I want to begin this morning with a story. It’s a story found in the early chapters of Frist Maccabees. The Jews in the church in Rome knew this story well. Jews today know it well too. It’s the story behind the celebration of Hanukkah and it’s one of the stories at the centre of Jewish identity. The story begins with the Jews living under the rule of the Hellenistic Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus was a ruthless and brutal king who believed himself to be the incarnation of the Greek god Zeus. Most of the people he ruled feared him and were willing to give him the honour he demanded, but not the Jews. Well, at least not some of the Jews. Almost exactly two hundred years before Jesus crucifixion, Antiochus decided he had had enough of these uppity Jews with their “one true God”. With the help of his soldiers he suppressed Jewish religious practises in Jerusalem and across Judea. He defiled the temple. He built pagan altars and forced the people to worship at them. He forced Jews to profane the Sabbath. He sent enforcers everywhere to make sure no one offered sacrifices to the Lord or circumcised their sons. The penalty for violating Antiochus’ decrees was death, so most people went along with what he demanded.
One priest named Mattathias, however, was disgusted with what was happening. With his five sons he went out to the desert, to a place called Modein, so that they could do what was right and hopefully escape the king’s wrath. It didn’t work out as Mattathias hoped. Antiochus sent his men to enforce the apostasy. Mattathias refused and said, “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers” (1 Maccabees 2:19-20). As Mattathias was saying this to Antiochus’ enforcer, a local Jewish man stepped forward to offer a sacrifice on the pagan altar that had been built. Mattathias saw red. In a fit of rage, he killed the Jewish man on the altar and then killed the soldier who had come to enforce Antiochus’ decrees. Mattathias then destroyed the altar. This was the beginning of the Maccabean revolt. Mattathias and his sons fled into the mountains along with “many who were seeking righteousness and justice” (1 Maccabees 2:29).
Others joined forces with the Maccabees and pretty soon they were fighting back. What’s interesting is that, while the rebels did take the battle to Antiochus, the story first tells us that they went hunting for Jews who had apostatised. When they found these compromisers, the Maccabees killed them. They tore down pagan altars. They also scoured the land for uncircumcised boys and forcibly circumcised them. The writer of First Maccabees says, “They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand” (2:48).
On his deathbed, Mattathias addressed his sons. In a “time of destruction and fierce wrath” he exhorted them to be zealous for the law and to give their lives “for the covenant of our fathers,” to remember the “works of the fathers, which they did in their generations; and receive great glory and an everlasting name” (2:49-51). He asked his sons, “Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (2:52). From Abraham, Mattathias went on to give other examples of men who were faithful to the covenant in the face of difficult times: Joseph, Phinehas, Joshua, Caleb, David, Elijah, Daniel, and his three friends, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. Mattathias urged his sons see that, “generation to generation…none who hope in him will lack strength…be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will be glorified” (2:61-64).
The story of Mattathias and his sons is helpful to have in mind as we make our way into Romans 4. We can’t say whether or not Paul had the Maccabees in mind, but we can say that the Maccabees represented a typical Jewish attitudes towards the law and their own identity as covenant people. If you remember back—way back—to Romans 3, the last thing Paul was talking about was a right perspective of the torah, the law that God gave the Jews through Moses. Growing up, Paul had learned to sing the law to the tune of Jewish exclusivism and nationalism. Like the Maccabees, he saw the law as reason to boast. As I said last time, this “boasting” wasn’t so much about boasting in good works because those works earn us favour with God, but boasting in the sense of the Jews viewing the law and the things it required as a sign of Jewish exclusivity. They were God’s chosen, they knew it and they knew who they were because God had given them a law to make them distinctive. The law drew a boundary around them and that meant that all those outside the boundary were not chosen. The Jews looked forward to the day when the Lord would come and rescue them and destroy everyone else. They were singing the law to the wrong tune.
Mattathias words to his sons really exemplify the error that the Jews had fallen into. “You will be gloried,” he said to them. “You will be vindicated when the Lord returns…if you have been loyal to the law and shown you are truly the Lord’s people, just as Abraham and David did.” But wait a minute. Was Abraham really glorified by God for hunting down Gentiles and the lawless and killing them? No. That’s not what God had called Abraham to do. Abraham and his family were to be a blessing to the nations, introducing them to God himself.
