To See God

The expression “pure in heart” refers to a person whose inner most thoughts, motivation and purpose are pure, clean, wholesome and good; this is the one who will see God. To see God is to believe in God, and even more basic, they believe God; such a person is blessed indeed.
The person who is not pure in heart will not see God, possibly because he would rather not see Him. The person who is not pure in heart is one whose inner motivations are not wholesome or good, but are more likely centered on self, gain and getting what they want at whatever cost; they are not blessed because there is little room in their lives for a relationship with Him.

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God’s Right to Choose

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”  Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Romans 9:14-18

I know a lot of people who would cringe at these verses; I know others who will be jumping in to attempt to make a clarification before they have finished reading: “What Paul really meant to say was…”

I hope that you will do neither!

Let’s pause to recall where this passage falls in the text. Paul is discussing God’s faithfulness in His dealings with the Jews. His first task was to point out the problem posed by Israel; the paradox (9:1-5). We are in his second point about God’s faithfulness. The first supporting point that we discussed last time, was that God has been faithful in dealing with the Jews from the very beginning, and now in this second supporting point, Paul is simply pointing out that God has the right to choose who will serve His purpose, and as such this should be obvious to anyone, but Paul covers it so that nobody can question it. The narrative on this whole matter will continue into a third point after this passage; it does not stand all alone, so relax… God is not unjust.

BUT, we must also keep in mind that mercy and justice are not the same thing.

The example used here is that of Pharaoh who was used by God to glorify Himself and accomplish His purpose, and He did so without the consent of Pharaoh who was used unwittingly. Even though Pharaoh was not a God-follower, even though Pharaoh was in opposition to God and His people, God used him. In this sense, Pharaoh was God’s chosen instrument, God’s “elect”. Was Pharaoh saved by God?

No: He was used by God.

God foreknew that Pharaoh would not respond to Him in obedience, that he would not bow down to God in worship or reverence, and so God chose to use Pharaoh to display His awesome power to the world, so God hardened Pharaoh’s heart further than it already was, thus being “elect” is not always the same thing as being redeemed.

Paul will fully develop this idea when we continue next time in 9:19-29.

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God’s Faithfulness

Paul expressed his anguish over the situation with Israel in the previous section between their curses in 9:1-3 and their blessings in 9:4-5, and now he moves to explain the paradox; in a sense, there are two Israels, one according to ethnicity and one according to faith. It seems that God has chosen a certain family of people to be His Nation through which He brought forth His Son, yet not all within that family (ethnic Israel) have chosen to follow His Son, and thus will likely be lost. Paul begins to address this issue in 9:6 ff.:

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (9:6) This distinction is set forth in verse 6 as you can see; Paul continues:

Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.

Romans 9:7-9

We sometimes forget that not all of Abraham’s descendants are or ever were part of “Israel” for before Isaac was born, Abraham fathered another son, Ishmael who was not a son of the promise, even though he was a son of Abraham. Only those who descended through Isaac were considered his descendants, and not even all of them were considered his descendants:

Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Romans 9:10-13

Isaac and Rebekah conceived twins, but God’s promise did not extend to both of them and their descendants. Esau, the twin who was born first, thus the heir of Isaac, did not receive the promise and was excluded from those who were considered to be Abraham’s descendants even though he was the firstborn of Isaac. Excluded, his descendants became a separate nation, the Edomites who were enemies of Israel. Let’s not forget that the descendants of Ishmael also became a people, enemies of the Israelites and who even today are the enemies of modern day Israel, and far more numerous.

It is clear in this discussion that Ishmael was not the son of promise because he was the issue of human connivance and not the promise of God who clearly stated that Sarah would bear the son of promise, but the issue of Esau is worthy of consideration: Why did God select Jacob and not Esau? The obvious answer is that God is God and can choose whomever He wishes to serve His purpose, and Paul will make that point. A little less obvious is that God foreknew that Esau would not take His promise all that seriously, so he chose Jacob to carry the promise forward; it seems that God already knew that Esau would trade his birthright for a bowl of stew, and this leads us to the heart of the matter.

