Did the Promises of God Fail?
The promises of God are essentially those given to Abraham. It was about the calling to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). It was not about an exclusive right to be blessed by God, but was instead the calling of stewardship to distribute those blessings to all men.
This was the original Birthright. It was divided into two main parts when Jacob-Israel blessed his sons. In Genesis 49:10 God separated the Scepter from the rest of the Birthright, giving the Scepter to Judah and the Birthright to Joseph. Hence, we read in 1 Chron. 5:1, 2,
1 Now the sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel (for he was the first-born, but because he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright. 2 Though Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came the leader, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph).
There was a third part of this original Birthright that we ought to mention, although the passage above does not see fit to list it. It is the priesthood, which was given to Levi. This priesthood of Levi was never really separated from the Scepter of Judah, because when Israel separated itself from Judah, the priests of Levi remained in the temple in Jerusalem that was the capital of Judah. Hence, God did not see fit to distinguish the priesthood as a separate item.
Nonetheless, all three parts were to be reunified under the headship of Jesus Christ. When He came as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah to claim His Scepter and throne, He also obtained the priesthood. As a Judahite, He was not eligible to be a priest after the Levitical Order, but instead He became the high priest after the Order of Melchizedek. Heb. 7:14-17 says,
14 For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. 15 And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, 16 who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. 17 For it is witnessed of Him, "Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek."
The first coming of Christ gave Him both the Scepter and the Priesthood. The priests and leaders of the day disputed His right to receive those callings, yet He qualified by doing the works that were required of the King and the High Priest.
The dispute will be settled on earth at the time of the second coming of Christ, when He comes to claim the Birthright of Joseph. Hence, in Rev. 19:13 we read that "He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood," which identifies Him with Joseph—the only man in Scripture whose robe was dipped in blood. See Genesis 37:31.
At Christ's second manifestation, He and His Body will assume the full authority of the unified Birthright, so that they will be able to fulfill the calling of Abraham. Then will all the nations desire to learn of His ways and of His Law (Is. 2:2-4), and we will see the greatest outpouring of Truth and Spirit that has ever been seen in the history of the world.
Meanwhile, however, the loss of the tribes of Joseph gave the appearance of the loss and failure of the Birthright itself. Paul also understood that Judah's rejection of Christ would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of Judea.
It looked as if all of the promises of God were failing. Both Israel and Judah had apparently failed in their callings. Israel was long gone, carrying with them the Birthright of Joseph. The nation of Judah (Judea) was soon to be cast out and dispersed as well, so to many it appeared that the Scepter of Judah would be lost too.
Because of this, Paul was very concerned about the promises of God being fulfilled. Were these promises really lost? Had God indeed cast off His people? Were these dispersions permanent? How would it turn out in the end? These are the great questions of Paul's day. Paul knew the answer, and it is revealed in Romans 9-11.
Paul's Kinsmen According to Flesh
Romans 9:1-5 says,
1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons [huiothesia] and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Because of Paul's friction with the Jews and with the Christian Judaizers, he found it almost necessary to swear an oath that he was telling the truth. He loved his own "kinsmen according to the flesh." He did not hate them. No doubt many had accused him brutally of going against all of the traditions of the elders. His inclusiveness of all men as equal citizens of the Kingdom struck at the heart of Judaism itself, which considered itself more privileged than others.
And yet, after telling us that nothing could separate us from the love of God, he confessed a willingness to be "separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren." If that could indeed cause them to be united with Christ, he would have been willing to sacrifice himself on their behalf.
Responsibilities of Being Married to God
The glaring truth was that the Israelites as a whole (both Israel and Judah) had come under divine judgment. God had warned Israel in Lev. 26 and Deut. 28 that He would do this if they persisted in violating His Law and rejecting His rule. These are the Laws of Tribulation, where God vowed to cast them out if they persisted in violating His Covenant with them.
In fact, it was precisely because they had been "chosen" and had been given the Law that they were more accountable to God than the other nations. Amos 3:2 says,
2 You only have I known among all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities.
Israel alone had been married to God (at Sinai) and enjoyed an intimate relationship with Him. This marital relationship was designed to bear fruit by producing the sons of God. But instead, they had committed adultery with other gods by worshiping them and adhering to their laws.
