Although everyone and their uncle has commented on Romans, there are surprisingly few good recent commentaries, especially ones that deal with the New Perspective on Paul. Another thing that should be noted is that many of the second-rate commentaries are so close to being first-rate that this distinction is a bit arbitrary. I judge moderns on the basis of whether they deal with the NPP, and whether or not they interact with traditional Reformed exegesis, although some of the first-rate commentaries here do not interact with the NPP. Again, pleas remember that I am here commenting on individual commentaries, not on series such as Calvin, Kistemaker/Hendricksen, and Lenski

First-rate: Cranfield, Haldane, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Moo, Schreiner, Mounce, Murray

Second-rate: Barrett, Barth, Boice, Bruce, Dunn, Fitzmyer, Godet, Kasemann, Lange, Morris, Plumer, Dumbrell, Sanday/Headlam

Third-rate: Dodd, Harrisville, Luther (not very good on Romans)

Forthcoming: Longenecker (NIGTC), Kruse (PNTC), Jewett (Herm)

Conservative: Haldane, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Moo, Schreiner (though he has changed some positions for the better since his commentary-writing), Mounce, Murray, Boice, Bruce, Godet, Morris, Plumer, Dumbrell, Luther

Moderate: Cranfield, Barth, Lange, Sanday/Headlam, Harrisville

Liberal: Dunn, Fitzmyer, Kasemann, Dodd

Of the forthcoming commentaries, Longenecker will be moderately conservative, Kruse will be conservative, and Jewett will be moderately liberal.

Sarah’s Resurrection

Genesis 17:15-27
Have you ever had the distinct feeling that all was going along so well, until something happened, and God just really complicated your life? Suppose you thought that what you wanted for your life you seemed to actually possess. You had the life you wanted. But then God comes into the picture, and complicates your life to the point of distraction. You wonder why you ever became a Christian, since your life was so easy and simple before you were a Christian, or for as long as you had the life you wanted. Now, you have to do some radical re-thinking of your life. You don’t know what is in store for you, and yet you feel just a little excited about what God is going to do with you. I think that that is just about how Abraham must have felt when God came and shattered his comfortable world.

Abraham must have thought by now that Ishmael was the chosen seed of the promise. Surely God would honor that act that Sarah and Abraham had done. Surely God would bless Ishmael and make the promised seed come through him, since Sarah was obviously well past child-bearing age. There was no way that the promise could be fulfilled in any other way…was there? God had never told Abraham how this child of the promise would come into being, and so naturally, Abraham simply assumed that Ishmael would be the child.

First, then God tells Abraham that Sarai will no longer be called Sarai, but Sarah. There is little difference between Sarai and Sarah. Both names mean “princess.” However, “Sarah” is the later form of the name. Merely the fact that her name is being changed means something to her. As we saw last week, a name change is a pretty important thing. That is not a small thing. Now Sarah’s name is being changed. that means that she is a new person. She is no longer the old person that she was, but now she has a new identity. How is that new identity going to play out? Well, let’s see.

Now God drops on Abraham something of a bomb. He is talking to Abraham, and says that he will bless Sarah. Now right there, that is somewhat startling. Bless Sarah in the future? And then comes the real shocker: Sarah is going to have a son! Impossible! She is well past the age of menopause, and yet here is God promising that Sarah will have a son. And God is emphatic here in two ways. The way God says it is to say “ I have already done it,” as if it were a thing already accomplished. That is how certain this thing is. It’s as good as done. The second way that God emphasizes this blessing is to repeat Himself. In Hebrew, repetition is one very important way in which something can be emphasized. That is what happens here. Twice God says that He will bless her.
Why does God do this? What is so important about Sarah being the mother of this child? The answer is that Ishmael is the son born of human action. Sarah and Abraham conspired together to get a son through Hagar. That was a son born of the will of man. But Isaac would be born entirely of grace. In chapter 21, The Lord visits Sarah, and she conceived. This birth was entirely of grace. That is why God chose that Sarah should be the mother of the promised child. God wanted all the glory for Himself. He did not want Abraham to take any credit for this birth, even though God would use Abraham as His instrument. That is why God visits Sarah, and God gives the name to Isaac. In exactly the same way would God appear to Mary many centuries later. Mary also would have a child by supernatural birth. It happened “not by the will of man.” Mary was a virgin just as Sarah was barren. Neither could have a child unless God accomplished a miracle.

