This morning we enter a very difficult and controversial portion of the Word of God. Dr. Thomas Wright has written, “Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles.” As a result many speakers avoid speaking on these passages. I believe it is often the most difficult passages that contain some of the most valuable truths. Many of these passages are difficult because they stretch us more than we are used to being stretched.
Romans 9-11 puts the focus on Israel. Since Paul is writing to the church at Rome, he must have believed this information was valuable for Gentiles as well as Jews. I think if we listen carefully we will learn and grow greatly from these texts.
One of the questions we need to answer is “Why is Paul talking about Israel now?” He has built up to a grand climax in chapter 8 regarding the eternally secure nature of those who are truly in Christ. He has told us that NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ. Remember, there were no chapters in the original letter to the Romans. The chapters were added for ease of study. So, these words directly follow Paul’s words about God’s enduring love.
It feels like Paul has made a quick turn without signaling. I can see two possible reasons why Paul may be taking up this subject now.
- Since God has been stressing the Sovereignty of God in our salvation, it is possible that he wanted to illustrate this truth with Israel. He may have wanted to show that God chooses individuals not nations.
- It could be that Paul’s discussion of our eternal security in Christ found at the end of chapter 8 led Paul to anticipate an objection, “What about the Jews? God promised the Jews that they would be his people forever. Now they seem to have turned (or been turned) away. If God’s promise to the Jews were not fulfilled, how can I have any confidence in God’s promise of salvation by grace?”
It may be that both (or neither) of these issues was in Paul’s head as he began this chapter. This morning we look at the introduction of Paul’s argument.
I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4 the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. 5 Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
THE HEART OF THE APOSTLE
A man said to a friend, “I hear you dismissed your pastor. What was wrong?” The friend said, “Well, he kept telling us we’re all going to hell.”
The first man then asked, “What does the new pastor say?” The friend replied, “The new pastor says we’re going to hell, too.”
“So what’s the difference?” asked the first man. “Well,” said the friend, “the difference is that when the previous pastor said it, he sounded like he was glad about it; but when the new man says it, he sounds like it is breaking his heart.”
That is what Paul is saying in this passage. It is breaking his heart that he has to say harsh things to and about nonbelievers, especially those among his fellow Jews. [Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching]
Paul has been upfront about the situation of the Jews. In Romans 2 Paul said that Jews were children of God simply because they were born Jewish. In Romans 4 Paul showed that Abraham was declared righteous and “justified” before he was ever circumcised. This proves, says Paul, that Abraham was justified by faith, not by his heritage. Paul has been honest about the need for the Jews to turn to Christ. He wants the Jews to find the same salvation he has found.
In these verses we see the apostle’s heart. He is not glad about confronting the Jews with their need; it is breaking his heart. Paul says, if he could, he would gladly give up his place in Heaven if his Jewish brothers would come to faith. Moses said something very similar when God wanted to wipe out the Hebrews. Moses asked God to blot him out of the book instead (Ex. 32:32).
Do you see how different our hearts are. If we were honest, we would have to say that our primary concern is that WE are not going to Hell. Our society has a mantra we have all embraced to one degree or another, “I need to look out for #1!”
Suppose you were in a crowded place and someone yelled, “Fire!” What would happen? Many people would get trampled, pushed down and killed because most people would be trying to save themselves. It’s a natural instinct. We look out for ourselves first. We usually serve based on what is easiest and most convenient to us rather than on what is most beneficial to another. We witness when we are in the mood. We give when we have extra. Do you see this tendency in your own heart? I see it in mine.
Paul was able to see beyond himself. He had the heart of God. He was willing to sacrifice, even his own life, even his own destiny, if it would further the message of the gospel. It’s the same attitude that we see in Jesus. He gave up sleep to spend the night in prayer. When the crowds came to Him at the end of a long day, He ministered to them. Jesus gave His life not for His benefit but for ours.
Paul remembered what it was like to be lost. He ached for those who were running in a hundred different directions hoping to find significance and meaning. His heart broke for the Jews who thought they could earn God’s favor. Paul saw and understood the futility of those around him.
The Advantage of Israel
Paul has a special ache for the Jews. They have such a rich history and have received so many benefits. He lists these advantages and the things that make these people extra special.
- They had a privilege position as God’s People
- They had the presence of God in their midst!
- God gave Israel His promises
- God gave Israel the 10 commandments and the rest of the Law which revealed God’s heart and character.
- They had the great illustrations and symbols of worship
- They had a great heritage in the Fathers
- Jesus was Jewish and he was God!
Verse 5 is a bold declaration of the deity of Jesus. God chose to come to earth as a Jew! It is a rich and wonderful privilege. The nation of Israel has provided the foundation on which all of us stand. With all this history, all these opportunities, all these privileges, it is sad to think these people have turned away.
In much the same way, America has such great opportunities. We have freedom of religion. There are a multitude of churches and the gospel is preached regularly on the airwaves. We have the Puritans, the Great Awakening, and countless bold and gifted people in our history. It should break our heart that with all these advantages people are still unresponsive.
