NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson IX)
American Bible scholar Charles Hodge gives us a somewhat broader explanation as to why not all descendants of Abraham were made heirs of his blessings and promises from God. It starts with Isaac who was the only one selected by God’s sovereign will to be the recipient of the promise. The reason? All of Abraham’s other sons were born of natural reproductive means, but Isaac was a miracle child, and the only one promised to Abraham. It must also be determined whether this selection is to be understood as Isaac being an individual choice, or Isaac and his descendants. Was it: “Isaac will be called your seed” or “Through Isaac your seed will be called.” This is important because if we accept the first option then that would leave no door open for the Messiah and those who come to God through Him. So it is clear that the second option is the one to accept.1
Paul may have been trying to make both points. First, his immediate object was to show that all the male descendants of Abraham did not qualify to be the line to that one true seed. Ishmael was the son of Abraham just as Isaac was. But Isaac was the only one designated as the son through whom God’s children would come and through them the Messiah. That makes Paul’s second point. Since God is sovereign, He is in charge of how He distributes His favors and blessings. By rejecting Ishmael, notwithstanding his being a natural descent of Abraham’s, He may do likewise to those Jews who do not meet His requirements even if they do count Abraham as their father.2
To this same point, Charles Spurgeon believes that by passing over Ishmael, God showed that there was nothing to consider in either his bloodline or birthline. Ishmael was the firstborn son of Abraham, but he was passed over. God said it clearly, “In Isaac shall your seed be called.” This made the point for Paul. The Jews were claiming to have the mercy of God because they were of the seed of Abraham. But that is not what really counts. God made a distinct choice of Isaac to the rejection of Ishmael, as he did afterward of Jacob, as Esau was then left out.3
This same point can be made by pointing out that although there are many religions in this world that accept the fact that there is a higher power who controls the earth and everything in it, and whom they may call God or use some other name, it is still not sufficient evidence to declare sonship with the One True Living God. Some of them may even trace their origins back to Abraham. But the Last Covenant tells us that only those who can trace that lineage to Abraham through Jesus the Christ are truly the children of God.
Verse 8: This means that not all of Abraham’s descendants are God’s true children. Abraham’s true children are those who become God’s children because of the promise He made to Abraham.
Now Paul removes any mystery in who he is talking about. Just because someone claims to be a true child of God on the basis of their relationship with Abraham, this does not automatically qualify them as heirs of the promise. It is God’s promise, not Abraham’s promise that is the deciding factor. So what promise was Paul talking about? First, it was the promise of a son to Sarah who physically was beyond the age of bearing a child.4 The same would be the case with Mary, she was told by an angel, perhaps the same one who promised Isaac to Sarah, that she would also have a child without being intimate with a man. So true Christians must be able to trace their relationship to Jesus, just as the Jews traced their relationship to Abraham as part of a promise.
Here’s how Paul explained it to the Galatians: “Let me put this another way. The Jewish laws were our teacher and guide until Christ came to give us right standing with God through our faith. But now that Christ has come, we don’t need those laws any longer to guard us and lead us to Him. For now we are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and we who have been baptized into union with Christ are enveloped by him. We are no longer Jews or Greeks or slaves or free men or even merely men or women, but we are all the same – we are Christians; we are one in Christ Jesus. And now that we are Christ’s we are the true descendants of Abraham, and all of God’s promises to him belong to us.”5
The great preacher, Chrysostom, makes note that Paul does not call them the children of Abraham, but rather “the children of God,” thus combining the past with the present and showing that Isaac was no ordinary son, he was Abraham’s promised son. What Paul means is something like this: Whoever has been born in the way that Isaac was born is a son of God and of the seed of Abraham. You see, Isaac was born not according to the laws of nature nor according to the power of the flesh but according to the power of God’s promise.6
Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke says it appears that neither the children who descended from Abraham‘s loins, nor those circumcised as he was, nor those whom he might have chosen on his own are part of the children of promise. They are those who were made God’s children by His choice, good pleasure, and promise. Just as Isaac was accounted for being the seed with whom the first covenant was established, so Christ is the only one through whom the last covenant was made.7 More or less, Paul is not only tracing the lineage of the Messiah but also the Church, which is the body of Christ in this world; here to represent Him and do His work so the whole world can hear the Gospel of salvation.
