What is a promise worth? Well, first we need to understand what the word, “promise” means. Webster’s defines “promise” as: “a: a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified b: a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act.” That sounds pretty “legal” doesn’t it? I think we all know that a promise is doing what we say we will do.
As long as you keep your promises then those in your life, those you make promises to, know that you will keep your promise. They don’t worry or wonder if you will show up or do what you say you said you would do. The problem comes in when we don’t keep our promises. Once a promise is broken then doubt enters in and the next time a promise is made questions arise. Broken promises in a marriage can erode the bedrock of trust. Broken promises in friendships can create distance, doubt, and distrust. Broken promises are the rust of relationships eating away at what is truly valuable.
We all know those things. We all know how important it is to keep our promises and yet, are there any of us who have felt the sting of broken promises? Are there any of us who, even though we’ve felt the sting of a broken promise or a string of broken promises by someone we love, have broken promises ourselves? Isn’t that crazy? We know how damaging broken promises are and yet we ourselves have broken our promises, not kept our word.
I’m so grateful that what is true for people is not true for God. God has promised us and He has never ever broken one single promise. God is true to His promises. His Word and His Name are invaluable to God. In Psalm 138:2, God says,
2 I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. (Psalm 138:2 NIV)
When we break our promises we tarnish our name. God’s name is gleaming with integrity and holiness because His promises have never failed. Let me give you a sampling of a few of the promises God has made which you can count on. In John 1: 12-13, we read,
12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13 NIV)
There are many ideas floating around society today about how you can know that you belong to God or how to get to heaven. John makes it very clear to us. If you receive Jesus, believe in His name, then God gives you the right to become His child. Plain and simple. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s God’s promise. You don’t have to knock on 20 doors a weekend and hand out tracks. You don’t have to “earn” your way into God’s good graces. You can’t earn God’s grace, but you can receive and believe.
The second promise that I want to show you is found in John 12:46. Jesus spoke about His purpose in coming into the world. He said,
46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. (John 12:46 NIV)
Wow! What a promise. Jesus is the light of the world. He has come so that we who believe in Him can be freed from the darkness. Have you ever been shrouded in darkness before? I meet folks every week who are walking, living, being suffocated by the darkness of their lives, the darkness of their decisions. Jesus’ promise is that He will free us from the darkness so that we can walk in His glorious light.
The last promise I want to share with you is found in Matthew 11:28-29. I’m sharing this with you because I know many people today who are weary and burdened down by the cares and troubles of life. Here is God’s promise to you. Jesus said,
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29 NIV)
You don’t have to wonder if Jesus will be there for you. He is true to His promise. He was there before you ever became weary and He will be there after your weariness has lifted. It is important for you and me to understand these promises from God’s Word so that we can dispel any doubt about “if” God will do what He said He will do. That was the question that was going through the minds of the folks in Rome when Paul wrote Romans 9-11. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Romans 9:6-13.
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor 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. 9For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” 10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13 NIV)
In Romans 9:4-5, Paul listed eight blessings that belong to the Jews. Paul says that God has blessed the Jews by adopting them as His sons, displaying His glory towards them, giving them the covenants and the Law, the ordinances of temple worship, giving them His promises, the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Jesus, whom Paul calls, “the One who is God over all!” What wonderful blessings God bestowed upon His chosen people! Yet, at the time that Paul was ministering, it would appear that all of these many blessings had been for nothing because most of the Jews had rejected Jesus as God’s Messiah. Paul responds to those who were wondering if God’s promises to His people had failed. Take a look at verses 6-8 with me.
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7Nor 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. (Romans 9:6-8 NIV)
Paul says that God’s Word, His promises had not failed. Then he goes on to unpack his statement by saying that not all “who are descended from Israel are Israel.” In other words, there is an Israel, within Israel. In Paul’s mind, there is no doubt that God has blessed Israel, and yet the “promises” of God were not for all of ethnic Israel. Paul says that even though all of Israel are physical descendants of Abraham, they are not all Abraham’s children, they are not all “spiritual” children of Abraham. In verse 8, he further elaborates by saying that 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.
Let me say something at this point which is important for us to keep in mind. Our goal in studying Romans is not to arrive at our opinion of what we think we believe about these matters. Our aim is to discover what God has communicated to us through His servant, the Apostle Paul. I am not concerned with whether you agree with what is being taught by Paul or not. I’m not concerned with whether or not you agree with me or whether we agree with one another. My desire is to discover what God is teaching us.
