The Father Of The Faithful
4:9-12 Did, then, this pronouncing of blessedness come to Abraham when he was circumcised? Or when he was uncircumcised? We are just saying, "His faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness." Under what circumstances was it then accounted? Was it while he was circumcised? Or was it while he was uncircumcised? It was not while he was circumcised, but while he was uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of that relationship to God whose source was faith while he was still uncircumcised. This happened that he might be the father of all who believe while they are uncircumcised, so that the accounting of righteousness may come to them too; and that he might also be the father of those who are circumcised, and by that I mean, not those who are circumcised only, but who walk in the steps of that faith which our father Abraham showed when he was still uncircumcised.
To understand this passage we must understand the importance that the Jew attached to circumcision. To the Jew a man who was not circumcised was quite literally not a Jew, no matter what his parentage was. The Jewish circumcision prayer runs: "Blessed is he who sanctified his beloved from the womb, and put his ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed his offspring with the sign of the holy covenant." The rabbinic ordinance lays it down: "Ye shall not eat of the Passover unless the seal of Abraham be in your flesh." If a Gentile accepted the Jewish faith, he could not enter fully into it without three things--baptism, sacrifice and circumcision.
The Jewish objector, whom Paul is answering all the time, is still fighting a rear-guard action. "Suppose I admit," he says, "all that you say about Abraham and about the fact that it was his complete trust that gained him an entry into a right relationship with God, you will still have to agree that he was circumcised." Paul has an unanswerable argument. The story of Abraham's call, and of God's blessing on him, is in Genesis 15:6 ; the story of Abraham's circumcision is in Genesis 17:10 ff. He was not, in fact, circumcised until fourteen years after he had answered God's call and entered into the unique relationship with God. Circumcision was not the gateway to his right relationship with God; it was only the sign and the seal that he had already entered into it. His being accounted righteous had nothing to do with circumcision and everything to do with his act of faith. From this unanswerable fact Paul makes two great deductions.
(i) Abraham is not the father of those who have been circumcised; he is the father of those who make the same act of faith in God as he made. He is the father of every man in every age who takes God at his word as he did. This means that the real Jew is the man who trusts God as Abraham did, no matter what his race is. All the great promises of God are made not to the Jewish nation, but to the man who is Abraham's descendant because he trusts God as he did. Jew has ceased to be a word which describes a nationality and has come to describe a way of life and a reaction to God. The descendants of Abraham are not the members of any particular nation, but those in every nation who belong to the family of God.
(ii) The converse is also true. A man may be a Jew of pure lineage and may be circumcised; and yet in the real sense may be no descendant of Abraham. He has no right to call Abraham his father or to claim the promises of God, unless he makes that venture of faith that Abraham made.
In one short paragraph Paul has shattered all Jewish thought. The Jew always believed that just because he was a Jew he automatically enjoyed the privilege of God's blessings and immunity from his punishment. The proof that he was a Jew was circumcision. So literally did some of the Rabbis take this that they actually said that, if a Jew was so bad that he had to be condemned by God, there was an angel whose task it was to make him uncircumcised again before he entered into punishment.
Paul has laid down the great principle that the way to God is not through membership of any nation, not through any ordinance which makes a mark upon a man's body; but by the faith which takes God at his word and makes everything dependent, not on man's achievement, but solely upon God's grace.
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