Abraham is one of the most important figures in the New Testament. Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy back to him (Matt 1:17). Faithful Jews are called “sons” or “daughters” of Abraham (Luke 13:16, Luke 19:9) and are given the promise that he will be there to meet them when they depart this life (Luke 16:22). A summary of his accomplishments occurs in Acts 7 and Heb 11, and two incidents stand out. First, he was willing to leave his own country and trust God to lead him to a new one. Second, be believed God could make him the father of many nations, even though his wife Sarah could not have children. Indeed, James thinks his faith was so great that he would have offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice if that was what God wanted (Jas 2:21). Fortunately, it wasn’t (see Gen 22).
Abraham’s faith was also important to Paul, but he uses it to make a different point. Some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised to belong to the people of God (Acts 15:1). After all, Gen 17:12-13 calls circumcision an “everlasting” sign of the covenant, and says that it applies to any foreigners living in their midst. How can these Gentile Christians claim to have faith in God if they are unwilling to do what God requires?
Paul sees it differently. He thinks the demand for circumcision contradicts the gospel, where there is “no longer Jew or Greek ... slave or free ... male and female” (Gal 3:28). But he does not wish a separation between the children of Abraham and his Gentile converts, who can rightly be called children of Abraham because they share the faith of Abraham (Gal 3:6-9). Indeed, Paul can argue that Christian faith is similar to Abraham’s faith because both involve believing that God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). Hebrews contains a similar argument, where Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is similar to faith in resurrection, for he “considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:19).
If Paul is correct that Gentiles can be included in the people of God without needing to be circumcised, then God appears to contradict God’s own prior commands. Can such a God be trusted? This is the topic of Rom 9-11, where Paul notes that Ishmael was also a son of Abraham but was excluded from Israel. He deduces from this that it is not biological descent that defines God’s people but responding to God in faith, precisely what his Gentile converts have done. In his letter to the Galatians, he is particularly daring. He uses the two sons as an allegory of two types of people: those who are free and those who are slaves. Since he thinks the demand for circumcision is a form of enslavement, he suggests that his opponents show themselves to be children of the slave woman rather than children of the promise (Gal 4:22-31).
Steve Moyise is professor of New Testament at the University of Chichester, United Kingdom, and author of many books on the use of Scripture in the New Testament.
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.
Christians who were not Jewish prior to their conversion.
A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Early followers of Christ or his teachings who were culturally and ethnically Jewish, especially but not exclusively before Christianity (originally a Jewish reform movement) distinguished itself from Judaism.
17So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deport ... View more
16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
Stephen's Speech to the Council
1Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?”2And Stephen replied:
“Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glo ... View more
The Meaning of Faith
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.3By fa ... View more
21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
The Command to Sacrifice Isaac
1After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”2He said, “Take your son, your only s ... View more
The Council at Jerusalem
1Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of M ... View more
12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought wit ... View more
28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
6Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,”7so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.8And the scripture, ... View more
17as 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 exis ... View more
19He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
God's Election of Israel
1I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—2I have great sorrow and unceasing angu ... View more
22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman.23One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh ... View more