Sarah is just like Mary. But Sarah is also just like us. We are barren and lifeless. There is no way that we can make ourselves alive, since we are dead in sin and transgression. But God can make us alive together with Christ. Christ’s resurrection was a new life out of death. Remember that barrenness was a form of death. Sarah was dead, but God made her alive. Jesus was dead, but God made Him alive. We are dead, but God makes us alive. That is what Jesus is talking about in John 3 with Nicodemus and being born again. With men this is impossible. Abraham and Sarah could indeed have a child through human means, using Hagar as a surrogate mother. However, they could not have a child in and of themselves without God being the one to bring it about.
Now, what is Abraham’s reaction to all this? Well, it is not entirely clear how Abraham reacts. Some people, such as Martin Luther, think that Abraham’s reaction was one of pure joy, with no doubt at all. After all, one can laugh out of doubt, or one can laugh out of joy. Both are possible. However, which one is likely here? I think that there is some doubt here. Abraham had just been told that God would accomplish a miracle. He might very well doubt. How could this possibly happen? Sarah was barren, and Abraham himself was quite old. And so the next two verses are an attempt on Abraham’s part to avoid the deeply unsettling claim that God is making on him now. This is very similar to us, isn’t it? We often think that God can’t do it. And so we laugh at the prospect.

The disciples did this, too. Look at Mark 8:14-21: 14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” 16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. 20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” 21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” The disciples had even witnessed Jesus doing this miracle, and yet they still did not believe. There was nothing for it but to reprimand the disciples for their lack of faith.

We have a hard enough time believing that God can bring life out of death. But then, even if we believe that, we have a hard time believing that God could get us out of the mess we’re in. Do you believe that God can do such things? Do you believe in the God of the Bible?

Abraham then tries to bargain a bit with God. He thinks that God might be serious. However, he needs to know for sure whether iIshmael will be the promised seed or not. It is subtle, how he goes about doing this. He says, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” This form of expression is characteristic of someone who is uttering a wish or a desire. What Abraham is asking is no less than that Ishmael might be the child of the promise. God quickly corrects Abraham here. It will be Sarah’s child, and NO OTHER, that will be the child of the promise. And, most importantly, the covenant will be with Isaac, not with Ishmael. Ishmael will be blessed, and will become numerous. There is still blessing there for him. But the covenant will be with Isaac.

The name Isaac means “He laughs.” Obviously, the Lord gives the child that name because Abraham laughed here. But I wonder who will get the last laugh? Obviously, the Lord gets the last laugh, always. It says in Psalm 2 that “He who sits in the heavens laughs at His enemies.” And certainly, God will be the one to laugh when Isaac is in fact born.

We noticed earlier that Isaac will be born not through the will of man. That is true of Jesus Christ as well, and it is true of the church. John 1:11ff, talking about Christ, says this: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” are you born in this way? That is, are you born again, from above? Are you born of the Holy Spirit? Are you born into the kingdom of God, not of your own will, nor of your own flesh, but of God? How is this possible? You might laugh as Abraham laughed, at this prospect. How can these things be? But you are only asking the question that Nicodemus asked. Jesus told him that it happens through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how Mary became pregnant while remaining a virgin. This is how life is brought out of death. Jesus was raised according to the Holy Spirit, or by the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in the first few verses of Romans.

It is important to realize here that Sarah experiences a resurrection here. She is given a new name, and life is promised to her. In her resurrection from the dead is our resurrection from the dead. Unless Sarah had been raised from the dead, Isaac would never have been born. Unless Isaac had been born, Jesus would not have been born. So unless Sarah is resurrected from the dead, then we remain in our sins. Sarah’s resurrection points to Christ’s resurrection, which point to our resurrection from the dead.

How should we then live? Well, we need to know something about the church. That is what the burden of the last part of our passage is. After God had finished talking to Abraham, Abraham shows his obedience to his Lord, by doing exactly what the Lord had told him to do. Abraham has everyone in his house circumcised. That means that there are some among that group who are not of the promise. Ishmael is circumcised, yes, but he is not part of the promise. Not all those who are Israel are of Israel, as Paul says. There are wheat and tares, as Jesus promised that there would be. We need to know that about the church for two reasons. One is that we need to be generous to those around us. We can’t assume that they are unbelievers. We can’t assume that we know where they are headed when they die. At the same time, we also need to look to our own faith, and take heed, lest we fall. Just because we are a member of the church, does not mean that we are saved. There are those out there today who say that if you are a member of a church, then you are automatically saved. That is called presumption. It is presuming on your membership in a church, that God will love you. That is just like trying to get a child by going to Hagar. Instead, we should trust that God will do His work with the Holy Spirit. And then we should obey, just as Abraham does. Abraham trusts God so much, that he is willing to undergo the excruciating pain of circumcision, in order to be obedient to the covenant that God had made with him.

Remember from last week that we are to cut off those sins that so easily entangle us, and we are to run the race that God has set for us.

Can God get you out of this mess? Yes, He can. However, He might also let you face some of the consequences of your sin. Just because He does that does not mean that he hates you. God does discipline those He loves. This is how we should see ourselves.