There is considerable debate these days about God’s foreknowledge and its relation to cause and effect. Did God make Esau trade away his birthright to Jacob for unknown reasons of His own, or did God know Esau would do this on his own because God is all knowing and not subject to time and space? I am content to let others worry about that one; I think there is a much more important issue in play. When we think of divine covenants, we tend to think in terms of salvation. We see covenant language in 9:4-5 and think of the Jews in terms of salvation with the result that the paradox of Israel is unsettling for us, as it was for Paul, but we must stop and think before we react.

Salvation is only found in one covenant, the New Covenant established by and through the sled blood of Jesus Christ. God’s covenant with Abraham did not contain a promise of salvation for Abraham’s descendants. Instead the Abrahamic covenant had two kinds of promises, the land promise and the descendants promise. God promised that Abraham would have descendants more numerous than the sands of the beach, and that through them all nations would be blessed. With the arrival of Jesus Christ on the scene this was fulfilled, for His blood was shed for all nations, Jew and Gentile to be saved. It also promised that Abraham’s descendants would be given the land of Canaan. Jesus has come and Canaan was delivered long ago and that covenant was fulfilled long ago. God also made a covenant with Moses, the Law. It held that God would be their God and they would be His people if they would follow its laws, but it made no mention of salvation or eternal life. We know that the Law was incapable of making anyone righteous in God’s sight, and Paul has himself made this case in Romans. So then, how could anyone be saved, how could any man be made righteous?

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, thus a person could become righteous in God’s sight by believing Him. (Not believing in Him, but believing Him) This is another way of saying that they could attain righteousness in God’s sight by putting their faith and trust in Him, even though they were imperfect and could not keep all 613 laws all of the time. This righteousness was judged at God’s sole discretion. If we go through Old Testament history, how often do we find an account of such a person? Abraham and David come to mind quickly and there are certainly many others, as well as “regular folk” who aren’t mentioned, yet as often as not, we see Israel turning its back on God, as did the Israelites in the Wilderness; they might have believed in God, but they did not believe God. Paul is trying to impress upon his readers that the paradox of Israel is nothing new, and it does not mean that God has failed or that He is unfaithful to His promises in any way, for the problem is to be found in the unbelieving hearts of the people themselves.

Paul has much more to say on this, as we will see next time!

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Paul’s Anguish

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

Romans 9:1-5

This is the first point in this fourth main section of Romans; and a curious point it is! Paul has made his grief and anguish clear; what he has not made clear is why he feels this way. We might even suspect that what Paul does not say here is as important as what he actually does say. There is a hint, for us in these verses, for Paul tells us that he could wish that he was cut off from Christ and cursed for the sake of Israel (v. 3). Could it be that Israel was cut off from Christ and cursed somehow?

Of all people, Paul would understand this whole situation, for he had been a Pharisee among Pharisees, a real up and comer you might say. His zeal for the Law and the traditions of his people was so great that he was a leader among those who persecuted the early church, not only in Judea, but in other areas as well. Yet one day on the Damascus road he had an encounter with Jesus Christ. While this part of Paul’s biography is remarkable, more remarkable still is the fact that of all people, Paul was the one called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.

Pharisees were not known to care much for Gentiles; this we must understand.

Paul had been raised, educated and trained in Jewish Law, custom, culture and tradition; he loved everything Jewish. If any man understood the chasm that separated Jew from Gentile, it was Paul. If any man recognized what divided Jew from Christians, it was Paul. So what does God do with Paul? He sends Paul out as the Apostle to the Gentiles; amazing, simply amazing. I think that I am safe in saying that this move defies all human reasoning, but then God defies human reasoning quite a lot.

Having met Jesus on that road face-to-face, Paul has learned the truth of the Gospel message first hand, he recognizes like no other how the Scriptures have foretold of the coming of Jesus, and was perhaps the very first to fully comprehend the great error that his beloved people have made in rejecting Jesus, not to mention the consequences of their rejection, and when he thinks about it, he is filled with anguish and grief for their situation. Yet, he will answer his call to the Gentiles…

I have stated multiple times already that Romans is a persuasive essay on Christian teaching. In any persuasive argument that comprises a call to action, it is necessary for the author or speaker to establish that there is a problem, that there is a solution to the problem, and that the solution being offered is better than the current state. In the matter of Jewish versus Christian, Paul has just established that there is a problem for a person who is Jewish to come to grips with; they have turned away from God by their rejection of His Son. As this section moves forward, Paul will get into various facets of this problem, and it will become clear that accepting Jesus Christ is every bit as crucial for the Jew as it is for the Gentile, and in so doing I believe that he will also show that God is and always has been faithful in all of His dealings with Israel.

