Where Israel Went Wrong
Scripture: Romans 9:30–10:13
We find ourselves today “knee deep” in a very challenging, confusing, controversial, and yet vitally important passage of Scripture. I said last time that Romans 9-11 is a parenthesis or detour in Paul’s main line of logic in the letter. However, it is a detour that allows him to shed light on some very critical questions. They are questions to which we must have answers if we are to properly understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament; between old covenant and new covenant, between law and grace. At the heart of this passage is the question of the Jews; Israel, God’s chosen people.
Paul began this passage in Romans 9:2 by saying: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart… for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh… the Israelites.
Clearly, all is not well with the Israelites. And the question Paul is wrestling with is: Why not? What went wrong?
In the first 29 verses of chapter 9, Paul raises the question of whether God is at fault. Has God failed? In the message two weeks ago, we found that Paul answers with a vigorous defense of the character of God. No, God’s word has not failed. No, God is not unjust. But God is sovereign in his bestowal of mercy. And if God now chooses to grant his mercy to Gentiles instead of Jews, that is his right as Creator and Ruler over the universe.
So, God is not at fault. He has been and continues to be true to his Word, his character and ultimately to his plan. God has not failed. But we may ask, “Then what went wrong? Who did fail?” And the answer to that question is, “Israel failed.” Which brings us to the critical question we shall consider in our message today: How did Israel fail? Where did Israel go wrong?
Before we move forward, let me say that this is not simply an academic question. It is not a question with only historical significance. It is a question that is vital to every one of us here today. Because Israel’s failure is a very common one. It is a failure that countless multitudes have made both before and since Paul wrote these words. It is a failure that is particularly common to religious people; people who go, not only to synagogues, but to churches, temples and other places of worship. It is a failure, an error that some of you in this room this morning may be making.
So where did the Jews go wrong? They went wrong by choosing the wrong road to salvation. There are two roads described in this passage; a wrong road and a right road. Before I go on, I want to clarify something about these two roads we will be talking about. We are not talking about the road of sin vs. the road of good deeds. We are not contrasting a life of disobedience with a life of obedience. We are not talking about a road of rebellion which clearly leads away from God as opposed to a road that leads to God. Both of these roads are roads that people take because they believe that they will lead to salvation and to right standing with God. Both of these roads carry sign posts that seem to point toward heaven. But one of these roads is a wrong road. It is a dead end. It will not take us to heaven. The other road is the right road. It will lead us to God and to eternal life.
In saying this, I realize that I have already contradicted one of the most sacred and popular beliefs of our modern and relativistic age; that is the belief that all roads lead us to the top of the same mountain. It is the belief that there is no wrong road. As long as we are sincere and we are doing our best, it doesn’t matter which road we take, we will get there in the end. That is what many people in the world today believe. But it is not what the Bible says. It is not what Paul tells us in these verses. There is a wrong road and there is a right road. Israel took the wrong road. That is where they went wrong.
What road did Israel take? Israel chose the road of DIY righteousness. You may ask what I mean by the acronym DIY. It stands for Do It Yourself. I have borrowed it from the commercial world where it is used to describe a certain kind of hardware store or the section of the hardware store for people who like to think of themselves as handy men or handy women who do their own repairs and home improvement projects themselves, rather than call a qualified plumber, carpenter or painter. But it also serves as a good description of the road Israel chose – the road of DIY righteousness. Let’s look at how this road is described in the passage before us.
First of all, we find that it is a road that is characterized by deliberate effort. We might refer to this as the sweat factor. We find in both verse 31 and verse 32 of Romans 9 that the Jews pursued something. One lexicon I looked at rendered the idea of pursuing this way: “to do something with intense effort and with definite purpose or goal.” You don’t pursue something by accident. You have to make a deliberate choice and then you have to put effort and actions to your decision. But the key is this. This is human effort; self effort. That is why I am calling this the road of DIY righteousness.
The second description of the road that they have chosen is that the right standing with God which they are pursuing is based on keeping the law of God. In verse 31 we read that “Israel… pursued a law that would lead to righteousness.” In other words, they believed that their right standing with God was based on their own ability to conform to the law of God.
The third characteristic of this road is the belief that right standing with God is based on works. In verse 32, we find the words, “as if it were based on works.” So it is a road which leads to right standing with God based on human performance.
