Summary: God’s promises have not been forgotten. God has the right to choose because he is the sovereign Lord and Creator. God’s motive is love and mercy, and the demonstration of his glory. We all depend on his mercy for our salvation
You’d be forgiven for thinking, when you read the first few chapters of Romans, that Paul has it in for the Jews. He goes to such great pains to point out that all their religious systems, all their efforts to be right with God are doomed. He accuses them of condemning others for failing to obey God yet being guilty of exactly the same failings. He shows that Jews are no better than Gentiles as far as righteousness is concerned. But even as he points out their failure, he realises that he is still one of them. It isn’t that he’s standing over against them and pointing out that they’ve got it wrong and he’s got it right. Rather, he identifies with them as one of their own. He too was a Pharisee. He grew up with the revelation of God as it was known by the Jews. In fact, he says, what he’s proclaiming now isn’t that far removed from what he knew before. ’To the Jews belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever.’ There’s nothing new in Christianity that wasn’t declared beforehand to the Jews. Even the Messiah. They already had the gospel. They just didn’t recognise him when he appeared. So he’s taking his place as a member of the Jewish race, sympathising with those who have turned away from the Messiah, yet aware that even as they’ve turned away from him, he is still their Messiah.
So he asks the inevitable question, what’s going on? Has God’s promise to Abraham failed?
No, he says. It’s just that those who ask that question have stopped thinking theologically. You see, God’s promise was to Abram’s descendants. But when you think about it, not all of his descendants became part of the chosen people. Only those descended through Isaac.
So what matters first of all is God’s choice. God’s promise was that it was the son of Sarah who would inherit the promise, not the son of Hagar. And in fact we see the same thing with the choice of Jacob over Esau. What matters with Jacob and Esau isn’t their suitability or worthiness. It’s God’s right to choose, God’s sovereignty. Now this is a very difficult concept to cope with in a democratic, egalitarian culture like ours. I mean how are we going to understand the sovereignty of God when we live in a culture where even parents question their right to discipline their own children. But we need to come to grips with this: with a God who has the right to choose what happens to his creatures.
Let’s stop and think about who it is we’re discussing. Who is God? Let me read you a short excerpt from Karl Barth’s commentary on this chapter.
"God, the pure and absolute boundary and beginning of all that we are and have and do; God, who is distinguished qualitatively from men and from everything human, and must never be identified with anything which we name, or experience, or conceive, or worship, as God; God, who confronts all human disturbance with an unconditional command ’Halt’, and all human rest with an equally unconditional command ’Advance’, God, the ’Yes’ in our ’No’ and the ’No’ in our ’Yes’, the First and the Last, and, consequently, the Unknown, who is never a known thing in the midst of other known things; God, the Lord, the Creator, the Redeemer: this is the Living God. In the Gospel, in the Message of Salvation of Jesus Christ, this Hidden, Living, God has revealed Himself, as He is. Above and beyond the apparently infinite series of possibilities and visibilities in this world there breaks forth, like a flash of lightning, impossibility and invisibility, not as some separate, second, other thing, but as the Truth of God which is now hidden, as the Primal Origin to which all things are related, as the dissolution of all relativity, and therefore as the reality of all relative realities." (Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 1933 p330f.)
Now, if you had trouble getting your mind around that then I’ve achieved my purpose, because this God about whom we’re thinking is so far beyond our finite minds that we could never even come close to comprehending him or his purposes. Yet as we think about this salvation that he gives to some and not others, we feel compelled to ask the question don’t we, "Is God unjust in choosing one and not another?"
Here’s where it becomes important that we understand the difference between us and God. We ask the question, but God gives the answer: "No", not as far as He is concerned. God chooses Jacob to demonstrate to us quite clearly that his is the authority in this world. Look at vs 11 & 12: "Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12not by works but by his call) she was told, "The elder shall serve the younger." God wants it to be absolutely clear that the decision to choose Jacob is his and his alone. He wants us to understand that our salvation doesn’t depend on our effort or desire but on God’s mercy. It’s not how hard we work for our salvation that will get us through. It’s not how deserving we are. In fact if you look at Jacob, his character left a lot to be desired. But it was God’s right to show him mercy if he chose to.