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Part Four and the Problem Posed by Israel

Romans 9-11

As we begin the fourth main section of Romans, we enter an entirely new conversation; there is not connection or transition between 8:31-39 and this unit and the abruptness of Paul’s change of subject is stark to say the least. Most scholars consider this section to be one of the most difficult in the New Testament and as you might imagine, the views and teachings about this section are widely varied. It seems to me that the larger part of this difficulty is caused by the fact that Paul never makes his purpose in writing clear, or at least it isn’t as clear as He usually makes it in his writings. It is almost as though it was a given, so obvious that it didn’t need to be stated. At the time of his writing, that may have been the case, but all of these centuries later, it’s not easy to nail down.

Clearly though, he is writing about the problem of Israel.

The problem of Israel is this: Israel was God’s Nation; a Nation made up of God’s chosen people, the only people on earth who as a Nation had a special relationship with God. They had been entrusted with His Word, and it was to Israel that God had promised the Messiah who would come to redeem them and through whom all of the nations of the earth would be blessed. Yet, when Messiah came, Israel by and large rejected Him, for He was not the kind of Messiah they wanted. What they wanted was a Messiah who would drive out the occupying Romans and restore Israel to greatness as a Nation of this world, for they wanted their earthly enemies crushed. God however, had a different plan, and He sent His Son to redeem all Mankind and establish an entirely different kind of Kingdom; one that is not of this world. This raises a very hard question: Does the rejection of most Jews mean that Jesus failed in His mission?

This is a question that we still debate today, for many Christians believe that Jesus did fail to establish His Kingdom, that the church as His Kingdom is what their rejection forced God to accept, and that when Jesus returns He will establish His Kingdom by force on the earth right after the remaining Jews accept Him, and that there will be a whole new age on the earth before the final judgment. Other Christians believe that the church as His Kingdom on earth, a Kingdom not of this world was the plan from the beginning, that Jesus was successful, and that when He returns He will return for the Judgment; oh yes, this is a tough section.

Romans 9-11 has 5 sections; Paul makes 5 arguments in these chapters. The simple outline looks like this:

  1. The problem posed by Israel (9:1-5)
  2. The distinction between ethnic and spiritual Israel (9:6-29)
  3. Israel has chosen law over grace (9:30-10:21)
  4. God’s salvation of the true Israel (11:1-32)
  5. God’s way is the right way (11:33-36)

In order for us to study these three chapters in a sensible and meaningful way, and in order to be fair to the various views that are out there, I would like to propose a working theory regarding Paul’s purpose in writing this section. My working theory is in the form of this proposition:

God is faithful in his dealings with Israel.

As we study this section, I will assume that this working theory is correct, and by the time we have finished, we should clearly see whether or not our working theory is correct. If it is, great. If it isn’t, we will no doubt have identified what is correct, and we’ll replace our working theory with a new theory and test it in the hope that we will come to a conclusion about Paul’s message, a conclusion that is reliable, understandable and in harmony with Paul’s other writings and the New Testament generally.

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Section Recap

With the previous post, we have completed the third main section of Romans comprised of Romans 6-8. The proposition that Paul set about to prove is: Grace gives us total victory over sin. As we saw in our tour of this section Paul once again sought to prove his proposition with three arguments:

  1. Grace does not make sin irrelevant (6:1-7:13)
  2. Grace gives us total victory over sin (7:14-8:13)
  3. The victory of grace over sin is assured (8:14-39)

As I did with the last section, I thought I would recap his arguments so that you can review his reasoning and see his logic…

Proposition: Grace gives us total victory over sin

  1. Grace does not make sin irrelevant (6:1-7:13)
  2. Sin still matters (6:1-14)
  3. Freedom from the Law is not freedom to sin (6:15-7:6)

