Does God Keep His Promises?

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Romans 9:1–5: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” We’ll come back to ask why he is protesting his truth so strongly like that. Is he afraid somebody’s going to doubt him? Well, yes, he is. What’s the truth? “I am speaking the truth,” namely, “that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Why, Paul? You’ve grown to recognize these words, right? These are support and reasons given.

So what’s the reason for your anguish? Whenever you see these little words, they’re just massively important. “I have great sorrow, unceasing anguish,” and here’s my reason: “For I could wish,” and we’ll come back to that peculiar verb right there. I think that’s a very good English rendering of the peculiar Greek imperfect tense here.

“I could wish.” Why didn’t you just say “I wish”? “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Who does he mean? He means Jews. “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,” the Messiah, Christ means messiah, “who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”

Paul’s Anguish

Now, let’s try to get the big picture of those verses before we spend some time on the details. What’s the main thing being asserted here that he’s going to have to deal with? There’s a truth that he wants to say. And he’s evidently concerned that people aren’t going to take him seriously. And the truth is his sorrow and anguish over what? “Brothers . . . kinsman.” Why? And then instead of saying because my kinsmen are lost, he says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.”

So he doesn’t just flat out speak the hard word. “They’re accursed. They’re cut off from Christ.” He speaks a word about his own emotional response to that. Pastorally, that’s significant, isn’t it? So is the point of these five verses Paul’s sorrow, or is the point of these five verses Israel en masse is perished in spite of that?

Isn’t the function of Romans 9:4–5 what makes this so unthinkable that Jews could be accursed, Jews could be cut off from the Messiah, cut off from Christos, the Messiah, is that they are Israelites? Evidently, the name is supposed to carry a megaton of significance and implications. “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Romans 9:4).

They’re all hearing two thousand years of God’s working with this people and giving them benefit after benefit, doing it for no other nation on the planet. Patriarchs sent them the Christ as God overall, God incarnate, just not your average run-of-the-mill expectation here. This is God entering history to rescue a people. In spite of all that, they’re cut off.

So I think the main point of these verses is Romans 9:3. So that verse right there, I think that is the main point and it is an emotionally softened love statement about the truth. He didn’t just state the truth, they’re lost. They’re cut off from Christ, they’re accursed. He said, “I could wish that I were in their place.” So my understanding of these verses is that the point is to say Jews are lost without their Messiah.

The Unfallen Word of God

Now, the reason I make that call as to what’s prominent and primary by way of thrust here is because of what Romans 9:6 is going to say.

Romans 9:6 is going to say, “But it is not as though the word of God had fallen.” That’s not a response mainly to his emotions. That’s a response to the fact that though they had been given promises and though they had been given covenants, they are now accursed and cut off from Christ. So what good are the covenants? What good are the promises? That’s the issue. And Paul’s response is, “It is not as though the word of God has fallen,” and that is what he spends the entire chapter responding to, to defend that statement. In spite of the fact that Romans 9:3 is true, nevertheless, God’s word has not fallen.

Are there other passages where Paul has said hard things about Israel? Why is he protesting his truth here? “I’m not lying. My conscience is bearing witness in the Holy Spirit.” I’m telling you the truth when I tell you I love you, I love Israel. Were it possible, I would take their place. That’s what he’s saying. I want you to believe that.

Now, why would they not believe it? Here’s some things he said in the previous part of Romans. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.” He had just said in Romans 1:16, “I preach the gospel, it is the power of God and to salvation to the Jew first.”

Salvation to the Jew first. Salvation to the Jew first. I go to synagogues first. I offer these people the gospel first. And where it is rejected, they go first into judgment. That’s what this is. So how easy it would be for somebody to pull that verse out of context and say, “Look there, he gloats over the lostness of Israel. He loves to talk about how they’re going to go first into hell.”

Or Romans 2:23, “You who boast in the law”, Jews, “dishonor God by breaking the law. For as it is written, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” That’s a pretty hard blow. So he says things like that. He did say things like that. Romans 3:9: “What then are we Jews any better off?” We. Not you, we Jews any better off? No, not at all. We’ve already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin and there are a few others. So there are these statements in Romans that somebody could say, “Paul, you don’t have a heart for Jews”, which would be outrageous.

