As we drive down the road or highway, we see signs everywhere. In Fairfax, we see street signs, the school sign, signs on buildings revealing the type of business inside. At this time of year, we see political signs in yards. As we get to the highway, we see signs advertising various services such as real estate. And once we get to the interstate, we have signs advertising all kinds of businesses, including restaurants and gas stations. Other signs on the interstate include mile markers, exit signs, signs marking rivers or other natural phenomenon, etc.
In other words, signs are ubiquitous.
Likewise, you have your own set of signs and symbols that are important to you. Married couples wear rings, for instance. But other signs may be a flower garden or a vegetable garden which reveals something about the person who lives at the home.
So, again, signs are (nearly) everywhere. But a lot of times we put our stock in the wrong kind of signs. For instance, the type, or brand, of clothing we wear may be a sign. The type or price tag of a car or house might be an indicator. And again, at this time of year, a sign showing a political preference is common. None of these are wrong, but if we place too much emphasis, or the wrong emphasis, on the sign (or the meaning of the sign), we can deceive ourselves and deceive others as well.
The Bible talks plenty about signs (or symbols). The rainbow and the cross are two famous signs. But some signs are not as public. They are there, but not as readily seen. Abraham was given this type of sign, a mark, as a reminder of the promise God made to him. That sign also served as a seal – a confirmation of the covenant that God made to Abraham. That sign was circumcision.
Circumcision was not just a sign for the Jews, it is a seal for all who are made righteous by faith.
The sign of circumcision was not a guarantee of salvation (as the Jews believed), but God does provide a sign today although, like circumcision, faith is required. But before I reveal that sign, let’s look more at the sign of circumcision.
A Sign of the Times
As we consider this week’s passage, we must note that Paul shows that the timing of two different events in Abraham’s life was key. Paul writes about two different events with the sign being given at the second time after a promise was given the first.
In Romans 4.9, Paul uses the same language he did in Romans 4.3, except for one word. Both of these verses refer back to Genesis 15.6 which is critical to Paul’s argument here.
In Genesis 15.6, the text says that Abraham believed and God counted it to him as righteousness. In Romans 4.3, Paul uses that same terminology. In Romans 4.9, Paul replaces the word believe with the word faith. In the Greek, the root of the word is the same. The difference is that in verse 3, Paul uses the word as a verb, in verse 9, it is used as a noun. Either way, Paul (and the original reader) know that the meaning is the same. Abraham believed (had faith) and God considered him righteous.
Let us remind ourselves that Paul is writing this letter to the church at Rome. That church consisted of both Jew and Gentile believers, but much of his argument to this point as been toward the Jew. It is the Jew that holds the Law in such high regard and Paul is trying to help all Jewish believers to realize that the Law is not what is ultimately important when it comes to justification.
With the idea that Paul’s primary audience in these opening chapters is the Jew, verse 10 is critical. Paul appeals to the chronology of the situation. The book of Genesis is chronological and God credited Abraham as righteous happened before Abraham was circumcised. In fact, Jewish rabbis had calculated the time between Genesis 15 and his circumcision in Genesis 17 to have been 29 years after he was declared righteous.
Thus, Paul’s argument that Abraham was declared righteous took place before he was circumcised seems obvious. But it is more obvious to us than it was to the Jews, even though they knew the chronology better than we do. As I mentioned two weeks ago, one of the challenges is that they interpreted Genesis 15 in light of Genesis 22 (when Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed), and thus equated the circumcision with his standing in righteousness – which actually led Jews to intertwine the covenants given to Abraham and Moses together (even though they were given 430 years apart).
But the timing of the events has an important implication that Paul was just beginning to show.
A Sign for All People
Most Jews were fine with Gentiles joining their faith, but doing so meant that the Gentile had to adopt all of the ways of the Jew. Specifically, that meant that a Gentile who was a new believer needed to be circumcised and then keep the law.
But Paul shows that the timing of Abraham’s circumcision reveals that circumcision was not what saved him, and thus, circumcision is not what saves anyone. Rest assured, circumcision was important for the Jewish identity, but Jews were not the only people circumcised. Other ancient cultures circumcised their males as well. The difference for the Israelite/Jew was that God had ordained the practice. But God wanted Abraham to be circumcised not so he could be made righteous; rather, it was so Abraham could show his obedience in righteousness.
In other words, Abraham was circumcised because of his righteousness. It was not just a sign to show himself as a Jew (or more specifically, as the father of Jews). Instead it was a mark that God put on Abraham as a seal (v. 11) of the righteousness he had already attained.
But, and here is the key to this section for the Jew and the Gentile then, and for us today, because God declared Abraham righteous because of his faith (belief) before circumcision, all who have faith in God will be declared righteous – whether they are, or get, circumcised or not. Thus, it is not circumcision that saves (justifies), it is faith.