The Jews of Paul’s day were looking forward to a coming day of wrath and, like Mattathias, they believed that the Lord would glorify or vindicate—he would reckon as righteous—all those who showed their covenant loyalty by obedience to the law. Like Mattathias, they appealed to Abraham as an example of someone who was reckoned as righteous for his faithfulness to the law. Now, Paul, saw a coming day of wrath too—just as Jesus had. The Jews weren’t wrong on that part of it. But in Chapter 3, Paul made a very strong point: God is not just God of the Jews; he is God of the Gentiles as well. And so Paul showed that if this is true, it also follows that justification—being counted as part of the covenant family—must be “by faith apart from works of the law”. When the Lord returns in judgement, he’s not going to know his people by their loyalty to the law—and certainly not for the sort of slaughter carried out by the Maccabees in the name of the law. No, the Lord will know his covenant people by their faith. But faith in what? Or faith in whom? That’s the really important question and Paul will bring us back to it later. In Chapter 4, Paul now turns to Abraham to make his point about faith. The Jews appealed to Abraham too, sort of using him the way Mattathias did as a proof-text to prove his point. But Paul doesn’t just use Abraham as an example to prove his point about faith and works. Paul takes us back to Abraham because he’s talking about covenant membership—remember that that’s what “justification” is about—and Abraham is where the covenant started.
In 4:1 Paul writes:
What’s happening here is that Paul is anticipating a possible question that might follow from his point so far. If God is impartial, if God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, if he will justify both the circumcised and the uncircumcised on the basis of faith, someone’s bound to ask if this means that all Christians, Jew and Gentile alike, are now part of Abraham’s fleshy family. This is what happened in the Galatian churches and the result was that some there were insisting that the Gentiles, in order to be Christians, had to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath and Jewish feast days, and eat only clean food—in other words, even Gentile Christians had to observe the law. A related issue—maybe even the same issue—had come up in Rome and Romans 4 is part of Paul’s answer. He goes on in verse 2:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
What kind of family does Abraham have? Ethnic Jews have the law. Ethnic Jews have “works”. If Abraham were the father of a strictly ethnic family, then this family would be defined by the law and it would be identifiable by works of the law. If Abraham was justified by the Lord based on works of the law, he and his family would be able to make an ethnic boast and any Gentiles who wished to belong to Abraham’s family would have to become Jewish proselytes—they would have to be circumcised and observe the law—they would have to become ethnic Jews. This is just what the Jews believed and this is just what they required of Gentiles who wanted to be part of the covenant family.
But Paul quickly condemns this idea. “Not before God,” he writes. In other words, “Not as far as God is concerned.” And now Paul explains what is true. He explains what kind of family Abraham really has. Look at verse 3:
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Now we need to review another story that was even more integral to Jewish identity than the story about Matthias and the Maccabees. This is the story of Abraham in Genesis 15.
Abraham was living in Mesopotamia with his family when the word of the Lord came to him, calling him to leave his family and his country and to follow him to a faraway country. The Lord had promised that if Abraham would follow him, he would make his name great and make him a blessing to all the families of the earth. It was a crazy thing to do. It made no sense. But Abraham trusted the Lord and followed him to Canaan. By the time we get to Genesis 15, Abraham is an old man. His wife, Sarah, is an old woman, decades past her child-bearing years. The Lord has taken care of Abraham through various adventures in Canaan, but Abraham is struggling with the Lord’s promises to make his name great. Abraham has no sons—no children of any kind. And so Abraham, one night, cries out to the Lord: “What will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (15:3-4). The Lord answers by taking Abraham outside to look up at the night sky. He directs Abraham to look up at stars, too many to count, and promises him, “So shall your descendants be.” And then follows the verse quoted by St. Paul, “And [Abraham] believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Abraham believed and so the Lord goes on to promise more. He promised that he brought Abraham out of the land of Ur so that he and his descendants could possess the land of Canaan. This seemed pretty far-fetched to Abraham and he asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” (15:8) In response the Lord chooses to make a demonstration that will reveal his character as the one who is perfectly and eternally faithful. The Lord commands Abraham to sacrifice a heifer, a goat, a turtledove, and a pigeon and to cut them in two, laying the halves out to make a sort of path between them. In the night the Lord comes to Abraham and he speaks. He assured Abraham that he would make good on his promises. Abraham’s descendants would be slaves for four hundred years in a foreign land, but the Lord would bring judgement on the nation that had enslaved them, he would free Abraham’s descendants and bring them back to settle Canaan. Then the Lord appeared as a smoking fire pot and a burning torch. He passed back and forth between the halved carcasses of the animals Abraham had sacrificed and spoke his promise again. The text says, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” (15:18). That was the day when the covenant people was born and Genesis 15 tells us how it happened and what the basis of that covenant is.
