NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson IX)
Verse 12: And Abraham is also the father of those who have been circumcised. But it is not their circumcision that makes him their father. He is their father only if they live following the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
It is clear that Paul is trying to get Messianic Jews in Rome to understand that having a spiritual father supersedes a genealogical father when it comes to faith. The Jews were making the claim based solely on kinship related to their human nature through Abraham. But when it came to their spiritual nature, they needed to establish a connection with Abraham on a spiritual level. This then, opened the door for the non-Jews to be just as related to Abraham and God as they were.
This was the same point John the Baptizer tried to pound into the heads of his Jewish opponents.1 This disconnect between claiming Abraham as an earthly father while not following his example as a heavenly father is seen clearly in the story Jesus told about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. Although the rich man called out, “Father Abraham!” in Hades, he learned very quickly there was an impassable canyon between them. All the pleas of the rich man failed, even his request that his brothers be warned about coming there. And Abraham ended their conversation with this dire conclusion: “If your brothers won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to someone who comes back from the dead.”2
Later, Jesus would have a conversation with some of the doubting Jews who came to believe in Him as the Messiah. He encouraged them to continue accepting and obeying His teachings. By doing so, Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”3 Then, just like some of these Messianic Jews in Roman, they were offended that Jesus would suggest that somehow they had been living as slaves. So they quickly informed Jesus that as descendants of Abraham, they had never been slaves. Of course, they were only speaking of themselves, not Israel as a whole who were slaves for 450 years in Egypt.
But they missed the point. Jesus was not talking about slavery in the natural sense but in the spiritual sense. He said to them: “The truth is, everyone who sins is a slave – a slave to sin.”4 Our Lord went on to point out that while slaves serve a family, they are not part of the family because they were not born into the family. The Master was trying to make the same point Paul attempts here. While they claimed relationship with God through Abraham on a human level, they really had no relationship with God on a divine level.5
Paul had gone over this same subject with the believers in Galatia. In that teaching, Paul used the two mothers of Abraham’s sons. The outsider, Hagar, represented the sinful nature, while Sarah, the insider, was the symbol of the spiritual nature. Paul finally said to them: “My brothers and sisters, you are children who were born because of God’s promise, just as Isaac was. But the other son of Abraham, who was born in the normal way, caused trouble for the one who was born by the power of the Spirit… So, my brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman. We are children of the free woman.”6
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster gives his understanding of Paul’s point here: “Paul says this because Abraham, by believing, became the [genealogical] forefather of the Jews. But also of the heart, not only of those who descended from him but of those who, from among the nations, believed the way he did. He is the father of the Jews according to the flesh, but because of his faith he is the father of all believers.”7
Then, early church preacher Chrysostom exhorts us on how faith is so important in seeking to do God’s will: “[External] circumcision is meaningless if there is no faith within. It is a sign of righteousness, but if there is no righteousness, then there is no sign either. The reason the Jews received a sign was that they might seek diligently for the reality of which the sign spoke. If they had done so, they would not have needed the sign in the first place.”8 We can also look at water baptism, which has replaced circumcision as the sign of belonging to God, in the same light? Unfortunately, like the Jews Paul is writing to, Christians have taken water baptism as the starting point rather than the subsequent point in their working relationship with God.
Reformer John Calvin speaks on this same subject: “What we have stated also disproves the scholastic dogma respecting the difference between the sacraments of the Old [Testament] and those of the New Testament; for they deny the power of justifying to the former, and assign it to the latter. But if Paul reasons correctly, when he argues that circumcision does not justify, because Abraham was justified by faith, the same reason holds good for us. We deny that men are justified by baptism, inasmuch as they are justified by the same faith as that of Abraham.”9
Then Methodist theologian Adam Clarke puts it in perspective: “For, the covenant being made with Abraham while he was a Gentile, he became the representative of the Gentiles, and they primarily were included in that covenant, and the Jews were brought in only consequentially; but salvation, implying justification by faith, originally belonged to the Gentiles; and, when the Gospel came, they laid hold on this as their original right, having been granted to them by the free mercy of God in their father and representative, Abraham. So that the Jews, to be saved, must come under that Abrahamic covenant, in which the Gentiles are included. This is an unanswerable conclusion, and must, on this point, forever confound the Jews.”10 What many Christians do not realize is the Abraham was neither a Hebrew, Israelite, or Jew. They all came after Isaac and Jacob. So God was dealing with a Gentile when He first spoke to Abram.
