NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XIV)
Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke shares his thoughts on God’s creation and resurrection powers: “God is the most proper object of trust and dependence; for being almighty, eternal, and unchangeable, He can even raise the dead to life and call those things which are not as though they were. He is the Creator, He made living things when there was none; He can infallibly assure the existence of those things which are not as if they were already actually in existence. And, on this account, He can never fail to accomplish whatever He has promised.”1
Scottish Bible scholar Robert Haldane explains very well the phenomenon of the dual lines – natural and spiritual – of Abraham’s progeny: “According to the Apostle’s interpretation of this promise, it signifies numerous spiritual offspring, as well as numerous natural posterity. It is not by way of what is called modification that this is said; it is the real interpretation of the promise, whether Abraham himself understood it so or not. This interpretation of the Apostle is a key to all that is said on this subject. It shows that Abraham had a double seed, that the promise had a double meaning, and both are distinctly verified. Thus, each of the three promises made to Abraham had a double fulfillment: – Of a numerous posterity; of God being a God to his seed; and of an earthly and heavenly country. At that moment, when he stood in the presence of God whom he believed,2 he was made the father of all his natural and spiritual posterity; and though he was not then actually a father, yet, being so in the purpose of God, it was made as sure to him as if it had already taken place. God now willed it, and the result would follow as surely as creation followed His word.”3
We should take note at this point that Isaac’s birth was a miracle since it came from a womb considered incapable of bearing an offspring because of Sarah’s advanced age. So every child that came into the world through Isaac was the result of that miracle. Those were the natural descendants who inherited the earthly Promised Land. Yet God said another miracle child would be born who would be Abraham’s spiritual descendant and through Him, the spiritual family would inherit a heavenly Promised Land. That promised child was Jesus, born of a miracle from a young woman named Mary who had never been intimate with a man. So Abraham produced a natural child named Isaac, while the Holy Spirit produced a supernatural child named Jesus. You may be a Jewish descendant of the natural child Isaac, but unless you can trace your spiritual birth back to Jesus, you have no promise of heaven in your destiny. That’s what Paul was trying to tell the church in Rome. It was true then, and it’s true now.
Frederic Godet points out: “The two divine attributes on which the faith of Abraham fastened at this decisive moment, were the power to quicken [make alive] and the power to create [make something out of nothing]. It was, indeed, in this twofold character that God presented Himself when He stated to Abraham these words: ‘I have made you‘ – here is the assurance of a resurrection, – ‘father of many nations‘ – here is the promise of a creation. Faith imagines nothing arbitrarily; it limits itself wholly to taking God as He presents Himself.”4
F. F. Bruce also comments on this subject: “Consider, too, the quality of Abraham’s faith. It was faith in the God who brings the dead to life, who calls non-existent things as though they really existed – and gives them real existence by doing so. When God told Abraham that he would have a vast multitude of descendants, he was still childless. Not only that, but he was beyond the age at which a man might reasonably hope to become a father, and Sarah his wife was even more certainly beyond the age of motherhood. Abraham did not shut his eyes to these unfavorable circumstances; he took them all into careful consideration. But, when he set over against them the promise of God, he found that the certainty of God’s ability and will to fulfill His promise outweighed them all. Having nothing to rest upon but the bare word of God, he relied on that, in the face of all the opposing indications which pressed on him from every side. In fact, his faith was strengthened by the very force of the obstacles which lay in its path. And his faith won him the favor of God.”5
Jewish writer David Stern shares: “That God quickens the dead is a major tenet of Judaism; the second benediction of the ‘Amidah,‘ the prayer recited three times every day in the synagogue, [which] reads: ‘You are mighty forever, Adonai. You cause the dead to live, You are great to save. With loving-kindness You sustain the living; with great mercy You cause the dead to live, support the falling, heal the sick, free the bound and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. Who is like You, Master of mighty deeds? Who resembles You, O King? You cause death, You cause life, and You cause salvation to sprout forth, so You can be trusted to cause the dead to live. Blessed are You, Adonai, who causes the dead to live.’”6 That’s not only a prayer Jews can pray, but Christians as well.
