Is a person’s destiny determined by the choices he or she makes or is it by God’s will? Does God give people free will to make choices but then has to try and persuade or convince them that His will is the best for their lives? Can a person somehow miss God’s purpose for their life? If you are inclined to answer “yes” to the latter two questions then you probably never read or seriously considered Romans chapter 9. In Romans chapter 9, Paul paints an entirely different picture of God’s sovereignty than what you may have been taught in the past by your pastor or Sunday school teachers. Undeniably, the belief that man is in control of his own destiny has been deeply ingrained in our psyche and is not easily uprooted. Still, Paul clearly teaches that man’s destiny is determined by God’s election or choosing and not by man’s will or actions.1
To illustrate my point that it really is God who determines the destiny of individuals, I’ll use examples from the lives of three biblical characters namely: Jonah, Pharaoh, and Judas. One of the reasons I’ve chosen Jonah, Pharaoh, and Judas as examples is because most people are familiar with these individuals and some will even remember their stories from childhood. After all, who hasn’t heard the story of Jonah and the whale, or the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, or Judas’ betrayal of Jesus? On the other hand, what most people haven’t heard is how God’s sovereign purposes were worked out in the lives of these three individuals.
Everyone is familiar with the story of Jonah. Jonah was a prophet whom God commanded to go and preach in the city of Nineveh.2 However, instead of going to Nineveh as God commanded, he decided, of his own free will, to go to Tarshish by boat instead.3 Obviously, Jonah didn’t want to see the inhabitants of Nineveh spared from God’s judgment so he thought he could nullify God’s will by running away. The fact is, God is not constrained by man’s actions. God intervened and changed Jonah’s circumstances by causing such a severe storm to arise that the boat was unable to continue its journey.4 As the story goes, the crew eventually had to throw Jonah overboard in order to save themselves from the storm. As a result of their action, the sea became calm for them;5 but as for Jonah, his lot in life was to be swallowed by a large fish.6
As a side note, Jonah wasn’t swallowed by a whale as commonly believed. In fact, the Bible states that Jonah was swallow by a “great fish” that God had prepared.7 The word “fish” in verse 17 is translated from the Hebrew word dag (Hebrew NASB Number: 1709) which is always translated as “fish” or “fishing.” So, somewhere along the line, the story was altered to make it less horrifying for children—and probably for a lot of adults! The truth is, the great fish that swallowed Jonah was most likely a whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean.8
The Bible tells us that Jonah spent three days and three nights in the fish’s stomach—coincidentally, the same number of days and nights Jesus spent in the grave before being resurrected9 10. I don’t know about you, but it wouldn’t take me three days and three nights in the stomach of a fish or any other animal before I would start crying out to God for help! Yet, that’s exactly how long it took for Jonah to repent.
I submit to you that as God prepared the storm and the great fish, He also prepared Jonah to fulfill the purpose for which He had ordained. Jonah’s decision to take that particular boat at that particular point in time to Tarshish resulted in the conversion of those specific sailors who were there that day as the Scripture says, “Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.”11 Was this also just a coincidence?
God purposed Jonah’s disobedience and subsequent trials at sea to be a metaphor for Jesus’ future death, burial, and resurrection. The act of Jonah being tossed overboard at sea is likened to Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual death; Jonah being in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights12 is likened to Jesus’ time in the grave; and Jonah being vomited up on dry land13 is likened to Jesus’ resurrection. So, just as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites,14 Jesus was a sign to the unbelieving generation of His time as recorded by Matthew:
‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’15
Jonah’s calling to preach to the Ninevites was further emphasized by Jesus when He asserted that “’The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.’”16
I propose that the events surrounding Jonah’s ministry didn’t just occur so that they would make an interesting Sunday school story, but they were an example of God’s sovereign purposes being worked out in remarkable ways.
At the time when the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush at Mt. Horeb and commissioned him to go before Pharaoh to ask that the people of Israel be allowed to leave his land. We all know the story of how God brought many plagues on the land of Egypt and how each time, Pharaoh “hardened his heart” and would not let Israel go.
It’s not uncommon for preachers to use the Pharaoh as an example of how God hardens the hearts of those that first harden their own hearts and continue in their hardening. While this is certainly true for some, it wasn’t true in Pharaoh’s case. God already knew that Pharaoh was stubborn, as the Scripture says, but God also said that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart17 so that He could demonstrate His power to the Egyptians.18 Paul make this perfectly clear in Romans chapter 9, verse 16 where he says: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.’” And as far as God hardening Pharaoh’s heart because of Pharaoh’s own stubbornness, Paul sets the record straight in Romans chapter 9, verse 18 where he says, “…He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
Judas Iscariot needs no introduction. His name has become synonymous with the words “betrayer,” “traitor,” and “conspirator.” Judas was counted with the twelve disciples yet he was clearly not one of the disciples as not all descendants of Israel are Israel.19 Judas was appointed to betray Jesus as the Scripture says: “’For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!’”20 Someone had to betray Jesus and “that man” turned out to be Judas. But why Judas? Was it because Judas was that much more evil than other men? And if Judas was truly appointed by God as the one who would fulfill Scripture21 then one could argue that God appoints certain individuals for condemnation and some for exoneration. But isn’t this exactly what Paul is saying in Romans:
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?
Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?22
I prefer the literal translation in the New King James Version which more accurately conveys the real meaning of the verse:
Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?23
Judas was the clay and God was the potter. Judas was made for dishonor.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Greek-Hebrew dictionary references are from The New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2014 Gerard Sczepura
Rom. 9:16 NASB ↩
Jon. 1:2 ↩
Jon. 1:3 ↩
Jon. 1:4 ↩
Jon. 1:15 ↩
Jon. 1:17 ↩
William Schug, “Whale Shark (The Biggest Fish In The Ocean),” Fish Index (blog), June 28, 2008 at 2:47 AM, http://fishindex.blogspot.com/2008/06/whale-shark-biggest-fish-in-ocean.html ↩
Jon. 1:17 ↩
Matt. 12:40 ↩
Jon. 1:16 ↩
Jon. 1:17 ↩
Jon. 2:10 ↩
Luke 11:29 ↩
Matt. 12:39-40 ↩
Matt. 12:41 ↩
Ex. 7:3 ↩
Ex. 7:5 ↩
Rom. 9:7 ↩
Luke 22:22 ↩
John 17:12 ↩
Rom. 9:20-21 ↩
Rom. 9:21 NKJV ↩