When people watch the Summer Olympics, a few events generally get the most attention. Gymnastics is a big draw as is swimming. Basketball can be, and many like track and field. But one event that causes many people to scratch their heads is the Steeplechase – a race that is usually about 2500 or 3000 meters (although the length may vary).
The race finds its origins in England when people would run from one steeple to another. Steeples were good markers for intermediate length races because they were high enough to know you were going in the right direction. Even though the modern race may not be in a cross-country type of race, it still has elements of how the early races were. The contestants run around a track, but they have to jump over multiple barriers, some of which include water, to keep consistent with the origins of the race because that is what the countryside of England represents.
I mention this grueling race because we all have a goal for which we are aiming. While your goal may not be to run a race, you have a goal for your budget, for your health, for your family, for your faith, or something. We all do. It is natural to have goals. It is good to have goals. But understanding our path to that goal is important. For instance, two people may want to increase the money they have. One cuts back on spending and/or takes on extra work. The other person steals. They both are working towards the same general purpose, but only one of them is going to work in the long run.
Although stealing may not be your approach, we all tend to find ourselves taking the wrong approach toward some kind of goal. And when it comes to issues of righteousness, we all HAVE taken the wrong path. It is called sin. And in order to rectify the issue of sin in our lives, we may find ourselves seeking to correct the issue on our own, even if that approach is done in ignorance.
That is the exact issue that Paul was addressing when writing this part of the letter he wrote to Rome. He is trying to convince the Jew that they cannot save themselves by what they do, even as He is trying to help them see that the Gentiles were saved in spite of not doing what the Jew thought should be done, but by their faith instead.
Salvation is only possible by faith in Jesus. Salvation is a worthy goal, but if we do not see Jesus at the end of our race, then it is because we have been pursuing the goal the wrong way. For the Jew, it meant they were running the wrong race.
So, why were the Jews running the wrong race? Why couldn’t they see that the goal they pursued was right, but that their approach was wrong. Well, Romans 9.30-10.21 clarifies some of that for us. Today, we will look at the first portion of that passage, stopping at Romans 10.4.
First, you might be wondering why I have referred to the idea of a race a few times. Well, the wording that Paul used in this section relates well to running races. In Romans 9.31, he uses the word pursued, and then says they did not succeed in reaching the goal. In other words, they didn’t successfully finish the race they were running. In 10.4, we see that Jesus is the telos, which can mean different things, but the idea of goal or end is among those. And showing the imagery of Jesus is clearly Paul’s intent in the last verse of Romans 9 where he quotes Isaiah stating that Jesus is the stone over which the Jews will stumble. I will return to that thought soon. But first let’s look at the passage more generally.
The Goal = Righteousness
It is always a danger to lump any group of people together by moral categories. We often define people by categories related to politics, by school, by the area in which they live, by where they work, by how they dress, by race, by religious belief, etc. We might find categories that fit there, but when it comes to moral issues and questions of the mind and heart, grouping people can be misleading, if not dangerous because individuals are far more complex than simply one designation. Of course, exceptions do exist – “all have sinned” is true, for instance. But the exceptions are rare.
So, for me to say that every Jew desired righteousness would almost assuredly be wrong. But most did. To be righteous was the goal for most everyone in the group known as the chosen people of God. To be righteous is a great goal because Scripture declares God to be righteous. Therefore, to be righteous is to be like God (Romans 1.17) – at least in that way. And the goal of righteousness is key to this passage. The word is used six times in the eight verses we are studying today. So, righteousness is important to the Jew. It is important to Paul. It is important because God is righteous. But having a goal and working toward it are different concepts. Many Jews did want to be righteous and were aiming for that goal, but that doesn’t mean that they were going about it the right way. In reality, righteousness can be achieved one of two ways – earn it for yourself or have someone else earn it for you. Those are the two options at the highest level. But even if someone else earns it for you, you have to believe that what they did was sufficient. Let’s briefly explore those two options (or let’s call them paths with the idea of the racing metaphor) based upon what Paul wrote in the verses for today.
Path 1 = Faith
This path is strange. This path requires something, but it does not require running the race towards righteousness. It requires believing that race has been run, but we do not have to run towards righteousness, we just have to learn to live according to righteousness.
In Romans 9.30, Paul makes this clear. The Gentiles did not pursue righteousness. They did not run the race, nevertheless, the have attained it. That is, the goal of completing the race was accomplished. They have attained the goal, even though they did not pursue the goal. How did they do it? By faith (v30).
Remember, the metaphors are about a race, but the real finish line is not something to be crossed; the end goal is Jesus (Romans 10.4), who completed the race for us on the cross. As we have seen throughout Romans, and particularly in Romans 3.21-26, it is faith in what He did that allows us to attain the goal.
