Romans 9:30-33 “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. 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 men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’”
These are the concluding words to this chapter and also to this section. Paul has been commenting on two facts, on the Old Testament Jews opposing Jehovah and rejecting Christ when he came, and then of the fact of the Gentiles in their millions everywhere embracing Jesus as the Messiah. “What then shall we say to sum all this up?” asks Paul, and answers his question.
Now as he proceeds to suggest an answer in the words of our text we notice immediately that here the apostle is looking at things from a different perspective from all that has preceded it. Up to this point he has been looking at Jewish rejection and Gentile acceptance from a divine perspective, from above, in other words, that all this topsy-turvy rejection and acceptance was no surprise to God. It was long promised in the Bible. The prophets had been predicting it for centuries, on the one hand Jewish unbelief, despising and rejecting their Messiah, and then on the other hand the Gentiles enthusiastically receiving Christ and given the right to become the sons of God. This turn of events didn’t shock the Almighty. This had always been his decree; both these different events express the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. But now, please notice this about the apostle’s stance in these words, Paul is here looking at these events not from the perspective of the sovereignty of God but from that of the responsibility of man. He is looking at Israel’s failure in their rejection of the Messiah and explaining it in like this – their whole focus was on the works that they did; in other words you saved yourself by what you did. That is a works religion, while the Gentiles were believing in the mighty works of Christ, who of God was made unto them righteousness and redemption. Both the contrasting actions are considered from below, from the perspective of the attitudes and actions of men, the Jews rejecting Christ, and the Gentiles receiving Christ. So let us look firstly at the failure of Israel.
IT WAS BY THEIR WORKS THAT ISRAEL WAS INTENT ON PURSUING A LAW OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND SO INEVITABLY THEY FAILED TO ATTAIN RIGHTEOUSNESS IN GOD’S SIGHT.
“Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” (vv. 31&32). Let us consider this wonderful phrase, “law of righteousness.” It means a law that is expressing real righteousness, in other words, righteousness in the eyes of God. The law was a wonderful gift of God to Israel. It tells us still what God is like and what he loves. The Bible shows us the significance of the Ten Commandments in a number of ways. They are different in their status from all the other divine commands. Let me comment on four features.
i] The Commandment were delivered in a special way – spoken immediately by the voice of God – whereas the other laws were communicated privately to Moses and then announced by him to the people. When the Ten Commandment were given from the top of Sinai there was an awesome accompaniment orchestrating the event – fire, lightning, trumpets, angels. Moses came down the mountain after being days there and his face was gleaming. He had to veil it because the people couldn’t bear to look at him. The very background to God giving the commandments to Moses – let alone the content of the ten words – terrified the people standing at the bottom of the mountain. When these Commandments were given there was a massive display of the majesty and greatness of the lord.
ii] The Commandments numbered ten, and that is a symbol of completeness. ‘Ten’ signifies a definite whole, in which nothing is lacking, and this marks the Commandments as having a unity and perfection that requires them to be considered together. You can’t cherry pick your way through these laws and discard one that you think is extreme. They are one law of righteousness. Again the difference of the Commandments is seen in another way . . .
iii] The Commandments were written by the finger of God on two tables of stone. They were written on both sides. In other words, there was no room for future additions to what God had written, and the use of stone as the writing surface pointed to the lasting and imperishable nature of what had to be preserved. The ceremonial and civil laws were written on papyrus or clay.
iv] The Commandments were preserved and stored inside the Tabernacle, the home of God, the focus of the divine presence as Jehovah dwelled in the midst of his people. Indeed, these two stone tablets, known as ‘the testimony’, were placed in the Holy of Holies, behind the thick embroidered curtain, inside the box-like receptacle known as the ‘ark.’ The ark itself was covered over by the Mercy Seat or the Cover of Propitiation. The status that was thus accorded by God to the Commandments seen in the choice of this place for their resting place is very significant. Just on one day in the year for an hour a man could enter through the curtain into the Holy of Holies. “There,” said the Lord, “I will keep the tablets of the law and I will presence myself there with them.” Little wonder Paul calls them “a law of righteousness.” So the Ten Commandments had a different status from the other ceremonial and civil laws of Moses.
