Teaching series from Romans

The Gospel in the Old Testament

Romans 4:1-16

Teaching t07937


Summarize the "good news" we discovered last week in Rom. 3:21-26--God is offering to justify us by his grace alone, through Christ's death alone, by our faith alone.

Some people (including Paul's opponents in Rome) have a problem with this message. Doesn't it contradict the Old Testament? Its emphasis is on law and works and consequences for disobedience. What if God accepted Old Testament people on a different basis? That would turn the "good news" into bad news. Take your pick:

Either Paul's gospel would be contradictory to previous revelation, and therefore false. Maybe he is just making it up because it is appealing.

Or God is capricious, changing his mind about how to accept people. If he switched from law to grace, he could switch back from grace to law!

This is why Paul has to demonstrate that his gospel is rooted in the Old Testament. He alludes to this in 3:21 (" . . . being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets . . ."), and he develops this in 4:1-16.

"Witnessed by the Law"

How was this good news witnessed by the Law? One of the most important features of the Old Testament law was its regulations for worship. It was very detailed--full of priests, festivals washings, sacrifices, rituals, etc. We only have time to look at the high points of Old Testament worship.

It took place in the Tabernacle, which was always situated in the center of their camp--to emphasize his desire to dwell in them. (Later, when Israel settled in Palestine, they built a permanent structure, the Temple.) Everything in it was made according to God's exact specifications (Ex. 25:9), because it pictured God's problem with them and his solution to that problem. All human innovation was therefore prohibited, because it represented human attempts to approach God on their own terms, rather than in the way he graciously provided.

The center of the Tabernacle was the Holy of Holies, in which the presence of God dwelt among the Israelites. This over-sized walk-in closet was separated from the people by a series of veils (curtains). People who tried to come into God's presence in any other way besides that which God specified would die (Lev. 16:2).

The only piece of furniture inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, or the "box of the evidence." It contained articles that represented Israel's sin--manna (rejection of God's provision), Aaron's rod (rejection of God's leadership), and the tablets of the Ten Commandments (rejection of God's law). Situated on top of the ark were statues of two cherubim, angels associated with the execution of God's judgment. Their faces were pointed downward, looking at the evidence of Israel's sin against God.

Can you see what God is communicating through all of this? He wants to dwell among his people, he wants them to be able to commune with him--but there is a problem that makes this impossible. Because he is righteous, their sins separate them from him and bring them justly under his judgment. This is exactly what Paul argued in Rom. 1,2.

But wait! There was another article on the ark, and that article was the "good news." It was called the "mercy seat." It was a lid that covered the top of the ark, and what happened on this lid once each year allowed God to withhold his judgment from his people without violating his own righteousness and justice. You can read about it in Lev. 16.

Once each year, on the Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur"), the High Priest selected two goats without physical defect. He slaughtered one of them and took its blood (the symbol of its life poured out in death) into the Holy of Holies and smeared it on the mercy seat. This was said to "cover" their sins because the goat's death satisfied God's righteous judgment against their sins. Then the High Priest came out of the Holy of Holies and, laying his hands on the head of the other goat, he confessed the sins of Israel for that year. Then they drove the goat out into the wilderness. This was said to carry their sins away.

Do you see what God was teaching Israel through this ritual? He would not compromise his penalty of death for sin, but he would provide a way to forgive them in spite of their sins--through the death of his chosen, blameless substitute. This is what theologians call substitutionary atonement, and it was the central element of Old Testament worship.

This was a marvelous picture of how God accepts sinful people, but it was only a picture. When you think about it, it has some serious short-comings.

It had to be repeated over and over again, year after year. This suggests that it wasn't really solving the problem of their guilt before God.

The use of animals was inadequate, since they weren't moral agents. A substitutionary death for human sin would require a special, blameless human.

It was only for Israel. What about the rest of the world?

It was a temporary picture of how God would one day solve the sin problem through a perfect Sacrifice. This is why God not only foreshadowed his solution through the Law; he also predicted it more specifically through the Prophets . . . 

"Witnessed by the Prophets"

There is one Old Testament passage that the New Testament quotes or alludes to over 80 times. It is the song of God's Servant in Isa. 52:13-53:12, written over 700 years before Christ. Although it concerns something that will happen in the future (predictive prophecy), it is written in the "prophetic past tense" to indicate its certain fulfillment. It is full of tragic irony, describing how Israel's rejection of God's Servant will result in the fulfillment of God's plan of salvation. Again, we only have time to survey the high points of this amazing prediction.

