NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson X)
Verse 9: Here is what God said in that promise: “About this time next year I will come back, and Sarah will have a son.”1
What Paul is pointing out to his fellow Jews is this: God’s promise was to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, but only through Isaac, not through Ismael, or through Katurah’s children. This was made clear by God who said: “My covenant is with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah next year at about this time.”2 This was repeated several times to Abraham. By the same token, God has promised salvation to every one of Adam’s race, but only through Jesus Christ. It is not a must that God redeems everyone; it is rather His will that everyone be offered redemption who are willing and want to be set free from the bondage of sin. This He demonstrated by sending His own Son as the only way to Him, the teller of absolute truth, and the giver of eternal life. Therefore, if you want to get to the Father, it’s through His Son. Beware of those who offer another way to God. As early church scholar Ambrosiaster points out because Christ was promised to Abraham as a future son, in whom the word of the promise would be fulfilled, then Isaac prefigures Christ in that both would be born to women in a miraculous fashion at His command.
Reformer John Calvin compliments the Apostle Paul on how he skillfully explains Scripture. Paul notes that when the Lord said that a son would be born to Abraham and Sarah, God was confiding that His blessing had not yet been conferred. In other words, it was on its way. But Ishmael had already been born when it was said that God’s blessing did not include him. Calvin also observes that Paul proceeded in his argument with great caution. He did not want to exasperate the very people he was trying to win to Christ. However, now that Paul has uncovered the source of his conjecture, it won’t be long before it will be a fountain flowing with interpretation.4 In other words, Paul is showing God’s selection process in choosing the lineage of the Messiah, but there is more to come that will shed light on what God had in store for those He would call His children in the future.
Adam Clarke focuses here on the distinct aspect of God’s promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah. He writes that such a promise had already been recorded in Genesis where God’s Angel promised to return one year later and by that time Sarah will have given birth to a son.5 This indicated that God was going to exert His Divine power. It also meant that Sarah, although ninety years old, would get pregnant in about three months from the giving of this message and have already delivered a son by the time the angel returned. Not just a child, but a son. This showed that the boy would be born by the sovereign will of God alone. That was to make sure that Abraham understood that this particular son was the line to the seed of promise. To put it more succinctly, Clarke sees Paul’s effort here as an attempt to make sure that the Jews understand that God had a hand in all of this so that it turned out exactly the way He wanted it to be, not the way they might have wanted it to be.6
Robert Haldane emphasizes the Promise factor in the determination of the natural and spiritual sons of Abraham. First, he points out that the birth of Isaac was by promise, and without a miracle, it would never have taken place. However, the birth of Ishmael was not by promise, but in the ordinary course of nature. Neither was it directed by God’s will, but that of Sarah. That’s why those who would be called the children of God had been promised to Abraham only through Sarah. They were those who, by God’s own selection and choice, were to enjoy a spiritual relationship with Him through Christ. For it is Christ who is the heir to that promise of being the seed through which the Kingdom of God would be established. And that special seed was to come only through the line of Isaac.7 It would be to this chosen group that the eternal spiritual blessings of God would be restricted, even though the temporal blessings of being among the called would belong to all Israelites.8
Frédéric Godet offers for consideration that this verse is intended by Paul to justify designating a certain number of Abraham’s offspring, “the children of the promise.” When the Apostle used the phrase: “word of promise,” he meant: a message which embodied the intended traits of a promise. As such, it did not grant inherited rights as that promise. This was in line with emphasizing that it was through the intervention of a divine factor without giving credit for other conditions, thus proving who the real children of God are.9 To put this another way, by holding on to one hand of Abraham and claiming him as their father, but failing to hold on to the promise of God with the other hand, the Jews did not have the credentials to be called true children of God. The reason is that the promise included the Messiah. But when Messiah came, they rejected Him. In like manner today, anyone can hold their Bible, their Hymnal, or Missal, or Rosary, or Statue, or Baptismal Certificate, but not be holding on to God’s hand with the other hand and yet not be the children of promise. They are, as I mentioned earlier, a Sino, (Saint In Name Only). They are not a true child of God.
