Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Romans 9:1-13 —
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 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. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
For many years, we have come to this second and last weekend of our annual Global Missions focus and at the end of the services called for some of you to come to the front of the room, on all campuses, and be prayed for—that God would clarify and confirm your sense of God’s call into long-term, cross-cultural missions, especially among peoples with little or no Christian witness. I will invite you to do that again at the end of this service. I mention it now so that you can be praying about whether you should come.
You know what we believe: There are goers, there are senders, and there are the disobedient. Both goers and senders are precious in God’s sight and are essential to the overall mission of the church. And of course, because of the brokenness of our culture, and the lostness of our families and our neighbors, the challenges to the senders are great. But the focus today is on the goers to the peoples of the world whose opportunities to hear the good news of Christ are little or nothing.
A Call for Long-Term Cross-Cultural Missionaries
I am praying that today will be one of those decisive moments in many of your lives (people in their 60s or 50s or 40s or 30s or 20s or teens or children)—one of those moments when all that God has been doing in your life will distill into a compelling sense that, unless he shows otherwise, you are moving toward the nations. I’m not talking here about short-term missions, though we believe in the value of that with all our heart. The call today is for those who sense that God’s leading toward long-term, cross-cultural missions has become compelling to the degree that you are moving this direction unless he shows you otherwise.
Living to Reach Unbelievers
This sermon is not an exposition of Romans 9:1–13, but a thematic explanation from Genesis about where the truth of Romans 9 comes from. The title of the message today is “How the Offspring of Isaac Blesses the Sons of Ishmael.” Here’s the background and meaning of that title. It may be that even as we speak the population of the planet is passing seven billion. Of those seven billion, well over a billion are Muslims.
And as you know, tens of thousands live in our neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. And we are glad that they have come.
Biblical Christians don’t have a parochial mindset that wants to keep non-Christians out of our neighborhoods. Christians have a kingdom mindset that rejoices when King Jesus brings non-Christians, who once had been far away, near to the gospel. Christians don’t live to escape unbelievers; we live to reach unbelievers. Across the ocean and across the street.
Putting Fire in the Furnace of Your Dreams
Islam is a massive reality in our day, and our crucified, risen, and reigning Lord Jesus is ready and able to lead his people into a mission of love to reach the Muslim peoples of the world. But even though there is a conscious reference to Muslims in this message, don’t think it relates only to Muslims. The point of Romans 9, and of this message, is that God elects and calls sinners unconditionally—no Jewishness and no Muslim identity constrains or prevents his election and call. So this message is meant to put fire in the furnace of your dreams that God can use you to win the ones you are called to reach.
Islam and “the Sons of Ishmael”
Here’s the meaning of the title “How the Offspring of Isaac Blesses the Sons of Ishmael.” Historically, the original Muslims viewed themselves as the descendants of Ishmael, the first son of Abraham. Mohammed traced his own line back through Arab peoples to the princes and tribes born to Ishmael. God says to Abraham in Genesis 17:20,
As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.
Those princes are named in Genesis 25:12–18. So when I refer to the “Sons of Ishmael,” that is simply a shorthand for Muslims, in accord with one of their own self-understandings. And, of course, I don’t mean to imply that there is anything automatic about the connection between being Arabic and being Muslim. A person might be Muslim and non-Arabic, and a person might be Arabic and non-Muslim. But in general, Muslims trace their blessing back to Abraham and his covenant through Ishmael.
Abraham’s Offspring and the Blessing for All Families
But with Jews and Christians, it is very different. The book of Genesis teaches that God did not see Ishmael as the heir through which the promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. God had told Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And that was unfolded in Genesis 17:7–8 like this:
I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. . . . And I will be their God.
So God promises that there would be an heir and that through this heir there would be a people who will have the God of Abraham as their God. There will be a people through this heir who will be saved—will belong to God forever. God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:27)! That’s the promise Abraham received. Through him and his heir, salvation would come to all the families of the earth.
The story of fulfillment unfolds like this.
A Son Born to a Barren Wife
In Genesis 15, Abraham complains to God that he is old and he has no son and that his slave Eliezer will be his heir. God says in Genesis 15:4, “Your very own son shall be your heir.” Abraham could not see how this could be, since Sarah, his wife, was barren and old.
So he and Sarah agreed to get a son their own way, by using Hagar, the handmaid of Sarah. So Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham, and in Genesis 16:16, Hagar has a son by Abraham, Ishmael, when Abraham is 86 years old. Now Abraham thought he had the offspring he needed for the promise to come true.
But in Genesis 17, when Abraham is 99 years old and Sarah is 90, God says no. In Genesis 17:18, Abraham cries out to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” And God says in verse 19, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”
God’s Promise to Abraham—God’s Way
In other words, God makes plain that the people of promise will come not through an offspring that represents human effort and human achievement—Ishmael—but through a seed that represents supernatural miracle and utterly free action on God’s part—Isaac.
And when Isaac was born, against all human possibilities, God said to Abraham in Genesis 18:12, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” In other words, while Ishmael is your son, and I will bless him in many ways, the offspring—the one through whom the promise of a saving blessing would come to the world is Isaac, not Ishmael.
