NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XV)
Verse 19: Abraham was almost a hundred years old, so he was past the age for having children. Also, Sarah could not have children. Abraham was well aware of this, but his faith in God never waned.
The Aramaic version renders this verse as follows: “And he was not sickly in his faith while contemplating his inert body, (for he was a hundred years old,) and the inert womb of Sarah.” In other words, while Abraham’s reproductive system may have been inactive, his faith was proactive. In Sarah’s case, Rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud, speak of her womb being the same as that of a dead woman.1 To anyone with the simple knowledge of health and age, this couple having a child would be considered impossible.2 That’s why Abraham could not be faulted for being doubtful that he and Sarah could have a child by natural means. The truth is, he did not put his faith in hoping the facts would turn out to be wrong, but in the fact that God’s promise would be right. This was Jesus’ theme when He talked about seeing how big God is instead of looking at how big the problem is.3
The writer of Hebrews explained Sarah’s predicament succinctly: “Sarah was not able to have children, and Abraham was too old. But he had faith in God, trusting Him to do what He promised. And so God made them able to have children. Abraham was so old he was almost dead. But from that one man came as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. So many people came from him that they are like grains of sand on the seashore.”4 No doubt, the author of Hebrews was talking about the natural and spiritual descendants of Abraham combined, a sum that continues to grow.
Early church scholar Origen sees both a physical and spiritual lesson in this quote by Paul. He writes: “This may be understood literally or figuratively. Literally, Abraham did not put his trust in his hundred-year-old body, which was obviously incapable of doing what God had promised him, but rather he trusted in God, the Almighty One who could perform what He had promised even when the laws of human fertility no longer functioned.… Figuratively, it may be understood in the light of what Paul says elsewhere: ‘Therefore, put to death what is earthly in you.’5 It would be absurd to suggest that what Paul meant in this respect was somehow lacking in Abraham. For Abraham also had put his earthly urges to death, being neither excited by indulgence nor inflamed by lust.… Sarah likewise did not suffer from lust or the desires of the flesh.… When they heard what God had promised them, they did not consider their own benefit.… All these things that would make them rich they regarded as worthless in order that they might win Christ,6 whose coming they foresaw.”7
John Calvin points out that although everything in the nature of procreation was stacked against Abraham and Sarah – their age and reproductive organs, yet it did not deter him from carrying on as though none of these things mattered when compared to God’s promise. Says Calvin: “With these frailties of the flesh, ignorance, and doubt, the faithful have a continual conflict, and in this conflict, their faith is often dreadfully shaken and distressed, but at length, it comes forth victorious; so that they may be said to be strong even in weakness.”8
Evangelical scholar Adam Clarke puts it this way: “He [Abraham] showed at once the correctness and energy of his faith: God cannot lie; Abraham can believe. It is true that, according to the course of nature, he and Sarah are so old that they cannot have children; but God is almighty, and can do whatsoever He wills, and will fulfill His promise. This was certainly a wonderful degree of faith; as the promise stated that it was through his posterity that all the nations of the earth were to be blessed.”9
Robert Haldane writes on Abraham’s faith in the absence of factual evidence: “This is an example which ought to always direct our faith. There are always obstacles and difficulties in the way of faith. We should give them no more weight than if they did not exist, reflecting that it is God who has to remove them. Nothing can be a difficulty in the way of the fulfillment of God’s own word. This ought to encourage us, not only with respect to ourselves but with respect to the cause of God in the world. Had Abraham looked at any natural means, he would have staggered; but he looked only at the power of Him who promised.”10
Verse 20: He never hesitated in believing that God would do what He promised. He never stopped believing. In fact, he grew stronger in his faith and just praised God.
