We are about to delve into the life of Abraham through two perspectives. We will consider the narrative in the pages of Genesis as well as how the Apostle Paul, a rabbinical scholar, understood the life of this ancient nomad. You may not have studied his life message deeply 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. For me, 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? What was it about his life, his behavior or pedigree which caused God to favor him? Was he more righteous than others, more generous, did he 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. Sit with that for a while and allow it to sink in.
The above statements, if true, are indeed amazing. At this point, I would encourage the reader to pause and spend some time in Galatians chapters two and three to understand Paul’s discussion on grace. The message of 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.
In addition please read this section: Gal. 3:1–14
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.
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, both the law of Moses and the promise to Abram existed side by side throughout the Old Testament. The Abrahamic covenant and promise were not rescinded but rather existed side by side with the Levitical system until the Messiah was revealed. Said another way, the Abrahamic covenant and promise both predates and post-dates the ministry of Moses and Aaron.
Is this not why we see Gentiles finding favor with God in the Old Testament, even though they did not follow the laws requirements? Think of Rahab, Ruth, Naaman the Syrian, the widow at Zarephath, and of course the Ninivites. These people were not Jewish or Hebrew, but rather 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 promise of Abram which was not based on the law but received by faith. If unfamiliar with these individuals and their stories I would encourage you to look up the relevant passages in the Old Testament as a side study.
God knew all along that humans were powerless to satisfy the standards set down in the Mosaic law. But the law was still necessary because we had to recognize just how powerless we really are and then it(the law) is able to point us to God’s only sacrificial lamb. So God’s demonstration of grace was always his plan and not a new reality in the first century. 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”
The western mind has much difficulty holding seemingly opposing concepts in suspended tension. What do I mean and how does this inform our theology? Consider for example the truth that Jesus is fully God and fully man. The western 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.
For example, we may be drawn to the story of Christ feeding the 5000, healing the cripple or forgiving the woman caught in adultery, but then struggle with the judgment passed down on Ananias and Saphira or overturning the tables of the money-changers. Do we not see this is the same God? When struggling with our own humanity, it is good to understand his compassionate grace while holding him in a spirit of reverential fear.
Consider the two verses from Hebrews. Are you drawn to one and shun the other or can you appreciate them both equally?
So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.
Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and has insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. For we know the one who said, “I will take revenge. I will pay them back.”
He also said, “The Lord will judge his own people.”
It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
also consider Hebrews 12:16 & Hebrews 12:28
Nature provides a perfect example of the character of God. For example, we were in the Canadian Rockies last year. The mountains, valleys, and lakes are absolutely stunning in their beauty and majesty but we would not want to hike during a blizzard or stumble upon a grizzly bear. Similarly, the ocean can be calm and idyllic on a summer beach day but God forbid that we get caught on the water during a Category 5 hurricane. Is this not what we see in Psalm 19?
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
Are we able to hold in our souls the awe and terror of the Almighty as well as his mercy upon mercy to a thousand generations for those who fear him? For it is only by his grace that we stand, not our behavior, good deeds or upstanding moral character. I would suggest that the God we have come to know and love in the New Testament is exactly 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. In the same manner holy conduct and righteous living is still expected for the Christian, but it is to flow out of a transformed heart and not a facade to be worn.
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 who claimed to be Israel’s promised Messiah?
Does my understanding of God’s nature allow me to hold him in an attitude of reverential fear and compassionate grace at the same time?
Take some time to think about Biblical paradoxes; which ones come to mind and how do you reconcile them?