I say this because there is much popular teaching about the Bible today that I’m not convinced comes from a thorough study of God’s Word. There are some very charismatic, convincing Bible teachers who lift some portions of God’s Word out of context and build a complete belief system around these isolated verses. This is dangerous stuff. We need the whole counsel of God’s Word to understand God’s will. With that said, let’s continue on in our study.
Paul’s declaration that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel is supported by his thorough examination of the Hebrew Bible. I want you to understand just how thorough Paul’s examination of the Hebrew Bible is. In Romans 9-11 there are approximately 24 quotations from the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament. It’s hard to nail down an exact number of quotations because Paul will sometimes combine two passages of Scripture at times or paraphrase some Scripture. In Romans we have twenty-four quotes from the Hebrew Bible in three chapters of one letter, the letter to the Church in Rome.
Paul wrote thirteen letters that are included in the New Testament. In all of his letters combined there are about eighty quotes from the Hebrew Bible. That means that about 30% of his quotes from the Hebrew Bible are found in these three little chapters included in Romans. That is amazing!
Paul is writing about one of the most important subjects ever and he is addressing the issue of the Jews by using their own Bible to prove his point. Paul wants his readers to know that God’s promises have not failed because not all of Israel have the “promise” of God—not all who are descended from Israel, are Israel. This was certainly not the belief of the Jews. They believed that because Abraham was the father of their people that they were right with God. A modern-day parallel would look something like this: Let’s say that your mom or dad was a strong believer and therefore you believed that you were right with God. That’s absurd. This misunderstanding of the Jews is addressed in the Gospels. In Luke 3, John the Baptist was preaching and calling people to repentance when he said,
8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:8 NIV)
In another passage, John 8, Jesus was in Jerusalem, just outside of the temple courts, trying to teach the Jews about His relationship with the Father when we read.
31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father. 39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. (John 8:31-39 NIV)
Can you see how deeply this misunderstanding was ingrained in the Jews? Paul wants his readers to know that the promises of God were for the Israel within the larger Israel. Now, let’s follow Paul as he unpacks this statement and try to understand the “Israel within Israel.” Look at Romans 9:8-13 once again.
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. 9For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” 10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13 NIV)
God has a plan. He has a purpose. God’s plan is being fulfilled throughout history. Paul shows, beginning with Abraham, that God’s plan does not fail. Abraham had two sons. One son was born by natural means. Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Sarah’s servant, Hagar. If you read Genesis 17:20 then you will find that God blessed Ishmael, but he was not the child of the promise. Abraham’s second son, Isaac, was the child of the promise. Isaac was not born by natural means; Abraham and Sarah were past their childbearing years. Isaac was brought about by God’s intervention.
This illustration by Paul, singling out Isaac over Ishmael, could have been easily explained because every Jewish person knew that Hagar was a pagan, she was an Egyptian, so it is only natural that her son, Ishmael, would have never been chosen over Isaac.
Paul goes beyond Abraham and God’s choosing of Isaac and adds a second illustration, the illustration of Jacob and Esau. What a brilliant illustration this is because it presents irrefutable evidence of the point Paul is trying to make.
In Genesis 25 we read the story about Isaac and his wife, Rebekah. We learn that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah and they didn’t have any kids because Rebekah was barren. Isaac prayed for his wife and she became pregnant with twins. Once again, God intervened. While she was still pregnant, Rebekah inquired of the Lord and she learned that the older child, who would be Esau, would serve the younger child, who would be named Jacob. This was not the normal way. It was the firstborn who would normally be given privileges over the younger, but God’s way is not the normal way.
Paul tells us that there is more to the story. God chose Jacob as the child of the promise while he was still in his mother’s womb. God’s promise had nothing to do with how good or how bad either boy would become in their life. Jacob and Esau had the same mother and father unlike Ishmael and Isaac. Not only that, but they were conceived at the same time, they were twins. God’s choosing Jacob was “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand.”
The Greek word for “election,” used in Romans 9:11, is “??????” (ekloge) and it means, “the act of picking out, choosing,” or “of the act of God’s free will by which before the foundation of the world he decreed his blessings to certain persons.” It seems to me that, at this point, Paul is talking about how God uses people to bring about His plan throughout history. God’s plan for all of history is being worked out and His next step beyond Abraham and Isaac was the choosing of Jacob.
