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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Romans 4

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-25

The Promise to Abraham

Romans 4

Was there ever a heart like the heart of the Apostle Paul? When he argues he argues with his heart. There is no more superficial criticism passed upon the Apostle Paul than that he was a dry reasoner. His logic is bedewed with tears; he wants to show how vast, how measureless is the love of God. Yet there have been minds under such hallucination as to wish to make the Apostle Paul the prince of sectarians, the very sovereign of bigots and exclusionists. If there was one thing more than another the Apostle wanted to do, it was to include everybody in this infinite gospel of reconciliation. He had his difficulty with the Jews, because the Jews did not want anybody but themselves to be blessed by any Messiah that might be introduced into the human race. In fact, to the Jew there was no human race; there was a race of Jews, and what other creatures there might be aping the stature and the dignity of men, such aping was on their part an act of unpardonable impertinence, unless indeed they were willing to be the slaves, the bondmen, the errand-runners of the favoured race. Paul had his difficulty with the Gentiles, for they said, We are excluded, you have nothing to say to us; we are the offscouring of all things: there can be no Gospel for people such as we are. Paul"s task therefore divided itself into rebuke and into welcome: Paul had to rebuke the narrowness of some, and he had to encourage others to believe that even they were human enough to be saved. To the Jews he had to say, Be still; be no longer vain, conceited, and impiously pious. To the Gentiles he had to say, Be comforted; a light has arisen in your darkness, there is a hand thundering on the prison-door of them that are bound: Messiah has come to claim the uttermost parts of the earth. See then how he handles his argument, as dealing first with the Jew, and then with the Gentile; and see how through it all he is a man full of the Holy Ghost and of force. There is no weakness in all this argument; if the man"s eyes are moist it is not through conscious feebleness, but because he has had a view of the love of God that has surcharged his heart with kindred affection.

Something was given to Abraham, but when was it given? Was it given before he received circumcision, or after he received circumcision? The Apostle says, not after he received circumcision, but before he received circumcision. Whatever was given to Abraham was given to Abraham the Prayer of Manasseh , and not to Abraham the Jew: in fact, there was no Jew at that time, the Jew is a later curiosity, the Jew is a subsequent phenomenon. So here when Abraham stands up justified you see the birth of the Son of Man. The transaction was not individual, personal; it was typical, prophetical, symbolical. This is the key of the Apostle"s argument: if something of a Divine nature had been done to Abraham after he had been personalised, circumcised, made into a mere individual, the case would have been wholly different; but when it was done to him as human, as Prayer of Manasseh , it was done to him typically and representatively, and there began to be the dawn of the glory of the Son of Man upon the earth:—Abraham rejoiced to see my day; Abraham saw my day, and was glad: Abraham underwent the agony that makes a man more than an individual, giving him a representative, federal, priestly relation to countless multitudes so long as time endures.

Faith is older than law. Love is the oldest of all the forces that rule the spiritual and moral nature of man:—God is love. Those who care for law and invoke law are the smallest of all the animals called to find a lodging-place in the ark of the Divine protection: they are well-behaved people, they are persons who keep a clean slate, and who walk off with conscious pride to show it to the law. Faith indicates another kind of life altogether, quite as cleanly, quite as pure, quite as attentive to all detailed excellence, and yet taking no note of it: because when the bird has sat on the tree and taken food from the branches it turns all the food into the poetry of flying, it turns its earth-given energy into endeavours to reach the sun. Faith is broader than Jaw. Law gives wages; faith will never take any wages, because the term is a term of measurement and is a symbol of hire, and means a quid pro quo, a this for that. Faith never stands at the other side of the counter to take some hireling pence; faith needs no reward that man can give, and no wages that God ever descends to give, or ever could degrade himself to offer: faith lives on God, and in God, and with God, and in a sense faith is God. Faith is more largely rewarded than law. You can pay law, you cannot pay faith; you can pay a servant, you cannot pay a friend; you can pay for legal advice, you never can pay for fellow-suffering, deep, tender, night-and-day sympathy; you can even pay the doctor, but you cannot pay the mother. You can pay what law indicates, you cannot pay what faith does. Faith leaves all; faith says to the law, If there be a law of gravitation I am independent of it: whatever may be pressing me down to the centre of any system, I will by thy grace rise above it, encounter the pressure, throw it off, conquer it, stand above it and make an altar of it. Faith asks no questions, it calls up the ghost. What does faith take with it? Nothing but a staff, and a staff it need not take; yet so long as man has a body he must at least have a shadow to look at; a line, though it be an imaginary line, must be drawn round the globe he is set to live in and to cultivate. You never can make law universal, that is to say, law of the kind now discoursed of by the Apostle Paul. What is law to one man is not law to another: what is morality to one man is not morality to another: that which is right and proper and conventional in one nation is laughed at in another nation as prudish, foolish, narrow, self-idolatrous, vainglorious, and worthless. You cannot therefore make a mechanical writing to suit all the world. The world, taken in its entirety, its multitudinousness, and representativeness, must have more scope than could be given to it by pen and ink. Moses can write enough upon two mountain slates to keep Israel under restraint and in good order, if Israel will obey: but no firmament the Lord ever made is vast enough to bear upon it all the revelation of his love, and all the possibilities of intelligent and consecrated faith. The Apostle Paul says, Gentiles, you may claim Abraham, because Abraham never received anything as a mere Jew; a mere Jew Abraham never was, Abraham met God as a man; as a man he received into trusteeship certain covenants, signs, and promises, and as a trustee he held these, not for his own use, but for the good of the world. The Lord himself must begin somewhere: he began with Abraham that he might found in him a household of faith, but though beginning in Abraham it was distinctly with the assurance that the blessing should not be Abrahamic, only in some little personal degree, but human, representative, universal, everlasting: so there is not a pagan anywhere that God is not in search of, that he may by the mystery of the Cross turn into a loving and consecrated child.

