But it is not as though the word of God hath come to nought. For they are not all Israel, that are of Israel: neither, because they are Abraham’s seed, are they all children: but, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.”
That is, it is not the children of the flesh that are children of God; but the children of the promise are reckoned for a seed (Romans 9:6-8).
People have a passion for family. Pride in children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren is a common denominator among all types of different people– even regardless of the conduct of those descendants. We also can appreciate our genealogy. How many have spent time in archives learning more about their ancestors! For some reason, if we are able to discover long-lost relatives who either participated in momentous historical events or just lived in a particular historical era, those past events and times become more meaningful and personal to us. That they knew nothing of us and that our knowledge of them may be little is irrelevant; they are our ancestors, we are their descendants, and there is power in that relationship.
The Jews very much felt this power. They have Abraham for a father (Luke 3:8). The genealogies of the Old Testament, far from being the “boring parts” of the story that we often gloss over today, were a source of pride, for all Jews could find somewhere in that genealogy some relatives who took part in their national story. Ultimately, they could all trace their ancestry back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, and that was the reason for their distinctiveness. Everyone on earth could trace back their history to Noah and Adam, but the Jews were the ones who inherited the promises. They were the ones to whom the One True God revealed Himself; He gave them the Law of God; from them would come the Deliverer of mankind (Romans 9:4-5). They could feel like they were part of God’s purposes for mankind in ways that the other nations just could not understand.
All of this was true, but it was not properly directed. Too many Jews took comfort in their genealogy. They became blind to their sin, convinced that since they were children of Abraham that their place in God’s Kingdom was already reserved (cf. John 8:33). They thought it was their status– their election– that would save them.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not the case– He speaks out candidly about how the Jews were following after their father the Devil, not Abraham (John 8:34-47), and declared how many “sons of the Kingdom” would be cast out into the outer darkness (Matthew 8:11-12). As can be imagined, the Jews did not take too kindly to this.
It is Paul who drives the point home in a way that should have truly shamed Israel into obedience. Paul points out that there were other children of Abraham (Romans 9:7)– they just were not the children of promise. History would be quite different if the Muslims were right and that Ishmael was the child of blessing!
Paul’s point is that the promise was received through faith, and that the children of the promise do not merit that promise by anything they could have done, and does it all through Genesis. By working backward we can start with Jacob. Did he deserve the promise? He was the younger, and by all rights, had no claim on anything. Esau “should have” been the child of promise since he was the eldest, and yet God had foreordained that the elder would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23, Romans 9:10-12). Neither Esau or Jacob had done anything yet, but God made His purpose known in a providential way. Where would the Jews be had God not made such a provision, and Esau became the inheritor of the promise?
What did Isaac do in order to obtain the promise that he would pass along to Jacob? Absolutely nothing. He was just born, and none of us gets to choose the circumstances of our birth. The circumstances of his birth were quite miraculous and amazing (cf. Genesis 21:1-7, Romans 4:13-25). In fact, had Abraham gotten his way, Isaac would have never needed to come into existence or to receive the promise, for Abraham desired for Ishmael to live before God as the child of promise (Genesis 17:17-18). If God had honored Abraham’s wish, where would that have left Israel and the Jews?
We then get back to Abraham himself. What did he do in order to merit the call? As far as we can tell, his family was idolatrous, and Abram would have no reason to know that it was Yahweh who would call him or that Yahweh was the One True God (Genesis 11:27-32, Joshua 24:2). What stature, therefore, did Abram have before God? None whatsoever. If God had not bothered calling Abram out of Ur, what would have been Israel’s fate?
Paul’s entire point here is that God elected Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob according to His will and His purpose, not based on any kind of past or intrinsic merit or the Law or any such thing. Therefore, the Jew has no reason to “boast” in his Judaism, as if his ethnic identity provides him merit or status in God’s sight. God could have just as easily chosen another nation, and Israel would have been entirely out of luck!
Why, then, did God choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The choice was based in God’s knowledge of their faith (cf. Romans 8:29-30, James 2:14-26). God knew that Abraham would go to Canaan, to believe in Him, and be willing to even sacrifice Isaac if so commanded (Genesis 12-22). God knew the type of person Esau would turn out to be, and He knew how Jacob would be the man of faith (Genesis 25-35). They received the promises because they trusted in God and obeyed His voice (Genesis 22:15-18, 26:2-5), and God was willing to be known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (cf. Matthew 22:32).
Paul makes it clear, therefore, that the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not necessarily those who are genealogically related to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is not the way the promise works. The promise is inherited by faith, and therefore, all who believe and trust in God through His Son Jesus Christ are reckoned as children of Abraham (Romans 4:11-13, 9:24, 30-32, Galatians 3:29). They have the same “spiritual heritage,” joined not by blood that decays but by a shared obedient faith in God that endures forever.
Thus we can see that God is not unjust by casting off those who were unfaithful in Israel and bringing in those who would obey in faith among the nations. In fact, this is precisely what should have happened, and it represents God’s persistent message throughout time. Believers should learn from Israel’s example. We cannot place our trust in things. We cannot trust in status, ethnicity, parents, children, genealogy, or any such thing. Instead, our trust must be in God Himself, and we must be His obedient servants (Romans 1:16-17, 6:1-23)!
No one deserves salvation because of their ancestry, their status, their identity, or for any such reason– no one ever has or ever will. God’s choices say more about God accomplishing His will than they do about the persons chosen, and all must obey to receive the inheritance. Let us be children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by faith, and represent the Israel of God today!
Ethan R. Longhenry