Now it is also useful to consider, from the book of Exodus, the purpose of God in giving to these people “a law of righteousness.” There are three further points to notice about the Ten Commandments.
i] The law was given by a Redeemer’s grace. The preface to the Ten Commandments was this: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2). He gave his law to people whom he had delivered from bondage. He didn’t give the law to them in order that by keeping it they might be rewarded with redemption. God’s priority was first to deliver them by his power, and after that he told them, “Now, as my redeemed people, this is how I want you to live.” It was given to keep people holy, and help them not to sin. I believe that there were certain sins that I was particularly afraid of committing as a teenager because they had been written by the finger of God in the ten commandments, and I was kept from committing them because of that. My conscience was enlightened by the law of God, and yet inwardly I was a law breaker of those sins. How foolish to think, “You get to heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments.” In that case none of us would ever reach heaven. There has never been a single person who has kept all the commandments. Only Jesus of Nazareth. So salvation is not achieved by keeping the law of God. Redemption comes as a gift of the God of Sinai through his Son. It comes by the saving grace and power of God. All of God’s law is set in the context of God’s grace. To all mankind God is good, and one of the ways he preserves our world from turning into hell is by giving mankind his law. God’s law preserves order in every society where it is known. When I was a boy we learned and recited in junior school the Ten Commandments. I think it good for children to know the Ten Commandments.
ii] The law revealed to them what sin was. They had a conscience, certainly, but they had more. They had a conscience illuminated by a written word from God, and that underlined their guilt and shame. I’ve heard people say about a moral fall, “I never thought I’d ever do that.” But they did! Sometimes in a second we experience thoughts, feelings, dreams and imaginations that make us groan. We are fallen men and women. We need a Redeemer. Paul tells the Galatians that the law “was added because of transgressions” (Gals. 3:19). That is, it was injected into the human situation by God to show transgressing guilty men and women that they couldn’t save themselves. They needed a Saviour. So the law is like a personal trainer or a football coach. “Run, run, run,” he keeps saying, “and aim for Christ. Go to him for deliverance.” The law also continues in exhorting and shaping the gratitude which we show to the one who has saved us.
iii] The law helps to kill our chief enemy, human pride. This was the sin above all other sins amongst the children of Israel, as we see in the first nineteen chapters of Exodus that precede the giving of the Ten Commandments. Think of the spirit of resentment these redeemed people displayed soon after walking through the Red Sea, and after that whenever the going got tough they whinged against God. They had the pillar of fire each night and the pillar of cloud each day leading them. They were encouraging symbols that God was with them, and yet time and again, wherever and however God led his people, they resented his handling of their lives. They could do things better than God. They could do things without God. This pride is still the curse of fallen human nature. So God’s Law declared to them, “He is your God. He alone. Love and serve him alone.” Then it said, “This is how you must show your sincere love for your neighbour, by keeping the commandments of God. Don’t lie to him and don’t steal from him and show no violence to him and so on.” If you love him you keep God’s commandments towards him. When they heard that law being preached to them it cut them to their hearts. This is how Jesus Christ preached the same law in the Sermon on the Mount, and Peter at Pentecost. So the law was great, a wonderful gift of God, so that the psalmist could sing, “Oh how love I thy law.”
Now I want to add this point, that the majority of the Jews abused that law. At the beginning of Matthew 23 we read, “Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practise and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach but do not practise. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:1-4; 23,24). “Have you tithed your garden herbs like we have?” these proud hypocrites asked the people in their synagogue sermons. They were teaching that it was by scrupulous obedience to all these laws that the people would be saved. At the same time they were hypocritical and neglecting real human needs around them.
