NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson VIII)
Jewish commentator David Stern rightly asks why is it necessary for Paul to quote so many verses just to make a point? Because if Paul continues to hear the Jews say that God will still call all of them His children even if they don’t have the necessary faith, then he wants their answer to this verse: “I will hide My face from them. I will see what their end will be. For they are a sinful people, children who are not faithful.”1 But if they continue and say that even though they are children who lack faith, and even if they serve idols they will still be called God’s children. Paul can then have them read this: “A people who are weighed down by iniquity, descendants of evildoers, immoral children, are a sinful nation!”2 However, if they become adamant and say they should still be recognized as God’s children even when they do deal corruptly, they’re just not good sons. Paul may question why they keep repeating such things, they might then turn and ask him to read the following that he quotes in verse 26: “In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’”3 So Stern is trying to help us understand that Paul might be fighting a losing battle with some of the Jews. They just don’t want to admit to all the other Scriptures denouncing them as unworthy to be called the children of God.
Paul continues to build his case against those who claim to be true God’s children just because they trace their ancestry back to Abraham. Paul no doubt got his message of salvation from the same source as John the Baptizer who preached the identical content to his Jewish critics: “Don’t think you are safe because you are descendants of Abraham. That isn’t enough. God can produce children of Abraham from these desert stones!”6 And Jesus had this to say about those who rejected Him: “I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because my message does not find a home within your hearts.”7 This is what inspired Paul to tell the believers in Philippi: “For it isn’t being circumcised that makes us children of God; it is worshiping Him with our spirits.”8
To this day the Jews celebrate their relationship with God as a result of being descendants of Abraham. For instance, in the evening service for the Sabbath, the cantor will chant: “As You have redeemed Israel and saved him from arms stronger than his, so may You redeem all who are oppressed and persecuted. Blessed are You, O God, Redeemer of Israel.” Then the choir will respond: “The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, and observe it throughout all generations: It is a sign of an everlasting covenant between me and the children of Israel forever, says the Lord.”9
This is why Paul felt so strongly about telling them that not all those who claim to be children of Abraham are children of the Promise. This is because Abraham had children by three women: His concubine Hagar, his wife Sarah, and his concubine Keturah.10 These children all produced numbers of tribes who continue to live in the middle east area, some of which became enemies of the children of Isaac, Abraham’s son through Sarah. So only those descendants of Isaac were rightfully the legal heirs of Abraham because, among all the children these women produced, Isaac was the only one promised to Abraham as his rightful heir. Likewise, since Christ was the one promised, then only those who become God’s children through Him are rightful heirs.
This is also the gist of what early church scholar Diodore says about Paul’s main point. The Apostle wanted the Jews to know that just because they called Abraham the father of them all, it didn’t mean they were also the inheritors of the promises given to him by God. God promised those things according to His foreknowledge of who would be the spiritual children of Abraham. Just as Ishmael could not take Isaac’s place as the son of promise, neither could the wayward and unfaithful Jews be heirs to the promise given to Abraham of another Son of Promise, the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah whom they rejected. How can you expect to get something you’ve already said “No” to?11
Then, early church Bishop of Cyr expands his interpretation by saying that although it was not possible by way of nature, Abraham became a father by way of divine generosity. Remember, Ishmael was Abraham’s first son, his firstborn son.12 Therefore, why do the Jews boast that you are the only true descendants of Abraham when they are children of only one of Abraham’s sons? If anyone thinks that Ishmael does not count, they are wrong. Holy Scripture records official descent through the father, not through the mother. And just because Hagar was a concubine, and later other children were born to Abraham through another concubine, yet they were all children of Abraham. Hagar was a slave but Keturah was a free woman just like Sarah. Still, just because Abraham’s children with Keturah were free as well, they were never considered to be the children of promise. That might seem odd to some since Jacob had twelves sons by different mothers, and four of which were concubines. Yet, all of them were considered legal sons of Israel. However, it was only through Judah that the Messiah came. Paul was intent on showing his fellow Jews that just because they were children of one of Abraham’s sons, that was not enough. There were plenty of others who could claim the same thing. There was only one son, Isaac, who qualified as the son of promise. By the same token, there is only one Son of God through whom sinners can become children of God.13
