The example of Abraham (4:1-16):
“Therefore” Paul writes, “what will we say to have found, that Abraham, our forefather discovered in this matter?” (Rom 4:1). In an effort to bring the Roman Christians back together from their ethnic and sociological divisions Paul points back to the crem della crem of Jewish examples – Abraham. In doing so he is going to show that God indeed has already done the impossible (made righteous those who were outside the sign of the covenant – circumcision) so that they could see their present day application – that the Gentile Christians were co-heirs of the promise of Abraham, as Paul will write in 4:16, that Abraham, “is the father of us all.”
Impossible, right? Wasn’t God serious when he told Abraham back in Genesis 17 that the sign of God’s covenant would be circumcision (Gen 17:9-15, 23-24). The logical conclusion would be that uncircumcised Gentiles could not be a part of the covenant that God had made with his people. Afterall, God said in Genesis 17:14 that anyone who lacked circumcision would be “cut off” (no pun intended) from his people. But turn back a few pages to Genesis 15:6. In that verse it says “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Abraham was made righteous by God two chapters prior to his circumcision. That makes what God also told Abraham true, that he would be the “father of many nations” (Gen 17:4).
[On a side note it is interesting that in Gen 17:4-5 God tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. It literally reads that he will be father of a multitude (Hebrew = ham-on) of nations. God then changes his name from Abram (“exalted father” – av = father, ram = exalted) to Abraham (“father of a multitude” – av=father, ra-ham = multitude).]
So if you look at the penultimate example of Judaism, Abraham, you find a man who was considered righteous by God prior to receiving the sign of the covenant. Bottom line – Abraham was considered righteous by God even when he had a foreskin. That truth was to serve as a corrective to the Jewish Christian in Rome who were having difficulty viewing the uncircumcised Gentiles as having the same relationship with God that they did. Paul’s point is that if it can be true of Abraham, it can also be true of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church. Paul has already made this point all the way back in 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith.” Now he takes it a step further in saying that those who trust in God are made righteous by God, just as Abraham did. Abraham did not do such a good job that God came to him and said, “I owe this to you…you have been made righteous by your own good deeds.” Instead God saw a man who trusted him so much that he was willing to go where God led him and even believe he could have children of the covenant when he was nearly 100 years old. That is some faith! It is a challenge to see fellow Christians that we have tension with and realize that they have faith in the same God we do.
What about the law? Paul addresses this in 4:13. Many first century Jews believed that the Gentiles should obey portions of the law in order to be in relationship with God. Paul’s point is that Abraham was considered righteous prior to the law and so are those who follow in his footsteps. The biggest shocker comes in 4:16 when Paul writes that the result of all of this then is that Abraham is father of us all (Jewish Christians + Gentile Christians).
Hope in the impossible (4:17-25):
4:17 is another key verse that leads us to Paul’s next point and application – “He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed-the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they are.” What is Paul talking about here? He elaborates in 4:18-25. It all comes down to this. Abraham was as good as dead when God called him out to be father of many nations. He was nearly 100 years old when he was told he would have a son. He believed. He hoped. God made good on His promise. Why have hope? Because Abraham had faith that God would do what He said he would do (4:21). God brought life from his seemingly lifeless body and through that life has blessed all nations. God has made things that “are not as though they are.”
In 4:23 Paul pulls his readers onto the same stage as Abraham. This is significant. He doesn’t just pull the Jewish readers on stage. He pulls them ALL on stage because Abraham is now to be seen as father of ALL in regard to faith. So not only is sin the great leveler (3:23) but so is faith (1:17, 4:12). What is more, God has already done the impossible in the sight of the Jews – he has included Gentiles in the category of “children of Abraham” and “children of God” apart from circumcision.
What is the take home message in all of this? Realize that no matter how different you seem than someone else you have far more commonality than you think. We should also be able to let scripture challenge our preconceived ideas and refine our faith more and more. You can bet the Jewish Christians didn’t want to hear that Abraham was the father of the Gentiles. That probably broke them up. They had to accept it because it was true based on the Word of God. The question for us is, what do we do when we are so challenged by the word of God that we are faced with our own limitations, frailties, and weaknesses? Do we embrace it, apologize, and move on in faith? Or do we make up excuses why we are still right and block God’s word from operating in our hearts as it was intended to do? Last, what seemingly impossible things have you witnessed God do in your life?