I love to teach, but like many who teach my least favorite part is grading. To make matters worse, I do not really believe in the value of quizzes and tests, so I rarely give them. That means that the majority of what I grade are multiple (and sometimes many) page papers.
Even though I do not use them often, one benefit that quizzes and tests do give is a measure of objectivity. If it is multiple choice, the answer is right or not. On the other hand, a 3-5 page paper will have many variables that simply do not exist in something like a True/False, Matching, Fill-in-the-Blank, Multiple Choice type of scenario.
As people, we like to know whether we are right or wrong, so in one sense, we want the more objective test. Most students do not like essays. And yet essays are truly easier – you only have to study a couple of items deeply as opposed to studying and memorizing many different items, most of which are soon forgotten. But even if most students like the more objective tests, they like the flexibility of negotiating when the grading is not as clear-cut as True/False, for instance.
One part of the problem for us is that we project the same ideas onto God. We put God into a subjective situation. We think that God should think like us. Particularly, if we “know” the Bible and if we are “Christian” then we think God should follow along with our thought processes. But here is the problem with that…if you have ever talked with someone else who “knows” the Bible and is a “Christian” then you will know that not all of them agree perfectly. In fact, we disagree on a lot. So, if God is supposed to fall in-line with our thinking, is that my thinking, your thinking, or the thinking of the person in the church down the road or half-way around the world?
Now, the good news is that we are not alone, so we have an example from which to learn. The Israelites thought the same thing. They knew the Old Testament and therefore thought they knew God well enough to know what God should do. But as Paul showed the Israelites then, and in turn shows us today, is that God does not answer to us.
Remember, our series title is Life in the Spirit. That means that our life is to be directed by the Spirit. But that is not just any spirit, it is the Spirit of God. Thus, we answer to God, not the other way around.
The truth is God can do what He wants because God is God, and we are not.
We may not like that fact. Certainly, the Jews during Paul’s time did not. And their beef was the God had apparently betrayed His people. But had He? Let’s see what Paul wrote and then apply it to the 21st Century as well.
We can summarize this message with one sentence from this passage. It is a quote from the Old Testament (Exodus 33.19), when God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9.14). Paul shares this quote from the Old Testament to show that God is not unjust. In fact, as God, He cannot be unjust. God is God. We are not. That is the beginning and the end of the story.
But because we don’t understand what God is doing, and often times we may like what He is doing, we complain. We may even shake our fist at God. However we may act, the fact that God is God and we are not does not change.
As I mentioned last week, Paul is trying to show His fellow countrymen that God is trustworthy. They claim God has breached His promise to them, so in this set of verses, Paul uses three different stories that would have been well-known to any Israelite/Jew and several passages from their Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) to show that what God is doing is nothing new. They just need to change their understanding of what they thought they believed.
First, Paul needs to clarify a primary argument that the Jews would have made. If you remember from last week, Paul said that the Israelites had every right to claim their place as descendants of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). So, Paul begins there.
Their argument was that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. But Paul reminds them that Abraham was the father of Ishmael as well as Isaac. The promise of the covenant carried through to Isaac, not to Ishmael. Certainly, Ishmael received blessings from God and was the father of a great nation as well, but he was not the recipient of the covenant promise that God gave to Abraham.
But the cynical Jew could have said, “Ok, Paul. Abraham may have been the father to both, but we all know that Ishmael was the son of the Egyptian slave woman Hagar. That disqualified Ishmael from the promise as he was not a born from the wife of Abraham.”
So, Paul shared the next part of the story. In turning to Isaac, Paul reminded the reader that God told Rebekah, Isaac’s wife (and of the right bloodline), that “the older will serve the younger.” In other words, God had already made His choice about which of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob, would be the fulfillment of the promise and for that matter would be more prominent. God made this declaration to Rebekah before the twins were born, so His choice had nothing to do with whether or not they were good or bad. It was merely God’s choice.
At this point, Paul must have had their attention. So, he adds another story to show that God is not unjust. Again, the next story would have been well-known and well-celebrated (in fact, it was celebrated formally once each year at Passover). The story was of Pharaoh and the Israelites. The Old Testament said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Of course, it also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. And, so, the debate is did God cause Pharaoh to harden his heart, and if so, is that fair?
Well, that is the issue that Paul is addressing, and this is where Paul used the quote from Exodus I mentioned above. The quote comes after the Israelites have been freed, but it does fit the context of Paul’s argument here. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9.14). God had mercy on the Israelites, and did not on the Egyptians. It was God’s choice – just like He chose Jacob over Esau and Isaac over Ishmael. And because Paul is reminding the readers in Rome of this glorious moment in Israel’s history, they were not likely to balk – yet! (In Tuesday’s video this week, I talk a little bit more about the complexity of this section of Scripture.)