Living in Truth and Spirit

Back here to Romans 9:1–5. So my understanding of why he said I’m not lying, why he said my conscious is bearing witness is because he knew that there were reasons in his ministry and in his life that people, if they took them out of context and misunderstood them, could make him out to be antisemitic. And he is protesting in Romans 9:3, I would go to hell if I could to save my kinsman, my Jewish kin. Just a brief passing comment about, “I’m speaking the truth in Christ and my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.”

You ever talk like that? I’m not sure all that’s in those phrases, “I am speaking the truth in Christ, my conscience is testifying to me in the Holy Spirit.” Paul — and I put this out here for you to aspire to this and pray toward this — he had a walk with Christ and a walk in the Spirit that was simply extraordinarily real. You just envy him, right?

You want to taste this day in and day out so that when somebody calls your truthfulness into question, what comes to your mind is, “No, I’m speaking the truth as I am in Christ, as I lean on Christ, as I’m united with Christ. I’m speaking before my Christ. I walk in fellowship with Christ. I don’t function out here saying things I don’t mean thinking Christ wouldn’t know, wouldn’t care. I am in Christ. Everything I say is flowing from him through him for him or the Holy Spirit. My conscience.”

What is the conscience? The conscience is your awareness of yourself, your thoughts and your feelings and that about you, which passes judgments on your thoughts and your feelings and you don’t like it when your conscience is bad, bad, don’t do it. That’s a thought that’s bad. That’s a word that’s bad. That’s an act of, that’s your conscience talking.

And he says, “I have a conscience that is shaped by the Holy Spirit.” My conscience is shaped, and as I know myself in the Holy Spirit, in relation to the Spirit, in the sway of the Spirit, as I know myself when I say I love you, I mean it. I just want to be able to talk like that. I want to live in that kind of fellowship with the Holy Spirit and that kind of fellowship with Christ. So even though I’m sure there are dimensions of what he had in mind there that I don’t yet perceive, there’s enough there to fill me with longing.

Now, I said I would come back to this word, could, here. This is important. “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsman according to the flesh.” And I said, I think that’s a good translation. The imperfect tense in Greek is an incompleted action. And sometimes it’s incomplete because it’s blocked. And that’s the situation here.

So Paul’s heart is moving towards the most unbelievable expression of love imaginable, namely the willingness to exchange places with someone in hell. And he’s blocked; he can’t do it. You can’t. And so he says, “I could wish if something weren’t in the way.”

Questions and Answers

Well, what’s in the way? I thought of two things. So before I tell you what my two things are, this is what you do with the Bible. There’s nothing easy about this. Reading the Bible is a series of asking and answering questions.

I had a teacher one time who said, I think he was quoting John Dewey, “Nobody thinks until they have a problem.” I think that’s true because thinking is solving a problem. It might be as simple as two plus two is four or how do you get from here to the restaurant, or just whatever. You’ve got a problem to solve, and your mind kicks in and puts a few things in order. Now, you’ve got the solution. I don’t know how to get to the restaurant or I know how to fix the broken sink. But what do we do? Minds work in response to problems to be solved, questions to be answered.

So the practice is to create problems for yourself as you read the Bible. Most of us have almost been taught it’s a little bit impious to see a problem. And as long as you know it’s your problem and not the Bible’s problem, it’s not impious; it’s humble. Like, “I don’t understand,” is a humble thing to say. “I don’t get why could is there. Paul, why is could there?” That’s a humble thing to say.

It stops you. It puts the mind into a question mode. Now, why is it there? And then the next thing you do once you form the habit of asking questions is get a notebook. I didn’t bring mine along, but get some kind of notebook or a computer-type notebook and instead of thinking, well, I don’t know the answer. And that’s what a lot of people do. They say, “I don’t know the answer.” They go to a commentary or “Tell me the answer, Piper. Tell us, Pastor.” That’s not a good thing to do next.