The Incredible Covenant

Genesis 17:1-14
How often do we want a god after our own image? We interview God like this: “I don’t know if you exist or not, but I am interested in having you for an insurance policy, and maybe for a personal vending machine. The job for psychiatrist is also open, as is personal teddy bear. But there are certain aspects of God that I don’t want in any of these jobs. I don’t want a god who talks about hell. I don’t want a vicious, homicidal maniac who would actually send someone to hell. That’s not my kind of god. I want a user-friendly god. I want…I want…I want.” But what God is saying to us is that that is not an option. You get the God of the Bible, or you don’t get any god. When the God of the Bible offers to you a covenant, you don’t have the option of dictating the terms. You can either accept the covenant as God gives it, along with the God that is offered. Or you can reject the covenant, and face the consequences. Let’s look into this covenant.

The first thing we see is that there is a time gap of thirteen years from the last chapter. This is a gap of silence, much like the time between when we see Jesus at the age of 12, and when he is full grown, and ready to begin his ministry. In this time, Abram might have been doing two things. The first is that he probably thought that Ishmael would be the heir of his estate. Here is a son, legitimately born to him. God had never specified who was to be the mother. So Abram concluded that the covenant would be fulfilled in Ishmael. But on the other hand, Abram in that time period might have been experiencing doubts. God hadn’t spoken to him in such a long time. Maybe there was no more to be said about the promises. Maybe God was done with Abram. In any case, Abram might have been tempted to think that there was no more revelation to come to him concerning the promise.

But there was further revelation. God appears to Abram in a vision. This was a glorious appearing of our Lord to Abram. Obviously, there would have been some manner in which God’s presence was cloaked, since no one may see God and live. However, this was a real appearance of God. It was glorious enough to send Abram to his knees, which is how anyone should behave if royalty comes in front of them. They should go to their knees like Abram. Abram worshipped God here.

Now what did God say? God required obedience of Abram. Up until now, the covenant has all been about what God will do for Abram. Abram has had nothing to do with the fulfillment of it at all. But now, God is going to require of Abram something. That something is complete obedience. The word “blameless” there means “wholeness, integrity, sinlessness.” It is the same word used to describe Job’s character in the first verse of that great book. God is not here instituting a new covenant that is different from the one in chapter 15. Rather, God is building on top of it something else. He is expanding the covenant, both its promises and its obligations.

God expands the promises by saying that Abram will be a father of many nations. Before, god had only said that Abram would be the father of a great multitude. But now, Abram is said to be the father of a multitude of nations. That expands considerably what is meant. Before, the promise could have been fulfilled if Abram merely had a great number of physical descendents. However, now it is only possible to fulfill this promise in a spiritual sense, since Abram is not the father of the Greeks or Romans, or native Americans, or many other peoples on earth. God greatly expands the promises.

In token of expanding the promises, God expands Abram’s name to Abraham. The name Abram simply means, “father of many.” Abraham means, “father of a great multitude.” Just as surely as God expands Abram’s name into Abraham, so also will God expand the promises given to him. Now a name change is a pretty serious thing. Suppose I were to come up to you an say, “your name is no longer Harry, but it is now Joe.” How would you feel about that? If we all started changing our names at the drop of a hat, there would be absolute chaos. Women who are married know how much trouble it is to change their last name. But here, the promise is so important, and the covenant is so important, that nothing less than a new man is required. God makes a new man out of Abram by giving him a new name. This is just like regeneration. God makes us into new people by giving us the name of His Son, Christ. That is why we are called “Christian.” We belong to Christ. We have a new name. We are new people. So also did God do to Abram.

Notice something else that is interesting about this new name. Before we hear this new name, Abram is only called Abram throughout the first part of Genesis. After this point in time, when God changes his name, he is only called Abraham. There is no going back in redemption. Once you are a new person, there is no going back to the old person. That old person is left behind. All there is now is the new person. We must remember that about ourselves. So often, we want to go backwards in time to what we used to do when we were not regenerated, when we were not Christians. That is not an option for us. Just as Abraham could only look forward now, so also we must look forward. We can see this principle at work in Jesus Christ as well. Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Resurrection is also irreversible. You can’t go back to being dead, once you are truly alive. Christ was truly alive, and so He always will be. This is part of the promise that God gave to Abraham.

God promised Abraham a Seed. This was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, of course. That is what Paul says in Galatians 3:15-18: “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘and to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God. So as to make the promise void. For if he inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; But God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” Now, that means that people from every tribe, tongue and nation will be Abraham’s seed, if they belong to the One Seed, who is Christ. That is how the promise is fulfilled. God greatly expanded the promise.

