NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson X)
Verse 13: Abraham and his descendants received the promise that they would inherit the whole earth, but not because he followed the law. He received that promise because of his being right with God through faith.
Paul continues his quest of showing the Messianic Jews in Rome that they have erroneously incorporated obedience to the Law as a requirement to their Christian faith, thereby making them superior believers. Again, he points to all that God promised Abraham long before the Law was given to Moses. We find that even before Abram left his home country in Mesopotamia, God told him that he would be the father of a great nation and that through him all the people of the earth would be better off.1
To show His commitment to His promise, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham as part of their agreement. He told him: “I will make you the father of many nations… I will give you many descendants. New nations and kings will come from you. And I will prepare an agreement between me and you. This agreement will also be for all your descendants. It will continue forever. I will be your God and the God of all your descendants.”2 So the Apostle Paul could see in this promise that those new nations and many descendants would of necessity involve more than the Jewish people as part of this agreement. In fact, they were chosen first in order to spread the word of this agreement throughout the world. But in that promise, God made sure that Abraham understood that all descendants would call Sarah their mother.3
This concept that the descendants of Abraham would inherit the whole world can also be found in the writings of the Rabbis. For instance, we read in the Talmud: “When the Rabbis departed from the school of Rabbi Ammi — some say, of Rabbi Hanina — they blessed him, saying: May you see your needs provided in your lifetime, and may your latter end be for the future world.”4 In other words, that his teaching would extend to the whole world.
In fact, there is a Jewish parable that goes like this: “Once there was a king who was seeking to build a palace. He began to dig, going further down, to lay a foundation, but he found only swampy soil. And so it was in many places. He was not able to build until he dug in one place, and there he found bedrock That’s when he said, ‘I am building and placing the foundation here,’ and he built. So too, the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to create the world. He was sitting and scrutinizing the generation of Enoch and the generation of the flood, and He said, ‘Why should I create the world and let those wicked men arise and vex me?’ But when the Holy One, blessed be He, saw Abraham arise in the future, He said, ‘Behold, I have found a rock to build upon and to lay the foundation of the world.’ Thus he called Abraham ‘Rock,’ as it says, ‘Look to the rock from which you were carved.’5”6
There were also a group of Rabbis who were discussing various Psalms, and the subject of Psalm 136 came up. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asked: “To what do these twenty-six ‘Give thanks’ correspond? To the twenty-six generations which the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world; though He did not give them the Torah, He sustained them by His love.”7 Say Jewish scholars: There were twenty-six generations from Adam until Moses. Lacking the Torah, they could not be sustained through their own merit but only through God’s love. So the Apostle Paul was not introducing here some radical idea that caught his Jewish readers in Rome by surprise.
It was when Abraham obeyed God’s request that he sacrifice his son Isaac, that God then said to him: “Since you did this for Me, I make you this promise: I, the LORD, promise that I will surely bless you and give you as many descendants as the stars in the sky. There will be as many people as sand on the seashore… Every nation on the earth will be blessed through your descendants. I will do this because you obeyed Me.”8 Again, this all happened before the Law was given on Mount Horeb in the Sinai wilderness.