Karl Barth gives us a very astute and interesting commentary on verses 8 & 9. As he puts it, “The eruption of the triumphant Truth of God Himself into the reality of this world is the fulfillment of the promise of God to men.” In other words, we can only comprehend the promises of God when everything said to us points to the Truth. That is when to expect the miracle of the new birth when to receive the Spirit of God, when to believe the impossible, and accept that we have been redeemed. The only way a person can imagine the possibility of being part of God’s elect is in the form of a promise by the one making the choice. Such belief requires a leap of faith. There is no other guarantee or assurance, except that which is given by the Spirit and held onto by faith. We know that the name Isaac means “Laughter,” whether in honor or dishonor, of Sarah’s laughing at the possibility a ninety-year-old woman having a baby. But when it comes to accepting the new birth, at what do people laugh? And why? Sometimes laughter can be a form of skepticism or disbelief with regard to the impossible being possible. It is also hard to get enthused about something we believe is impossible. That’s the dilemma Sarah faced. But one thing she learned, and it is a lesson for us, never laugh at what God has said no matter how impossible it may seem to be.10
Barth goes on to admonish us that the church should never conceal from people the fact that the Gospel it preaches thrusts people out onto a narrow, rocky edge. The Word of God is not meant to make them comfortable, its aim and purpose is to confront them with the truth. Any church that tries to fulfill the promise of God on its own, especially that of salvation, is denying the vital truth of God’s needed involvement because of His unquestionable promise that whoever believed in Christ would be saved. Paul framed that truth in Romans 8:24 – Hope that is seen is not hope. This indicates that Truth can only be present when there is hope. In that case, faith then becomes the substance of what we are hoping for.
When the church interprets the Word of God in a manner meant for human ears as uttered by human lips, whatever is said can only come to pass by way of promise. And one promise is that all people must put their old, sinful nature to death if they have any hope of becoming alive to God in Christ. We can clearly see that the church should never hide the truth of this crucifixion of a person’s sinful-self. Death becomes an omen that everlasting life is just ahead, a life that lies beyond this earthly existence. This is so important because if the Church wants to be known as alive and triumphant, don’t let it be only a wish. The fact is, like the church in Sardis,11 they think they are alive but they are in fact dead.12
Douglas Moo tells us that Paul’s use of the Greek word kaleo, which means “called,” or “reckoned,” is the grounds for the assertion that God determined which of Abraham’s offspring would be called the children of God. God uttered these words to Abraham when he was reluctant to banish his other son, Ishmael. So it is clear, only the “children of the promise” are the ones regarded as Abraham’s true spiritual offspring. As a result, only those descendants who trace their genealogy back to Isaac can be called the true “Israel” in a narrow sense. Paul wraps up this argument with a scriptural quotation which is a loose rendering of Genesis 18:10 or 18:14 (or perhaps both). This quote reminds us of God’s gracious and miraculous assistance to enable Sarah, who was infertile, to bear the child of the promise.13 It all started with God. That’s why inheriting the promise is not based on natural birth. Rather, depends on God’s gracious intervention that makes possible the new birth.14
I like the way Bishop Moule phrases this reality when he says that there are limits that run along with the Promise. Ishmael is Abraham’s son, yet not God’s son. Esau is Isaac’s son, yet not God’s son. And though we trace in Ishmael and in Esau, as they grow, we see characteristics which may explain why the limitations were placed on them, but that is not the complete answer. For the chosen one in each case has his conspicuous unfavorable characteristics too. And the whole tone of the record looks towards a mystery without immediate explanation. Esau’s profanity in giving up his birthright may have happened at this same time, but it was not the cause for Jacob being chosen. The reason of the choice lay in the depths of God’s foreknowledge. All is well there, even though for us it is unknown. So we are led up to the closed door of the sanctuary of God’s Choice. Touch it; it is unbreakable, and it is locked tight. No blind Destiny has been able to turn the key. No inaccessible Tyrant has gained entry and sits within, playing the game of fate. No! The Key-Bearer, whose Name is engraved on the portal, reads “He that lives, and was dead, and is alive for evermore.”15 And if you listen closely you will hear words coming from within, like the soft deep voice of many waters, yet of an eternal Heart; “I am that I am; I will that I will; trust Me.” But the door is locked; and the Voice is mystery until the Holy Spirit reveals the speaker’s name, “Jesus.” Only then will the invitation be given to enter and become part of His eternal domain.16
1 Genesis 18:14
2 Genesis 17:21
3 Ibid. 18:10, 14
4 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Genesis 18:10
6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 179
7 Galatians 3:16
8 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 451-452
9 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc., cit.
10 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Revelation 3:1
12 Barth: ibid.
13 Romans 4:18–20
14 Douglas Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Revelation 1:18
16 Expositor’s Bible: The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.