Over the centuries the Jews added many extra regulations, man-made restrictions and requirements, and these man-made laws, not the book of Psalms or the writings of Isaiah, the rule book of the Jews, became the focus of their attention. They approached Jesus one day for his counsel. The incident is recorded at the beginning of Matthew 15. But it was not to ask about his claims or his teachings or his miracles but to ask him, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands [a ritual washing] when they eat.” To which Jesus replied, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
The difference between the Pharisees’ emphasis on petty details of legalism, and the Lord’s emphasis on the true nature of God’s law was seen in their different attitudes to the Sabbath. The Pharisees condemned the disciples for plucking a few ears of corn as they walked along a path at the side of a cornfield, probably going to or coming from a synagogue service on the Sabbath – chewing those ears of corn because they were hungry (Matthew 12). I have tried that because I read about it in the Bible. You have to be really hungry to do that. It is tasteless and hard to chew. You cannot swallow that stuff! But the action of the disciples was considered by these Jews to be harvesting! Jesus defended the disciples, not because the Sabbath was unimportant, but to give to the Pharisees the real spirit of the law. He quoted some Scriptures: “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:7&8). The point at issue with the Pharisees was not the validity of the Fourth Commandment. Jesus did not challenge that. It was their excessive legalistic spirit towards their traditions that had taken over the land. Salvation was by their works, but their not doing some things and doing other things. So Christ was showing his fellow countrymen that the Sabbath was a day for making God central and drawing near to him and pleasing him; the Pharisees saw it as a day for keeping hundreds of meticulous rules as they pursued by their wits and energy a law of righteousness.
You see it powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount. How were the Jews praying? Privately in their own rooms with the door closed? No, on busy intersections in the middle of the city with donkeys staggering past under heavy burdens, and oxen pulling loads of wood, and tradesmen shouting their wares, and there were the Pharisees competing with this noise in crying aloud their prayers to God. That is how they pursued a law of righteousness. How did they give to the Temple? Did they slip some money into a collecting box? No they opened a bag with hundreds of coins and poured it into the box that was shaped like a trumpet so that everyone heard the rattling coins. That is how they pursued a law of righteousness. How did they fast? Not privately to draw closer to God, but with white ash all over their faces to announce to everyone that they were fasting. They made the most blood curdling oaths concerning small transactions instead of simply saying Yes and No and keeping their word. Outwardly they might not try to seduce a serving maid, but inwardly they tolerated all kinds of foul imaginations, and so at every kind of level they failed to attain the law of righteousness. They were seeking to do so by their own blood, sweat and tears. All their religion was by works. That is what Paul says in our text, and all those rules and regulations that they introduced were the big give-away.
The fact was that keeping their own laws was a far easier way of fulfilling some sort of righteousness that is acceptable to men, a righteousness that spectators will applaud with open-eyed approval. They will shake their heads in wonder and say, “My . . . you are a very religious man. I wish I could be religious like you.” It is always easier to be religious by the standard of man made rules and regulations. Praying aloud on a street corner is far easier than praying alone in your room. Putting ashes all over your head is far easier than privately and regularly fasting and drawing near to God in agony of soul. And even in the things they did they failed to do in every single case perfectly! They never said a perfect prayer. They never fasted a perfect fast. They never tithed a perfect tithe. They never gave a perfect gift to God. They did not love God with all their hearts – not once. They did not love their neighbour as themselves – not once. Sin and pride was mixed with everything they did. They were pursuing a law of righteousness. That is what they wanted everybody to know, but they all failed to attain it. What they attained was unrighteousness.
GENTILES WHO WERE NOT PURSUING RIGHTEOUSNESS ACTUALLY OBTAINED IT AND THEY DID SO BY FAITH IN CHRIST.
