Heirs of the World – Romans 4:13-17

stars-abrahamAbraham’s faith was demonstrated before the law was given by many hundreds of years, thus he was not saved by the law. Chronologically this seems obvious, but the Second Temple period texts cited above indicate at least some Jews looked to Abraham as a proto-Jew or “first proselyte.” Kruse cites Mekhilta Ex. 22:20 (101a), “Abraham called himself a proselyte (ger), for it is written, I am a stranger (ger) and a sojourner with you (Gen. 23:4) (Romans, 210).

Paul says Abraham was promised his offspring would become “heirs of the world,” although Genesis defines the land promise narrowly. But by the first century, there were several Second Temple texts that expanded that land promise to include the whole world (Sirach 44:21; Jub. 32:19; 1 Enoch 5:7, 4 Ezra 6:55-59). Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5), very similar to 1 Enoch 5:7.

Sirach 44:21 (NRSV) Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring; that he would make him as numerous as the dust of the earth, and exalt his offspring like the stars, and give them an inheritance from sea to sea and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth.

1 Enoch 5:7 But to the elect there shall be light, joy, and peace, and they shall inherit the earth. To you, wicked ones, on the contrary, there will be a curse.

Jubilees 32:19 And I shall give to your seed all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever.”

All of these texts are based on the Hebrew Bible Isaiah 2, for example, describes Zion as the exalted mountain to which all the nations will stream. From Zion the Lord himself will reign and the nations will come to Zion to “learn the ways of the Lord.” In Daniel 7:14 the Ancient of Days gives a “son of man” authority to rule over all of the nations in an “everlasting dominion that will never end.” Even a text like Psalm 2 indicates the Lord’s anointed king could potentially receive the nations as an inheritance.

Paul certainly looks forward to a future kingdom (1 Cor 15:20-28, Phil 2:5-11), but in this text the descendants of Abraham are those who are being justified by faith in Jesus. Paul has a Jewish, apocalyptic view of what God will do in the future. But here in Romans 4 he connects the “offspring of Abraham” with those who have faith in Jesus, the “in Christ” people. The nations are the Gentiles who are being justified by faith and not works of the Law.

Imagine how this would sound to Roman Christians who were used to hearing that Rome controlled the world (Jewett, Romans, 325). It is unimaginable that an extremely small group of followers of Jesus would somehow challenge the Roman Empire. From the perspective of the mid-first century, Christianity had no impact on the culture of the Empire. But it was not long at all before Christianity began to challenge the thinking of the Roman world.

6 thoughts on “Heirs of the World – Romans 4:13-17

  1. This article has a very interesting point of view to look at with the example of Abraham. This context gives me a better understanding when I read the promise that God gives Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. When God promises to make Abraham a great nation, he may be referring to the impact that the life of Abraham had on so many people. If you think about just the book of Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example to reach both groups of people-the Jews and the Gentiles. Even though Genesis was written up to 1500 years before Romans, Paul still uses Abraham as an example, and God uses the story of Abraham to create a great nation. With Abraham being “The father of the Jews,” and also a Gentile, Paul is bridging an amazing gap to bring these two people groups under one common idea. He wants to describe to the people that the law is no longer a tool for salvation, but that people can only be saved by faith.

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  2. There really was not a question posted that I should be responding to, but I do find it interesting to think of Abraham as the father of Gentiles as Paul was relating him to the early church, and not just as the father of the Jews as I always have thought of him. I had also not realized until this class that abraham was not “Jewish”, he was a stranger. Very interesting to see what Jewish scholars would say about the many examples of people in the O.T. that were not Jewish but they received the Lord’s providence. Specially because Abraham is a prominent figure for the nation of Israel, I wonder how they feel about the fact that he started out a gentile and because of his faith, God chose him to bless the nations. If Jews believe that they are the “elect” how can they ignore, or explain the fact that it says in Romans 4:13 “heir of the world” not just “Israelite”?

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  3. As mentioned in the blog article above, the idea that Christians would be “heirs of the world,” that through Abraham a King of Kings would be born who would reign over all nations, was preposterous to the Romans. They would not have imagined that Rome would ever be anything less than the rulers of the entire world, yet the apocalyptic messages spread by Paul and the Prophets of old said the Son of Man would reign, and that these followers would be co-heirs did not fit within their realm of reason. Roman Christians, would probably found it confusing to hear that they were able to be counted as Abraham’s descendants as well. It was regarding faith though that they could be identified as such. For as Abraham was credited righteousness and justification through his belief, belief passed down through all generations, so too were the Gentiles now able to become righteous and justified through faith. Going back to Genesis 17, the first chapter God appears promising a covenant with Abraham, regarding his descendants, the first thing mentioned was that it Abraham was to “walk faithfully and be blameless,” before the Lord. His faith was mentioned before the physical circumcision sign was established (which his biological descendants carried out all the way through to Paul’s day). Now that Christ had died and rose again, both Jews and Gentiles were saved first and foremost by their faith. This would have been a difficult topic for Paul to preach on, but it was important that the Roman Christians understand they had equal standing and claim to salvation with the Jewish Christians. Paul’s main point with this topic, as Moo mentioned, “Abraham unites all believers. He is the father of believing gentiles (v. 11 b) and of believing Jews (v. 12). From a strictly human standpoint, Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, but from the spiritual standpoint Abraham is the father of all believers”(Moo, 77). This explanation was what Paul had been telling the Jewish and Gentile Christians alike, because it was vital that they understand how they obtained their standing with God as Christians, as heirs with Christ. They needed a breakdown on why they had been saved, just as they needed one on how they were saved, because history and knowledge were highly important to citizens in Rome, as well as to the Jews and Gentiles scattered throughout the Empire.

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  4. It makes me so happy to know that “Father Abraham” isn’t bad theology. I loved it all growing up and it still makes me smile.

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