I have heard many people talk about how this choosing of one over another troubles them. Oftentimes they will even mention the verse from Romans 9:13 where we read,
13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:13 NIV)
I want us to take a look at that verse for a moment. We have to wonder, “Why would God choose to ‘hate’ Esau before he was ever born?” A second question would be, “Does ‘hate’ really mean ‘hate’ in the same way that we think of ‘hating’ someone?” Let’s take the second question first. I do not believe that “hate” is used in the same way that we think of “hating” someone and the reason I’ve come to that conclusion is because of lessons learned from God’s Word. Someone might say, “Well, Mike, you are just trying to make God’s Word say what you want it to say. You are trying to take the burden off of God for His subjective rejection of Esau. What else can ‘hate’ mean other than hate?” Well, let’s take a look at another example and maybe you can answer that question. In Luke 14:25-27 we read,
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27 NIV)
Did Jesus literally mean that we should “hate” our family? I don’t think so. Jesus is using hyperbole to get His point across. He is exaggerating His statement to make very clear to His hearers that nothing and absolutely no one is to come before our devotion to Him.
Let’s go back to our first question: “Why would God choose to ‘hate’ Esau before he was ever born?” Well, I hope you have a better understanding of ‘hate’ now so that we can ask, “Why did God choose Jacob over Esau before he was born?” God chose Jacob for God’s purpose. There is a very important truth in Paul’s illustration of Jacob and Esau which we need to understand. In Romans 9:12, Paul says that God told Rebekah that the older would serve the younger, “not by works, but by him who calls.” The older would serve the younger not because he was good or bad, not because he was more capable or intelligent, but because of Him who calls or determines.
In Scripture, when God is the one who is “calling” it is not merely an invitation, it is a determined purpose of God in the person’s life. Let me give you some examples of what I am talking about. The man who wrote Romans, Paul, was a very strict Jew, an antagonist of Christianity, and for many years the farthest thing from a follower of Jesus. Yet, Paul wrote in Galatians 1:14-16,
14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles… (Galatians 1:14-16 NIV)
When was Paul set apart for God’s purpose? Paul says he was set apart from birth. Boy, you sure wouldn’t have known that if you had met Paul in Acts 8:1 when he was cheering on the stoning death of Stephen the preacher.
Let me show you another example. In Jeremiah 1 we read about God’s call upon Jeremiah’s life. Jeremiah says,
4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5 NIV)
When was Jeremiah “set apart” by God? God said He knew Jeremiah when he was still in his mother’s womb and it was at that time that God set Him apart to do His will.
Now, we know Paul and Jeremiah as great men of God today. There is one example that I want to share with you that none of us would characterize as a man of God. Cyrus was the king of Persia, a horrible, hated king. Yet in Isaiah 44 and 45 we find out that God’s hand is on Cyrus.
24 “This is what the LORD says– your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, 25 who foils the signs of false prophets and makes fools of diviners, who overthrows the learning of the wise and turns it into nonsense, 26 who carries out the words of his servants and fulfills the predictions of his messengers, who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be built,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ 27 who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams,’ 28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.” ‘ (45) 1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. (Isaiah 44:24-45:4 NIV)
God has a purpose and a plan. The choosing of one individual over another was a sovereign act of God as part of His plan to bring His purposes to fulfillment. This “choosing” of God always causes people to bring up the topic of our freedom to choose or our responsibility to make decisions. In his great commentary on Romans, John R.W. Stott speaks about a great Bible teacher named Charles Simeon.
Charles Simeon was born in 1759 and was one of the great preachers of England’s evangelical movement. He was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society, The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People. He was also a professor at Cambridge. Dr. John Stott says that Charles Simeon, unlike most preachers and Bible teachers, was able to maintain balance in the election/free will discussion. Charles Simeon said, “When I come to a text which speaks of election,” he said to J. J. Guerney in 1831, “I delight myself in the doctrine of election. When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question.” (John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans. Inter-Varsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL. 1994. pg. 278)
We like to talk about how we are all created equal, but that just is not so. There are many of you who are reading this lesson who have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us. There are some of you who have more athletic ability than the rest of us. Some are taller than others. Some are better looking than others. Some are more gifted in some areas than others. We are not all created equal. The key for you and me is to recognize God’s call upon our lives and use the gifts and abilities that He has given us to fulfill His will in our lives.
We are seeing in our study of Romans that God has made decisions throughout history to bring about His perfect plan. He has ordained, called, and chosen people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, all the way to Mary to bring about His promised Son, who is our Redeemer and Deliverer. God continues to work in history by calling you and me to seek Him with all of our heart. You can be assured that His promises never fail. Won’t you acknowledge His plan and purpose for your life and humble yourself before Him this day. Ask Jesus into your heart as your Lord and Savior and watch Him work.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
March 18, 2014