See what Paul says, “the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith” (v. 30). Was the Philippian jailor pursuing righteousness in the way he ran the prison in Greece? When he had Paul and Silas locked in the lowest stinking dungeon with their feet in the stocks and their backs bloodied and hurting after the unjust scourging they’d experienced, was the jailer pursuing righteousness? Never, but when he believed on the Lord Jesus Christ immediately he was justified. The righteousness of Christ was imputed to him. When Saul of Tarsus was on his way along the road to Damascus was it in order to find righteousness there? No. It was in order to arrest and torture and force to blaspheme disciples of Jesus in Damascus, as he had done in other places. But when the risen Jesus confronted him on that road and humbled him so that he cried to him, “Who are you Lord?” that same Lord forgave him and imputed to him his own righteousness. Soon he was preaching the faith he once sought to destroy – “Jesus Christ is of God made unto all who believe wisdom, righteousness sanctification and redemption. If you have him you have everything.”
What of the men in the seaport city of Corinth who are described by Paul in these categories, sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers (I Cor. 6:9&10) – were they pursuing righteousness? No not one of them. But what happened? Paul went to Corinth and he preached the message of the cross there, that we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but the Lord Jesus Christ became the Lamb of God and now offers a blameless righteous life and a cleansing atoning death to all who put their trust in him and turn from their sins. So what happened to some of those foul sinners of Corinth who heard that message? Jesus Christ the good Shepherd found them there in that state and Paul tells us they discovered where they could be washed, and be sanctified, and be justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. So they trusted in the Lord Christ and they were de-sinned, and they received the righteousness of Christ. It clothed them like a glorious holy garment.
No unbeliever has ever successfully pursued righteousness, not one has and not one ever will. There is none that pursue after God. What we have is the exact opposite, a righteous and merciful good Shepherd is pursuing every one of us. That is why the Lord Jesus had come into the world, to pursue and save those that were lost. And that is the reason he brought you here to this place today, to hear this message and to meet with a group of people who are mere believers in Jesus Christ. He has been speaking to you and he is insisting that all that you do is not going to take you to heaven. You are going to end in hell if you go on as you are. The only way you can get to heaven is through the work the Christ did by living a righteous life and dying an atoning death as the Son of God and the Lamb of God. That righteousness alone can save you.
Do you understand what we are being taught? There is a wrong way to seek to be righteous before God. That thought is antithetical to our generation and our culture. We figure that if a person thinks he is seeking God, he’s going to find him. If a person wants to be righteous and a follower of God, then God is simply over the top happy with him for trying. “There are many ways up the mountain,” – how many times have you heard that in the last twelve days? “All religions are the same, everybody who seeks to be righteous before God is a child of God,” and the apostle Paul is here in verse 32 singing out, “Wrong!” There is a right way to seek the righteousness of God, but there is also a wrong way. The wrong way is by your good works, what you do, and Paul is saying precisely that is what his family and fellow countrymen have been doing. They were seeking a right standing with God and it’s been by their own works. The Jews were making two other mistakes.
i] First of all, underestimating the power of sin. They didn’t see themselves as sinners in the way that the living God saw them as sinners, they discounted their sin, they underplayed their sin, they ignored their sin, they saw themselves as basically good people but like all men and women they were slaves to sin. “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin” (Gals. 3:22). You know how we can look at those criminals who perpetrated those infamous actions in a bus in India and in a school in Connecticut, and it’s perfectly clear to all the world that they are sinners, but you see, there is often a mind set that those people are sinners, but that we’re not. The fact is that we do more respectable sinning than they do. Our sins are certainly less heinous that those we heard about and read about in the media, but our less serious sins don’t make us at all righteous. The apostle Paul reminds us over and over that there is none righteous, no, not one. So, the sinner that thinks he is going to save himself by works, makes this first mistake, he underestimates his sin.
ii] Secondly, underestimates the cost of salvation. They underestimated the cost of grace. They thought that it’s by doing good things they could make up for those foibles of their past. Not only do they refer to their sins as ‘mistakes,’ not only do they downplay and sanitize their sin and make it respectable, but they also downplay the cost of salvation. The Lord Jesus said that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. Only by the sacrifice of the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ himself, is the ransom price paid for our salvation. He pays the last penny. He covers our entire debt. There is nothing left for us to pay. Redemption is by the draining away of the life blood of God the Son, and so it is the costliest thing in the world, even though it is offered freely to you. The one who thinks he can save himself by his works doesn’t reckon with either of those attitudes.