But as I mentioned earlier, we can either aim for righteousness ourselves or having someone else do it for us. Faith is trusting someone else has done it for us. But others choose another path.
Path 2 = The Law
The Jews chose a different path. After all, they were God’s chosen people and had been entrusted with the Law. This law was not any law – it was the Law of Moses, and had been given directly by God. Therefore, according to this path, if someone followed this Law perfectly, then they would become righteous because, after all, if God is righteous and He gave the Law to follow, then following it should lead to righteousness.
So, Israel ran the race. They ran it hard. They pursued it (Romans 9.31). But they pursued righteousness through the Law according to what they did, not what they believed. In Romans 10.2, Paul says that they were zealous. Being zealous can be good. But it can be bad. And it is bad when we are zealous about things that we do not understand.
According to Paul, that was the case for the Israelites throughout history. They had zeal – and even zeal for God – but they were ignorant about God’s righteousness (v3), not knowing what God truly desired, and so the pursued righteousness on their own behalf.
That is, they ran the race as hard as they could, as well as they could, for as long as the could, but it would never be enough because the path that they chose was not the right path.
Before I leave this section, let me state that the Law itself is not bad; it is just not the right answer to the question about obtaining righteousness. The Law can help people live righteously, but it cannot make us righteous itself. Paul mentioned the value of the Law earlier when he wrote, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is hold and righteous and good” (Romans 7.12). The law is given so we know how to live righteously, for as Paul wrote years later, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16).
So, the Law is good. And the Law is helpful to help us live as God wants us to live. But it does not make us righteous. For as Paul stated in Romans 1.17, quoting from Habakkuk 2.4, the righteous will live by faith.
The Verdict = Righteousness Comes from Faith
I have already provided evidence for the verdict. Paul has made clear here (and elsewhere in Romans) that righteousness comes from faith (1.17) and that faith must be in Jesus (3.21-22). Again, Jesus ran the race. Jesus was the victor. Jesus is the victor. And the race has been completed once and for all. The fact that we can attain the goal of righteousness without pursuing it is only possible through Jesus. But once we have attained the goal of righteousness, our pursuit is to turn towards Jesus.
We have talked about two paths towards a goal. The goal may appear to be the same, but really the difference is more than two paths, it is two different races. Both are a type of race, but they are different. And the reality is that only one of the races leads to the correct place. It is the right race taking the right path, because the end goal is Jesus, who is the path. Remember, Jesus said He is the Way (John 14.6), and the way represents a certain path.
But because Jesus is the Way, He is also the stumbling stone (9.33). The only path to righteousness is through Jesus. As you accept that truth, righteousness is given to you, and you are able to successfully maneuver around the stone. But for those who try to earn their own righteousness, that is, to run the race on their own, that stone is an unmovable obstacle that causes them to trip and to fall and to be put to shame.
The obstacles in the race that so many are running on their own remind me of the steeplechase race which I mentioned at the beginning. Again, it is a grueling race filled with challenges and obstacles. Besides the running and jumping that is part of a usual race, the splashing of water and unforgiving hurdles (they do not move!) create additional challenges that must be navigated perfectly. But for every person who finishes the steeplechase, another tends to fall resulting in cuts and bruises, if not further injuries.
Of course, every race has some challenge. Perhaps it is beating the competition or just setting a personal best. And even though we may be disappointed in the result, the ultimate goal should be to perform at our best as we prepare for, and then run, the race.
But as Paul has made abundantly clear throughout Romans, and does again in this current section, our very best effort will not be good enough to earn God’s favor. But thankfully, we do not have to earn God’s favor – He gives it freely to all those who believe in the only one who was perfect in running the race despite all of the challenges that were presented to Him.
Again, Paul has made clear that faith is the path to righteousness. We cannot achieve righteousness on our own. If we could, then God would owe us, and God will not be in our debt. Indeed, we are in His debt. Because, as we saw last week, God will have mercy on whom He has mercy and He will have compassion on whom He has compassion.
Let us be thankful that His mercy and compassion includes Jesus running and winning a race that we could never win on our own.
What’s Next?: By faith, Jesus makes people righteous in principle, but we need to become righteous in practice. 2 Timothy 3.16 says that Scripture is profitable for, among other things, training in righteousness. A recent string of Wednesday night lessons focused on this concept. You can watch the recordings from the “Redeem the Time” series. The March 17th video is a general look at the need for training, and then the March 24th, April 7th, and April 14th videos are more direct). If you would rather read them, you can find the articles at Andy’s blog (fotonni.com) on the dates of March 12, 19, 26, and April 7.