So, circumcision is a sign, but Paul also uses the word seal. I will talk more about this in Tuesday’s video this week, but I ask you to consider the purpose of a seal. A seal shows ownership or belonging in some manner. If circumcision is a seal, then what God is saying is that Abraham belongs to Him, not because of circumcision, but because of faith. Circumcision, then, is the mark of that ownership. And for those who walk in faith, like Abraham did, we will be counted as righteous as well (v. 11).
The Sign with a Promise
The promise to Abraham and his offspring was that he would be heir of the world. This promise does not mean that Abraham inherits the rights to the world as we think of an heir. But the promise does place a premium on who Abraham is. This promise is not found specifically as a single promise in Scripture, but we find the truth of this promise in “three key provisions…in Genesis:
- Abraham would have an immense number of descendants, embracing many nations (Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4–6, 16–20; 22:17)
- that he would possess “the land” (Genesis 13:15–17; 15:12–21; 17:8), and
- that he would be the medium of blessing to “all the peoples of the earth” (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).” (1)
Paul recognized the importance of this promise. In fact, the word promise is used 52 times in the NT, and Paul used the term exactly one-half of those instances. But when he uses the term, he often clarifies that the promise comes by faith (specifically, righteousness through faith), not through the law. In fact, “if the law is what makes us heirs, then the promise has no impact!” (2)
Therefore, because the promise came by faith, not through the law, Gentile Christians are also children of God. (3) In fact, if the law is what makes someone a child of Abraham, then Abraham would have to be called the father of one nation (Israel), not the father of many nations.
Furthermore, not only does the law not save, it cannot save. Verse 15 suggests this truth and Paul will comment further on this idea in Romans 7. The law simply points out our errors…our sin. And thus, the law is a part of understanding this series – “And Justice for All.” See, not only is faith in Jesus the great equalizer between the Jew and Gentile, but so is the law, if we understand it correctly. The Jew thought the Law gave them an advantage. However, the advantage is only true if the Law is kept perfectly. Because no human, apart from Jesus, can keep the Law, it means everyone – both Jew and Gentile – are equal before God – for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23). Therefore, it is not the law that saves, it is the grace of God. (4)
Both Jew and Gentile must have faith. We are to walk in the footsteps of faith that Abraham walked before us (Romans 4.12). As we do, we will find the grace of God to be abundant to save us. No matter what our sin might be, the grace of God is greater. The law is important, but God did not give Abraham a law in order to be blessed; He gave Abraham a promise to be believed. One commentator said it this way: “What God said to Abraham was not ‘Obey this law and I will bless you,’ but “I will bless you, believe my promise.” (5)
Wow. What a great statement.
Church, you may be wondering how this fits today. Let me assure you it fits well. Let me ask it this way – what provisions do we make for others to be accepted? Or more directly, what signs do we demand from others before we will allow them into our church, or even to believe they are a person of faith.
Do people have to act a certain way to come to church?
Do people need to wear certain clothing to come to church?
Do they need to sing a certain way or serve in a particular area?
What rules must they follow? This is law. And law can lead to legalism.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that most people are as stringent about certain “requirements” as the Jews were in Paul’s day, but we must see these issues as partial truths (at least). We may want to dispel these ideas as myths, but ask those outside the church about their thoughts on why they don’t come to church, and you will hear, “the church is judgmental” or “I don’t have the right clothes to wear.” (I have heard this a few times since arriving in Fairfax, and despite my assurances to the contrary, I have never seen any of those individuals in our building.)
Other statements could be made as well, and I do not want to discount that these statements can simply be an excuse. But many times there is a hint of, or a lot of, truth in them. Again, this issue is part of what Paul is addressing in the letter to the Romans. The Jews were judging the Gentiles for not keeping the law, but Paul has repeatedly stated that the Jews are just as guilty. Maybe the type of sin is different, but the fact of sin is not.
Thus, the cross is our sign. And Jesus welcomed anyone to join Him through belief, with the cross as our reminder, our symbol, our sign. And because we all fall under that same sign…
Our JOURNEY letter for today is U – UNITE.
The promise of God was for all who had faith. Abraham is rightly considered the father of the Jews. But Paul has shown that Abraham is actually the father of “many nations” (i.e., the Gentiles are included), because God declared Abraham righteous before his circumcision. Thus, Jew and Gentile are not to fight over the matter of keeping the law or not. The issue is not the law, it is faith, and on that ground, both stand equal – either with God or against God. Thus, they needed to set aside their differences, and come together in Christ, united with each other to minister together instead of fighting with one another. It was true for the church in Rome then, and it is still true for the Church around the world today.
LOVE. Check your heart. What misunderstandings about people or, even worse, about the Bible are causing you, or causing me, to have false expectations and place false criteria on the faith and understanding of others? Do we want people to be a certain way or are we willing to welcome them just as they are?
(1) Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (p. 274). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
(2) Pate, C. Marvin (2013). Romans (p112). Teach the Text Commentary Series, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
(4) Mounce, R. H. (1995). Romans (Vol. 27, pp. 126–127). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
(5) Osborne, G. R. (2004). Romans (p. 114). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.