The good thing to do next is think over what I say. And thinking simply means considering possibilities, right? That’s what scientists do. How are we going to land Rosetta on a comet, I mean land little Philae on the comet traveling at about 78,000 miles an hour or whatever it is, and no wind, and they figure it out. Well, that’s what we do. They throw out options.

So my wife and I, two nights ago, watched the 55-minute PBS special on Rosetta and how they got there. They just landed day before yesterday, and they were doing that for ten years, I think it took off ten years ago. They put it to sleep for three years. They woke it up, and the question was, when they woke it up, they realized the comet is so fast it had gotten farther ahead than they had planned while she was asleep and we got to catch up, and we can’t fire any rockets because we have this amount of fuel. You hear all the issues, all the variables, right?

So what’d they do? They put Rosetta into an orbit around the earth and slingshotted it twice, and it gained speed every time. Just think of the calculations that go into that. We’re going to slingshot Rosetta around the earth to catch up with the comet so that we can land this little dishwasher on the comet, which is what about as big as your yard. I forget how big it is. Small. They weighed options. They came up with solutions. That’s the way you think.

Clarifying Paul’s Intense Anguish

So here’s an option. All I do is throw out options and then I pick at the options. That won’t work or that won’t work or that will work or that work here. The evidence is for that one; the evidence is for the other one. The first obstacle for why this could not be carried through is Romans 8:37–39:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing can separate me from the love. It is impossible theologically that I go to hell. I can’t just make this exchange. He has committed himself to me. “Those whom he predestined, he called; those he called, he justified. Those whom he justified, he glorified. I know I’m called. I met him on the Damascus Road. I will be justified. I will be glorified. I can’t go to hell. So I’ve got to say, I could wish, which is as good as far as his emotions are concerned.” That’s my first thought. And you weigh that. That work? Is that the reason?

Here’s the second thought. It would be a contradiction for Paul to be sent to hell by God for loving God and people so much he’s willing to go to hell. All things work together for good for those who love God that much. So to the degree that he’s loving people, and loving people in this case doesn’t mean that they have eternal golf, loving people in this case means they get to know God, they get to be with God. They’re not cut off from Christ; they’re with Christ.

Now, that means his love for Christ is off the charts. His love for people is off the charts, and people whose love for Christ is off the charts and people whose love is off the charts can’t go to hell. It wouldn’t be hell anymore. So that’s my second thought for why he said, I could wish. In a world where that could happen, it wouldn’t be this world.

It wouldn’t be the world God has set up, this kind of God, this kind of redemption, these kinds of promises, these kinds of covenants, this kind of security and perseverance. In another world it might be possible, but not in this world. And therefore, the best he can offer them is, were I in that world, I would. It’s amazing. Still amazing. I mean, it’s off-the-charts amazing. “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ.”

According to the Flesh

Why, in Romans 9:3 here, does he qualify his brothers with, “according to the flesh”? “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsman.” Why doesn’t he just stop there? My kinsman, period. Everybody would’ve known. Kinsman means kinsman, cousins and aunts and uncles and part of your tribe. Why did he say, “according to the flesh”? Another problem. Think of options. You get out your journal notebook and you don’t get frustrated that you don’t know the answer. You start scribbling possible answers, just wild, crazy ideas. Just start writing. Maybe this, maybe this, maybe this, maybe this. And as you’re writing them, you know what happens? You think of verses that support or contradict your idea.

This is the way I work all the time. I write this, what about this? I think two verses that shoot that one down right away. Scratch that. That’s not right because this other verse says that can’t be. And then you write another and say, whoa, that sounds just like First Peter. Oh here, maybe that would be it. And then another link, another link. And first thing, I think I’m onto something. So two things came to my mind here.

One close context, which is always safer, and then a distant context. The close context is this. When we get to Romans 9:6–9, he’s going to argue it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of promise are counted for seed, which is going to be a huge thesis in his solution to the problem of God’s reliability.