Robert Haldane notes the quote, “In Isaac shall your seed be called.”8 These promises were made for the spiritual descendants, not the natural descendants of Abraham. For Haldane, this clearly establishes the difference between the sonship of Israel and kinship of Israel. Kinship is of the flesh, sonship is of the Spirit. True, Israel had a special relationship with God that no other nation enjoyed. However, a portion of the children of Israel enjoyed a spiritual relationship with God and the others were Israelites in name only. That was the difference between an outward Jew and an inward Jew. And it all had to do with the promised seed. The same is true in the Christian community. There are those who are Christians outwardly, and those who are Christians inwardly. And their distinction also depends on the promised seed. Not Isaac, but through Isaac. The Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.9
Albert Barnes points to another aspect of God’s election process and asks if those who were chosen to be God’s children were adopted by some criteria other than simply who they descended from? The reason for asking is because this was something that had been decided and a deeply cherished opinion of the Jews for centuries. To them, the mere fact that they were Jewish entitled them to receive the blessings of the covenant without controversy. After all, they were recognized as the children of God. But Paul shows them that it was not merely claiming to be the descendants of Abraham that brought these spiritual privileges into their hands.
These blessings were not conferred on them simply because they were Jews. There was more care taken with these blessing than that because there might be some people who were not Jews that had an interest in those spiritual blessings. The sense is, that God made a distinction in whom he chose out of Abraham’s children to be the first to receive these blessings and those were the children of Isaac. Then out of Isaac, God chose Jacob to be the family that inherited these blessings. Barnes notes that Paul’s intent was to establish a principle, and that principle was that since God chose those to be heirs to the promises of Abraham by selection then why should He not make the same choice and distinction of who those would be to receive the promise through the Messiah?10
Charles Hodge uses a correlation between what Paul says here to the Romans and what he said to the Galatians to make the same point as Barnes does.11 To him, the simplest view of this verse would be, to regard it as an explanation of the historical argument contained in the preceding verse. The Scriptures made it clear that Isaac was preferred over Ishmael as the one whose seed would be the true descendants and heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. As such, it proves Paul’s point that God, according to what pleases Him chooses one and rejects another. So when it comes to the promises and blessings of the Messiah, God is not bound to choose only the Jews as heirs of His promise.
In other words, Hodge saw Paul simply unfolding the analogy between the history of Isaac and Ishmael to point out the difference between the natural children of Abraham and the spiritual children of Abraham. Isaac symbolized the spiritual descendants and Ishmael being the symbol natural descendants. That’s because Ishmael, “was born as a result of natural procreation.”12 Thus, he was rejected and his children are likened to the “children of the flesh.” On the other hand, Isaac “was born as a result of supernatural procreation.” That is why his descendants are likened to the “children of the promise.” So it is an easy transfer of this analogy to point out that the unconverted are seen as children in the flesh, while those converted by their faith in Christ are the children in the spirit.13
Charles Spurgeon touches on something we said before about how God’s selection process between the children of Isaac and those of Ishmael could be applied to believers today. Isaac was not the child of Abraham’s flesh alone, he was born according to a promise from God. What made it so remarkable was that Sarah was well past child-bearing age, and Abraham was stricken with old age. To this, we could add that Mary, the mother of Jesus was still unmarried and had never been intimate with a man, while Joseph was an older gentleman who wanted to take Mary as his wife but had not yet consummated their marriage. So Jesus was not just born of a woman, the woman was a virgin and, therefore, His birth was the result of God’s promise. Both Isaac and Jesus were miracle babies. So, just as being children of the promise ran through Isaac, likewise being a child of God must run through Jesus. So if all our hopes for heaven depends on our being children of godly parents, it is akin to the hope of the Israelites, and not worth anything. But if our hope for heaven lies upon our having been born according to the promise of God – born of His grace and of His power — then it is in line with John 3:16. This is what God promised and what He determined must be, and so shall it be.14
1 Genesis 21:12; see Hebrews 11:18
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 475
3 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 See Galatians 4:21-23
5 Galatians 3:24-29
6 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16
7 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 178
8 Genesis 21:12; See Romans 9:7; Cf. Hebrews 11:18
9 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 450-451
10 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 See Galatians 4:22-31
12 Galatians 4:23
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 475
14 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.