Read 53:5,6,10,11. Using the language of the Old Testament sacrificial system, Isaiah says this Person will lay down his righteous life as an atoning sacrifice for Israel's sins. This confirms what the sacrificial system implied, that God's ultimate atonement would require the voluntary death of a unique Person, not animals.

Because he is God's perfect sacrifice, his death will purchase full forgiveness of sins. Therefore, it will not have to be repeated over and over again like the animal sacrifices. (In fact, it puts them out of business altogether.)

And this Person's death will provide not only for Israel's forgiveness, but also for the rest of the world. Read Isa. 52:15.

This reads so much like a "Cliff Notes" of the Christian gospel that many skeptics charged that it was a Christian forgery inserted back into the Old Testament. No one says this today, because among the Dead Sea scrolls was a complete copy of Isaiah, dated to 150-200 BC--and containing this passage in its entirety.

This is why John the Baptist announced Jesus as "the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world" (Jn. 1:29). This is why the veil of the Temple was torn when Jesus died (Matt. 27:51)--to announce that the way to God is now open to all who come to him through Jesus' death for their sins. This is why Paul says the gospel is "witnessed by the Law and the Prophets."

How were people justified in Old Testament times?

So the Law and the Prophets taught that God offered his forgiveness as a gift of his grace through the death of his chosen Substitute. But how were people justified in Old Testament times? Certainly this required good works, circumcision, or law-keeping on their part. Using Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, Paul answers this question decisively.

Most rabbis taught that Abraham earned God's acceptance through his good works. Jubilees 23:10 says "Abraham was perfect in all his dealings with the Lord and gained favor by his righteousness throughout his life." But that's not what the Old Testament says--read 4:1-3.

God gave Abraham a promise that he would make him the father of a great nation, and that from this nation would come One through whom God would bless all the nations. When Abraham simply took God at his word (apart from any works at all), God "reckoned him as righteous." This means God declared him to be in right standing with him. What is this? This is justification by faith apart from works!

Paul goes on to point out that David was also justified by faith apart from works (read 4:4-8). Even after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah murdered to cover his tracks, David could rejoice that God would not hold his sins against him. God justified him even though he was "ungodly" (4:5), because he trusted God's promise of forgiveness. What great news!!

As we saw earlier, rabbis taught that circumcision gave Jewish people the inside track on heaven, and uncircumcised Gentiles were out of luck. But is that what the Old Testament taught?

Read 4:9,10. Paul's point is that God justified Abraham 14 years before he was circumcised. Therefore, circumcision had nothing to do with being right with God.

Read 4:11,12. This chronology was no accident. God orchestrated the sequence of events to indicate that all who follow Abraham in his faith become God's children, whether they are circumcised or uncircumcised. As we saw in Rom. 2, circumcision has no power to exempt anyone from God's judgment, nor to confer God's acceptance on anyone. The same is true of water baptism. They are simply to be outward symbols of the internal reality of faith in God's promise. If don't have this faith, having the symbol will never get you God's acceptance. And if you have this faith, God accepts you even if you don't have the symbol.

Rabbis taught that God gave the Law to Israel to be the means by which they earned his acceptance. But Paul sees serious problems with this. Read 4:13-16. This sounds complicated, but his point is pretty simple.

His point is that God revealed the terms of his acceptance (through his dealings with Abraham) long before the Law was ever given. Abraham lived around 2100 BC; the Law was not given until around 1400 BC--700 years later. Therefore, whatever the purpose of the Law is, it cannot contradict God's original way of acceptance (see Gal. 3:17,18). If I have a mortgage on my house, I may be able to sub-lease my house--but that contract does not invalidate the original mortgage contract. In the same way, the Law (which was given later than the promise) cannot invalidate the way God offers his acceptance to people. The irony is that Paul's opponents were accusing him of changing the way God accepts people, but they were the ones doing this!

Why then did God give Israel the Law? It was a lease contract that stipulated the terms for the use of the land. If they worshipped God and followed his instructions, he would protect them from their enemies and prosper them materially. But if they went after other gods, he would remove their prosperity and protection. This is exactly what happened to them.


God has always accepted people the same way--not by works, ritual observance, or law-keeping--but by simple faith in his promise.

The only difference between people before Christ and after Christ is that they looked forward in faith (through the symbols and prophecies) to what God promised about Jesus' substitutionary death, while we look backward in faith (through the New Testament accounts) to what he has already done. Have you done this? Have you made the decision to put your faith in Jesus' death (alone) to give you God's acceptance?

Since faith is such a crucial element in this, we need to have a solid understanding of what faith actually is. That's what we'll look at NEXT WEEK.

Copyright 1999 Gary DeLashmutt