There is another mark of this road and those that travel it. It is a road that is marked by a zeal for God. Does that surprise you? Yet it is clear in Paul’s words in Romans 10:2: For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God... I looked up that word “zeal” in my Greek lexicon. It means “a deep and earnest concern or devotion.” Those are strong words. Paul testifies to his Jewish brothers that they have a “deep and earnest concern and devotion for God.”
Isn’t that a good thing? Well, yes it can be. But there is another more vital question. Is it enough? Many people say it is. But the Bible itself says it is not. Listen and listen carefully. According to the words of Scripture itself; Sincerity alone is not enough. Zeal alone will not save us. Paul goes on to complete his thought in the rest of that verse: but not according to knowledge. They have zeal, but their zeal is not based on a true understanding. We live in a region of the world and among people who are characterized by zeal. It can even be described as a zeal for God. Many are absolutely sincere. But sincerity and zeal are not enough.
It reminds me of the old story of the airline pilot who came over the PA system to announce: “I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that our navigation system has malfunctioned and we are lost. The good news is we are making excellent time. That is the problem with zeal without knowledge. It is a case of traveling rapidly down a road which ultimately leads in the wrong direction.
Finally, in Romans 10:3, Paul adds one more marker on this road. It is one that summarizes and encapsulates all the others. This road is based on establishing our own (DIY) righteousness. Verse 3 of chapter 10 reads, in part: For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own… This is why I have called this road the road of DIY righteousness. It is the road that says, “I will base my standing with God on my own righteousness. My own choice and diligent effort, my own works and performance in keeping the commands of God, my own sincerity and zeal for God.” This was the road that Israel as a whole, the majority of the Jews, chose to travel.
Before we leave our consideration of this road, let’s look at where the road ends up. In choosing a road, it is always wise to consider one’s destination. As we consider Paul’s words here, we find that he does not tell us where the road ends up so much as tell us where the road will not take us.
First of all, we know that the outcome is not a happy one. We know that because back in Romans 9:2 he spoke of the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” that he had in his heart for his fellow Jews. He also says in Romans 10:1 that his heart’s desire and his prayer for them is that they might be saved. So the road they have chosen has not led them to salvation.
He spells this out even more clearly in Romans 9:31: but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed… We ought to already realize where Paul is headed with this from earlier statements he made in Romans. Remember what he said in Romans 3:20? For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight. He expoundedon that in Romans 8:3: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do. The problem with the law is that we cannot keep it. The problem with the road of DIY righteousness is that we are not righteous. In our own efforts we do not and we cannot measure up. We fall short of the glory of God. We are sinners; every one of us.
Now, here is the sad reality of the Jewish race as Paul reflects on it. In their passionate pursuit of their own righteousness they missed their one and only true hope. This is what he tells us in Romans 10:3: For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. What tragic words! God offered them a way out. But in their ignorance and in their pride, they rejected it. They refused to take the road to a right standing with God which was offered to them. They refused to submit to God’s way and God’s plan. They refused to accept his offer of the righteousness that is by faith.
At the end of Romans 9, Paul describes this as “stumbling.” He quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as he writes in verses 32-33:
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.”
And so Paul is left with an great ache in his heart, praying for the salvation of his fellow Jews; praying that before it is too late, they will open their blinded eyes to see that there is another road available to them.
This is the right road. This is the road that will lead to right standing with God. This is the road that will lead to salvation. This is the road of faith righteousness which Paul has been describing from the very opening words of this letter.
This is a road that recognizes that right standing with God is not something to be pursued by human effort, but a gift to be received. This is the contrast that Paul laid down in the opening verse of this section, Romans 9:30: What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is a righteousness that is by faith; The word translated “attained” means to receive something and make it one’s own. The Gentiles whom Paul is referring to are the Gentile believers whom God is calling to be his people. They were not seeking or pursuing God. But God pursued them. He called them. And when they heard the call, they answered it and received the gift of right standing with God.
The key to this road and to this righteousness is that it is a gift which must be received by faith. This is what Paul has been hammering home to us since the first chapter. The theme of faith echoes loudly once again in this text. Let me just read the section through all at once. Listen for the repetition of faith and belief in Paul’s words. Remember that faith and believe and belief are the same in the Greek language.)
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. 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.”