Secondly, God expands the obligations. Previously, God only required faith. But now, God requires obedience. There will be the obedience later required in the writing down of the law. But for now, that obedience is limited to circumcision. Now, the order in which this occurs is important. First God gives the promise, and fulfills it. Then God requires obedience. God requires obedience for our sanctification. Let us carefully define our terms here. Salvation can mean two things. Salvation can mean the time point when we come to Christ and are “saved.” That is one meaning of salvation. Our obedience plays no part at all in that sense of the word “salvation.” However, there is another sense of the word “salvation” used in Scripture. This is a broader sense, which includes our whole lives, resulting in the resurrection of our bodies from the dead, and the riddance once and for all of sin in our lives. That is ultimate salvation from the very presence of evil. Our obedience plays a key role in that definition of salvation. That is where obedience belongs. We can see it at work here in our passage. First God brings Abram out of the land of Ur of the Chaldees. Then God makes his promises to him. Finally, after Abram is saved by faith alone, resting on God’s righteousness, now God requires obedience of him. It is just as important to know where obedience fits into our Christian lives, as it is to recognize that we must do good works in order to come to the end of our pilgrimage and be saved in the broader sense. So what is the obedience which God requires of Abraham?

The answer is circumcision. What is circumcision? It is the removal of the foreskin. But what does it mean? to come to that, we must recognize what it meant in the ANE. Most of the countries surrounding Abraham practiced circumcision. But they did it for a very different reason. Usually it was done when the boy was about thirteen or fourteen years of age, or whenever he came to puberty. It was a “rite of passage” into manhood. Notice that Ishmael was thirteen years of old. Probably Abraham was wondering whether he should circumcise his son Ishmael or not. God picks just the right time to appear to Abraham. The answer is that all descendents of Abraham are to be circumcised. We say that circumcision is a sign of the covenant. The meaning of it can be gleaned from the very last verse of our section. Verse 14 says, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant.” We can see then that circumcision was a double-edged sword, as it were. Either your foreskin was cut, or you were cut off! This might seem like a rather heavy penalty for such a seemingly small thing. But this was a big deal. Circumcision marked the initiation into the covenant community. If you were circumcised, you were in, and if you weren’t, then you were out. Interestingly, when God says that He establishes the covenant, the word there is “to cut a covenant.” So circumcision either cuts you into the covenant, or cuts you out of it. Why is this important to us? Well, it is important because baptism replaces circumcision. What is true of the one is true of the other. How is that? Circumcision referred to One who would be cut off for the transgression of His people. That is, circumcision referred to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sin. Just as the sacrament of circumcision meant that if one failed to obey, they would be cut off, so also Jesus put Himself in that place of being cut off. Just as the sacrament meant that the old nature was to be cut off, so also Jesus cuts off the sin nature in us, by His work on the cross. He gives us a new name in Him. He regenerates our hearts, so that we will be obedient to Him our entire lives.

Circumcision points to the NT sacrament of baptism. Indeed, they are the same, except that one was for the time period before Christ, and the other is for the time period after Christ. How do we know that they are connected? Because of Colossians 2, which says this: “In Him (Christ), also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Circumcision points us to Jesus, just as baptism does. This passage is one of the major reasons why we baptize our infants. The connection between baptism and circumcision means that any objection to infant baptism would also have to be made against infant circumcision.

So what does this all mean for us in our everyday lives? Well, are you regenerated? Did you put off the old man and put on the new man? Did you take to yourself a new name, that of Christian? Did you participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, His cutting off, and being resurrected from the dead together with Him? Are all these things true? Then act like it! Many Christians, in keeping with the God they want, also live the lives that they want to live. But if we cannot choose the God we want, then we cannot live as we want, either. We are instead to do what Paul commands us to do in 2 Corinthians 10:5: “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” Every thought captive. That means that every area of our lives is subject to God and His will. Nothing is exempt from it. We are not to be “Sunday-only” Christians, or, which is worse, “Christmas and Easter” kinds of Christians. Instead, we are part of the new creation, and we had better act like it. Leave the old creation behind. That is the significance of the son being circumcised on the eighth day: the old creation week was done. Now, on the resurrection day, the eighth day, the old nature is cut off, just as Christ was resurrected on the eighth day. That points to an irreversible new life. There is no going back. There is no trying to make God into the image we would like Him to be. There is no idolatry. None of that. Leave it all behind.

That would mean leaving behind worldly treasure, if they are in our way. Are they part of our old life? Then cut it off. What about worldly music? Is it part of your old life? Cut it off. What about old habits like bitterness, anger, lust, a sharp tongue, disrespect for husbands, lack of love for wives, selfishness: are these things holding you back from the new life in Christ? Then CUT THEM OFF! Ultimately, what circumcision is supposed to be is a circumcision of the heart. The old has to go, and the new has to come.