NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson VIII)
Consequently, by being obedient to God’s will, each occasion then became like a seal stamped on the agreement document certifying their vow to remain faithful to that agreement. To put it another way, today we would say it was like their signature on the dotted line. As a result, the children of Israel were later told: “Adonai your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your children so that you will love Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being, and thus you will live.”1
So when looking at this idea of a seal from a Christian perspective, the Apostle Paul said this: “It is God who sets both us and you in firm union with the Messiah; He has anointed us, put his seal on us, and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee for the future.”2 When writing the Ephesian believers, Paul said: “When you heard that Good News, you believed in Christ. And in Christ, God put His seal on you by giving you the Holy Spirit that He promised.”3
One rendering of verse 11, to show righteousness being credited to Abraham, goes as follows: “In fact, he received circumcision as a sign, as a seal of the righteousness.”4 According to one Greek scholar, that the term “sign” was a synonym for “seal.”5 This falls in line with how the Jews viewed the reason and purpose of a seal. In fact, in an Aramaic Targum of Solomon’s Canticles we read: “And the priests and the Levites, and all the tribes of Israel, all of them are distinguished in the words of the Law (which is compared to a sword), and they swing it and turn it among themselves, as heroes experienced in warfare; and each and every one of them has the seal of circumcision on his flesh, just as the flesh of Abraham their father was sealed, and they are strengthened by it like a hero whose sword is girded on his thigh.”6
Also, in Paul’s thinking, this seal, that today we call a “trademark,” serves a dual purpose. Not only does it identify the person as belonging to God, but also verifies that God is the inventor and holds the copyright. When it comes to imitation and copyright infringement, there are many who have laid claims to this spiritual seal, some even proposing that they are the inventor. But as Simon the magician found out, it cannot be duplicated and sold as genuine.7 God is the sole creator and the only One who authorizes the endowment of the Holy Spirit as His seal of ownership and approval.
In the same way, God’s insistence on being known as the Father of all creation, especially those who were called His children, was also part and parcel of Jewish theology. Revered Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides makes this comment on the subject: “A convert, by contrast, may bring the first fruits and make the declaration, for [the Torah] states with regard to Abraham: ‘I have made you a father to a multitude of nations.’8 Implied is that he is the father of all those who enter under the shelter of the Divine presence.”9
Maimonides was commenting on the Jewish Mishnah where it states that when a convert comes into the Synagogue to pray, according to Deuteronomy 26:3 he cannot say: “The God of the fathers of Israel,” rather, “The God of your fathers.” However, if his mother was an Israelite, then he can say “The God of our Fathers.”10 Also in their Talmud, we read where Rabbis taught: “Abram is the same as Abraham. At first he became a father to Aram [Ab-Aram]11 only, but in the end, he became a father to the whole world.”12 So Paul’s reasoning here is that just as the Jews refer to Abraham as their father because it was through him, they all came into being, so it is that with God as the father of all believers because they trace their origin back to Him.
Early church scholar Tertullian has an emphatic point to make for the Jews reading Paul’s letter: “But you Jews say that Abraham was circumcised. Yes, but he pleased God before his circumcision, and he did not yet observe the Sabbath. For he had accepted circumcision as a sign for that time, not as a prerogative title to salvation.”13 And a contemporary scholar of Chrysostom’s made this clear: “Circumcision was given for these three reasons: First, to be a sign of faith; second, to mark out the race of Abraham, and third, to be a sign and symbol of good and wise behavior. It was not given in order to produce righteousness but as a sign and seal of the righteousness which was Abraham’s by faith.”14
Reformer John Calvin has a very enlightening commentary on how the rite of circumcision can relate to the sacraments of the church. He writes: “We have indeed here a remarkable passage with regard to the general benefits of sacraments. According to the testimony of Paul, they are seals by which the promises of God are in a manner imprinted on our hearts, and the certainty of grace confirmed. And though by themselves they profit nothing, yet God has designed them to be the instruments of His grace; and He effects by the secret grace of His Spirit, that they should not be without benefit in the elect… Hence it remains a fixed principle, that sacred symbols are testimonies, by which God seals His grace on our hearts.”15 In other words, God inspired the sacraments as a way for each believer to sign by faith on the dotted line confirming their pledge to obey God’s Word and will for their lives. But, without first having faith in Christ for their salvation, signing on the dotted line by participating in the sacraments makes the person’s signature a forgery.
