The “Spiritual” Israel within “Ethnic” Israel Part 1 – Romans 9:6-9
Pastor Mark Hardy March 10, 2013
We probably all know the story of Ishmael and Isaac. God promised Abraham that he would have innumerable descendants who would be a “great nation” (Gen. 12:2; 13:16). But when the childless Abraham asked if his heir would be his slave Eliezer (15:2), God told him that it would be “…one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir” (15:4). And Abraham’s famous response in Genesis 15:6 was, “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
But after many years went by with still no promised son, Abraham and his barren wife Sarah took matters into their own hands to solve their problem. Sarah gave Abraham her Egyptian maid Hagar as his wife to have a son by her (Gen. 16:3). But when Hagar got pregnant Sarah became jealous and treated her harshly, so that Hagar fled from her presence (v. 6). But the Lord told her to return and promised her in Genesis 16:10-12, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count…Behold you are with child, and you will bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael; because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers.” Now Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him (v. 16).
Then in Genesis 17:7-8 God made a covenant with Abraham saying, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” Then in v. 16 when Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90 years old God promises to give him a son by her to inherit this covenant promise. But when Abraham pleads to God in v. 18, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” God answers him in vv. 19-21, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly. He shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.”
Here we see that Ishmael was just as much a physical descendant of Abraham as Isaac was, but God chose Isaac not Ishmael to establish His covenant with. It is this sovereign choice by God that we will be looking at this morning.
As we continue on in our study of Romans 9-11, we now come to vv. 6-13, which begins one of the most difficult theological portions of Romans. William Newell rightly stated, “The great revealed truth of the sovereignty of God perplexes many, disturbs others, and some take occasion to stumble at it.” (pg. 362) Therefore, I pray that as we move on from here that the Spirit of God will illumine our minds and teach us what God is actually saying in these chapters. Turn in your Bible to Romans 9.
In Romans 9:6-13, after Paul presents his thesis, he then gives two historical examples to prove it. This morning we will look at only the first historical example. But before we do we see:
I. Paul’s thesis Stated and Explained
A. Look at v. 6: But it is not as though the word of God has failed. (Stop there)
1. In Paul’s introduction in vv. 1-5 we saw his intense sorrow over the majority of Israel’s unbelief and rejection of the Messiah Jesus, his loving desire to sacrifice his own salvation, if by doing so his fellow Jews could be saved, and the total incongruity of Israel’s plight in light of their amazing God-given privileges.
2. But knowing that Israel’s current unbelief and rejection appears to render God’s promises of salvation to them void and, by implication, places the character of God at stake, Paul immediately declares in his thesis statement in v. 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”
3. The “word of God” here does refer to the Scriptures as a whole or to the gospel, but refers to God’s promises to Israel, specifically the promise that Israel will be saved (v. 4; 11:26-29). And the word “failed” (ekpipto) means to fall out, to fall from its place, to perish, come to naught, and nullified.
4. Therefore, what Paul is clearly setting forth is that God’s saving promises to Israel are not nullified by her unbelief and rejection of the Messiah. This is the thesis that he will support throughout chapters 9-11.
5. Since God is faithful and never changes, He never reneges on His promises! What God has promised will always come to pass!
6. God made this abundantly clear when He declared in Isaiah 55:11, “My word…which goes forth from My mouth…will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
7. Now having stated his thesis in the first part of v. 6, Paul then goes on to give a general explanation of the reason why God’s saving promises to Israel have not failed by her unbelief and rejection of the Messiah.
B. Look at the last part of v. 6: For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;
1. Here we see that not all of the ethnic Jews who descended from the patriarch Jacob or Israel, belong to the true spiritual Israel. In other words, there is a “spiritual” Israel within “ethnic” Israel.
2. This is not a new idea with Paul. For he made this same distinction back in 2:28-29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
3. It is important to understand that from God’s perspective there have always been two Israel’s, those physically descended from Israel on the one hand, and his spiritual progeny on the other. Although ethnic Israel is God’s chosen or elect people to whom the previous privileges and promise of salvation belong (9:4-5; 11:1-2, 28), God never promised salvation to every individual Israelite.