That marriage, of course, had been based upon the Old Covenant, so it was destined to fail from the beginning. As Paul explains in Galatians 4, the only way to bring forth the heirs of the promise would be through the New Covenant. The two relationships are described in terms of Hagar and Sarah and their differing marriage relationships with Abraham.
So Paul tells us that Israel possessed the huiothesia, "the adoption as sons," and all of the promises of God. Yet we know that the sons of God could only be brought forth through Christ and through a New Covenant (Sarah) relationship with Him. The Israelites as a whole did not have that kind of relationship with Him. In fact, the vast majority had rejected Him outright in His pre-existent state as Yahweh. Likewise, the remnant of Judah in first-century Palestine had rejected Christ in His bodily form.
Not All Israelites are Israelites by God's Definition
Paul continues in Romans 9:6, 7,
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "through Isaac your descendants will be named."
There are many views as to what Paul meant by not all being Israel who are of Israel. Fortunately, we do not need to speculate, because Paul immediately explained what he meant. He based his view on the "text" of Gen. 21:12. In that context, we find that the promise was to Isaac—excluding Ishmael. Ishmael was indeed descended from Abraham, but he was not counted as the "seed." He was not the heir of the promise.
Ishmael was the product of an Old Covenant relationship through Hagar. Ishmael must always be cast out in the end (Gal. 4:30), even though he attempts to lay claim to the Birthright on account of physical descent from Abraham. Ishmael was disqualified, not because of his father, but because of his mother ("the bondwoman"), who was not called to bring forth the heir.
8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: "At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son."
In Galatians 4:28 and 29 Paul refers to Isaac as the child of promise, and Ishmael as being a child of the flesh.
28 And you, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh [Ishmael] persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit [Isaac], so it is now also.
Ishmael was born by natural childbirth. Isaac was born supernaturally by promise when his mother was 90 years old and beyond child-bearing age. Hagar was a bondwoman, while Sarah was a free woman. Their marriage relationships with Abraham were different and were prophetic allegories of the Old and New Covenants. The whole idea was to show that the Old Covenant relationship with God could never bring forth the promised heirs, the sons of God.
Hence, Paul concludes that physical descent from Abraham does not make an Israelite. He proves it by pointing to Ishmael, and by extension, he points to all of the unbelievers of the tribes of Israel and Judah throughout biblical history. God cast out ALL of the tribes of Israel, even as He had done with Ishmael.
Children of the flesh are not "the seed of Abraham," for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. They never were. They never will be. This did not change at the cross. It was so from the start.
Paul tells us clearly that the principle also applied to Judaism, which had rejected the Mediator of the New Covenant. By remaining under the Old Covenant (Hagar), the adherents of Judaism could claim only a fleshly relationship with Abraham and under those conditions could never inherit the promises or bring forth "Isaac."
Such "Ishmaelites" could only be cast out along with their mother, the Old Covenant. The fact that Israel had been cast out of the land from 721-745 B.C. proved that the Israelites' spiritual mother too was Hagar, not Sarah, regardless of their physical genealogy. Likewise, the fact that Jerusalem and its temple was about to be cast out proved Hagar to be Judah's mother as well.
Hence, not all who were descended physically from Abraham or from the man named Israel were actually Israelites by God's definition of the term. A true Israelite is one who can claim Sarah as their mother, not in a carnal sense, but in the sense that Paul understood in Galatians 4.
In other words, no one is an Israelite apart from Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant. One cannot claim automatic chosen status on account of genealogy. And conversely, any man can come under the New Covenant through Jesus Christ and be equally chosen as an Israelite citizen in the Kingdom of God.
These are the heirs that will fulfill the promises of God. The Law has always cast out genealogical Israelites if they refused to repent for their rebellion against God. Likewise, the Law has always allowed "strangers" to adhere to the covenants of God and live as equal citizens in the land (Isaiah 56:3-7).
John the Baptist said the same in Matthew 3:8, 9,
8 Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father;" for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Paul gives us examples from the book of Genesis, proving that not all of Israel are truly Israel, nor are all of Abraham's descendants actually "children" (sons of God). It requires more than a genealogical connection.
Some have argued that Ishmael was not a son because his genealogy was tainted through Hagar, the Egyptian. Yet Joseph's sons had an Egyptian mother (Gen. 41:50). Asenath was the daughter of an Egyptian priest. We are not told explicitly that she was an Egyptian, but it is clear that she was not an Israelite.
