Thursday, September 28, 2023

Romans 9:30-10:4

Romans 9:30–10:4 (ESV)✞: Israel’s Unbelief

In the last passage Paul talked about… so many things, actually! Paul’s anguish that more of his fellow Jews weren’t coming to Christ; the fact that, throughout history, not every member of the “chosen people” were actually recipients of God’s mercy; the fact that, although we can (and should) question God, we shouldn’t forget that He is the potter and we are just the clay; the fact that those who are unsaved make those of us who are saved appreciate all the more the glory that is ours. In this passage, Paul continues some of those thoughts.

To start with, Paul calls out what is almost an irony:

30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.

Romans 9:30–31 (ESV)✞

As I’ve pointed out in other passages, however, notice that Paul is not comparing like to like. We’d expect him to say that, “[Christian] Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, but Israel who did pursue righteousness did not attain it” – but that’s not what he says. He says that [Christian] Gentiles, even though they weren’t striving for righteousness, attained it anyway (by faith), but Israel (the Jews) were striving for the Law, but didn’t attain that. (He obviously doesn’t mean all Gentiles, but the ones who have become Christian. They’re the only Gentiles who have attained righteousness by faith. Equally obvious he doesn’t mean all Jews either – he himself was a Jew!)

His point isn’t really to compare and contrast Jews against Gentiles—at all—his point is to show that many of his Jewish brethren were not able to accept the righteousness that comes by faith because they were too focused on the Law. They thought the Law would lead to righteousness but, as we’ve seen in a number of the passages in Romans leading up to this one, not only does that not happen, there’s a sense in which sinful humans come away even more sinful when they have the Law! (See, for example, 5:12–21, 7:1–6, and 7:7–25.)

But Paul has also said that the Law is a good thing. So why weren’t the Jews able to attain righteousness through it? Because they viewed it as works (something they did, for which God was supposed to reward them), as opposed to faith (something they were trusting that God had done on their behalf).

32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,


“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;

and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Romans 9:32–33 (ESV)✞

The quotation is from Isaiah, and, as is so often the case, it’s interesting to study the source. To be specific, it’s Isaiah 28:16 (ESV)✞, which is part of the larger passage of Isaiah 28:14–29 (ESV)✞. In that passage God (through Isaiah) lambastes Israel’s leaders for making a covenant with the nation of Egypt, hoping that this alliance would protect them from the Assyrians.

Here’s just a taste of the larger passage:

14 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers,

who rule this people in Jerusalem!

15 Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,

and with Sheol we have an agreement,

when the overwhelming whip passes through

it will not come to us,

for we have made lies our refuge,

and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;

16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD,

“Behold, I am the one who has laid 4 as a foundation in Zion,

a stone, a tested stone,

a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:

‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’

17 And I will make justice the line,

and righteousness the plumb line;

and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,

and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”

Isaiah 28:14–16 (ESV)✞

I’m not good with poetry, so this might not be the best take on this, but in this poem, when God talks to Judah’s leaders about a cornerstone in Zion, I think He’s talking about the Temple – and, by extension, Himself. “Why on earth would you be trusting the Egyptians,” He’s asking, “when you should be trusting Me? What protection could the Egyptians possibly give you that the Lord GOD can’t give you?!?”

So I find it fascinating that Paul then applies this same logic to the Jews’ trust in the Law. “Why on earth would you be trusting the Law,” Paul asks, “when you should be trusting God? What righteousness can the Law give you (that it hasn’t been able to provide for thousands of years) that God hasn’t already attained on your behalf?”

But we already saw in the last passage that Paul’s heart breaks for the Jews who don’t know Christ, and that is still true:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

Romans 10:1 (ESV)✞

But he goes further: the problem for the unsaved Jews is not lack of zeal, it’s that they simply don’t know any better:

2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Romans 10:2–3 (ESV)✞

And I’m sure Jews of both Paul’s day and right up to this very day would disagree with that characterisation. Seeking to establish their own righteousness? They didn’t invent the Law, God did! And it’s not that they don’t know about this Christ person, they just think it’s blasphemous for any man to call himself God!

But remember, as I’ve already stated in this post, Paul’s problem with the Law is not the Law itself, it’s what sinful people do with it. When you try to make salvation about works, as outlined above, you make it about you: “If I obey these rules, God, then You have to reward me!” (Nevermind that we don’t obey the rules – not even close to the level God demands, which is one hundred percent perfectly from birth to death! Probably best not to think about that, right?)

It’s not even a Jewish problem Paul is pointing out. Christians do this exact same thing: we know and sort of believe that we’re saved by faith, not by works, and yet we often live as if that’s not true. We try to come up with lists of rules about what Christians are and aren’t allowed to do, and then we try to hold it over God when we feel He’s not rewarding us for obeying those rules. Worse yet, when things go wrong for us, we blame Him: “How dare you let bad things happen to me? I go to church every single Sunday! And I don’t smoke, and I don’t cheat on my wife! You owe me!” We would never say it out loud like that—if we did we’d immediately realise the mistake we’re making—but we feel that way in our hearts.

The problem the Jews had was not that they had the Law; it’s that they started viewing their relationship with God as a works-based relationship, and used the Law to try to accomplish that. The problem Christians have is not that we don’t have “laws,” it’s that the ones we do have (or think we have) we try to turn into the exact same kind of works-based relationship.

However, as we’ve already seen a number of times in this letter, there is a solution:

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4 (ESV)✞

Interestingly—but also quite expected, by this point in the letter—Christ is both the end to the Law and is righteousness – for everyone who believes, regardless of what they have or haven’t done.

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