And so he’s saying just to be born as a child of Abraham according to the flesh doesn’t make you a true child of Abraham. So he’s got that ready to go in his mind here in just two or three verses. And he realizes as he writes about these people he loves, he may not be related to them forever. He may not be a kinsman to them in any significant sense in fifty years. It’s real, it’s family. It’s like your kids, right? It’s like your mom, your dad, your brothers. And you so long for the people according to your own flesh to know God. And you know those aren’t the relationships that count in the end.

So that’s my first thought. He’s going to say something a lot like that and he’s got it in his mind already and he’s setting them up, setting himself up, setting everybody up to realize, “Yes, I love them. Yes, I’d lay down my life for them, but no, Jewishness is not the bottom line in my relationships.”

And then, when I was writing that down in my journal, sort of in my head journal, I thought Jesus said something like that. Jesus said something like that. Where did he say that? Remember, he was talking and he looked around on and they said, “Your mother’s sisters are outside.” And he looked around on his side and said, “Those who do the will of my Father are my mother and my brothers and my sister.”

I preached a Mother’s Day sermon one time called “Becoming the Mother of Jesus.” Because he said, “Those who do the will of God are my mother.” A great Mother’s Day sermon. “Come on, let’s all be the mother of Jesus.” And if you were going to preach that sermon, what text would you go to next to make that good news? You’d go to the cross. “John, behold your mother. Woman, behold your son.” Meaning what? I’m taking care of her right now. I’m gone. John, she’s yours.

Joseph is evidently gone. He must’ve disappeared off the scene early on. She’s got about five kids, and her oldest is dead and gone. John, take care of her. That’s what it means to be the mother of Jesus. He’d take care of you. Okay, that’s another sermon, and I love it.

So anyway, here the point is, Jesus would look on his mother and his sisters and brothers and say, “These are my kinsmen, according to the flesh. But you who do the will of God, you’re my brother and sister, mother. That’s the kinship that lasts forever.” I know how we Christians need to feel that we should feel deeply, more firmly, eternally, marvelously united to one another than to our unbelieving children or mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters. This family, another text just comes to my mind, right while I’m talking.

Remember where Peter, Jesus, the rich young ruler goes away and Peter pipes up and says, “We’ve left everything and followed you. What about us? We made some sacrifices.” Remember what Jesus says to him? I wish I could see the look on his face. I’m hesitant to try it. But he said, “Peter, nobody who has left mother or father or sister or brother, houses, their lands for my sake and the Gospels, will not receive back a hundredfold in this time and in the age to come, eternal life. Get off your self-pity.” I mean, he didn’t say that. That’s my interpretation.

“If you think following me is a sacrifice, you don’t know me. You think picking up this treasure in the field worth billions of dollars and then selling your little $200,000 house to have this is a sacrifice? Your math is off or you can’t see.” The point of that was, in this age you get lots of sisters, lots of brothers, lots of mothers.

I love saying to single folks who have laid down almost everything and heading for the mission field and wondering, will there be a spouse out there ever? There will be a family, God will have a family for you in ways you cannot now predict.

Adoption, Glory, and the Tragedy of Israel

Maybe just a few more comments about verses four and five. They are Israelites. So here we are, they are Israelites. Now, when I face a sequence like this, a list, my question I ask, is there anything in common? Is there any order? That’s what I’m looking for. And frankly, I can’t find an order. I’ll show as much as I can find and maybe you can see more, because my guess is I doubt that he slung these together randomly, but I’m not sharp enough at this point to see the sequence.

So I’ll show you what I see. When you get to Romans 9:5 here, he says, and you wonder, why didn’t you include these in the list in Romans 9:4. The list in Romans 9:4 is Israelites. That seems to be kind of the big overarching one: adoption, glory, covenants, giving of the law, worship promises, period.

And then, to them belong the patriarchs. Now, the patriarchs, they’re way back earlier. Belong the patriarchs and from their race comes the Christ. So what I do think I see in Romans 9:5 is patriarchs and Christ look like a sandwich, bread, like this, they’re on either side. So patriarchs were the beginning. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that’s how Jews got started. There were no Jews before Abraham. That’s where he made the covenant with Abraham. And now your people will be a blessing to all the nations of the world and everything flows from Abraham and Christ is the great climactic. The Messiah has finally come, the fulfiller of all the promises has come. So that looks like all-inclusive beginning and ending.