The same holds true with Moses' wife, Zipporah, who was the daughter of the priest of Midian (Ex. 2:21). This marriage did not disqualify Moses' sons from being full-fledged Israelites, as long as they retained faith in God and were obedient to His Law.
Jacob and Esau
Paul then brings up a second example. Jacob and Esau had the exact genealogy, since they were twins (Gen. 25:24). In this case, Jacob was the "son" and Esau was not. Obviously, the biblical idea of Sonship is something that goes beyond physical genealogy. Romans 9:10-12 reads,
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father, Isaac; 11 (for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls) 12 it was said to her, "The older will serve the younger."
Verse 11 is a parenthetical clause, designed to introduce the idea of the sovereignty of God that he develops in his example of Pharaoh later. But if we focus upon verses 10 and 12, we are able to see that Rebekah's twin sons, Jacob and Esau, were similar to Isaac and Ishmael, in that they were examples of God's sovereign choices as to who would be considered the "son" (heir).
Though Isaac and Ishmael had different mothers, Jacob and Esau came from the same mother. Hence, we can see that God's rejection of Esau had nothing to do with tainted genealogy. In fact, God made His choice before they had done either good or bad.
In the example of Jacob and Esau, Paul moved quickly from the spiritual nature of Sonship to its basis in the sovereignty of God. The fact that God had made His choice before the twins had done good or evil shows that this was not a matter of divine judgment for sin. Some have said that God judged Esau because He knew ahead of time that he would turn out bad; but God's Law does not judge men for future (potential) sins.
Paul was saying that because Jacob was chosen, God then trained Jacob and arranged the circumstances in his life to bring him to the place where he could become an heir worthy of the promise. When he reached that point, his name was changed to Israel as a testimony of his matured character and recognition of the sovereignty of God.
Esau was not trained in this way. In fact, God used Esau to train Jacob. Esau was an integral part of the divine plan. Because of their sibling rivalry, Jacob had been a "heel-catcher," as his name indicated (Gen. 25:26). Thayer's Lexicon gives us the meaning of Jacob's name: to supplant, circumvent, take by the heel, follow at the heel, assail insidiously, overreach.
It was a prophecy that Jacob would supplant Esau in the matter of the Birthright. The word had a negative connotation, because it showed that he would supplant Esau by manipulation and cunning, or "assail insidiously," as the Lexicon puts it. And so, as long as he was named Jacob, he was trying to supplant Esau by manipulation, thinking that God needed help from the flesh to make the prophecy come true.
How Jacob Became an Israelite
Jacob was not born an Israelite. It was only after Jacob finally lost the wrestling match with the angel in Gen. 32:24-28 that he "prevailed" (became an overcomer). He won, not by overcoming the angel, but by recognizing the weakness of his flesh. He persisted because he finally came to recognize the sovereignty of God. The name Israel was a testimony of God's sovereignty, for it means "God rules." Dr. Bullinger's notes on Gen. 32:28 say:
Israel = "God commands, orders, or rules." Man attempts it but always, in the end, fails. Out of some forty Hebrew names compounded with "El" or "Jah", God is always the doer of what the verb means (cp. Dani-el, God judges).
Jacob had wrestled with his brother since the womb. After the twins were grown, he struggled against Esau and managed to obtain the Birthright. He struggled again and obtained the blessing of the Dominion Mandate. When he fled to Haran, he struggled against Laban and won again. Then he came to the place where he knew that Esau was coming with 400 men to kill him (Gen. 32:6). He had no defense. So he divided up his family into two camps, and then went out alone to pray.
Suddenly, he came upon a man in the dark, and they began to fight. I have no doubt that the angel had taken the appearance of Esau and that Jacob really thought he was fighting his brother. Toward morning, however, the angel did something supernatural, which identified him as an angel. That was the moment of truth. All of his life, Jacob thought he had been fighting Esau, when, in fact, he had been fighting God all along.
When Jacob recognized the sovereignty of God and understood that all of his manipulation and scheming to obtain the Birthright was not a manifestation of faith but of flesh, he became a new man. He was reborn and came into a position of rest. He no longer wrestled with the angel but simply hung on to him and asked for the real blessing.
The next day, when Jacob met Esau, he saw his brother in a whole new light: "I see your face as one sees the face of God" (Gen. 33:10). In other words, he was finally able to see God in Esau. When we are able to see the face of God in our enemies, then we know the sovereignty of God. When we understand that God needs no help from our flesh to fulfill His word, His promises, and His prophecies, then we "prevail" as overcomers and are worthy to carry the name Israel.
