Great teachers ask a lot of questions. Just consider the frequent use of questions in the teaching of Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus. Paul’s letters are also peppered with questions. And Paul not only asks questions, he also answers them. Take a look at the breakdown of Romans 9 below. (At the bottom of this post, you’ll find an overview of Romans 9 and a list of questions to ask if you happen to be teaching this chapter.)
Intro: Paul’s anguish for Israel’s salvation (vv. 1-3). Israel had a special relationship with God which included the following blessings: adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promises, patriarchs, and the Messiah (vv. 4-5).
Q: (Implied) Since Israel as a whole has rejected salvation through the Messiah, have God’s promises to Israel failed (v. 6)? Was Israel’s long history with God pointless?
A: God’s word has not failed (vv. 6-13).
- Physical descent from Israel does not make a person an Israelite (v. 6). The children of the promise are the true offspring of Abraham (vv. 7-8; cf. Rom. 2:28-29).
- Support: God’s blessing to Abraham was not given to all of Abraham’s physical descendants, but only to his son Isaac, according to God’s promise, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Likewise the blessing was only given to Isaac’s son, Jacob not Esau, according to God’s promise, “The older will serve the younger.” So God has been selecting people from within the broader group of Abraham’s physical descendants from the beginning of Israel’s history (vv. 9-13).
Q: Doesn’t God’s distinguishing mercy show that he’s unjust (v. 14)?
A: “By no means!” (v. 14)
- Support: God has the right to show mercy and compassion to whoever he wants. God does not have to explain his reasons for showing mercy or hardening, but he surely has his reasons. Just consider God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh—“that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (vv. 14-18). If you continue reading through the end of this section, you’ll see who God ultimately want to have mercy on: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (11:32).
Q: If God decides who to have mercy on and who to harden, why does he blame us (v. 19)?
A: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (v. 20).
- Support: God has the right to do what he wants with us. Our relationship to God is like the relationship of clay to a potter and that means God can turn us into any kind of vessel he wants (vv. 20-21).
- Hypothetical question: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (vv. 22-24 ESV)
Paul’s hypothetical question includes the following items:
- it may be that although God wanted to show his wrath and power, he has a reason to endure with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
- that reason could be that God wants to show the vessels of mercy the riches of his glory,
- Paul considers himself and his readers to be vessels of mercy,
- the vessels of mercy are those whom God has called,
- those whom God has called include Jews and Gentiles which is supported by a quote from Hosea (vv. 25-26).
The heart of this question offers a possible reason for the existence of the vessels of wrath: “to show the vessels of mercy the riches of his glory.” The phrase “vessels of wrath” is similar to the phrase “children of wrath” in Ephesians 2:3. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that we were “by nature children of wrath . . . But God, being rich in mercy . . . made us alive together with Christ” (vv. 4-9). So the gospel holds out hope that “vessels of wrath” can be transformed into “vessels of mercy.” And that hope has become a reality in the lives of Jesus’ followers. In particular, that transformation has been experienced by believing Gentiles—those who were not God’s people have become God’s people (Rom. 9:25-26).
Isaiah’s predictions that only a remnant of Israel would be saved support the idea that the true Israel is a subgroup within national Israel (vv. 27-29).
Q: What conclusions can we make from all of this (v. 30)?
A: Gentiles have attained a righteousness which they weren’t seeking, while Israel has not attained the righteousness they were seeking (vv. 30-31).
Q: Why not?
A: Because Israel didn’t pursue righteousness by faith (see Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-22), but “as if it were based on works” (v. 32) then Paul quotes Isaiah again (v. 33). Notice that instead of going back to God’s sovereignty here, Paul explains Israel’s stumbling as a result of Israel’s stubborness.
Conclusion: Paul’s explanation in Romans 9 provides comfort on the intellectual level to the troubling reality of Israel’s rejection of the gospel. Paul’s approach to this issue is basically two-fold: 1.) defining Israel as those who are children of the promise and 2.) defending God—his faithfulness to his promises, his justice, and his sovereignty. While Paul highlights God’s sovereignty as the reason for Israel’s rejection, he also pins the blame on Israel’s stubborness. Finally, although this explanation provides a degree of intellectual comfort, it’s not intended to decrease our passion for the salvation of others. Paul’s insight into God’s plan didn’t relieve his anguish for Israel’s salvation (10:1).
Questions to Consider:
- Do you long for people to be saved?
- Are you okay with a sovereign God who hardens and shows mercy? Why or why not?
- What analogy could you use to compare God’s knowledge with human knowledge? In other words, how much greater is God’s knowledge than our knowledge?
- When dealing with a troubling issue, are you tempted to view God as unfaithful, unjust, or not in control of the situation?
- Are you grateful to be a vessel of mercy?
- Does your view of God’s relationship with humans leave room for both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility?
[This post is part of a series on Paul.]