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Commentary on Romans

by Michael Bugg

Chapter 4

The Faith of the Fathers

Rom 4:1  Then what should we say Avraham, our forefather, obtained by his own efforts?

Rom 4:2  For if Avraham came to be considered righteous by God because of legalistic observances, then he has something to boast about. But this is not how it is before God!

Rom 4:3  For what does the Tanakh say? "Avraham put his trust in God, and it was credited to his account as righteousness." (Gen. 15:6)

  1. “our forefather”
    1. In Jewish thought, no son could be held above his father.

                                                              i.      Heb 7:1-2, 9-10  - This Malki-Tzedek, king of Shalem, a cohen of God Ha'Elyon, met Avraham on his way back from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him; also Avraham gave him a tenth of everything. . . .  One might go even further and say that Levi, who himself receives tenths, paid a tenth through Avraham; inasmuch as he was still in his ancestor Avraham's body when Malki-Tzedek met him.

                                                            ii.      “And his brothers also went and fell before him” (Gen. 50:12 ): R. Said R. Benjamin bar Yefet said R. Eleazar: That is what people say: A fox in his time, bow to him.  A fox? What is his shortcoming, relative to his brothers? Rather, if it was said, it was said in this way: “And Israel bowed at the head of the bed” (Gen. 47:31) — Said R. Benjamin bar Yefet said R. Eleazar: “A fox in his time, bow to him.” (b. Megillah 16b)

1.      In other words, the epithet “a fox”—not a complimentary term—was applied to Joseph because he allowed his father to bow to him, scandalizing the rabbis.

                                                          iii.      Mat 22:41-46 - Then, turning to the assembled P'rushim, Yeshua put a sh'eilah to them:  "Tell me your view concerning the Messiah: whose son is he?" They said to him, "David's."  "Then how is it," he asked them, "that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him `Lord,' when he says, `ADONAI said to my Lord, "Sit here at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet"'?  If David thus calls him `Lord,' how is he his son?" No one could think of anything to say in reply; and from that day on, no one dared put to him another sh'eilah.

1.      In the same way, Yeshua here points to Messiah’s pre-existence and pre-eminence over David, since no father would normally call his son “my Lord.”

    1. Therefore, Sha’ul’s reasoning goes, those who are descended from Abraham could certainly not expect to obtain God’s favor by their own works unless the Patriarch had done so.
  1. “by his own efforts”
    1. Abraham was indeed praised by God for his works:  “All this is because Avraham heeded what I said and did what I told him to do -he followed my mitzvot, my regulations and my teachings.” (Gen. 26:5)
    2. This praise, however, was delivered to his son many decades after Abraham was first declared righteous on the basis of trusting God.
    3. Therefore, true obedience to God is born from trusting God’s promises—God’s promises are not received by virtue of our obedience.
  2. “boast”
    1. Forbidden by Torah, as seen in the previous section.
  3. “believed God”
    1. “In the ‘olam haba Israel will sing a new song, as it is said, ‘Sing unto Adonai a new song, for he has done marvelous things’ (Psa. 98:1).  By whose merit will they do so?  By the merit of Avraham, because he trusted in the Holy One, blessed be he, as it is written, ‘And he trusted in Adonai.’” (Sh’mot Rabbah 23:5)

                                                              i.      Two teachings here:

1.      Trusting the Holy One is counted as merit – absolutely true!

2.      Abraham’s merit descends to his children-only partially true.

a.       While Abraham’s trust secured Israel’s national place (Rom. 11:28),

b.      but it cannot save the individual from judgment, just as Noah’s trust did not declare Abraham righteous.

Wages vs. a Gift

Rom 4:4  Now the account of someone who is working is credited not on the ground of grace but on the ground of what is owed him.

Rom 4:5  However, in the case of one who is not working but rather is trusting in him who makes ungodly people righteous, his trust is credited to him as righteousness.

  1. “not on the ground of grace”
    1. Despite what Christianity has often taught, Judaism has never been confused about the need for God’s grace (cf. 3:21ff & note).
    2. Sha’ul makes an appeal to this common knowledge in his argument: 

                                                              i.      If we obtain right standing with God by our works, then why do we pray for His grace?  Should we not rather approach Him to ask for our due recompense. 

                                                            ii.      Yet that is not what Judaism does – the liturgy is continually focused on God’s unmerited favor.

  1. “not working” - μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ
    1. This is not saying that we should not do good “works”

                                                              i.      Rom 2:9-10 - Yes, he will pay back misery and anguish to every human being who does evil, to the Jew first, then to the Gentile; but glory and honor and shalom to everyone who keeps doing (ἐργαζομένῳ, “works”) what is good, to the Jew first, then to the Gentile.

    1. Rather, he is trying to change our attitude about doing good works. 

                                                              i.      We aren’t doing good works as a labor that we are being “paid” God’s grace for.