Verse 18: Against all hope, Abraham continued trusting in hope that he would indeed become the father of many nations just as God told him, “You will have many descendants.”7
We cannot escape seeing the key factor in this verse where in spite of having hope he would have a child in his old age, nevertheless, Abraham kept the faith. That’s why the writer of Hebrews made it clear that faith is the substance of things hoped for.8 So it was Abraham’s faith that kept him going. This echoes the maxim expressed by King Solomon: “Hope that is delayed makes you sad, but a longing that comes true fills your life with joy.”9
Early church scholar Origen had this to say about faith and hope: “As always, when the Apostle Paul talks about faith, he adds hope as well, and rightly so, for hope and faith are inseparable… Just as Abraham believed against hope, so all believers do the same, for we all believe in the resurrection of the dead and the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven. These appear to go against hope as far as human nature is concerned, but when we take the power of God into consideration, there is no problem.”10
Then we read Ambrosiaster’s comments: “It is clear that since Abraham had no hope of having a son, he believed God and had faith against hope that he would have a son, knowing that with God all things are possible.11 The quotation [by Paul] is from Genesis where God shows Abraham the stars of the sky and says: ‘So shall your descendants be,’12 because in believing he was justified. For Abraham believed what seems impossible to the world because it does not occur in the order of nature that old people should have children and know that their seed will increase to such an extent that it will be impossible to count them. Therefore, faith is precious because it believes in the future, even against what it now sees or knows. For it consoles itself in this hope, that it is God who promises.”13
John Bengel makes it clear that while Abraham was lacking any hope within himself, but he never lost hope in God. He goes on to say: “We grasp the same object both by faith and by hope: by faith, as a thing, which is truthfully proclaimed; by hope, as an object of joy, which certainly can and will be realized. He believed in the hope of the promise, against the hope of reason.”14
Robert Haldane writes:”The thing testified to Abraham was an object of hope, therefore, he is said beyond hope to believe in hope. This is explained by some as indicating that Abraham believed that he should become, that is, his becoming the father of many nations was the object of his belief. Others explain it, that he believed the promise in order that he might become; that is, his faith was the means through which the promise was to be made good to him. Both of these are true, but the last appears to be most agreeable to the expression and is the more important sense. He was made such a father through faith. Had he not believed the promise, he would not have been made such a father. This shows that Abraham’s expectation rested solely on the Divine promise. He had no ground to hope for so numerous a posterity, or any posterity at all, except on the surety of the promise of God. This he received in its true and obvious meaning, and did not, like many, explain away, modify, or fritter it down into something less wonderful. He hoped for the very thing which the words of the promise intimated, and to the very utmost extent of the meaning of these words, ‘So shall your seed be’.”15
Frederic Godet has this insight to offer: “The word hope is used here in two different senses, the one subjective: hope as a feeling (in the phrase: in hope), the other objective: hope to denote the motive for hoping (in the phrase: against hope)… The Apostle, therefore, means: without finding in the domain of sense or reason the least ground for hoping, he nevertheless believed, and that by an effort of hope proceeding from a fact which the eye did not see nor the reason comprehend, God and His promise.”16
Charles Ellicott gives this summary of verse 18: “It must be noticed that the relative here refers to Abraham, whereas in the previous verse it referred to God. Trusting in Hope. —The force of the preposition gives to the sentence the meaning of ‘grounded his faith upon hope’ – that internal subjective hope that was strong within him, though there were no objective grounds for hoping. That he would indeed become. —So as by exercise of faith to carry out God’s purpose.”17
In other words, Abraham’s trust and faith in what God said to him was so strong, that he was willing to accept as real what he could not see nor for which he had any evidence. As the writer of Hebrews rightly said, faith can be all we need to have hope that whatever God promised will come to pass even though we see no evidence of it yet.18 Of all things most pertinent to us today is the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ coming back to resurrect the believers who have died and transform those who are still living. So let us be like Abraham and have faith that although we may not see evidence it will happen today, it will come to pass.
1 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Genesis 17:4
3 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. p. 179
4 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 120–121
6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Ibid. 15:5
8 Hebrews 11:1
9 Proverbs 13:12
10 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
11 See Matthew 19:26
12 Genesis 15:5
13 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
14 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 252
15 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 179-180
16 Frederic Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Hebrews 11:1