At this point, Paul continues to refer to some verses from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to the Jews. But in doing so, He turns the tables on them. Big time!
In verse 24, Paul states that God called the Gentiles not just the Jews. He shows this by using a passage that originally was meant for the people of Israel. In verses 25-26, Paul quoted from Hosea using the familiar story of God speaking about the people being “not my people” but then coming my people and ultimately becoming “sons of God.” Again, that verse was originally for the people of Israel, but it is now true for the Gentiles.
And finally, to add insult to injury, Paul likens Israel to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah – those towns that were destroyed because of their evil deeds and thoughts. The Israelites thought that the Gentiles were guilty of such evil, but Paul quotes from Isaiah (so these words are not his own) to show that God had spoken of Israel as unworthy in the past.
The words might have stung the people of Israel. But we must remember, God is God. He can and will do what He wants. But what He wants will always bring Him glory (vv. 22-23). And part of bringing God glory in their past was to have mercy on Israel. And part of bringing glory to God in Paul’s day was to have mercy on the Gentiles. Like with Isaac, and with Jacob, and with Pharaoh, God chose His path and made it happen. God hardened Pharaoh to bring salvation to His chosen people. But now He has hardened that group of people so that we, the Gentiles, could have salvation.
And who are we to argue? In fact, when we think about it, why does God choose any of us? In Psalm 8, the psalmist asks who is man that God should even think about us? But God does more than think about us. He offers us mercy. Yes, some people, like Pharaoh, are chosen for alternative purposes, but if we look at Romans 9.22, we can see that God is patient even with those who are against Him. He could destroy any of us at any time, but He is patient. And more than being patient, He is merciful. And more than being merciful, He is a God of love. And because of that, God, who is also gracious, made a way for us to be with Him.
Remember, God did not have to make a way for us. He chose to do so. And when we realize that God has been merciful to us, we must respond in praise. He could have made you a bug that gets squashed. He could have made you a cow that gets eaten. He could have made you a human that never heard about Him. He could have made you His enemy – like Pharaoh. But if you are watching or listening, your chance to hear about God (and even hear from God) are because of His mercy, regardless of how you may respond.
So, how will you respond? The majestic God who could do anything because He is the sovereign Lord, chose you to hear this message today…and presumably for you to follow Him. What is your response?
Many people want God to be fair. But He does not have to be. To be merciful to one person and not to another may not seem fair to us, but God is God, and we are not.
I often hear people say, God is still in control. Well, if that is true, then He can do whatever He wants. He is not in control like we might think of a boss; God is in control as the one who created the universe. And although we, as humans, like to have control, and want to think we are in control, we aren’t. Again, God is God, and we are not.
At the beginning of this message, I talked about grading. One of the ways that more subjective material like essays and papers can be graded more objectively is by using a rubric. A rubric is simply a tool for measuring performance, and it can almost make a paper like a multiple-choice quiz.
Well, God has two rubrics. The first rubric is about authority. It has two columns. One says God, one says man. In the area of authority, God scores perfectly, and man does not.
The other rubric has to do with Jesus. Again, the rubric has two columns, one says Yes and the other says No. For those that choose Yes, the rubric says we pass and will spend eternity with God. For those who say No, the rubric says fail and eternity will be separate from God.
Again, we may not always think that is fair, but God is God, and we are not. God’s mercy is His to give. We cannot force Him to do what He will not do.
But God is more just than any of us. And I can tell you that sometimes a student will not score well on an assignment and they will petition their teacher. I have recently experienced this issue. I graded the student by the rubric I created, and he did not do well. Some of the other students did very well, while a few others did not fare much better than the one I just mentioned. But he asked for help. He asked for mercy. The others did not.
I followed the rubric. He got the grade he deserved. But because he asked, I was willing to give him another opportunity. And in the re-evaluation of the assignment, his grade was changed. I did not have to make the change, but I chose to do so. I chose to have mercy on him.
Of course, God is far superior to me. But if I know anything about mercy, it is because I know a merciful God. And I also know that nothing I could do could convince God to change my grade. But I don’t have to make that plea; I just have to receive what has already been offered. God has already made the choice. The question is, how will I respond? What choice will I make? What choice will you make?
What’s Next?: We can begin by praising God for being merciful to us. We can continue by sharing with others the story of what the magnificent and merciful God has done for mankind. In a world in need of hope, the truth about a merciful God sending a Savior is the greatest hope we can know.