“But Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of Israel’s sons is like the sand of the sea, only the remnant will be saved; for the Lord will execute His sentence completely and decisively on the earth. And just as Isaiah predicted: If the Lord of Hosts had not left us offspring, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah. What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness — namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: Look! I am putting a stone in Zion to stumble over and a rock to trip over, yet the one who believes on Him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:27-33 HCSB)
I’ve never been very good at math. Well, I understand and get the basics but advanced math simply eludes me. I was able to make it through High School and College Algebra and Geometry, but anything above that is just beyond me. I can solve simple algebraic equations, but not much else. I know a few folks who just look at me and shake their heads. They don’t understand why I can’t get these concepts. To be honest, I don’t understand either. I’m fairly intelligent but these things just escape my grasp.
I remember one particular event in college that proved fateful. I returned to college after having stopped for about 10 years. I was married with two children when I decided to go back and finish. I was pastoring a small church in rural south central Oklahoma and driving two hours each way to school. I’d leave early in the morning, drive to Shawnee and attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday, each week. I had decided that I would pursue a religion degree but get a minor in computer science. I could use the religion degree to pastor a church while using my computer knowledge and training to make a living. Seemed like a good idea. Still does.
I was taking a computer programming class (Pascal) one semester when the professor made an assignment – write a program that could solve for a quadratic equation. I couldn’t solve a quadratic equation on paper, let alone write a program to do so. I spoke with the professor and explained that there had not been a math pre-requisite for the course and that I did not have the knowledge to complete the assigment. Her response, “you should have learned this in high school algebra, I’m not changing the assignment. Deal with it.” I argued that this had not been covered in my high school algebra classes and that those classes had been 10 years prior, please make an exception and give me another assignment. My request was denied.
I was unable to complete the assignment, but it was only one assignment. I had my other assignments and would work hard to make up for it on the final exam. Over the course of the next several weeks, I had a funeral at the church that caused me to miss an exam but the professor said the final exam would simply count as a higher percentage of my final grade, she did not allow for make up exams. So, now my success or failure in this course really did come down to how well I could do on the final exam. I had completely failed the quadratic equation assignment and missed an exam – the final exam would account for half of my grade. Everything was on the line. I walked into the final exam, picked it up, walked to my seat and sat down prepared to work hard. I turned the page… and my heart sunk. One of the three problems on the exam was to write a Pascal program to solve for a quadratic equation. Good grief! Long story made short, I stumbled over this issue – solving for a quadratic equation. I made a D in the course and couldn’t have a D in my minor. I’d have to carry that grade as an elective course and take a different course to complete my minor. My inability to solve a mathematical equation almost derailed my college goals and career path.
There are some issues and questions in life that trip us up or cause us to stumble. Many of those issues and questions revolve around our relationship with God. This week we will spend our time trying to get a handle on this issue and the central role that faith plays in our relationship with God. We will also look at how Israel continually stumbled over that issue and how we often stumble over it, as well. Let’s take a look…
Scripture tells us that God made man in His own image. While the full meaning of that statement is hard to understand and much, much deeper than we may ever know, it is one of the grandest and scariest statements in all of scripture, at the same time. It reveals both the beauty and the ugliness of man’s soul. We are able to know love and express love because God is love and we are able to reject God’s love, rebel against His good and perfect will and despise His grace. We are capable of exhibiting His character or corrupting it and twisting it to fit our own desires. We are capable of knowing and worshiping God, or ignoring Him and worshiping ourselves. Beauty and ugliness, love and hate, good and evil in the same creature.
Last week we considered Paul’s quotations from Hosea, “not mine” will now be “mine” and “despised” will now be “loved”. While these words were originally written to refer to a remnant of Israelites who would return to God and pursue His righteousness, Paul applies the same principle to the Gentiles who are now flooding the early church in response to the Gospel. They were “not mine” but are now “mine” and they were “despised” but are now “loved” by God. This week, he quotes Isaiah and tells us: “though the number of Israel’s sons is like the sand of the sea, only the remnant will be saved” and “if the Lord had not left us offspring, we would have become like Sodom and Gomorrah.” There’s no question as to whether this is true, just the question as to why this is true. Why, oh God? Why have you rejected Israel and loved these Gentiles?
Paul responds, “Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness – namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law.” It is quite easy to read over those statements and miss Paul’s point – so I’ll try to make sure we see it, clearly. There are two very small but key words in that statement. In some ways and by some folks, they might even be considered insignificant – they are, “from” and “for”. Gentiles, who weren’t pursuing righteousness have now obtained it – righteousness from faith. Israel, who pursued the law for righteousness failed to achieve it – righteousness of the law. Those who pursued faith in Christ obtained righteousness and found God but those who pursued the law for righteousness didn’t obtain righteousness and missed God.
But why? How did their pursuit of the law for righteousness fail? Let’s see if I can explain this using an illustration. In America, there are basically three classifications of “crimes” – infractions (or petty offenses), misdemeanors and felonies. If you commit a crime or break a law then it will be classified as one of these types. Usually, an infraction or petty offense will result in only a fine (an example would be a traffic violation). A misdemeanor is considered a minor offense and carries lesser penalties, sentences (less than a year) and fines (an would be shoplifting). While a felony is considered a serious offense and will carry a much stronger penalty, jail sentence (more than a year) and hefty fines (an example would be murder). But regardless of which classification your crime falls under, you’ve still broken the law. Once convicted, the question is not whether you’ve broken the law but the seriousness of the crime and the resulting penalty.