4. God did chose or elect Israel corporately as a nation, but this corporate election cannot be interpreted to justify the salvation of every single Jewish person. Therefore, Paul makes it clear that “…they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel.”
5. Within the larger ethnic nation there has always been a winnowing process going on throughout its history, a sovereign selection by God of a smaller remnant. F.F. Bruce said it this way, “Throughout Old Testament history God’s purpose was handed down through an inner group, an elect minority, a saving remnant.
6. And C.E.B. Cranfield described it like this, “…if God’s purpose of election has, from the very beginning, included a process of distinguishing and separating even within the elected people, then the present unbelief of many Jews is no proof that that purpose has failed, but may be understood rather as part of its working out.” (pg. 474)
7. Judaism in the time of Paul had perverted the Old Testament teaching on God’s saving promise and faith, so that the promise was merely taken externally and physically. In other words, the Jew believed that since he was a physical descent of Jacob or Israel, the heir of Abraham and Isaac, and was circumcised (Gen. 17:7-14), then he was automatically guaranteed salvation.
8. But that couldn’t be further from the truth! Mere Jewish descent and bloodline is not enough!
9. Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:6-7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”
10. John the Baptist scathed the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3:7-9, saying, “…You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ for I say to you that from these stone God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” There was always a spiritual dimension that was required to be a true descendant of Abraham.
11. Paul further explains this distinction between ethnic and spiritual Israel in vv. 7-13 in the form of two historical examples that were very familiar to the Jews. The first historical example is about:
II. Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac
A. Look at v. 7: nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.”
1. Paul begins where anyone seeking to ultimately define “Israel” must begin—with Abraham, who is the granddaddy of Israel, the patriarch of all patriarchs. Notice the distinction here that Paul draws between Abraham’s “children” and “descendants.”
2. The word “children” (tekna) here refers to Abraham’s true spiritual progeny who are inheritors of the promise. And the word “descendants” (or “seed”—sperma) refers to those who are merely Abraham’s physical, biological, and genetic descendants.
3. Just as not all of “ethnic” Israel is “spiritual” Israel, so not all of Abraham’s physical descendants are his spiritual children. And the perfect example of this is Abraham’s firstborn son Ishmael, whom he had by Sarah’s maid Hagar.
4. Although Paul does not mention Ishmael by name, this is the contrast that he is referring to by referring to Isaac. Ishmael was just as much a physical descendant of Abraham as Isaac, nevertheless God sovereignly chose Isaac not Ishmael.
B. Notice that Paul quotes Genesis 21:12 in the second part of v. 7: “THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.”
1. After the birth of Isaac, Abraham was greatly distressed at Sarah’s insistence that he banish Hagar and Ishmael. But God reassured him in Genesis 21:12 saying, “Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named.”
2. As Abraham’s son, Ishmael would receive temporal blessings and influence from God (Gen. 16:7-14; 17:20; 21:13, 15-21), but neither he nor his six other half-brothers from Abraham’s wife Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2) whom he married after Sarah died, could be the heir of God’s promise.
3. God chose only Isaac, even before he was born, to continue the promise that He had made to Abraham. Remember in Genesis 17:18 when Abraham cried out to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!”
4. But God answered him in v. 19, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
5. John Murray accurately states, “Isaac must here be taken of the person and not collectively. Thought is focused on the choice of Isaac in contrast with Ishmael: the proposition to be demonstrated is that natural descent does not make children in the sense of true children, children to whom the promise belongs. The choice of Isaac to the exclusion of Ishmael is sufficient to prove this thesis.” (pg. 10)
6. John Piper goes on to say, “By this sovereign election of Isaac instead of Ishmael God shows that physical descent from Abraham does not guarantee that one will be a beneficiary of the covenant made with Abraham and his seed. Something more must be true about a physical descendant if he is to be an heir of the covenant.” (pg. 60)
C. Paul then gives the conclusion that he draws from Genesis 21:12 in v. 8: That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
1. Notice that Paul contrasts the children of the flesh” with the “children of promise.” The “children of the flesh” refer to those Jews by physical descent only, such as Ishmael.
2. However, the “children of promise” refer to those Jews who are the recipients of God’s saving promises, such as Isaac. They are those who, like Abraham, believed in God and have their faith imputed to them for righteousness.
