We are about to dive into the life of Abraham through two perspectives. We will consider the of Genesis story as well as how the Apostle Paul, a rabbinical scholar, understood the life of this ancient nomad. You may not have studied Abraham’s life up to this point, but I believe this Patriarch has a great deal to share with us – information that can radically change our walk with God. And who better to lead us on that journey than the Apostle Paul. To begin, consider one of Paul’s statements in Romans.
And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root.
In this passage, Paul is communicating to us that the blessings and promises we possess in the New Covenant are firmly rooted in the profound encounters Abraham experienced with Yahweh. What are those encounters and experiences of Abraham that we are grafted into and partake of? Personally, this is one of those messages that just gets better and better the more I study it.
Ok, ready for a deep dive? Let’s begin.
Grace revealed in the Torah
How did Abram come to receive the promise? Why does this man figure prominently throughout the pages of both Old and New Testaments? What was it about his life, his behavior or pedigree which caused God to favor him? Was he more righteous, more generous, pray more, give more or serve more than others? Was he obedient to a set of mandates outlined by Yahweh? We’re not told that he did any of these things. In fact, the New Testament indicates that if he had, he would have had something to boast about.
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way.
Truth be told, Abram did nothing to deserve such a blessing. This is one of the main distinguishing traits of the gospel compared to every other religious system. We do nothing to deserve or earn the favor of God, any work or service we might do is a response to the love of God, not a means of receiving it. In fact, no charitable act will change the way God thinks or feels about us in the slightest. His love toward us is not affected by our behavior, either good or bad.
The above statements, if true, are indeed amazing. At this point, I would suggest spending some time in Galatians chapters two and three to understand Paul’s discussion on grace.
Are you adding anything else to your faith in Christ to ensure your right standing with God? Paul’s message in Galatians is incredibly rich in teaching but difficult to understand. It requires more than a cursory review. Galatians seems to be one of the most neglected and misunderstood books of the New Testament. The overall theme is Paul’s response to the teaching of Judaizers. The Judaizers were certain individuals who were teaching that these new Jewish believers in Messiah were also responsible to keep aspects of the Mosaic law (things like circumcision, sabbatical observances, etc). In other words, the Judaizers teaching was faith in Christ plus works. Galatians is Paul’s response to this heretical doctrine.
How did Paul come to his understanding of the Gospel? Was it a one-time event on the Damascus road, or was there more to his transformation? In a following chapter, we will survey his background in Judaism, rabbinical studies and three years in the Arabian desert. But I think it is helpful to pause for reflection on how difficult it would have been for Paul to exchange all his training, experience and reputation for simple faith in the Messiah? Do we fully appreciate the price he paid, realizing everything he had devoted his life to was for naught? Who was this Messiah in whom he trusted, and why was he willing to turn his back on everything he had believed up to that point; or, is it possible he didn’t turn his back at all, but rather he now understood the mystery of God behind it all?
Several verses to pay particular attention to as you read Galatians two and three are highlighted below.
Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”
For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God.
I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.
For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
…sit with these words awhile and allow them to settle into your soul.
The one which really resonates with me is, “if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.” This really deals a death blow to my pride. There is absolutely nothing I can do to add to my standing before God. If there was then his death was meaningless.
What is the point?
We must understand that the promise of God came before the law. In fact, it was given 430 years earlier (Galatians 3). The promise had nothing to do with Abram’s adherence to the law of God because the law did not yet exist. Furthermore, when the law was given at Sinai the Abrahamic covenant and promise were not rescinded. Instead both the law and the promise existed side by side until the Messiah was revealed. Said another way, the Abrahamic covenant and promise both predates and post-dates the ministry of Moses(lawgiver) and Aaron(high-priest).
If this seems to be a bit confusing please join me in a thought experiment. In the Old Testament we find Gentiles finding favor with God. Think of Rahab, Ruth, Naaman the Syrian, the widow at Zarephath and of course the Ninivites. These were not members of the twelve tribes when they were accepted by Yahweh, so how can we explain this aberration? They were not Jewish or Hebrew; instead they were strangers to the patriarchs, covenants and laws of the Torah. How could they be accepted by God without adhering to the law, making sacrifices, becoming circumcised, celebrating the feasts or keeping the Sabbath? I believe they were given the grace to tap into the faith of Abraham which was not based on adherence to the law but rather a believing loyalty to God Most High.
The Lord knew all along that humans were powerless to satisfy the laws holy standards. God’s demonstration of grace was always his plan and not a new reality in the first century. This is why the story of Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant came before the giving of the law. Actually the grace of God was introduced immediately after the destructive events of Genesis chapters 1–11.
Now we are beginning to see the reality behind statements such as, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” Heb. 13:8 as well as, “I am God, I change not”. Mal. 3:6 God was not an angry authoritarian before Christ and now he is good, kind and compassionate. He has always been and always will be a good and compassionate Father who is to be held in reverential awe. He is compassionate to his children, but he is also not to be treated with contempt. Even in the New Testament, we see his great love and great terror.
Paradoxes Galore – “My brain hurts”
Our western minds have difficulty holding opposing concepts in suspended tension. Consider for example the truth that Jesus is fully God and fully man. The rational mind says how can this be? If he is God, he cannot be man and vice versa. But the rare individual can observe both truths which seem to stand in contradistinction to one another and embrace both aspects without hesitation.
Such examples are replete in scripture. To illustrate, consider: grace and truth, sovereignty and free will or the role of faith versus works. The Bible is full of similar paradoxes, and the ability to appreciate and welcome this divine tension in your study, is rewarding but also a great challenge for most. It requires nuanced understanding, an awareness of the larger biblical story and rubbing elbows with those who may think differently. We are tempted to only focus on one aspect of the Lord’s nature while neglecting the counterbalance.
Such is the case with the introduction of grace in the Old Testament. How can the grace of God exist in the Old Testament when God requires the Jewish people to live under the Mosaic system? This is one of those paradoxes which we will explore (we have a chapter dedicated to this subject) as we move forward and I think you will find it draws you ever closer to his love for you. I would suggest that the God we have come to know and love in the New Testament is the same God we read about in the pages of the Old Testament.
I make this point early on because paradoxical thinking is a critical skill for serious students of the word. My point is that the Bible is one coherent book, not two; one story from Genesis to Revelation and one God revealed in its pages. Does the Abrahamic covenant seem paradoxical to the Mosaic law? The covenant of Abraham and Law of Moses demonstrates both grace and law in the Torah. Are the scriptures not full of this type of teaching? The New Covenant was not an afterthought, it was God’s intent from the beginning and revealed in seed form to his servant Abraham.
Meditation and discussion
If the law of Moses and the Abrahamic covenant existed side by side before Christ, does this change your understanding of the Old Testament?
How could Paul reconcile his years of study and rabbinical training with belief in Jesus?
What Biblical paradoxes can you identify? How do you reconcile them?
What am I trying to add to Christ’s work on the cross?