What Happened to the Jews?
Paul anticipates those who would conclude that God’s promises have failed. He has blessed Israel in all these ways but the nation has turned away from Him. Paul answers,
It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 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.”8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”
Paul is making a distinction between biological Israel and spiritual Israel. There are those who are related to Abraham by genetics and there are those who are related to him by their faith and calling. Paul says God’s promises to Israel were not to the physical descendents of Abraham but the spiritual descendents.
To drive home his point (more on this next week) Paul illustrates by pointing out that Abraham had two children, Ishmael and Isaac. Both of them were physical descendents. Only one was (Isaac) was a spiritual descendent.
I think Paul would say the same thing to the church of today. He might say, not everyone who is called a Christian is a Christian. Not everyone who goes to church is a genuine follower of Christ. There are many people in the church who have experienced great things yet they are not true believers,
- They had an experience where they raised a hand, walked an aisle, spoke in a foreign tongue
- They were baptized
- They were confirmed
- They have celebrated communion regularly
- They have learned the doctrines of the faith
- They teach Sunday School
- They are respected for their knowledge and service
Yet, they may still be unsaved! You can know all there is to know about Christianity and the Bible and still be going to Hell. How? Because you are trusting your heritage, knowledge, experience, and even your “decision” rather than trusting Christ! It all looks wonderfully spiritual and holy but you aren’t trusting God . . . you are still trusting yourself! You still don’t see your sin and your helplessness before God; you think you are doing quite well! You are no different than the Jews!
In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus gave a sober warning. He said,
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Theologians make a distinction between the church visible and invisible. The visible church is made up of those who attend a place of worship and have their names on church rolls. The invisible church is made up of those who are truly “in Christ”. They are those who have truly placed their confidence and trust in what Christ alone could do for them. The vast majority of those in the invisible church are also part of the visible church but not all who are in the visible church are in the invisible church.
On the outside both groups may look the same. On the inside they are vastly different. One group does religious stuff; the other follows Christ. One group goes to worship; the other group lives a life of worship. One group tries to do good; the other group admits that they are sinful but God is good.
Both groups of people are in the church. In Matthew 13 Jesus talked about the weeds and the wheat that grew together and would not be separated until the last day. The whole field was the visible church, the wheat was the invisible church.
So the question we are left with this morning is: “What should we be learning from these words?”
First, we should be challenged to pray for a heart of compassion like Paul had. We must ask God to help us see other people as He does: as lost and hurting like sheep without a Shepherd. He doesn’t want us to shrug and write them off, He wants us to love them like He does.
We must never forget where we were when the Lord found us. We have two barriers we must overcome. First, some of us were raised in the church. Christian stuff is part of who we have always been. We need to work to understand what it is like to grow up without the knowledge that we take for granted.
The second barrier is that we have short memories. After we have lived as believers for a while we tend to forget how confused we used to be by the things of God. Once we have had the joy of walking with God’s Spirit we can forget what it’s like to walk alone. Once we have found meaning, purpose, and the direction that comes from a right relationship with God, it is easy to forget what it was like to walk aimlessly. We must never forget where we have come from.
The Second lesson in this text is that we must take seriously Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 13: to “examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith. We must ask ourselves if we are only part of the visible church or whether we also belong to the invisible church. It’s not up to us to determine who is granted to be a card carrying member of the true church of God. It is our responsibility to examine our own hearts and lives.
I encourage you to ask yourself some important questions. On what basis do you think you are going to Heaven? Is it your knowledge, your goodness, your experience, your baptism or even your “decision”? None of these things is bad (in fact they are all good in themselves) but they are not a reason for salvation. Salvation comes only from the Lord. The only thing that can save us is God’s mercy poured out to us through Jesus Christ. If your confidence is in anything other than Christ alone . . . .please repent and be truly saved. Come to Christ with empty and open hands. Ask God to expose any duplicity or superficiality in you. Ask Him to lead you to true faith. Jesus told us that whoever asks will receive.
Second, look for evidence of God’s transformation. The Bible calls this fruit. When the Lord truly enters a life a person begins to change. Let me be clear . . . this doesn’t mean we don’t sin. It doesn’t even mean we don’t sometimes sin horribly. We may do both of those things. True fruit is found in the way we think, feel, and act.
This is tricky. We can’t look merely at externals. Many people learn to behave different simply because that is what is expected in the “culture of the church”. The key is our heart. Is there a change in your secret life? Are you different even when no one is looking? Are your motives more pure than they used to be? Do you love God more? Are you more aware of your own sin? Do you truly want to be obedient to the Lord because you know His way is right? Those who belong to Christ are new creatures. Over time they should be able to see a change. If there is no change you must examine whether you are really following Christ or whether you are simply playing church.
It is an important issue and it is a personal issue. I can’t tell you whether or not your faith is genuine. Only you can know that. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and with God. Turn to Him with all your heart and He will make you a part of His family.
When all is said and done, it really doesn’t matter if everyone thought of you as a fine Christian person. It doesn’t even matter is you know Jesus. What matters is whether Jesus knows you.