John Bengel points out that the justification of Abraham took place when being circumcised or uncircumcised was still unknown; and Christianity, with its justification by faith, leads back to this method of becoming right before God without meeting any prior conditions.16 And Henry Alford makes a very valid point about circumcision. He points to a Targum on the Song of Solomon (3:8) that refers to, “the seal of circumcision.” He also makes note that many early church scholars used the term, “seal of the font,” for water baptism. Thus in both cases, the seal came after righteousness was imputed. That’s why in Abraham’s case, his faith in God’s word was sufficient to be declared righteous before either circumcision or baptism were established as ordinances. That’s why Abraham can be referred to as the father of the faithful by both converted Jews and Gentiles.17
Robert Haldane asks the question: “If then, Abraham was justified in uncircumcision, for what purpose, it might be asked, was he circumcised?” Haldane then answers: “He received circumcision, as a figure or sign of his paternity, literally with respect to a numerous number of descendants, and spiritually, of all believers. It indicated that He, in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed, was to spring from Abraham. This blessedness is described by David as consisting, in the imputation of righteousness without works.”
Haldane goes on to explain: “Circumcision, then, being such a seal or pledge, and as the appointment of Abraham as the father of Christ, by whom this righteousness was to be introduced, included his being the father of the line from which Christ was to spring, it was to be affixed to his posterity, and not to cease to be so till the thing signified was accomplished. Here, it would appear, we learn the reason why this seal was to be affixed on the eighth day after birth. On the eighth day, the first day of the week, when Jesus, the seed of Abraham, arose from the dead, that righteousness, of which circumcision was a seal or pledge, was accomplished. This mark, then, was a sign of Abraham’s being the father of all believers, both Jews, and Gentiles, to all of whom this righteousness was to be imputed. As it was a seal of the righteousness which he had received by the faith which he had in a state of uncircumcision, it implied that righteousness would be imputed to believers in the same state.”18
Later, Presbyterian scholar Charles Hodge offers this: “As Paul had shown that circumcision was not the condition of justification, it became necessary to declare its true nature and design… The circumcision of Abraham was designed to confirm to him the fact, that he was regarded and treated by God as righteous, through faith, which was the means of his becoming interested in the promise of redemption… The blessing promised to Abraham, in which the Gentiles participate through Jesus Christ, can he none other than redemption. As that blessing was promised to Abraham on the condition, not of works, but of faith, the Apostle hence argues, that in our case also we are made partakers of that blessing by faith, and not by works. This was the covenant of which circumcision was the seal. All, therefore, who were circumcised, professed to embrace the covenant of grace.”19
Then, 18th century Church of England theologian Charles Ellicott makes this point: “The Apostle here puts forth his view of the real import of circumcision. It was not (as so many of his contemporaries supposed) the cause or condition of Israel’s privileges so much as the sign or ratification of them. It ratified a state of things already existing when it was instituted. Hence, to those who inherited that state of things (justification by faith) the need for circumcision was not necessary.”20
In other words, such ordinances as infant dedication; water baptism, communion, etc., are not to be thrown away as worthless just because they do not impute justification and sanctification, they do serve as signs of both reminder of the believer’s status and as a symbol to the world that they are in fact believers who are righteous in God’s eyes. However, they, in and of themselves, should never be seen as the objects by which justification and grace are imparted. With all this said, Paul does not leave this open for misinterpretation, he will explain more as he continues to write this letter.
1 Deuteronomy 30:6 – Complete Jewish Bible
2 2 Corinthians 1:21-22
3 Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30
4 Complete Jewish Bible
5 Harpocrationis: Lexicon in Decem Oratores Atticos, Gulielmi Dindorfii, Tomus I, Oxonii: E Typographeo Academico, 1852, p. 266
6 Song of Solomon 3:8
7 Acts of the Apostle 8:18-19
8 Genesis 17:5
9 Mishneh Torah, Sefer Zeraim, Bikkurim, Ch. 4:3
10 Mishnah, Division I, Zeraim, Tractate Bikurim, Ch. 1:4
11 The name Abram comes from Aramaic and is equivalent to Abi-aram, which is Father of Aram. So the reference here is not to an unknown son of Abram, but the meaning of his name. It is a play on words.
12 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 13a
13 Tertullian: An Answer to the Jews, Ch. 3
14 Severian of Gabala: On Romans from the Greek Church, loc. cit.
15 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit.
16 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 250
17 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 32-33
18 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 600-601
19 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.