10 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 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. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
So, if this righteousness with God is something that we need not pursue, but which we must receive, and if receiving and submitting to God’s righteousness is something we must do by faith or by belief, I think we can all agree that it is important to know how to do that. And that is where Paul turns in this very last verse we just read. This faith is first and foremost belief in a person. It is noteworthy that Paul does not first refer to him by name, but rather (in this Jewish context) by title. “Christ”, “Messiah”, the promised anointed Redeemer whom God had promised to send. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. We no longer rely on the law for our righteousness. We rely on Christ, the Messiah.
The next few verses use a rather interesting way of expounding the Gospel. Let’s pick up the reading in verse 5:
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
In this section, Paul is both expounding on the essential facts of the Gospel which we must believe in order to be saved, and at the same time showing how inadequate our own DIY righteousness is. First of all in verse 5, he quotes Moses to point out that it is only by actually keeping all the commandments that one can establish DIY righteousness and find true life – and as Scripture and our own experience teaches us, none of us are able to do that. In the next few verses he uses Old Testament quotes to ask two rhetorical questions: ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
Here Paul cites three fundamental facts of the Gospel message; three absolutely non-negotiable realities of Biblical truth. They are the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Messiah. The Christ, the Messiah, came down – he descended from heaven. He died and descended into the abyss. And he came back from the dead. These are the central, historical facts of the Gospel. And Paul asks us – “Did you accomplish that? Were you able, with your DIY righteousness, to go up into heaven and bring Christ down? Were you, by human effort, able to go down into the abyss to bring Christ back from the dead? How puny our own attempts at righteousness are when compared to the mighty acts of God in salvation.
So if the great work necessary for salvation has already been accomplished by God himself and his Christ, what is left for us to do? Look at verses 8-9:
8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Pay close attention now! This is crucial to our understanding of where the Jews went wrong and where we must get it right if we want to be right with God. So far in this text, Paul has consistently used the title: Christ. Remember, devout Jews believed in the Christ. They believed in a coming Messiah. But now, in verse 9, Paul introduces a human name. He introduces the name “Jesus”. You have to believe that Jesus, from the line of David, son of Mary, born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth; this Jesus is Lord. He is Messiah. He is the One who descended from heaven. You have to confess that and you have to believe that he died and that God raised him from the dead. This was where the Jews stumbled. They believed in a Messiah, a coming Christ. They just didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They stumbled and they fell over the stumbling stone, and continued to try to satisfy God with their own DIY righteousness. They chose the wrong path.
But the right path is right here, nearby. Anyone can take it. It involves just two things: your heart and your mouth. It is interesting to me that in verse 9, Paul puts the mouth first and then the heart, while in verse 10 he puts the heart first and then the mouth. I believe he does that to illustrate that the order is not important, but that both must be involved. We must believe, in our hearts: Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Messiah. He came down from heaven. He died for our sins. He rose from the dead.
And then we must confess it. What is the significance here of this confession? To confess means to agree, to say the same thing. We must acknowledge verbally and aloud what we believe in our hearts. I think Paul is telling us that it is impossible to truly believe in your heart without acknowledging that belief verbally. It may not be in a dramatic fashion in front of a church full of people, but certainly to significant other people in our lives. One very powerful way to do this is by being baptized. It is no coincidence that when we baptize people here at ECC we ask them the question: “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ and have you trusted in him as your Savior from sin?” And when they answer “Yes, I do!” they are confessing with their mouths.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
When we believe and confess, we are justified. We are saved. We receive and make our own the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. We embark on the right road, the road of faith righteousness, the road that leads to heaven.
Paul goes on to once again make clear that this road, this road of faith righteousness is open to all in verses 11-13:
11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
There are two roads. There is a wrong road and there is a right road. There is the road of DIY righteousness and there is the road of faith righteousness. One of these roads will lead to eternal life. The other will not. And so I conclude with this question. Which road are you on?
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
In this message, Pastor Cam identifies the Jews’ error as pursuing “the road of DIY righteousness.” What does DIY stand for? In your opinion, how common is this error – especially among religious people? Are Christians (church goers) prone to the same error?
What are the marks of someone pursuing this road?
“It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere and do your best.” Do you agree or disagree? Why? How do you think Paul would answer the question? Do you think there really is a right road and a wrong road to get to heaven?
How would you describe the “road of faith righteousness?” What must a person believe to follow this road?
What do you think Paul is getting at by his reference to the heart and the mouth in Romans 10:9-10?
What road are you on? Describe how and when you began your journey on this road.