1) We are slaves to God (6:15-23)

2) We obey God from our hearts (7:1-6)

Paul’s two supporting points here are interesting, both were set up with questions that one might be prompted to ask and followed with emphatic negative responses. Sin still matters and we must not mistake our freedom as license to go crazy, for this is not only displeasing to God, but it denies us the total victory that grace can provide. It is far too easy for a person to stop looking at behavior once they see their slate is wiped clean legally, but God wants an intimate relationship with His people, and that cannot happen when we are chasing every fancy around with our backs turned to Him. The second supporting point takes this underlying thinking to the next level:

Proposition: Grace gives us total victory over sin

  1. Grace gives us total victory over sin (7:14-8:13)
  2. We continue to struggle against sin (7:14-25)

1) The nature of the struggle lies within our humanity (7:14-20)

2) Our struggle is more than transactional (7:21-25)

  1. Victory over sin is provided by the Holy Spirit (8:1-13)

1) God has saved us from the penalty of sin (8:1-4)

2) Sin and death are defeated within us by the power of the Holy Spirit (8:5-13)

Freedom from sin is not freedom to sin; this is at the core of Paul’s reasoning in this section. We are not perfect, and contrary to the notions of some, humanity never was perfection, for we have within us free will as a gift from God. Yes we struggle, yes we will fall short sometimes, but the penalty for our sins has been taken away by the blood of Christ; so great was God’s love for us. Even better, God did not take away our sins and then leave us all alone, for He has also given us the indwelling Holy Spirit to guide us. This guidance is not simply a matter of helping to keep the rules handy, for the Holy Spirit also gives us the strength to grow beyond our impulses so that over the course of time and growing maturity, sin become less and less appealing, and as a result, grace not only gives us victory over sin’s consequences, but victory over sin’s appeal, which is a great transformation indeed. With this fresh in mind, Paul moved to his final supporting point:

Proposition: Grace gives us total victory over sin

  1. The victory of grace over sin is assured (8:14-8:39)
  2. The Holy Spirit within us makes us God’s sons and heirs (8:14-17)
  3. The entire creation is our inheritance (8:18-25)
  4. God has promised to bring his family through earthly trials (8:26-30)
  5. God’s gracious love gives us clear assurance of our victory over sin (8:31-39)

In this wonderful section, Paul paints us a picture of God’s commitment to our success, which is proven so clearly by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. When we allow the Holy Spirit to be the center of our lives, when we stop trying to be in charge of everything, when we surrender to His love and guidance, His victory over sin in us begins to emerge no matter our circumstances. This is a life-long process, a work in progress and it requires great faith, but victory is assured. All that is left for us to do is to make a commitment to let Him lead the way.

Well, what do think? Did Paul prove his case; does God’s grace give us victory over sin in all of its forms? I think he did a great job… but that’s just me.

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God’s Love Assures Us of His Grace

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

Romans 8:31-35

With these words, Paul begins one of the most beloved, beautiful and memorable passages in all of Scripture, and the final and most compelling of his arguments to support the proposition that grace provides us with complete victory over sin.  By grace we are justified before God, for we are justified by God. God so loved us that He was willing to give His own Son as the sacrifice for sin− He will not change His mind. We are co-heirs with Christ to all things; that is a certainty. No human or earthly circumstance can come between us; God has made it so: Who would dare to challenge His decision?

As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

Romans 8:36; Psalm 44:22

These verses seek to show that suffering and trial have long been the lot of God’s people on this earth, and trials will continue in this life for many Christians, but even suffering, natural death or persecution amount to but little when compared to the glory that is to come, for just as Jesus has overcome the world, so shall His people.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:37-39

As followers and co-heirs, we will not only survive the trails of this life, we will conquer them; we will overcome the world, its attractions, deceptions and hardships by His grace that we have attained through our faith in Jesus Christ. Dear reader, do not ever let anyone tell you otherwise, for the assurance of this promise is beyond question.

And with these words, Paul rests his case, for he has proven that grace has completely and totally defeated sin in all of its forms.

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