When I think about Paul, I tend to think of him as God’s chosen apostle to the Gentiles – which is what he was. But just because Paul was commissioned by Jesus to tell the world at large about the good news doesn’t mean that he ever forgot his own people. In Acts, we read that wherever he went, he tended to first approach the synagogue, where he tried to convince the Jews that Jesus truly is the Christ, the Son of God. And here in Romans 8, we read of the depth of Paul’s longing that his own people be saved.
After all, the Israelite nation had many privileges that should have resulted in a vast multitude of them accepting God’s good news. They are God’s adopted children, God had revealed his glory to them, made covenants with them, given them his law, allowed them to worship him, gave them his promises. They were descended from patriarchs who walked with God. Jesus himself – as for his human nature – was an Israelite. And he is God eternal! Surely all of Israel should have delighted in Christ?
But they didn’t – and they don’t. Does that mean that God’s promise to them has failed. No. Being an Israelite has always been about more than just DNA. It’s been about God’s mercy and God’s choice. God’s promise wasn’t to all of Abraham’s physical descendants, just as Jacob was loved and Esau hated. But isn’t that unfair? Not if you think about it. By rights, we all deserve death. And if God has mercy on some, that doesn’t change for the rest. He is still fair.
But what about when we read of God hardening hearts – like he did to Pharaoh. Is God just a puppet-master, who then blames his puppets for not acting contrary to his commands? It’s a good question, and I tend to struggle a bit with Paul’s answer. In effect, Paul says that God has the right to do what he likes. And in fact, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls. Why? To highlight his glory even more when he shows mercy on those prepared in advance for glory. I struggle a bit because I want to know why God does what he does. When I think about it – I want to judge whether it’s right or not. I want to play God. Forgive me, Father. I am not God – you are.
Is Paul here preaching a predestinarian position: that those whom God has prepared in advance for glory will be shown mercy, and those God has prepared in advance for destruction will not? There seems to be an element of that here. Certainly, we know that God has chosen many Gentiles to be his children.
But the key – as always – comes back to trust. Only those who trust in God are shown his mercy. Perhaps we need to let God be God – and be accountable for how we respond to his patience and his love. Either I will choose to respond with trust – or I will not. I might try – as Israel did – to make God happy by keeping the law. But to do that is to stumble over the Jesus who offers unmeritted grace – and crash to the ground.
Father, I don’t understand everything you do. I don’t know why you would show mercy to some and not to others. But I know that you have offered mercy to me. And that your offer of mercy is available to other. I know that you don’t want any to perish – and that’s why you are so patient. Lord – give me a heart like Paul’s for my neighbours and families. Please, save my friends and family who don’t know you. Thank you for saving me. Thank you so much.