3. We can see Abraham’s faith in Romans 4:13-16, “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”
4. The Puritan John Flavel aptly said, “If Abraham’s faith be not in your hearts, it will be no advantage that Abraham’s blood runs in your veins.” (Morris pg. 352)
5. And N.T. Wright succinctly stated, “What counts is grace, not race.” (Moo pg. 577)
6. However, whereas the spiritual dimension of faith is required if one is to be an heir of the covenant, Paul will not bring the responsibility of faith into the picture until chapter 10, for example 10:13 says: for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” This is because his focus in chapter 9 is primarily on God’s sovereignty as the ultimate reason for the existence of a spiritual remnant among Israel.
7. Here we see that the bottom line is divine sovereignty, but this does not negate undeniable human responsibility. In chapters 9-11 we see how both of these “seemingly contradictory truths” perfectly interface in the mind of God, though they will cause us one big headache as we try to put these two truths together in our finite minds.
8. Now notice in v. 8 that only the “children of the promise” are “children of God,” those Jews who belong to God and thus partake in salvation. And they are the ones who are “regarded” (or reckoned by God) as (Abraham’s true spiritual) “descendants.”
9. Once again we see a smaller spiritual remnant within the larger ethnic Israel. And of course, the promise given to Isaac will eventually lead to the blessing of all peoples.
10. Galatians 3:6-8 says, Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” (Verse 29) “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”
D. Paul then reaffirms the promise concerning Isaac in v. 9: For this is the word of promise: “AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON.”
1. The “word of promise” here is the “word” from God that consisted in a “promise.” Paul’s Old Testament quote here comes from Genesis 18:10-14 where the LORD said to Abraham: “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
2. Here we see that the “word of promise” that Paul refers to is a combination of Genesis 18:10 and 14. He edits them and puts the synopsis in his quote here in v. 9 where God tells Abraham: “AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON.”
3. Notice that the guarantee that God’s promise will be fulfilled is in the phrase “I will come.” The coming of God Himself points to His omnipotent power to accomplish whatever He chooses to do.
4. What an encouragement to know that absolutely nothing can thwart the will of God. This is why in the first part of v. 14 God declared to Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?” The obvious answer is, “Of course not!”
5. Therefore, the miraculous birth of Isaac by the power of God to 100 year old Abraham and 90 years old barren Sarah in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham, demonstrates God’s free and sovereign choice of Isaac over Ishmael.
6. It was not by natural physical descent that God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled but by His sovereign and supernatural intervention. And yet, as God was doing this listen to Abraham’s faith in God in 4:19-21, “Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.”
7. God promised Isaac to Abraham, and kept His promise by His miraculous power. And when Isaac was born, he was the child of promise by God’s sovereign choice.
8. Now having given this first historical example of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, Paul knew that some might object that God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael simply because the sons were from two different women—the Egyptian maid Hagar and Abraham’s true wife Sarah. They might say, “Of course Isaac was the rightful heir because Ishmael was not a full Jew.”
9. Therefore, to make God’s sovereign choice or election even more clear and convincing, Paul will give a second historical example in vv. 10-13, which we will look at next time.
In closing, in his first historical example of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, Paul proves his thesis that God’s saving promises to Israel have not failed because it is not by physical descent that Abraham’s descendants become partakers of God’s promise, but by the spiritual dimension of faith. And yet, this has everything to do with God’s sovereign choice. This is why even though the majority of Israel has rejected the Messiah there is a “spiritual” Israel within “ethnic” Israel.
God is always faithful to His promises! Israel’s unbelief and rejection does not nullify God’s saving promises, but simply gives further evidence that His promise has always been to those who believed as Abraham believed, not to those who are merely his physical descendants.
I end with a quote from John MacArthur that summarizes this well, “Isaac is an excellent illustration of the true child of God because, long before he was even conceived, he was divinely chosen among the descendants of Abraham to be the heir of promise. His becoming the spiritual child of God was just as sovereignly and supernaturally preordained as his becoming the physical child of Abraham. That sovereign election, made effective through faith, is true of every person who has been saved, both before and after Isaac.” (pg. 24)