Genesis 15 is a remarkable portrayal of the faithfulness of God. In passing between the animal carcasses he was, using the covenantal conventions of Abraham’s culture, effectively saying to Abraham: “May I be cut in two as these animals should I ever break my covenant with you.” Of course, God cannot be killed and cut in two. The implication is that he is faithful to his covenant promises without fail. That gave Abraham all the reason in the world to believe and to trust in the Lord, but that said, Genesis 15 tells us that Abraham believed even before the Lord’s dramatic covenant ceremony.
For Paul, the key thing in the story is the statement in verse 6 that Abraham believe the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. For Paul, there are three levels of meaning here. “Reckon” is a bookkeeping term. In very simple terms, like a bookkeeper reckoning whether things add up or not, in the ledger column titled “right” or “justified” the Lord wrote “faith”. If we look at the statement in light of the lawcourt metaphor that Paul has used before, Abraham’s faith is the sure sign that he has already been acquitted or vindicated by the judge. But, most importantly for Paul, Abraham’s faith was the sure and certain sign that he was in covenant with God. God sealed it with the dramatic covenant ceremony and then went on to give a more detailed promise about Abraham’s descendants and their inheritance.
Now, before we go on, it’s important to note what Paul is not saying. Paul is not saying, as many people do, that God was looking for moral righteousness as the basis for establishing a covenant, but couldn’t find a person righteous enough and had to settle for Abraham’s faith as a substitute. That’s, more or less, how this passage is sometimes described: God wanted to work through someone righteous, but since there is no one righteous he had to settle instead for someone with faith. This is the result of people misunderstanding what “righteousness” meant for Paul in the context of Judaism. Righteousness, as Paul uses the term, doesn’t refer to moral uprightness. Righteousness refer to membership in the covenant. Faith is not a substitute for righteousness, because righteousness is not and never has been a qualification for covenant membership. This is key to the point Paul is building towards. Faith is the sign, faith is the badge that reveals covenant membership. Paul is saying that Abraham believed God’s promise—he had faith—and God acknowledged that faith as evidence of covenant membership.
Paul goes on in verses 4 and 5:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…
Paul slides from the bookkeeping metaphor into a work metaphor. As everyone knows, wages aren’t a gift if you worked for them. But Abraham didn’t work for his wages. God declared him to be in the right, to be justified, to be part of the covenant family—actually the first member of the covenant family—based not on his works, but because he believed, because he had faith. Abraham was counted righteous by grace. Notice how Paul describes the object of justifying faith. Abraham’s faith was in “him who justifies the ungodly.”
Now, was Abraham ungodly? For Jews, the law was the standard of godliness. How could Abraham have been godly when the law wouldn’t be given to Moses for hundreds of years? Well, there was an idea beginning to take root in Paul’s day—an idea strongly roots in rabbinic Judaism today—that Abraham had some kind of advance knowledge of the law before it was given. Genesis says that Abraham believed the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, but when they read that passage, many Jews, like Mattathias Maccabeus, read into Abraham’s “belief” works of the law. Mattathias urged his sons to be faithful in works of the law, like Abraham, and they would be reckoned righteous.