                                                            ii.      Rather, we are responding to a great Gift that we can never earn and never repay with our own small gift back—our good works, so that men will give glory to God when they see them (Mat. 5:16)—out of love, gratitude, and loyalty to the Giver.

    1. “Works” elsewhere in Scripture:

                                                              i.      Parable of the Talents (Mat 25:16) - The one who had received five talents immediately went out, invested it (lit. “worked it”) and earned another five.

1.      Had his master not given him the talents, he would have had no way to earn more.

2.      He was not investing them as his own money to earn his own fortune through, but being a good steward for his master:  “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

                                                            ii.      Joh 3:21 - But everyone who does what is true comes to the light, so that all may see that his actions (“works”) are accomplished through God.

                                                          iii.      Joh 6:28f - So they said to him, "What should we do in order to perform the works of God?"  Yeshua answered, "Here's what the work of God is: to trust in the one he sent!"

The Faith of David

Rom 4:6  In the same way, the blessing which David pronounces is on those whom God credits with righteousness apart from legalistic observances:

Rom 4:7  "Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered over;

Rom 4:8  Blessed is the man whose sin ADONAI will not reckon against his account." (Psa. 32:1)

  1. Here the same point is made, this time citing Israel’s greatest (until Yeshua) king.
    1. David was called a man after God’s own heart (1Sa 13:14, Acts 13:22)
    2. And yet he was not a perfect man, committing sins that resulted in grievous punishments on all Israel.
    3. He put his trust not in his own character, but in God’s; not in his own works, but in God’s grace and mercy.

The Seal of Circumcision

Rom 4:9  Now is this blessing for the circumcised only? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say that Avraham's trust was credited to his account as righteousness;

Rom 4:10  but what state was he in when it was so credited - circumcision or uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision!

Rom 4:11  In fact, he received circumcision as a sign, as a seal of the righteousness he had been credited with on the ground of the trust he had while he was still uncircumcised. This happened so that he could be the father of every uncircumcised person who trusts and thus has righteousness credited to him,

Rom 4:12  and at the same time be the father of every circumcised person who not only has had a b'rit-milah, but also follows in the footsteps of the trust which Avraham avinu had when he was still uncircumcised.

  1. Circumcision
    1. Background

                                                              i.      Practiced by the Egyptians in the 1

st Century, as well as the Syrians and the Arabs (Philo, The Special Laws I 1:5; Epistle of Barnabas ix)

                                                            ii.      Nevertheless, was knows as the “well-known bodily sign” of the Jews (Tertullian, Apology xxi)

                                                          iii.      It remained important among Jewish followers of Yeshua, who were known for their zeal for the Torah (Acts 7:8, 21:20-21).

                                                          iv.      It was considered great for various reasons (m. Nedarim 3:11):

1.      Many covenants (numbered 13 in the Mishnah) were given by it – in fact, the rabbis considered “circumcision” and “covenant” (both translations of b’rit) to be one and the same.

2.      It overrides the Sabbath (cf. John 7:22).

3.      It was not set aside even for a moment even for Moses (cf. Exo. 4:24f)

4.      It overrides prohibitions in dealing with tzararat

5.      Abraham was only called perfect when God called him to circumcise (cf. Gen. 17:1)

6.      It was supposed that the world was made for the sake of circumcision, based on a play-on-words in Jer. 33:25

                                                            v.      Interestingly, there is serious discussion in the Talmud (Abodah Zarah 26b ff) about whether a Gentile could perform a circumcision, and under what circumstances—suggesting that the issue had come up!  R. Meir and R. Judah, for example, allowed it if there was no suitable Israelite physician.  (There is a debate about which one allowed the Samaritan over a Gentile.)

    1. False teachings regarding

                                                              i.      Jewish

1.      Necessary (meaning, Jewishness) for salvation (Acts 15:1)

2.      “In the Hereafter Abraham will sit at the entrance of Gehinnom and will not allow any circumcised Israelite to descend into it.  As for those who sinned unduly, what does he do to them?  He removes the foreskin from children who died before circumcision, places it upon them and sends them down to Gehinnom.”  (Gen. R. 48:8, quoted by Cohen, Talmud 381)

                                                            ii.      Christian

1.      Was given because of the deception or hostility of an evil angel, which it allegedly offered some protection against (Barnabas, ibid; Origen, Against Celsus V, ch. xlviii)

2.      “Therefore, for all those who had been delivered from the yoke of slavery, he would earnestly have to obliterate circumcision, the very mark of slavery.”  (Tertullian, Against Marcion V, ch. 4)

3.      Lactantius called it “plainly irrational.” (Divine Institutes IV, ch. xvii)

    1. Circumcision was not just to be external, but a circumcision of the heart (Deu. 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4) – in other words, we are to internalize the external rite (see “True Jewishness” above)
    2. Symbolism