So, instead of the difficulties that faced Abraham and Sarah with regard to their age and her having an unproductive womb causing them to give up, they pressed on with greater determination to prove that what God says will be, will be. This was the same type of faith Isaiah called on the Israelites to have when they saw nothing but trouble and defeat in their future.11 And just as Abraham grew in faith, so did Daniel: “The one who looked like a man touched me again. When he touched me, I felt better. Then he said, ‘Daniel, don’t be afraid. God loves you very much. Peace be with you. Be strong now, be strong.’ When he spoke to me, I became stronger. Then I said, ‘Sir, you have given me strength’.”12
This was Paul’s message to the Corinthians: “I am glad to have weaknesses if they are for Christ. I am glad to be insulted and have hard times. I am glad when I am persecuted and have problems, because it is when I am weak that I am really strong.”13 In Jewish writings, we find this same theme of how vital faith is. In speaking of Jacob, we find these words: “Jacob had entered this gateway to faith. Adhering to that faith, he had to be tested in the same place his fathers had been tested, entering in peace and emerging in peace.”14 Also, in his commentary on Moses’ call for those on the Lord’s side to step out and come to him, Rabbi Abraham Saba states: “He implied that these people forming a group around him would be strong in their faith in HaShem15 and would not flinch from using the sword to carry out vengeance on the people who had violated His sacred covenant.”16
Several early church scholars make comments on this verse. Chrysostom says that Abraham trusted God even though God gave him no proof, not even a sign. Rather, only words promising things which by nature seemed impossible.17 Yet, since they were part of a supernatural God’s ways, they were then seen as superior to nature’s ways. Then Augustine sees this as Paul’s attack on those in Rome who were seeking their own glory in the sight of men by doing the works of the law, while Abraham gave God all the glory.18 And, Pelagius states that Abraham did not dismiss the fact that his old age would make it impossible for he and Sarah to have a child, but at the same time he did not doubt for a moment the assurance of God’s promise.19
John Calvin writes: “The Apostle seems to have had this in view, – That Abraham did not try to find out, by weighing the matter in the balance of unbelief, whether the Lord was able to perform what He had promised. What is a proper inquiry or to search into anything is to examine it through distrust or mistrust, and to be unwilling to accept what appears not credible, without thoroughly sifting it. He indeed asked, how it could come to pass, but that was the asking of one astonished; as the case was with the Virgin Mary, when she inquired of the angel how could that be which he had announced. Beliebvers then, when a message is brought to them respecting the works of God, the greatness of which exceeds their comprehension, do indeed burst forth into expressions of wonder; but from this wonder they soon pass on to lay hold on the power of God. For this reason it was, that Abraham was not reproved when he laughed and asked, how could a child be born to a man a hundred years old, and to a woman of ninety; for in his astonishment he fully accepted the power of God’s word.”20
On the subject of giving glory to God, Robert Haldane says: “How did he [Abraham] give glory to God? By believing that He would do what He promised, although nothing less than almighty power could achieve what was promised. This is an important thought, that we glorify God by ascribing to Him His attributes, and believing that He will act according to them, notwithstanding many present difficulties to the contrary. But how often is the opposite of this exemplified among many who profess to have the faith of Abraham, who, when unable to trace Divine wisdom, are apt to hesitate in yielding submission to Divine authority. Nothing, however, to endorse this is found in Scripture. On the contrary, no human action is more applauded than that of Abraham offering up Isaac in obedience to the command of God, in which he certainly could not then discover either the reason or the wisdom from which it proceeded. Without disregarding it for a moment, he yielded to the Divine authority. He was strong in faith, giving glory to God; that is, he gave full credit for the propriety of what was enjoined, and a ready acknowledgment of that implicit submission which on his part was due.”21
Preacher Octavius Winslow had this to say: “It is the glory, then, of faith, and the perfection of its preciousness, that it gives glory to God. The reason why faith is said to give glory to God is, because faith answers God’s faithfulness. Great faith is said to give glory to God: one of the special commendations of Abraham’s faith is, ‘He was strong in faith, giving glory to God.’ God magnifies His name of faithfulness above all His names; the believer magnifies his faithfulness by his believing; therefore, he gives glory to God. There are three honorable services that some men get put into their hands, and which are denied to angels. There is preaching of Christ, suffering for Christ, and believing in Christ. Let us consider wherein there is an honoring of God by believing; for it is a point very rarely believed. Who is there of believers that think that by bare believing they give God more glory than any other way they can do?”22
1 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Yebamoth, folio 55b
2 See Genesis 17:17; 18:10-12
3 Matthew 6:30
4 Hebrews 11:11-12
5 Colossians 3:5
6 Philippians 3:7
7 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 180
11 See Isaiah 35:4
12 Daniel 10:18-19
13 2 Corinthians 12:10
14 Zohar on Genesis: Jacob’s Journey (Genesis 28:10)
15 HaShem means, “The Name,” and is a substitute word for God.
16 Rabbi Abraham Saba: Tzror Hamor, Lambda Publishers, New York, Vol. 3, (Exodus), p. 1182
17 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 8
18 Augustine: On Romans 25
19 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
20 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
21 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 181
22 Octavius Winslow: The Works of Octavius Winslow (Kindle Locations 84847-84851). Monergism Books