God’s Sovereign Grace

Children of DNA or Children of Promise? (Romans 9:6-13)

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’” (Romans 9:6-9 ESV)

Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. How was he received? It certainly was a mixed reception with some believing and many not believing. As Isaiah 53 prophesied, Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams, yet he was rejected. So, this leaves us with a real conundrum about the descendants of Abraham. In spite of their unbelief, are they all loved still by God in a saving way? Can a descendant of Abraham reject Jesus and still be under covenantal love? Is DNA enough to get a Jew to heaven?

“Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” (Romans 9:6) This is a play on words. It helps to read it, not all who are physically descended from Israel belong to the true spiritual Israel. There is genetic Israel and then there is spiritual Israel. Look ahead a few verses to verses 27-28,

“And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.’” (Romans 9:27–28)

“Only a remnant of them will be saved.” Who is the remnant? The remnant are the true recipients of God’s covenantal promises regarding salvation. God made many promises to Israel outside of salvation including that very prized piece of land alongside the Mediterranean that has been fought over for thousands of years. Land. Glory. Worship. All these things were given to the genetic descendants of Abraham.

Not all who are descended from Abraham are the true Israel of God. Do we expect to see Absalom in heaven? Achan? Saul? How about the Jews in Nazareth who tried to assassinate Jesus? How about Caiaphas? Here’s a Jew we know won’t be there, Judas Iscariot. Jesus guaranteed he would be in hell. If genetic code was all you needed to be under the saving love of God, then everyone with Jewish blood is going to heaven. But clearly not.

Here Paul goes for the jugular. He points out an awkward chapter in the story of Abraham.

“And not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: ‘About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.’” (Romans 9:7-9)

There’s this skeleton in the family closet and her name was Hagar. Abraham was promised a son by Sarah, but it was taking a long time. According to the accepted custom of the day, Abraham had sexual relations with Sarah’s handmaid Hagar to create an heir. His name was Ishmael. He was not a love child. This was considered legitimate in that culture, BUT Ishmael was not of Sarah and was not the child of promise.

What’s the argument? If simply being a descendant of Abraham gave you all the privileges of God’s covenantal love, then why aren’t the descendants of Ishmael included? They are from Abraham too! Clearly, they weren’t anywhere considered God’s people. In fact, they were the historic enemies of Israel.

A reasoned Israelite could say, well, OK. Yes, Ishmael was from Abraham, but he wasn’t from Sarah so that doesn’t count. Same dad, different mom. Paul gets even more awkward.

“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’(Romans 9:10–13)

Isaac was Abraham’s son of promise by Sarah. God revealed himself also to Isaac and made promises to his descendants. Rebekah was his wife. She became pregnant. It’s not like they had ultrasounds to tell them, you’re having twins! God told Rebekah she was pregnant with twins, and long before they were born, that the younger would be the son of promise.

Unlike Ishmael who had a different mom, Jacob and Esau couldn’t have been more alike. Same grandpa, Abraham. Same dad. Same mom. Conceived by the same sexual intimacy. Indeed, fraternal twins. Same womb.

And here is Paul’s point, even though they had all these things the same, before they were born, before their moral and spiritual lives had any direction, God chose the younger, Jacob, as the son of promise and recipient of his grace.

Then he quotes Malachi 1:2-3, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Hated here is known as a Jewish idiom where contrasts are taken to the extreme to make a point. Jesus did the same in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother…he cannot be my disciple.” Really? What about the fifth commandment? He’s making the point that love for Jesus must be our greatest love. So, when God says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” what he means is that I have placed my eternal saving love on Jacob, and anyone without that is rejected like Esau.

Why? Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau? We know it wasn’t because of their good works or moral decisions because he chose them before they were born while still in Rebekah’s womb. So why then did he choose one and not the other? “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” (Romans 9:11)

The call of God and the election of God get at who is the ultimate cause for salvation. Am I called because I believe, or do I believe because I’m called? Am I elect because I believe, or do I believe because I’m elect? If we apply the question to two fetuses in a womb the answer is obvious; God’s call and election precede Jacob’s faith. He was determined to be the son of promise long before he was born.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2019 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

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