                                                              i.      As a sign

1.      A permanent mark cut on the most sensitive, most deeply treasured, and most hidden part of the male anatomy.

2.      “[T]here is the resemblance of the part that is circumcised to the heart; for both parts are prepared for the sake of generation; for the breath contained within the heart is generative of thoughts, and the generative organ itself is productive of living beings.  Therefore, the men of old thought it right to make the evident and visible organ, by which the objects of the outward senses are generated, resemble that invisible and superior part, by means of which ideas are formed.”  (Philo, Special Laws, I, ch. i.6)

a.       Unlike Christian commentators, who took the knowledge of a symbol to negate the physical rite, Philo rebuked those who took the knowledge of the reason behind a mitzvah to negate the performance of it.

                                                            ii.      As a seal

1.      Gr. σφραγίς, the impression made by a signet-ring, which indicated and authenticated the author of a document, certifying that it was written by his authority, even if a scribe was employed.

a.       Sha’ul speaks of the Corinthian Assembly as being the seal of his apostleship—that is, the proof that his work was really done under God’s authority (1Co. 9:2).

b.      Despite the existence of false teachers, the firm foundation of the Lord’s work stands upon two seals (2Ti. 2:19):

                                                                                                                                      i.      The Holy One knows who is truly His,

                                                                                                                                    ii.      and those who are truly His depart from iniquity.

2.      Abraham’s circumcision served as a sign and a seal that he and his posterity belonged to the Eternal One.

                                                          iii.      In the Renewed Covenant

1.      Col 2:11-13 - Also it was in union with him that you were circumcised with a circumcision not done by human hands, but accomplished by stripping away the old nature's control over the body. In this circumcision done by the Messiah, you were buried along with him by being immersed; and in union with him, you were also raised up along with him by God's faithfulness that worked when he raised Yeshua from the dead.  You were dead because of your sins, that is, because of your "foreskin," your old nature. But God made you alive along with the Messiah by forgiving you all your sins.

a.       Sha’ul’s point

                                                                                                                                      i.      was not to annul physical circumcision for Abraham’s physical descendants,

                                                                                                                                    ii.      but to emphasize the spiritual circumcision that Jew and Gentile alike shared as Abraham’s spiritual descendants.

  1. Abraham’s fatherhood
    1. His first call was to be the father of a great nation (Gen. 12:2)
    2. But it was in connection with the covenant of circumcision that he was told that he would be the father of not just one, but many nations (Gen. 17:4).

Seed vs. Seeds

Rom 4:13  For the promise to Avraham and his seed that he would inherit the world did not come through legalism but through the righteousness that trust produces.

Rom 4:14  For if the heirs are produced by legalism, then trust is pointless and the promise worthless.

  1. Seed = singular or plural?
    1. Gal 3:16 - Now the promises were made to Avraham and to his seed. It doesn't say, "and to seeds," as if to many; on the contrary, it speaks of one - "and to your seed" - and this "one" is the Messiah.

                                                              i.      In Hebrew, as in English, “seed” (zerah, זרע) is a collective noun, having the same form whether it is singular or plural.

    1. Places where “seed” must be plural

                                                              i.      Here in Romans, “seed” is taken in the plural, parallel to “heirs

                                                            ii.      Gen 15:13, 18 - ADONAI said to Avram, "Know this for certain: your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs. They will be slaves and held in oppression there four hundred years. . . .  That day ADONAI made a covenant with Avram: "I have given this land to your descendants - from the Vadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River -

                                                          iii.      Gen 22:17-18 - I will most certainly bless you; and I will most certainly increase your descendants to as many as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will possess the cities of their enemies, and by your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed - because you obeyed my order."

    1. Both are true – we are seed and heirs to Abraham through his One Seed, Messiah 

No Law?

Rom 4:15  For what law brings is punishment. But where there is no law, there is also no violation.

Rom 4:16  The reason the promise is based on trusting is so that it may come as God's free gift, a promise that can be relied on by all the seed, not only those who live within the framework of the Torah, but also those with the kind of trust Avraham had - Avraham avinu for all of us.

  1. Stern translates nomos here as “law” rather than “Torah” as he does elsewhere
    1. “[T]o me this seems to be a statement about law in general rather than about the Torah in particular; although moral behavior is absolute, unless a statute makes a particular act illegal and punishable, there is no violation and the act goes unpunished.”  (Stern, Commentary 355)
    2. The point is not that the Torah is done away with to remove wrath, but

                                                              i.      that since Abraham’s promise was given before the statutes of the Torah,

                                                            ii.      no later violation of the Torah could annul it,

                                                          iii.      any more than later obedience to the Torah could earn it.

                                                          iv.      Neither could rejection of the Messiah cause Israel to lose her promises.