To this Paul is giving an adamant, “No!” Abraham had no knowledge of the law when God called him. Abraham was a pagan when God found him, and in that, Abraham, the father of the covenant family, is actually much more like the pagan, Gentile converts to Christianity than he is like Jews or Jewish Christians. In Abraham, God justified an ungodly man. Most Jews weren’t willing to even consider such an idea. How could God do such a thing? Exodus 23:7 (LXX) commands, “You shall not justify the ungodly.” There’s a host of other passages in the Old Testament that make the same point. If God is just, how could he justify an ungodly person?
This is the question that drives Paul back to Jesus. The death of Jesus makes sense of everything. The death of Jesus explains—it’s the only explanation for—why God would and could justify an ungodly person. The story of Abraham takes us back to the beginning and shows us what the covenant is and what the covenant is about and what God’s been doing all along. Abraham was an ungodly man—just like everyone else. Remember how Paul told us back in 1:18 that the wrath of God is revealed against ungodliness? What he meant by ungodliness was idolatry—rejection of God. That’s our root problem as humans. All of our other problems, all of our sins stem from the root problem of idolatry or ungodliness. Abraham was just like us—an ungodly man. But Abraham believed God’s promise and, in doing so, he became the first member of God’s covenant family. Membership in that family is now extended by grace to any and every other ungodly man or woman in this world who will trust God as Abraham did. Trust God and God will reckon that faith to you as righteousness, as justification, as membership in his covenant family.
To underscore his point, Paul points us to King David and to the words that David wrote in Psalm 32. Abraham made plenty of mistakes that show us he was ungodly, but for the most part Abraham was a pretty good guy. How far will God go with this reckoning by faith stuff? Well, David was an adulterer and a murderer. Look at verses 6-8:
Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
We know from one text that has survived from Paul’s day that many Jews understood David to have been forgiven because of his observance of the law. The implication of that text is that David really wasn’t ungodly. He did some awful things, but on the whole his lawkeeping tipped the scales and you, too, can be forgiven many sins if you will keep the law. But Paul points to David as someone who knew as well as anyone could that God is in the business of justifying not the godly, but the ungodly. David had failed to keep the law and he knew it. God’s forgiveness of him was pure grace, stemming from membership in a covenant meant from the beginning for the redemption of the ungodly and the grace that God showed him caused David to burst into song. That’s the basis of many of the psalms he wrote.
The covenant was and is God’s means of putting his Creation to rights and dealing with our ungodliness. The covenant is not and never has been for people who do works of the law or any other good works. No. The covenant is for the ungodly and for their redemption. This is what Israel had forgotten. This is why Paul has been stressing that Jesus has put everything back on track. In him the covenant has reached its climax. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s righteousness—his faithfulness to his covenant promises—has been revealed. And this answers Paul’s question from verse 1. Is Abraham our father according to the flesh? And the answer is: No. Abraham is our father according to God’s promise—and that goes for Jew and Gentile alike. Abraham became part of God’s family, Abraham found forgiveness, Abraham found new life by faith in the God who seeks out the ungodly and makes them—makes us—new. Brothers and Sisters, you and I become part of that same family in exactly the same way: by faith. If David could celebrate this a thousand years before Jesus died and was raised from the dead, just think how much greater reason we have to celebrate God’s faithfulness as it has been made a real and historical fact in the events of the Gospel story. Abraham was declared by God to be in the right, he was drawn into God’s saving covenant and became its first family member by faith, and we, too, are by faith are made part of that family. Abraham’s story is our story. Israel’s story is our story. And, Brothers and Sisters, that means Abraham’s calling is our calling. God has chosen us and blessed us with life so that we can bless the nations, proclaiming the life of God through the good news of King Jesus, crucified and risen.
Let us pray: Gracious Father, remind us always that we are reckoned your people not by who we are or what we do, but only by our trust in you. Strengthen our faith we pray that we would each day become more godly, that we would set aside everything that is not of you, and that we would seek ways to bless the world around us, revealing a glimpse of your kingdom and making fellow sinners hungry for your forgiving and life-giving grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.