We have arrived at Paul’s next supporting point in this main section that deals with God’s faithfulness with Israel. Last time, we were left with the question of whether or not God was the cause of Israel’s unbelief, in this supporting point that extends from 9:30-10:21, Paul answers that question; Israel has made a choice.
This section has three supporting arguments, the first of which is our subject now, and is found in 9:30-10:3. The supporting argument is that there is a difference between personal righteousness and the righteousness of God.
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written:
“See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall,
and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
You would think that this should end any debate, but among Christians today, the debate rages on. The Law cannot lead a person to righteousness, and it is the very purpose of the Law that we reach this conclusion. Laws, rules and violations, as well as traditions and ceremonies are often near and dear to us, for they form something we can all get our arms around; they are in a sense, tangible things. It is easy to comprehend a rule book, and it is comforting to see someone else break a rule and point fingers at them and take attention away from ourselves. Faith, on the other hand, is intangible and often uncomfortable, for it requires that we really believe that what we believe is really real, even if we don’t always feel like it; it is counter-intuitive.
Being righteous because of merely following the rules is quite different than obtaining righteousness by believing God as Abraham did. The Gentiles who were saved, as well as the Jews who were saved, were saved because they believed the Gospel even though they had not kept all of the Law, all of the time. Those whose faith was in their ability to keep the Law and follow the customs and traditions of their people could never accomplish their goal of righteousness in God’s sight.
Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.
Does it strike anyone as odd that Israel, because of their zeal for God and His Law failed to obtain His righteousness? If we are inclined to legal thinking, we might assume that this happened because they broke a rule or two, but I suspect there is another reason. Yes, God gave them the Law, but the Law was never His purpose, it was a step in achieving His purpose, but it was never the purpose itself. When God created Adam, did He give Adam the Law?
No, He did not.
God created humanity for relationship and purpose, not for keeping a bunch of rules, traditions and ceremonies. God wanted His people to love Him and to trust Him, which means believing Him; Israel chose its own way, the way of earning righteousness by following the Law by their own strength, rather than by believing God and seeking relationship with Him, for they did not realize the difference between personal righteousness and the righteousness of God. I daresay that quite a few Christians are confounded by the same thing today.