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster has an interesting commentary on what Paul says here. To him, it is clear that God foreknew who would be heirs to His promise. Abraham believed and Isaac was born on account of his faith. Isaac was born as a type of the Savior by the promise. Therefore, whoever believes that Christ Jesus was the seed promised to Abraham, may not be a physical child of Abraham, but they are spiritual children of Abraham. When Abraham was told that all the nations would be blessed in his offspring,14 this did not happen through Isaac, but through Him who was promised to Abraham in Isaac. As Ambrosiaster sees it, the other Jews are children of the flesh, and cannot claim God’s promises to Abraham based on that alone. If they do not follow the faith by which Abraham is counted worthy, then they have no part in the promises. The same goes for anyone today, who claims to be a Christian. Only those who have been born again through Christ have that privilege.15
Reformer Martin Luther has strong words to explain what Paul is saying here. He sees Paul speaking against arrogant Jews while at the same time praising God’s grace. It was his attempt at neutralizing the proud trust they had in their own righteousness and good works. The Jews insisted on being regarded as heirs of the kingdom of God because they were children of Abraham. But Paul turns the tables on them by pointing out that if such an incontestable argument proved true, then Ishmael and the children of Keturah must be included in such a claim. But Genesis, Chapter 25, shows the exact opposite. This leads to the undeniable conclusion that it is not who we are in the flesh that makes us children of God and heirs of salvation. Rather, it is by God’s election to salvation. Only when a person stops trusting in their own efforts or in their upbringing as a reason to be counted among the saved, can they be born again by the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.16
We can see how this argument by Luther fits our current situation where those who are born into families that adhere to one branch of Christianity, and who have been ceremonially sealed through baptism and christening into the faith, still call themselves children of God. But just as Paul has shown that this outward purification alone is not enough. Nicodemus certainly met all of these requirements, yet Jesus told him he must be born again to become a true child of God. From John Calvin’s point of view, Paul mentions this same truth when it came to those wanting to be counted as true children of Abraham. It was intended to show that the hidden election of God overrules the outward calling. 17
Robert Haldane puts Paul’s argument into context by distinguishing the difference between true Israelites and imitation Israelites, both of which were original descendants of Abraham. Paul points out that it is all in understanding what was meant by “the seed of Abraham.” The error made by the Jews was that they counted themselves as children of God just because they were physical children of Abraham. The promise to Abraham about his seed was not made to all his descendants, but to a particular seed. When God said to Pharaoh, “Let my son go,”20 He was using a figure of speech to identify them as His children through Jacob. As of that time, there were none yet born of the spiritual seed of Abraham, either among the Jews or Gentiles.21 That would only come after the Son of God came into the world.
Albert Barnes makes note of Paul’s implication that only the seed of Abraham through Isaac can be declared as the children of promise, not through his other wives. Looking at it from his point of view implies a selection or choice is made based on God’s foreknowledge. Therefore, the doctrine of election was illustrated in the very beginning of Israel’s history as a nation only through Issac. As such, part of the natural descendants of Abraham was rejected. Since God made such distinctions at that time between those He chose and those who did not get chosen, what would keep Him from doing it again to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? For Barnes, this is the argument which the Apostle is trying to make.22
1 Deuteronomy 32:20
2 Isaiah 1:4
3 David H. Stern, op. cit., loc. cit., quoting from the Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Kiddushin, folio 36a
4 2 Chronicles 20:7; Psalm 105:6
5 Genesis 21:12
6 Luke 3:8
7 John 8:37
8 Philippians 3:3a
9 The Union Prayer-Book for Jewish Worship, Edited and Published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Part I, Cincinnati, 1805, p. 22
10 Genesis 25:1; See 1 Chronicles 1:32 where she is called a concubine.
11 Diodore: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 See Genesis 16:15-16
13 Theodoret of Cyr: on Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Genesis 18:18; 22:18
15 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 137-138
17 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 2 Chronicles 20:7; Psalm 105:6
19 Genesis 21:12
20 Exodus 4:23
21 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 449
22 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.