    1. God’s pattern of redemption is the same (cf. Noah, Abraham, Israel, the Ekklesia; Perez, Romans 81):

                                                              i.      First, He establishes a relationship

                                                            ii.      Second, He redeems the person(s)

                                                          iii.      Third, He establishes the terms of the covenant

  1. This free gift is given freely to all who follow Abraham’s example
    1. The contrast:

                                                              i.      “who live within the framework of the Torah” – lit. “those who are of/from the Law”; that is, the Jewish believers, those raised from birth in the Torah

1.      Sha’ul does not contrast these with those “of faith,” but puts them alongside them.

2.      “Those who are of the Torah” are distinct from “those who are of the works of the Law” (cf. Gal. 3:10). 

a.       There is a difference between coming from a place of Torah and trying to win the gift by legalistic observance of it.

                                                            ii.      “those with the kind of trust Avraham had”; the grafted-in Gentiles

1.      Just as Avraham left the idolatry of Ur of the Chaldees on God’s say-so without knowing his destination, so the former pagans of the Ekklesia had left their idolatry and started following Yeshua to a destination that they didn’t yet know.

    1. Abraham is the father of both, one physically and both spiritually

                                                              i.      Physical circumcision marks the physical descendants

                                                            ii.      “Spiritual circumcision” marks the true offspring of both

Our Father Abraham

Rom 4:17  This accords with the Tanakh, where it says, "I have appointed you to be a father to many nations." (Gen. 17:5)  Avraham is our father in God's sight because he trusted God as the one who gives life to the dead and calls nonexistent things into existence.

Rom 4:18  For he was past hope, yet in hope he trusted that he would indeed become a father to many nations, in keeping with what he had been told, "So many will your seed be."

  1. Repeats the point from vv. 1-3

Trust Over Theology

Rom 4:19  His trust did not waver when he considered his own body - which was as good as dead, since he was about a hundred years old - or when he considered that Sarah's womb was dead too.

Rom 4:20  He did not by lack of trust decide against God's promises. On the contrary, by trust he was given power as he gave glory to God,

Rom 4:21  for he was fully convinced that what God had promised he could also accomplish.

Rom 4:22  This is why it was credited to his account as righteousness.

Rom 4:23  But the words, "it was credited to his account . . . ," were not written for him only.

Rom 4:24  They were written also for us, who will certainly have our account credited too, because we have trusted in him who raised Yeshua our Lord from the dead -

Rom 4:25  Yeshua, who was delivered over to death because of our offences and raised to life in order to make us righteous.

  1. God judges us according to the light we are given, not according to an arbitrary standard
    1. Abraham didn’t have a complete theology of sin, atonement, and the Messiah – he just knew that God had promised him a son, and he trusted that promise and was accounted righteous (Gen. 15:6)
    2. God spared the Ninevites when they repented of the sins they knew just in the hope that He might spare them (Jon. 3:10). 

                                                              i.      When Jonah protested, God responded, “[S]houldn't I be concerned about the great city of Ninveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from their left - not to mention all the animals?” (4:11)

                                                            ii.      The Ninevites were so ignorant of right and wrong, they didn’t know which hand was clean – yet God showed mercy because they responded even to the little bit of light they were given.

    1. When Naaman the Syrian was cured of leprosy, he swore that he would only serve the God of Israel, but asked clemency so that he could perform his duties to his lord, even though that meant bowing in the temple of a pagan god.  Elisha told him to go in peace, indicating that his request had been granted.  (2Ki. 5)
    2. John 9:39-41 - Yeshua said, "It is to judge that I came into this world, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind."  Some of the P'rushim nearby heard this and said to him, "So we're blind too, are we?  Yeshua answered them, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin. But since you still say, `We see,' your guilt remains.”
  1. Those to whom more light is given, more is expected.
    1. Luke 12:47f – “Now the servant who knew what his master wanted but didn't prepare or act according to his will, will be whipped with many lashes; however, the one who did what deserves a beating, but didn't know, will receive few lashes. From him who has been given much, much will be demanded -- from someone to whom people entrust much, they ask still more.”
    2. Heb 6:4-8 - For when people have once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, become sharers in the Ruach HaKodesh, and tasted the goodness of God's Word and the powers of the 'olam haba - and then have fallen away - it is impossible to renew them so that they turn from their sin, as long as for themselves they keep executing the Son of God on the stake all over again and keep holding him up to public contempt. 
            For the land that soaks up frequent rains and then brings forth a crop useful to its owners receives a blessing from God; but if it keeps producing thorns and thistles, it fails the test and is close to being cursed; in the end, it will be burned.

                                                              i.      “executing . . . all over again”

1.      not referring to a resumption of sacrifices, which the Apostles never ceased (Acts 21:26, 24:17)

2.      but to falling away from the faith with full knowledge, thus bringing shame to the reputation of Yeshua.



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