Reading for Friday, Feb. 3: Romans 4
In this chapter, Paul continues to emphasize the availability of righteousness through faith in Christ, contrasting it with the Jewish belief that righteousness came through “circumcision” — being born a Jew. Against those who would argue the latter, Paul uses their own forefather, Abraham, as a prime example of someone being justified PRIOR to any external mark, such as circumcision.
You may be wondering why Paul is even bringing all of this up. From what we know of the movement of first century Christianity, the followers of Jesus were primarily Jewish, at least early on. Jesus was understood as the Jewish Messiah, meaning He was the fulfillment of all those promises God made back in the OT. Gradually, as more and more Gentiles heard the message and accepted Jesus, the question became “How much of this OT stuff is binding on the new guys?” Some would argue quite adamantly that to become a Christian also meant becoming a Jew, too — observing all the customs, rituals, festivals, and, probably most importantly, being circumcised. Others (like Paul) argued that Gentiles need not accept the entirety of the OT law and its commands in order to accept Jesus as Lord. You can see this in several places in the NT, but it comes to a head in Acts 15:1-2, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.” Luke records the resolution of this issue at the end of Acts 15 when James stands up and says, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning toward God,” (15:19). The rest, as they say, is history.
There are some beautiful verses in this chapter. I particularly like these three:
v16 – “the promise comes by faith” – a reminder that “faith is the victory”, the key which unlocks the deep and eternal promises of God.
v17 – “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” Life is the gift of God, both in the beginning (at birth) and in the end (at re-birth). He calls things that are not into existence. Only God is powerful enough to speak creation into existence out of nothingness, or make life spring from a barren womb, or righteousness swell up amid the sinfulness of my own life.
v18 – “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed”. Against all odds, Abraham kept believing in the One who made him these great, sweeping promises of land and descendants and blessing. Even when it seemed God had forgotten him, Abraham kept the faith alive. He didn’t always make the best decisions (see Hagar!), he wasn’t always the most scrupulous (lying about Sarah, telling Pharaoh she was his sister)…but in the end, he was commended for having faith, even against all hope. We might ask, is there any other kind of faith?