And then to make clear what he was doing in choosing the line of Isaac over the line of Ishmael, God does the same kind of thing again when Isaac has his first children. Rebekah, his wife, like Sarah, is barren (Genesis 15:21), and Isaac prays and God grants them to conceive. Twins are in her womb, Jacob and Esau. And before they were born or had done anything good or evil, God decided which would be the line of promise. God chose unconditionally which son the promise of salvation and the blessing of the nations would come though—namely, Jacob. He says in Genesis 25:23, “The older shall serve the younger.”
God’s Choice: Not Based on Human Achievement
You see what God is doing. He is making it clear that his choice of who becomes part of the covenant line is not based on human achievement or human distinctive. It is unconditional. And he is making it clearer with Jacob and Esau than he did with Isaac and Ishmael.
With Isaac and Ishmael, they had two different mothers, and Hagar was an Egyptian (Genesis 16:1). So one might think: Isaac was chosen because he had a more Jewish mother. So to make clear that was not the case, God sets up Jacob and Esau so that they have the same mother and father; they have the same womb at the same time; they had not lived to do anything to prove one was a better than the other; and then contrary to all culture and all expectation, God decrees that the elder will serve the younger—that is, Esau will give up his birthright, and Jacob will become the line of promise and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, not Esau. Jacob will become the father of the Jewish people. And through the Jewish people, the Messiah will come. And through the Messiah, the blessing of Abraham will come to the nations, including the offspring of Ishmael.
Narrowing Down to Broaden Out
So the promise to Abraham begins in Genesis 12:3, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”—incredibly, globally, ethnically sweeping! Somehow the narrowing down of God’s election—Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; the twelve tribes of Israel, not the nations—somehow all of that narrowing down, all the saving work of God focusing on one people, the Jews, would one day explode for the blessing of all the families of the world, including the families of Ishmael and Esau—that is, including Arabs and Muslims—and you and me.
How did that explosion happen? It happened through the final narrowing down of election to the promised seed, the promised offspring, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, whose lineage is traced in the gospel of Matthew straight back through Jacob and Isaac to Abraham (Matthew 1:1–2). Through this offspring of Isaac, all the families of the earth, including the sons of Ishmael, are blessed. And all this has been happening through missions for 2,000 years.
Jesus Is the Offspring
Here’s how Paul explains it in Galatians 3:16: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’ who is Christ.” Don’t think Paul is a grammatical simpleton here (as though he didn’t know that “offspring” is a collective noun). What Paul sees is that where there were two offspring—Ishmael and Isaac—God chose one. Again where there were two offspring—Esau and Jacob—God chose one. And he sees in this a pointer to God’s final choice, Jesus Christ, the offspring.
All the Families Blessed in Jesus
When Jesus came, and purchased all the saving promises of Israel for the sake of all the nations (Revelation 5:9), the time had come for Genesis 12:3 to be fulfilled—in you, Abraham, that is in your offspring, in Jesus, “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” How? Everyone—Jew, Muslim, Hindu—who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved (Romans 10:13).
Why? Because everyone who receives Jesus becomes with Jesus an heir of Abraham. Galatians 3: 8, 9, 29:
The Scripture . . . preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. . . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
More Room in the Banquet Hall
Ever since the day of Jesus Christ, when he did the great atoning work for sin in his death and resurrection, and purchased the promise of salvation for all who believe, the narrowing down has resulted in a broadening out. Not Ishmael but Isaac; not Esau but Jacob; not the nations but the Jews; not the Jews but the one Jew, the one offspring, the anointed one, the one God-man. And what did he do? “You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). So, “Go,” he says, “make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). All of them! Tell them all to come. The door is open. The banquet hall has more room than you can imagine:
Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.” And the servant said, “Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.” And the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. (Luke 14:21–23)
The Invitation Is for Everyone
The invitation goes out to every people, every nation, every language. Come, sons of Ishmael. Come, sons of Esau. Come, sons of Jacob. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).
Everyone—everyone, Ishmael, Esau, Jacob, Arab, Asian, African, American, everyone—who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13).
The Task Before Us
Which brings us now to you and me, and to the great missionary task before us.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14–15).
God is calling all of us to have beautiful feet—to be people who tell the good news of salvation to everyone we know. But the focus, as we close, is on those of you in whom God is doing something more. He may have been doing it a long time. Or he may have begun today. He is stirring you to go across a culture—a different language, a different way of life, a different set of relationships, a different set of dangers, a different set of unknowns—because God sent his Son to bring the blessing of Abraham to the nations, and he means to do it through you. What a calling!
Going in the Presence and Power of Jesus
I don’t imply that you have all the answers about your future, or that you know for certain that you will go, or where you’ll go, or when you’ll go. And I don’t promise you that Bethlehem can support you. That will depend partly on how radical the senders are. But I do promise you the presence and the power of Jesus who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth is mine . . . I will be with you to the end of the age.”
The people I would like to invite to come are those who simply sense that unless God changes something, you are on a path toward the nations long term.
May God use this message and this moment to help you sense his leading. Let me pray, and then I will invite you to come so that I can pray for you.