Robert Haldane sees a clear connection between Abraham being the spiritual father of some of his descendants while being the physical father of all his descendants. He writes: “To those of them who walk in the steps of his faith, he is a spiritual father. While all Abraham’s children were circumcised, he was not equally the father of them all. It was only to such of them as had his faith that he was a father in what is spiritually represented by circumcision.11 This is also established by our Lord Himself, who denied that the unbelieving Jews were the children of Abraham.12 He was, however, not only the father of his believing children, who were circumcised but of all, in every nation, who walk in the steps of his faith. Believing Gentiles are therefore said to be grafted, contrary to nature, into a good olive tree,13 and to be Abraham’s seed.14”15 By the same token we can say that while God is the Creator of all mankind, He is not the spiritual Father of all mankind. Only those who are born again through faith in His Son can pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
British preacher Charles Spurgeon was emphatic in his insistence that non-Jews have the same access to God’s promise to Abraham as the Jews. He says: “The historical argument is a very forcible one. The blessing was not given to Abraham as a circumcised man, but as a believing man; and hence it comes also to all of us who believe. What a mercy it is that there is, in this sense, no distinction between Jew and Gentile now! I hate that plan of reading the Scriptures in which we are told, when we lay hold of a gracious promise, ‘Oh, that is for the Jews.’ ‘Then I also am a Jew, for it is given to me.’ Every promise of God’s Word belongs to all those who have the faith to grasp it. We who have faith, are all in the covenant, and are thus the children of faithful Abraham; so be not afraid, you who are the true seed, to take every blessing that belongs to your father Abraham and to all the seed.”16
Swiss Protestant theologian Frédéric Godet also comments: “We find in these two verses the great and sublime idea of Abraham’s spiritual family, that people who are the product, not of the flesh, but of faith, and which comprises the believers of the whole world, whether Jews or Gentiles. This position of, ‘Father to all the believing race of man,’ assigned to Abraham, is a fundamental fact in the kingdom of God; it is the act in which this kingdom takes its rise, it is the aim of the patriarch’s call. From this point, the continuous history of salvation begins. Abraham is the stem of that tree, which after that sinks root and develops. For he has not believed simply in the God of creation; he has laid hold by faith of the God of the promise, the author of that redeeming work which appears on the earth in his very faith.”17
Charles Ellicott follows in his commentary on the previous verse with this: “On the other hand, the mere performance of the rite was no guarantee for justification, unless it was attended with a faith like Abraham’s. Of the two things, faith itself, and circumcision the sign of faith, the first only was essential, and the second was useless without it.”18 The same goes for all those ordinances, rites, rituals, and sacraments practiced by the Christian church.
Jewish theologian David Stern tells us: “Paul finishes destroying the argument that physical circumcision is the Jews’ big advantage. He consistently maintains that the advantage of Jews is spiritual, not physical. At the same time he shows that the righteousness that comes from trusting God is available equally to Jews and Gentiles not merely because it antedates the Mosaic Law, but because it antedates even the Abrahamic Covenant, when circumcision was given as a sign of Abraham’s already demonstrated faith and as a seal guaranteeing God’s promises, but not as something to boast about. Thus, ‘Abraham, our father’ — a common phrase in rabbinic writing and in today’s Siddur19 is ‘our’ father not only to Jews but also to trusting Gentiles, hence, to ‘all of us.’ Galatians 3:6-18 develops the same theme.”20
1 Matthew 3:9
2 Luke 16:31
3 John 8:31-32
4 Ibid. 8:34
5 Ibid. 8:42-47
6 Galatians 4:28-29, 31
7 Ambrosiaster: on Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
8 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 8
9 John Calvin: Op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Adam Clarke: Op. cit., loc. cit.
11 See Romans 9:6
12 John 8:39
13 Romans 11:24
14 Galatians 3:29
15 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 174-175
16 Charles Spurgeon: Op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Frédéric Godet: Op.. cit., loc. cit.
18 Charles Ellicott: op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Siddur is the Jewish term for Prayer Book. In one Grace said after meals we read: “L-rd our G-d, upon Israel Your people, upon Jerusalem Your city, upon Zion the abode of Your glory, upon the kingship of the house of David Your anointed, and upon the great and holy House over which Your Name was proclaimed. Our G-d, our Father, nourish us, sustain us, feed us, and provide us with plenty…”
20 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.