For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
“I have made you the father of many nations” is a quotation from the covenant God made with Abraham that he would have many descendants and all the males would be circumcised (Genesis 17:5). But for Roman Christians [and for us!], Paul saw its relevance in the context of (a) God previously saying to Abraham “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (when God called Abraham and his kindred to go to another land, Gen 12:1-3), and (b) Genesis 15:6, about an earlier promise to Abraham, saying, “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
The same point was central to an early letter we have from Paul, written to the churches formed during his first missionary journey in Galatia: “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham” (Gal 3:6).
In today’s passage he affirmed this message to the believers in Rome: “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
This understanding of God’s mission for the world through the generations, may well be part of the gospel which, Paul insisted, he had received directly by a revelation of Jesus, “so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal 1:11-17). ‘Gentiles’ and ‘nations’ are the same word in New Testament Greek, ‘ethne’, with different languages, cultures, ethnicities.
So when Paul had done this evangelising and discipling work (Acts 14:21) amongst all the peoples in the eastern part of the empire from Jerusalem to the coast opposite Italy, he wrote his letter to the Christians in the capital, hoping to come to them for mutual encouragement in faith, and be sent on by them to the peoples in the western part, as far as Spain (Rom 1:11-12, 15:18-24).
Loving God, as we review our parts in your mission, please help us: to appreciate the diversity of cultures and different ways of expressing faith in you; to give and receive encouragement in faith; to discern the next appropriate steps and actions you want us to take for our communities, societies and nations to live more by the fruit of your Spirit – with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Amen
The Rev’d Bernie Collins, retired minister, member of Avenue St. Andrew’s URC, Southampton