No Broken Promises
In Romans chapter 4, we encounter the story of Abraham, retold through a new lens in order to address a new context. Paul, a Jewish man born in a Greek town and raised as a citizen of the Roman Empire, a crossroads of three cultures, has spent the first three chapters of Romans describing the failures and brokenness of all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. This man has seen and described how people are alienated from God. But he also has something to say about how we might all belong.
One thing about religion that bothers a lot of people is the way that each group seems to be exclusive. Exclusionary. Religions define who is in and who is out, arguing among themselves over who God accepts and who he does not. For some, this is defined by living up to a certain set of standards. For others, you would need to belong to their ethnic or national group in order to be "the people of God."
This was certainly the case for the people of ancient Israel. Their religion and their ethnicity were deeply intertwined. The core of this belief came from their scriptures, the stories of their history: God had made a promise to Abraham, that his descendants would become a great nation, and that through this nation of Abraham "seed" God would bring about a blessing, some great destiny for the whole world. At least, that's what the promise said.
One of the cultural rituals that symbolized this promise about Abraham's descendants was circumcision, which was practiced by Israelite men. It symbolized how each new generation that was born was part of that lineage that came from Abraham, and would eventually lead to the promised "seed", an individual who would bring God's blessing into the world. This connection to "descendants" and "generations" helps us make more sense of what might otherwise seem to be a strange ritual.
This anticipation of blessing was part of the expectation for a Messiah - the savior of Israel who would come to set them free from the powers of the world and establish the Kingdom of God. Christianity came about because the followers of Jesus believed that he was the chosen seed, the representative of Israel, the Messiah, who would fulfill these promises.
But while God’s goal was never to create an exclusive group of people based on ethnicity, it was difficult for some people to conceive of non-Jewish people benefitting from the Messiah. How could this be so? Wasn’t God’s promise given to a specific chosen people?
In the Romans 4, Paul argues that God accepts people because of their faith in him, and that anyone can belong to God's family and be part of Abraham's "descendants" even if they are not Jewish, if they have the same trust in God that Abraham had. "For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith." (Romans 4:3 NLT)
Paul goes on to say this:
"Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised! Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised." (Romans 4:9-11a NLT)
When Paul says "before he was circumcised," the original readers would have understood that it meant "before Abraham was Jewish, or an Israelite." Abraham was accepted by God before there was an Israel to belong to. Abraham was accepted by God when he was essentially a Gentile! (You can read about God accepting Abraham in Genesis 15, which takes place before Abraham is circumcised in Genesis 17.)
"So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised." (Romans 4:11b-12 NLT)
"And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God." (Romans 4:23-25 NLT)
Just like God accepted Abraham and justified him because of his faith, we can also experience that same acceptance if we simply trust in God and have faith in him. God has given us a new way to see what he is like, and a new way to appreciate his character and find him trustworthy. Jesus, God in human form, came to earth and sacrificed himself to pay the price for all our sins. For all the ways that people have broken God's laws, all the ways that Abraham's family failed to follow the terms of their covenant with God, Jesus has paid the penalty and removed the punishment and guilt that would have fallen on people.
If we trust Jesus just as Abraham trusted God, we can experience acceptance with God, and the blessing he has promised to the whole world.
Read Genesis 15:1-6. What does Abraham believe? What does it seem to mean for his relationship with God? Can you see any parallels between this interaction and your life?
Read Genesis 15:7-20 and note especially the strange ritual in verses 9, 10, and 17. This is Abraham and God "cutting" a deal, or "cutting a covenant," more literally. It is an ancient custom that people would use to promise to uphold their end of an important deal. Both parties passing through the halves of animal carcasses together was a way of saying "may I become like these carcasses if I don't uphold my end of the deal.
Why do you think only God passes between the animal carcasses and not Abraham too, since they were entering the deal together?
After reading all of Genesis 15, you may have noticed that God promised Abraham two things: 1 - lots and lots of descendants, and 2 - the land. Read Romans 4:16-17. Does Paul's argument here fulfill both the promise for lots of descendants and the promise about inheriting the land of Israel? Why? Do you think Jesus fulfills God's promise that God's people will inherit the land as well?
- Look at Genesis 22:15-18 for help here. What is the scope of God's promise? What nations or places does it concern?
Read Romans 4:1-8. What is the difference between earning something with works and receiving a free gift by faith? Think about what the practical difference would actually look like in real life.
- Read Psalm 32 for help. What do David's words add to help understand what Paul is saying?