the way things are. Even if we don’t understand it.
And when we recognise that truth. And honour God. And when we live our lives in humble gratitude to him. That’s the whole POINT of God’s purposes in ELECTION. Look there at v22.
22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-prepared for destruction? – 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory
And now the lesson from history becomes relevant. Paul’s thinking about his CHRISTIAN brothers.
23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory 24 EVEN US, WHOM HE ALSO CALLED, NOT ONLY FROM THE JEWS BUT ALSO FROM THE GENTILES?
Paul’s caught a glimpse of the whole of God’s plan. He’s NOT chosen SOME (Jews included), so those he HAS chosen will understand the riches of his glory. Chosen Jews and Gentiles, together, to be part of his NEW people.
9:30-10:21: Human responsibility
That’s GOD’S side. But jump down to v30, because Paul changes tack slightly. Still looking to answer the question “How can it be that Jews, who had so much going for them, being first in line for God’s blessings, could MISS OUT? While the Gentiles who weren’t even LOOKING for God, ended up part of his family?”
But rather than focussing on GOD’S part. Election. This section jumps back to OUR part. Human responsibility. How is it that the person at the front of the queue misses out on grand final tickets, but the person just walking past gets given a private box? V30.
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.
32 Why not? Here’s the answer.
Because they pursued it NOT BY FAITH BUT AS IF IT WERE BY WORKS.
From GOD’S position, the answer to the Jew’s rejection is because he didn’t CHOOSE them. From the HUMAN point of view, the answer is because they tried to EARN it, rather than TRUST THE GIFT.
10. When being sincere isn’t enough
And as we move into ch 10, we see that teased out. In the first four verses, if there’s no faith, it’s not enough just to be SINCERE.
10:1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. 2 For I can testify about them that they are ZEALOUS for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.
Being sincere is ONE thing, but if it’s IGNORANT sincerity, it’s WORTHLESS. I could stand in the middle of the road, and SINCERELY believe I wouldn’t get hit by a bus, but sincerity on its own means NOTHING. I’ve got to combine it with the KNOWLEDGE of crossing when there’s a RED LIGHT.
Same thing with the Jews, sincerity needs to be combined with faith. That’s how God’s righteousness comes.
When being a superman isn’t enough
And then from v5 we see that being A SUPERMAN isn’t enough. God’s not interested in superhuman tests of strength or ability or memory. It’s all much simpler.
You don’t need to go on some quest up to heaven to find some special word. You don’t need to travel to the bottom of the ocean. Just like it was for the Israelites in Moses’ time, v8,
“The word Is NEAR you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming:
The Jews have tried so hard to EARN God’s blessing. But that’s part of the problem. It’s not that hard. It’s right there next to them. They just needed to SPEAK it, and BELIEVE it. Which is what the Gentiles seemed to have been able to do. Here’s Paul’s message.
9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. 11 As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,
When hearing isn’t enough
And finally, as Paul thinks about the Jew’s situation, he realises that they can’t even use as an excuse that they never HEARD.
From v14, Paul goes through all the conditions necessary for the Jews to believe. And ticks them off, one by one. To call on God, they’ve got to believe first. To believe, they’ve got to hear. To hear, someone has to preach. For someone to preach, they’ve got to be sent.
And it’s all happened. Paul’s been SENT by God. He’s PREACHED – the Jews have HEARD. But have they BELIEVED? V16. Not all Israelites accepted the good news.
V18. Was it because they didn’t HEAR? Of course they did!
On God’s side, everything’s been done. When it all comes down to it, it’s wilful defiance. V21.
21 But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
Which is where we’ll stop for today. God hasn’t failed Israel. Israel’s failed God. And Paul has to comfort himself with that truth.
So where does that leave US? Where does that leave those people we love who seem so hard to God?
Trust God’s election. The loving and wise and righteous God of the Universe has chosen those who will be his. We can TRUST him.
That means. Keep PRAYING. God wants NONE to perish, but all to come to a knowledge of the truth. And he wants to USE US to DO it.
That means keep PREACHING. They can’t believe unless they hear. They can’t hear unless you tell them. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
We’ve RECEIVED good news. News of forgiveness and mercy and restoration and life and joy. Let’s make sure we PASS THAT ON.