Chapter 9:30-10:4 (ESV) - What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 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.”
Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Question to consider: What is an example of someone demonstrating zeal for God without knowledge?
Often when passages become common proof-texts for theological discussions or used for life application, they become unmoored from the original intent of the author. The passages from the last couple of days are often used as the cornerstone of a theological argument that God specifically created some people for His mercy and some people for His judgment in order to somehow magnify His glory in the process.
Today’s passage gets to the root of the verses that came before. The persecution being enacted by the Jews during this time period was due to jealousy that the Gentiles were able to receive righteousness by faith even though they were never subjected to the dictates of the Law. They were angry that God would show mercy to the Gentiles because they did not deserve it. Paul’s response to this was to invoke God’s words to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
The intent behind this statement wasn’t to limit God’s mercy but to emphasize that it was so much greater than the Jews had realized. The argument about the vessels was to extol God’s patience with those opposed to Him until they were either made honorable by Christ or used by God in His plan to bring mercy to the nations.
Jesus dealt with this same kind of jealousy with the Pharisees who couldn’t stand the fact that He showed mercy to tax collectors and sinners. His response to them was to tell the parable of what is commonly called "The Prodigal Son" which demonstrated the restoration of a wayward son while the son who professed to remain faithful was angered by the father’s mercy. (Luke 15:11-32)
Paul’s argument here was that the Jews stumbled over the grace shown to the Gentiles because they saw their faithless attempts at law keeping as being more worthy of God’s favor. If anyone understood zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, it was Paul. Paul’s legal reason for persecuting the church was Deuteronomy 13. He considered Christians to be blasphemers because they preached Jesus as the eternally begotten Son of God, and so he used the Law to pursue them from town to town even though they prophesied and did miracles in His name.
The zealous Saul of Tarsus knew the Law but failed to understand God’s nature or mercy. He was still seeking to establish his own righteousness before God despite the fact that Christ was the fulfillment of the Law. Upon Paul’s conversion and instruction by the Lord in Damascus for three years, he understood that in fulfilling the Law, Christ allowed us to receive the righteousness of God through faith. It was Paul’s prayer that the Jews who would read his letter would receive this righteousness and be saved.
Dear heavenly Father, as we study the scriptures, help us to know You more deeply and understand the mercy You have lavished upon the world. May we not use Your Law to make ourselves look righteous but to illuminate the righteousness of Christ and our need for Him. Amen.