Genesis 32:29-31 says,
29 Then Jacob asked him [the angel] and said, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved."
The angel was not trying to be secretive about his name. He expected Jacob to know, because it was obvious. "So Jacob named the place Peniel," because that was the name of the angel. The name means "God's face" or "God's presence." It was the same angel that brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt many years later (Isaiah 63:9).
Jacob had a face-to-face encounter with Peniel, the angel of God's "face," but during most of the night, he thought he was fighting Esau. He wrestled until he finally saw the face of God in the one he thought was Esau. So the next morning, when he actually saw Esau, he said, "I see your face as one sees the face of God."
This is the revelation that transformed Jacob into an Israelite. He had not been born an Israelite. He had been born Jacob, not Israel. In the flesh, he was a mere supplanter, a heel-catcher. But finally at the age of 98, he became an overcomer, a son, a true heir of the Birthright.
Jacob was like Ishmael—a child of the flesh. But Israel was like Isaac, a child of promise. This shows us that the heirs of the promise are not chosen on account of genealogy, but on account of their relationship with God.
So in Paul's discussion of Sonship, he shows by three examples that it is not based upon the flesh: (1) Ishmael vs. Isaac, (2) Esau vs. Jacob, and (3) Jacob vs. Israel. All three examples teach us a different aspect of the story. In understanding all three stories, we have a complete view.
Paul's discussion of "sonship" is not about physical genealogy. The term obviously refers to being the particular son who is the heir of the Birthright. There could be just one heir in each generation, and all the other brothers were excluded, regardless of their genealogy. Joseph received the Birthright and was therefore the "fruitful son" in Gen. 49:22. (The Hebrew word ben is translated "bough" in the KJV, but it means "a son.")
Joseph's brothers shared in the blessings of the Birthright only if they were in unity with Joseph, the heir. Joseph's sons were given the name Israel in Gen. 48:16, because Israel is the Birthright name—that is, it identifies the heir of the Birthright as did Joseph's coat of many colors.
Jesus Christ is the final Heir of Joseph, and His brethren are co-heirs with Him only because of their relationship with Him. If they reject Him and are separated from Him, they are not heirs. Therefore, such people are not even Israelites insofar as God views them.
Paul says that the sovereignty of God alone determines who is the one chosen to receive the Birthright. Jesus Christ was the "Anointed One" from the beginning, called to inherit all things. One must be in unity with Him and in agreement with Him to have any part of the Birthright or to be one of the "chosen people."
The pattern in Scripture shows us that the Birthright was divided among Jacob's children. Judah received the Scepter, and Joseph was given the rest of the Birthright (1 Chron. 5:1, 2). The brothers all received benefit from the callings of both Judah and Joseph as long as they were in unity. But centuries later, when the kingdom was divided, the Scepter remained with Judah in the south, while the Birthright remained with the tribes of Joseph in the north (1 Chron. 5:1, 2).
This breach ensured that Jesus Christ—the Heir of all things—would have to come twice. So He came the first time of the tribe of Judah and the lineage of David to secure His right to receive the Scepter; and He must return again—this time of Joseph with His robe dipped in blood—in order to secure the Birthright.
This division was tragic as far as the will of God was concerned; but it was in accordance with the divine plan from the beginning through His sovereignty. This division allowed believers the same time of training that Jacob received. Those who believe in Christ and in His work of death and resurrection are true believers. It makes them Jacobites, for they have faith in God but are still in need of training.
Those who complete their training, as Jacob did, become Israelites (that is, overcomers). These are co-heirs with Christ insofar as the Birthright is concerned.
Another way to look at it is this: Being a believer in Christ's work on the cross allows us to fulfill the feast of Passover, for His crucifixion was a Passover work. Completing our training brings us to that final biblical feast—Tabernacles. The path from Passover to Tabernacles runs through Pentecost. Pentecost celebrates the writing of the Law upon our hearts, and the time of Pentecost is our training period.
If we are truly "chosen" as Israelite overcomers, we ought to see evidence of God's training in our lives. Such training is greatly assisted by knowing the Scriptures, particularly the divine plan as revealed in the feasts. Ultimately, the choices of God rest in His hands alone, but the earthly evidence revealing His choices are seen by the fact that He is training us.
God trained Jacob. We have no evidence that God trained Esau.