Adam is not mentioned. Where is Adam? Who was Adam? What does "Adam" mean? Is it a term of more utility than can be found in its mere etymology? When did Adam live? when did he become aught to the human race? when did he lose his standing? and who took his place? Who came into that place, not by the lot-casting of Prayer of Manasseh , but by the election and appointment of God? Here is Adam"s successor, here is the head of the new race up to date, here is the head of the household of faith. Who shall depose Abraham? Only one Prayer of Manasseh , and the deposition shall not be a degradation but a completion, the kind of abrogation which is wrought by the miracle of autumn on the processes of summer. Abraham is the father of all who believe, but Jesus Christ has come to be the second Adam, the real and true Adam, Prayer of Manasseh , Son of Prayer of Manasseh , and in him is concentred the whole purpose of God; in him, through him, for him, are all things, great, small, more radiant than noonday, and smaller than the meanest pulses that throb in the sanctuary of eternity. Thus all things are working, moving, together in harmonic line; a great process is being conducted, not to-day and tomorrow, but through millenniums. When God moves he carries the ages before him. We have our little-calendars, and all we ever did happened the day before yesterday; we have dates, proofs, writings to the effect that such and such a transaction took place in the presence of such and such witnesses. Before God the archangels are young, before eternity aught else than itself is impalpable, invisible. Let the Lord alone: he sitteth on the circuit of eternity: he will vindicate eternal providence and justify his ways to men at his own time. Abraham had two fatherhoods:—"our father, as pertaining to the flesh," but in the eleventh verse, "that he might be the father of all them that believe." So then Christians are the children of Abraham; the last man that said to Jesus, "My Lord, and my God," was spoken of by the angels in the words of Jesus, "he also is a son of Abraham." We understand the word "Abraham" not in its etymological meaning, not in its local relation, not with regard to time and space of a measurable kind, but symbolically, parabolically, typically, the great poetry and prophecy comprehending the whole counsel of God in relation to the redemption of the world. Some things are given to us in the flesh, some are given to us in faith or in the spirit. We ourselves are as dual as Abraham was: by no one inlet does God bring his revelations into our nature. There are many entrances to the temple of our immortality. This is the mischief, that some men have only one door by which they can receive anything, so that everything they do is done in public, and is done with a commonness which is destructive of sacredness. Some things come to us by the way of reason: we understand them, we ask no questions about them, we can admit them by day or by night, and whether they be admitted or not admitted makes very little difference to our treasure and our wealth. Some things are admitted to us by way of the imagination, that upper door that only God can touch. The schoolmaster builds himself a little hut by the door of our reason, and charges for all the goods he sends in by that entrance; but at the door of imagination who sits but an angel, white clad, with eyes that put out the sun? Some things we can only catch along that higher line of vision and prophecy and thought, that marvellous faculty that takes hold of that which to the reason is nothing, but finds it to be the very line that binds the universe. Some men have no imagination, they therefore will never be tried as defaulters: they have only two eyes, the eyes of the body that can only see things like themselves; they have not those mysterious eyes that see the invisible, and that see the largeness of things, and that can follow the palpitation of spiritual shadows, and give assurance to the world that its madmen are its prophets. Some things we learn at school: they can all be marked down and we can commit them to memory, and recite them, and repeat them so frequently as at last not to know we are repeating them, so that we can go through strings of unconnected words as if they fell into rhyme. Other things we can only learn in life. No schoolmaster can teach them; he knows them, but he says to the child, Dear one, thou must learn this in battle, and this thou must learn in sorrow: thy face will not be sculptured into all its meaning but by an invisible hand driving an invisible chisel: go, and the Lord fulfil all thy predictions when the enemy threatens to be too strong for thee: thy pedagogue can teach thee no more; we have had our day of giving and taking, I have helped thee all I can; now there is life, go into it, and find what a mystery, what an agony, what a tragedy it Isaiah , and if we should be old men together we will talk the story over, and tell what we have learned in that wider school. Some things are just arithmetically, and other things are just sympathetically: the justice of arithmetic is one, the justice of sympathy is another. Whatever you have, you have for the benefit of other people: if you have wisdom you hold it for others, not for yourself; you are not at liberty to draw down your blinds and light the lamp of your genius and say, How brilliant a flame it makes! you are rather to go out and say, God has given me all this faculty, all this brilliance, and because he gave it I hold it with a trembling hand, and because I measure it against his glory it is as nothing to me; but if it can be made of any use to you, poor tear-blinded traveller, here it Isaiah , use it, and if you have not strength to hold the lamp, I will go with you and hold it till I see you over your own threshold and safely seated within the security of your own home. Thus the Apostle would tell the Jew that Abraham was more than a mere unit in one particular line or genealogy: thus the Apostle would tell the Gentile that, though he may know nothing of Abraham after the flesh, he may know Abraham after the spirit; he may set his feet in the footsteps of Abraham, and walk where the grand old prophet walked, and go with him into the same infinite heaven. And all this is to be done by faith, giving the whole self away to the infinite, living the larger life, not peddling over our own affairs, and taking care of them, as if we could do anything with these poor frail fingers. When shall we learn that we can do nothing but by giving ourselves into God"s hands, saying, Lord, what a fool I have been! managing my own affairs all this time, when I might have handed them one and all to thy care: thy will be done. There must be no mental reserve, no saying, I have said the words, but I have kept just so much in my own hand. No: let go the string; now you have nothing to live on but your faith, and faith never fails. God keeps back nothing from faith:—"Believest thou that I am able to do this?"

