As I have been reading through Genesis the past couple of weeks, something has become clear to me as the story line has progressed. We all know the story of Jacob and Esau, well, at least some of you reading might. As Paul says and properly interprets of this story in the latter part of Genesis, particularly as he says it in Romans 9:10-13, “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”
Now of course everyone’s first immediate reaction to Romans 9 on election in particular is that this story of Jacob and Esau Paul cites is talking about God electing their temporal lots in life, not their eternal lots. And even then, the election spoken of, so goes the popular thought, is one of groups of people, not individual people, that is the election of Israel instead of Edom, as opposed to Jacob and Esau. That is at least how most people immediately interpret it nowadays, so as to lighten the hardness of the verses that come after these later in Romans 9.
In the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis, Jacob receives the blessing from his father Isaac and Esau receives none of it. But then later we come to the point where Jacob and Esau meet after having been apart for a while, in Genesis 33. Jacob is afraid Esau will take his life for reasons we will not go into right now. But they meet and nothing happens to Jacob. Jacob speaks to his brother Esau as if he was his servant in saying that he is attempting, “To find favor in the sight of my lord,” (Genesis 36:8) as if Esau was in authority over him, something I find interesting in light of God’s electing proclamation to Rebekah that, “The older will serve the younger.”
But after this point, later on in the text, is where I noticed something interesting in Genesis 36:6-8, which says, “Then Esau took his wives, his sons, his daughters, and all the members of his household, his livestock, all his beasts, and all his property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan. He went into a land away from his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too great for them to dwell together. The land of their sojournings could not support them because of their livestock.”
Did you catch it? Well, if not, Jacob and Esau were both blessed, to the point where they had to depart from each, for they couldn’t support their own possessions because they had so much; live stock, property and so on. Hmm. Both were made into nations. Both were blessed with a great abundance of possessions and family, descendants. So what has become of the blessing to Jacob, made by his father Isaac? It seems to be the same as that of Esau. They both, at least according to the world’s materialistic standards, have been blessed; possessions, inter-family relationships, almost any way you can think of. Except one: spiritual blessing, the blessing of Promise, the Promise that would be fulfilled and brought to fruition in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Promise made to Abraham, Moses, David and the Prophets.
You see, for the Jew, the greatest blessing of Promise, of all that you could possibly receive, is that wondrous proclamation of God in Numbers 6:24, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” This theme is repeated throughout the Old Testament. To the Jew this is the greatest possible blessing: that the Lord would make His face to shine upon you forever, enjoying His presence and the essence of who He is, forever. This is the very thing Moses sought of God in Exodus 33, “Please Lord,” he says, “Show me Your glory!” This is the very thing God could not grant Moses at that time, because he would have died instantly. But this is the very thing that all believers from all time will indeed enjoy forever: God Himself. We shall no longer see Him through a mirror dimly. We shall see Him face to face.
With that as a back drop, what do you think is the blessing Jacob received that Esau did not? Clearly Esau did not get short-changed on stuff, children and family. In fact, when Jacob asked Esau if he wanted some of his stuff, Esau replies in Genesis 33:9, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” What else could it be but that God’s eternal rest, His promise according to the election of grace, would rest on Jacob and not Esau? That the sure promise God made to Abraham, that He would make him the father of many nations, the blessing itself appropriated through the work of Christ, would land on Jacob and not Esau, by God’s unconditional choice alone, not according to their works, either good or bad? “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'” (Romans 9:10-13) Is that not the very implication Paul himself makes in this passage? Was Paul himself not a Jew, formerly a Pharisee of Pharisees, who would have understood even more so than other Jews the greatest possible blessing that one could receive from God?
In Romans 9:1-5, Paul makes a lament over his fellow brethren according to the flesh who have rejected Jesus Christ, their Messiah, and are as a result, condemned under the wrath of God. This lament of Paul’s truly climaxes when he says he wishes he himself “were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] brothers.” (Romans 9:3) Now that is a lament if I have ever heard one. Good grief. The problem Paul is addressing in chapters 9-11 is that in light of the grandiose, wondrous statements of Romans 8, that God’s promises never fail to His people regardless of the circumstances, what are we to make of the promises to Israel, God’s chosen people? A majority of them had rejected Jesus and are condemned to hell unless they repent and trust in Jesus alone. What in the world? “God, you just said your promises never fail. But it sure does look like they have failed in light of Your chosen people’s condemnation.” That’s the problem. And it’s a huge one for us Gentile believers too (the very one’s in Rome who the letter was written to to start with). Is God trustworthy in light of this information or not?
Yes He is trustworthy, even to Israel, for His promises never fail. Right? In Christian culture, we really like to throw around the phrase, “God is in control,” especially in times of difficulty or when we mourn over the salvation of a friend or relative, that they are blinded to the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6) Yet we often say this without thinking through the implications of such a statement.
What does it mean for God to be “in control?” Romans 9:6-11:36 is Paul’s defense of God’s trustworthiness, particularly as it relates to Israel. The verse that starts out this lengthy defense is verse 6, which says, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” So it is God who chooses whom to bless, not based upon lineage, looks, smarts, spirituality, works, “foreseen faith” or any other thing within the person.
It is not far after this that Paul then uses the story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate and hone his point even further that “not all Israel is Israel.” The story makes it unbelievably clear that God does not choose who to bless with salvation, or the “blessing,”according to anything seen within the person; no works, not even foreseen faith, for no such thing is ever spoken or expounded upon in the Scriptures. This includes Romans 8:28-30, as the word “foreknew” is a knowing of persons, not facts about persons.
So what’s my point with all of this? Romans 9, God’s electing grace, His unconditional election, is 1) a hard truth to wrap your mind around, and 2) let alone accept. That God would choose whom to undeservingly bless for all eternity through the blood of His Son and whom to passover and leave to deserved condemnation, rubs us sinners the wrong way, even us redeemed sinners. Because we live in a culture of positivity (that positive thinking can solve all your problems), Romans 9 is a saw mill. The church, to a great degree, is soaked in this positive thinking and as soon as you bring in Romans 9, it cuts against the grain, hard.
Unfortunately, what you have nowadays in the church are pastors and teachers who just can’t handle the difficulty of these passages and will reshape these verses of deep importance so as not to offend the hearer. Paul’s use of the story of Jacob and Esau is exactly one of these stories. They say he is simply asserting that God chose Jacob not Esau in relation to possessions and land. And then they will say He chose them based upon what they did, how they responded. You see? The hardness is totally taken away now by such an interpretation. “Okay, time to move on to a more uplifting passage.”
However, the text, when really dealt with in all its potency, doing the work it takes to trod through its difficulty for your own soul, in submission to the infallible text of Scripture in such a revelation of God, yields the amazing benefit of delighting in the true meaning of God’s grace: undeserved, unconditional, unmerited favor by God’s right hand through the cross; and this put into effect by the Holy Spirit in creating belief where there was formerly none. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7) Does this not included the gift of faith? From where else does our faith arise? Out of our dead, sinful natures, in bondage to sin? I think not. God’s grace precedes and effects faith in the unbelievers’ soul. When seeing this reality in the Scriptures, it sets the backdrop of God’s power, sovereignty and holiness, so that seeing God’s love in Christ toward you, a sinner, you really take a step back with tears and come to see as never before that God’s love is truly Amazing Grace.