Now there are not many of us in our politically correct culture, who would just come right out and say, “I’m not a sinner, and I don’t need to be saved by Jesus Christ,” but, there are a lot who think like that. They see other people as sinners. They think that it is other people who need Jesus Christ, and they believe that the quality and respectability and good works of their lives can accrue God’s favour. They believe, in effect, that it is possible to earn God’s favour through what they do day by day in their homes and with their families, and to their neighbours, working for the Women’s Institute, and helping people trapped in their homes by the snow, working in Charity Shops and so on. It is all very commendable and we are so glad that people behave as they do in those ways, but it’s not good enough to make atonement for sin because it is all imperfect and mixed with self. Paul is saying that that was precisely the mistake his own family and fellow countrymen had made, and therefore they missed God’s offer of the righteousness of Christ. They rejected it and they ended up with this patchy garment of cobweb, because that is what our righteousnesses look like in God’s eyes; worse than that they are filthy rags. The Word of God doesn’t back down an inch here. Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, and only through entrusting ourselves to him can we be saved. One thing more
3. THE LORD JESUS CHRIST HAS BEEN APPOINTED NOT ONLY FOR THE EXALTATION OF MANY PEOPLE BUT ALSO FOR THEIR FALL.
See what our text says “They stumbled over the ‘stumbling-stone.’ As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’” (vv.32&33). Christ is appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and out and out into the whole religious world of mankind. Then the apostle gives an Old Testament quote to prove that this would be the case (v. 33). He says, the Old Testament predicted that Christ would the only way of salvation but also the most massive stumbling block to the world. Millions would take offense at the claims of Christ, that no one could go to the Father except by him, and that one day he would judge all mankind and tell them that they were sheep or goats heaven-bound or hell-bound. How offensive! “Yes!” God says; “Behold I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” There is the negative side; Jesus is going to be one upon whom unbelievers stumble. Here’s the positive side, but “he who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” There are two results from the coming of Christ and his gospel; some would reject him and take offense, and at the same time, others would trust him and never be put to the shame of hell.
Now you remember what was read four weeks ago in Luke chapter 2 of Mary and Joseph giving baby Jesus to Simeon to be blessed, and Simeon lays his hand on the child, and he looks into Mary’s eyes, and he says to Mary, “This one is appointed for the rise and the fall of many in Israel.” You see what he’s saying: he recognized that the Messiah will both be the occasion of salvation of many and of the destruction of many in Israel. What will be the difference? How you respond to the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount and the one who raised the dead. Trusting in your own works, or trusting in his works? Trying to save ourselves, or acknowledging that we can’t save ourselves and that only he can save us, and that will be the difference, and that is precisely what Paul is saying.
Why would someone reject salvation? Because they refuse to acknowledge their need and they refuse to put their hope in Jesus Christ. That’s why salvation is offensive It’s offensive to say that you need to be saved, but it’s the truth of the gospel, Paul says, and all those who embrace Jesus Christ find that the word of warning and judgment in the gospel is but a word of blessing because it has driven them from themselves and from their sin to Jesus Christ and to his salvation. Salvation, Paul is saying, is in Jesus Christ alone.
That’s a problem with so many in churches today, they want Christ, but they want everything else too. You see, Christ, plus that spirit is Hell. Christ plus our works is Hell. Christ plus anything else is Hell. It’s Christ alone, faith alone, in him. That’s salvation, Paul says, and that’s the choice that’s before every one of us. Will we trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation? That’s the difference. Why would someone reject salvation? Because they cannot come to the realization that they are a sinner in need of grace, and so trust in the only one who can deliver them. Why does a person come to salvation? Because by the mercy of God, he has opened their eyes to see both their sin, and the Saviour, and so they put their trust in him. May God enable you to trust in him who is the only Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.
28th January 2012 GEOFFREY THOMAS