The Apostle brings all history into grand harmonic line. He discourses on Abraham, the head of the house; he discourses on law, a temporary convenience, a kind of nurse that took the child to school. The law being a schoolmaster hardly fits the Apostolic meaning: the law was one that went for the child and said, Come with me, and I will take you to school. So the law takes all the little scholars referred to to Christ, and leaves them there: the nurse does not go into the school, it is enough that the nurse should go to the school door, see it open, and the little scholar go in; then the nurse can return home. The law brings us up to the tuition and sovereignty of Christ. The Apostle also brings David in, and makes David sing a sweet little song in the newer house:—"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute (reckon) sin." We cannot sing these words as David sang them. He came up out of so deep a pit, and through such a tunnel of darkness, that when he got his breath again he sang like an angel. And now Paul is not content to have Abraham and the law and David; if Paul had been a mere Jew he would have said, This is enough: but Paul could not rest there; he says, I want the Gentiles now; I have Abraham and the law, I have David and I have imputed or reckoned righteousness, but I want the heathen for Christ"s possession; yea, in the uttermost parts of the earth his face must shine like a blessing. What is the Apostle leading up to? what will be his climax? what his peroration? This inquiry is answered in Romans 4:24-25 :—"If we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." The Apostle never cuts down his argument until he lands it right in the Cross. When he gets there he drops the argument and begins to sing.

Prayer

Blessed Saviour, we worship thee as our heart"s one God. Without thee we are incomplete; nay, we are less than nothing; we are shadows without a centre, we are voices of self-contradiction, without wisdom or truth; but with thee, and as interpreted by thy love, we are sons of God, walking in heavenly light, and having resounding in our hearts most blessed promises. We humbly pray thee to abide with us constantly as the giver of our life, and the supporter of our being; show thyself unto us by day, flame forth upon us from every wayside bush, and make thyself known unto us in the breaking of our daily bread. Make all common things symbols of high realities, and grant that in every event of life we may so plainly see thine hand as to be led daily to profounder homage and tenderer love. May we in our life show by the wisdom of the serpent, and the harmlessness of the dove, that our instructor is God, and may God be glorified in us by reason of our holiness. We are not content with ourselves, we are sinners before thee; God be merciful unto us sinners. O thou who dost cleanse man"s sin by the precious blood of the Lamb of God, do thou take away every stain of our guilt, and make us without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; and grant that by our growth in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may live a life that is hidden from the world, we may have meat to eat that the world knows not of, and in our broken heart do thou set up thy blessed temple. Walk with us, abide with us, speak much to us by night and by day; come to us in the time of our sorrow, and do thou attemper and chasten our joy. Give unto us life more and more abundantly; thou hast no pleasure in death, thy joy is to give eternal life; we have tasted of that life and would now eat and drink abundantly. Holy Father, blessed Son of God, and coequal Spirit, dwell with us in ever increasing manifestation, show us the purity and love of God, and bless us with the promise of eternal life. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Romans 4:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/romans-4.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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