Later on, when Jacob and his family wound up in Egypt because of a famine back in Canaan, the time came for him to bless his sons. After laying hands on Judah, Jacob said: “Men from Judah’s family will be kings. The sign that his family rules will not leave his family before the real King comes. Then many people will obey and serve Him.”9 Here we see where before the Law was given to Moses, the Messiah, the One who would fulfill the Law and bring a new agreement based on faith, not works, was announced as coming through the tribe of Judah.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul references this revelation: “God made promises to Abraham and his Descendant. The Scripture does not say, ‘and to your descendants.’ That would mean many people. But it says, ‘and to your Descendant.’10 That means only one, and that one is Christ. This is what I mean: The agreement that God gave to Abraham was made official long before the law came. The law came 430 years later. So the law could not replace the agreement and change God’s promise.”11
Here’s how Reformer John Calvin sees this verse: “Though the ungodly swallow up the riches of the world, they can call nothing as their own; but rather, they snatch them as if it were by stealing; for they possess them under the curse of God. It is indeed a great comfort to the godly in their poverty, that though they exist with little, yet they steal nothing of what belongs to another, but receive their lawful allowance from the hand of their celestial Father, until they enter into the full possession of their inheritance, when all creatures shall be made subservient to their glory; for both heaven and earth shall be renewed for this end, — that according to their measure they may contribute to making the Kingdom of God glorious.”12
John Bengel points out that when the Scriptures say that the promise of Abraham was not extended through the law, it means that no person can acquire righteousness by simply obeying the law. This is clearly pointed out by the fact that Abraham was consider righteous before the law was given. Therefore, how could he gain righteousness through the law when there was no law? It was only by faith in believing what God said and told him to do. Bengel goes on to say: “This constitutes the foundation of the consequence derived from Abraham to all believers, and, therefore, to all persons and things.13 Heir of the world, is the same as father of all the nations, who accept the blessing. The whole world was promised to Abraham and to his seed collectively throughout the whole world. The land of Canaan fell to the lot of Abraham, and so one part was allotted to one, and another to another. So also physical things are a representative of spiritual things. Christ is heir of the world, and of all things,14 and so also are they who believe in Him according to the example of Abraham.”15
Adam Clarke notes: “This promise suggests that he [Abraham] should be the medium through whom the mercy of God should be communicated to the world, to both Jews and Gentiles; and the manner in which he was justified, be the rule and manner according to which all men should expect this blessing. Abraham is here represented as having all the world given to him as his inheritance; because in him all nations of the earth are blessed: this must, therefore, relate to their being interested in the Abrahamic covenant; and every person, now that the covenant is fully explained, has the privilege of claiming justification through faith, by the blood of the Lamb, in virtue of this original grant.”16
Robert Haldane explains the difference between righteousness through the law and righteousness by way of faith: “The righteousness of faith is a concise expression, meaning the righteousness which is received by faith. This is the only way in which the promise, in order to prove effectual, could be given. ‘If there had been a law given which could have supplied life, that means righteousness should have come by the law; but the Scripture has concluded all are under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.’ It was, therefore, to receive its accomplishment only by virtue of, and through the communication of, the righteousness received by faith. This is that righteousness which was counted or imputed to Abraham, when, upon the promise being made to him of numerous seed, he believed in the Lord.17 The inheritance comes solely in virtue of this righteousness to those who by it are ‘made righteous.’ ‘They shall be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.’18 ‘Thy people shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever.’19”20
Henry Alford puts all of what Paul says here into context: “The actual promise,21 was the possession of the land of Canaan. But the Rabbis had already seen, and St. Paul, who had been brought up in their learning, held fast the truth, – that much more was intended in the words which accompany this promise, ‘In you (or in your seed), shall all families of the earth be blessed,’ than the mere possession of Canaan. They distinctly trace the fifth of the world [population] to Abraham to this promise… The inheritance of the world then is not the possession of Canaan merely either literally, or as a type of a better possession, – but that ultimate lordship over the whole world which Abraham, as the father of the faithful in all peoples, and Christ, as the Seed of Promise, shall possess.”22 In other words, the Good News of a coming Savior was not meant just for the Jews, but to all who would believe around the world. We should all rejoice for this provision
1 Genesis 12:1-3
2 Ibid. 17:6-7
3 Ibid. 17:15-16
4 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakoth, folio 17a
5 Isaiah 51:1-2
6 Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar (Numbers), 23:766
7 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 118a
8 Ibid. 22:16-18
9 Ibid. 49:10
10 See Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 17:7; 24:7
11 Galatians 3:16-17
12 John Calvin: On Romans: op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:21
14 Hebrews 1:2; 2:5; 10:5; Revelation 11:15
15 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 251
16 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Genesis 15:6
18 Isaiah 61:3
19 Isaiah 60:21
20 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 176-177
21 Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17; 15:18; 17:8
22 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 33-34