Belief is transcendent. It transcends the works of the law. It does not stand over and against the works of the law that were but reminders of a previous covenant shaped by previous faithfulness and a faithful response, but rather serves as the foundation. To make this point, Paul adds that “it is by faith so that it may be by grace” (4:16a). Grace, of course, was present in God’s dealings with Abraham, and did not receive its advent with that of Jesus. Thus it has “the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants---not only to those who are under the law” (4:16b), the Jews, “but also to those who have the faith of Abraham” (4:16c), who are all those that enter into covenant (including those who have the law) by means of their belief in the God of the covenant.
In conjunction with these moves, Paul makes a point to here reiterate that Abraham, “is the father of us all” (4:16d). In a culture that places a heavy emphasis on the father as the head of a household and the honor of that position, whether that culture be Jew or Gentile, with much additional honor (for the Jew) attached to being a member of Abraham’s household, this is not an insignificant statement. The household could extend beyond blood relations, which we see in the story of Abraham, as he is willing to look to a servant in his house as a completely legitimate heir to the covenantal promise, and would have considered God’s carrying on and carrying out of His promise through that servant as a demonstration of His covenantal faithfulness. This would not necessarily be an unusual position for Abraham to take, as it was a common and accepted practice for a favored servant to enjoy benefits in line with being a biological or adopted son. Therefore, this particular use of the Abraham example is doubly emphatic when applied to the status of Gentiles in relation to the covenant (not to mention the whole of the believing community), in that there is an egalitarianism insistence, in that all that come to belief in Jesus are of the same family and bear the same status, while it also joins Jew and Gentile together in a mythic physical descent, as Paul adds “(as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)” (4:17a).
A moment of reflection causes us to consider that we would not be reaching in the least to suggest that there are multiple levels of thought upon which Paul is operating, with multiple layers of application being suggested as he continues to work out the implications of the Resurrection of Jesus. Certainly, if we are to take the Resurrection seriously, recognizing it as the dynamic event that it so obviously is, causes us to also recognize that said dynamism, having sent and continuing to send ripples into the world, meets and greets us at every turn of our daily lives, demanding a Resurrection-shaped response (the Resurrection reminding us of the life of Jesus) to even the most mundane situations we find presented to us. If a continual assessment of the implications of the Resurrection (and the whole of the Christ-event) is going on with what Paul is offering, as it incorporates concerns about the God that was manifest in the Christ and His own faithfulness as it relates to Abraham and the people of the covenant that both physically and metaphorically spring from his loins, then it would be foolhardy and a bit shortsighted if we did not also suggest and accept that his hearers were able to hear him at multiple levels and from multiple positions of acculturation, while assessing the multiple layers of implication that are on offer. This can be taken as an indication, humbly suggested, that there can never, nor should there ever be a final word about what Paul thinks, means, believes, is attempting to accomplish, or desiring to see from this congregation.
Joining the family of God in Christ together, Paul goes on to write “He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed” (4:17b). There’s that mark of covenant again. Taking the time to identify an attribute of that God, and doing so as a reminder of the Resurrection, Paul adds “the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do” (4:17c). Though Paul quickly moves to make this Abraham-specific, adding “Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, ‘so will your descendants be,’’ along with “Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb” (4:18-19), thus providing a historical context to making the dead alive and summoning things that do not yet exist as they do, and in the process highlighting belief and faith, thoughts of Jesus and His Resurrection and the covenant family that will be culled from all nations surely lurk within the attribution that has this God summoning the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. Indeed, a worldwide covenant family is almost immediately suggested to Abraham upon God’s first speaking to him, and this comes to fruition when that God makes the dead alive.
Continuing to speak of Abraham in a way that could just as easily be contributed to Jesus and what He perceived as His vocation and His role as the Messiah through whom God would extend Himself and His covenant to all nations (if we want to consider the faithfulness of Jesus as significant in this whole issue of justification), Paul adds “He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God” (4:20). If Jesus is also in mind, perhaps a consideration here of the human responsibility to rightly bearing the divine image, Paul’s understanding of the connection with doing so to the glory of God (as demonstrated in chapter three), and Paul’s opinion (voiced in the Colossian letter) that Jesus exactly bore the image of God, is appropriate? Regardless, Paul goes on to say of Abraham that “He was fully convinced that what God promised He was also able to do” (4:21). That said, with the words that follow, he breaks away from a dual application to Abraham and Jesus, and once again elevates belief as that which confers right standing in relation to the covenant (justification), completely independent and prior to circumcision, writing “So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness” (4:22). By faith, Abraham was enfolded into the covenant, in right standing with the Creator God.