And he calls Christ God overall to give it the most climactic possible ending it could possibly have. He didn’t just send the Christ, he sent him in a way nobody fully foresaw, namely he did not regard equality to God, equality with God, a thing to be grasped. But he emptied himself and taken the form of a servant and became man. That’s who the Christ is, God over all blessed forever. And it began with Abraham. So maybe those are inclusive at either end and then the others should be put in the middle. And then I thought, okay, is there a sequence? Let’s see if this works. This is the closest I’ve been able to come to something like a sequence.

First, adoption. “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:15). Maybe the adoption is, “I take you to be mine at the Exodus and then I reveal my glory in the deliverance in Exodus and at Mount Sinai and I make covenants there at Mount Sinai among which is the law and among which is how to worship me. And permeating those covenants are promises by which you can live.”

I don’t know if I’m putting on it structure that’s not there or not, but adoption would be something like this: “I take you to be my son in a new national kingdom way at the Exodus. I reveal my glory, I make a covenant with you. I give you a law for how to worship me and full of promises to help you obey it.”

And then stepping back and saying, “It all began with the patriarchs. It all ends with Christ.” And the point of all that, I think, is to throw in stark relief the tragedy of cursed and the tragedy of cutoff from Christ. How can it be? How can it be that one who had covenants, covenant with Abraham, covenant with David, covenant with the new covenant in Jeremiah? How can it be that one was really adopted in some remarkable way, really, truly worshiped God, really had wonderful promises, how can it be that they would be accursed and cut off from Christ? That’s the question.

And here are two or three other passages lest you think that Paul was saying something new or surprising about Israel. Twenty-seven verses later, Romans 9, he says, “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved.” So Paul is saying, Isaiah predicted what I’m now experiencing.

Matthew 8, Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west.” That’s Gentiles. “Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” just where you expect the sons of the kingdom to be, “in the kingdom of heaven while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness. In that place, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:11–12).

The Implications of Romans 9

So, a summary of these five verses, and then we’ll probably stop. Israelites are perishing in spite of privileges (Romans 9:3). Paul is deeply, deeply, as deep as he can express it, grieved over this (Romans 9:2). Jesus, the rejected one, is God over all (Romans 9:5). And therefore, God’s promises to Israel are in question.

Now, here’s where we’re going tomorrow and I’ll just give you the first verse. “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” Let me try to tell you why seeing the connection between Romans 9:3 and Romans 9:6 is massively important. And you got to decide on this because this is going to shape everything you hear in this chapter.

When I was teaching those students, semester after semester, and they were coming from other teachers who didn’t like what I taught, sometimes in the linguistics or anthropology department, sometimes in the Bible department. They would come to me and they would say Romans 9 is not about individuals. And it’s not about eternal destinies, it’s about historical roles of people groups, namely Israel, Edom, Egyptians and so on and about roles to be played in history.

You can’t apply it to eternity and to individuals. That was the constant. When I wrote my book on this, I just read commentary after commentary after commentary, and at least forty years ago, that was the standard line. Now, I’m asking you, I don’t think you need to know any Greek to grasp this with a firm hand. Has Romans 9:3 set up this word right here in such a way that it does not apply to individuals and eternities? And my answer is, this statement here and everything that follows is irrelevant if it’s not addressed in Romans 9:3.

“My kinsmen are accursed and cut off from Christ.” And he doesn’t mean a people; he’s a Jew. All the apostles were Jews and they were not lost. My kinsman, individual people, those who believe are saved, those who are not believing in the Messiah are accursed and cut off from Christ. That’s what the problem is. And if Paul doesn’t address that problem, then I don’t think the chapter is coherent. So you test as you move forward in this, whether you think his argument here and the rest of this chapter is relevant for the Jews that he loves and is concerned about their eternal destiny.