When it comes to God’s law, we like to play games and question God. We act like the seriousness of the offense makes the offense irrelevant or that we’ve not violated any of God’s commands. We have a tendency to act like the very people that Jesus most strongly condemned, the scribes and Pharisees. Paul was quite familiar with the way the scribes and Pharisees acted, he had been one. He knew their hearts and so did God. In fact, Jesus accused them of living morally clean public lives while harboring greedy and self-indulgent lifestyles privately…
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24 HCSB)
But how do you obtain righteousness if not by pursuing the law for righteousness sake? How can you be righteous in God’s sight if you continually fail to live up to the demands of God’s law? Ah, there’s the rub. God demands absolute obedience to the entire law in order to be righteous by the law’s standards but we’re unable to meet His demands. The Pharisees kept some commands (outward, visible obedience – like tithing on their herbs) while neglecting others (justice, mercy and faith). So they were guilty before God as lawbreakers and they taught others to follow their example.
That was Israel’s condition and it’s also ours. We strain out gnats but gulp down camels. We think we’re righteous as long as we go to church on Sunday morning, play Christian songs on our car radio, have the Bible app installed on our smart phones, put an occasional $20 in the offering and opposed abortion in the last election. None of those things are bad, they just fall short of what God demands. God’s looking at your heart, your attitude, your desires, and the way you live when others can’t see or hear what you’re doing… and that leaves all of us in that category of lawbreakers. Sinners.
Now, one of the arguments I hear regarding God’s judgment of sin is based on the idea that God cannot be a God of love if He would condemn someone to Hell for something as inconsequential as a single lie. First, let me point out that NOBODY who is condemned in their sin is guilty of a single offense – especially a single lie. To stand before God and declare your innocence is to ignore the intent of your heart, the thoughts of your mind and the desires of your soul. Second, to make such a claim is to deny the holiness of God and His authority over your life. In essence, to make such a claim is to accuse God of injustice and to deny His love, mercy and grace. The argument is a straw man argument, and it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Do you know anyone guilty of a single sin, especially one that is inconsequential and irrelevant? Me either.
So, that brings us to Paul’s statement regarding the righteousness that believers (whether Jew or Gentile) have obtained, righteousness that comes from faith. We tend to think of faith as simply “believing” a set of principles, facts or truth/belief statements. For example, I believe in the existence of God. That’s good, that’s a start but it isn’t enough. That kind of belief doesn’t result in faith that brings salvation and righteousness before God. James says, “You believe in the one true God? Good for you. But even the demons believe that and tremble at the thought of it.” (see James 2:19)
So, what kind of faith results in righteousness? When you really believe something, it affects the choices you make, the way you act and the direction of your life. If you believe (have faith) that Jesus really is God in the flesh, the fulfillment of God’s promises – the Messiah, that He gave up heaven and came to earth because of His great, great love for you and me, that He lived a sinless life fulfilling God’s commands through the Law, that He died because of man’s sin and was resurrected on the third day, it changes you. It changes the choices you make, the way you act and the direction your life takes. Faith is not just the belief in these things, it is surrendering yourself to them. Faith means that you seek to abandon your own desires while seeking God’s desires. Faith means that you die to self, that you crucify the desires of your physical body and you discover life is living for God’s glory and His desires. Faith is not just mental belief in a set of Biblical principles and commands, it is belief that changes you, consumes you, overwhelms you and fulfills you.
If your faith hasn’t changed you then your faith is still in your head and not in your heart!
“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” (Matthew 7:24-27 HCSB)
Finally, Paul closes this passage by stating that the Jews “stumbled over” this issue. Jesus is referred to as a stone, a stone you stand on (as a foundation) or a stone you trip or stumble over (as hindrance or issue). THIS is the core issue that faces our modern culture. Many would welcome Christ as another religious leader who has some really good principles and teachings, especially regarding loving one another. Most other world religions are happy to embrace the moral teachings of Christ and add Him to their list of prophets, teachers or gurus. However, Jesus will have none of that. He is either the foundation stone upon which all of life exists and is built or else He’s a stumbling stone that causes you to trip and fall.
Why did the Jews stumble over this issue? Simply put, the Jews wanted Jesus to submit Himself to their authority. They wanted Him to follow their lead. They wanted God, but they wanted Him on their own terms. They stumbled over God’s foundation instead of building their lives upon it. We often do the same thing. We want God, but we want Him to submit to personal desires, our needs, our authority. We want God, but we want Him to follow our lead, do things our way, behave and perform to our standards. We want God, but we want Him on our own terms. We want Him to acknowledge our authority, validate our desires, approve of our identity. We want to build our lives, not on His foundation but on our own. We want to walk, run and skip our way through life but we keep tripping over this rock – Jesus. Instead of tripping over Him, try building your life on Him.
“For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:11 HCSB)