“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”
If we decided to interview 100 Evangelical and Reformed pastors to find out which book of the NT is (in their experience) the most difficult book to work through, I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul’s epistle to the Romans made its way into the top five books on that list. And also, if we went on to ask every pastor who voted for Romans what section in that book, is (in their experience) the most difficult section to work through, I would expect then, that more than half of them would quickly point to chapters 9-11.
For example, one scholar writes this,
Romans 9-11 is as full of problems as a hedgehog is full of prickles. Many [therefore] have given it up… leaving Romans as a book with eight chapters of gospel at the beginning, four of application at the end, and three of puzzle in the middle.
So we can see that often times this section is feared, denied and avoided.
The reason I I point that out, however, is not to discourage anyone from reading the book of Romans. Nor is it to make the reader question the accuracy of what I am about to write, because the truth is (and I firmly believe this) that the difficulty of this section is not so much in understanding what it teaches, but more so in accepting what it teaches.
I have no doubt that anyone who reads chapters 9-11 can understand that these chapters are dealing with the question of widespread Jewish unbelief. That’s easy, that’s just the subject matter and it lays on the surface of the mind. But the difficulty comes in the moment we’re confronted with the apostle Paul’s threefold explanation for Israel’s failure. That’s when things get complicated, because they penetrate the heart and challenge our personal presuppositions.
And what is Paul’s three fold explanation of Israel’s failure?
Well first, beginning in chapter 9, Paul lays out the sovereign purpose of God in election as the first and most fundamental answer to the implied question found in verse 6, “Has the word of God failed?” And throughout this chapter, Paul makes it absolutely clear that in every generation of covenant history God reserves the right to bestow His mercy on whomsoever He will, and that His choice of one man over another is not in any way based upon the actions or the character of the one He chooses.
In verse 16 of Romans 9 Paul writes,
So then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
Then, beginning in verse 30 Paul’s explanation moves from the purpose of God to the methods of men, providing for us the real-time, secondary cause of Israel’s failure to obtain righteousness, namely that “they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law” (9:32). In other words, Paul tell us, in no uncertain terms, that in their blindness and by the hardness of their heart, they stumbled at Jesus Christ – thereby turning the very “Rock of their salvation” (Ps. 18:2; 1 Cor. 10:4) into “a stone of stumbling and rock of offence” (9:33). And during this section Paul is unequivocal. The blame for Israel’s departure from the promise of God is to be laid upon no one else, but herself.
And finally, beginning at Romans 11:25, Paul brings in the element of God’s providential activity in history, showing further that the blindness of Israel was “brought about” (γεγονεν) specifically in the interest of Gentile salvation. Speaking to the Gentiles in verse 30 Paul writes, “For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through [Israel’s] unbelief.”
And again in verse 32 Paul explains,
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, in order that He might have mercy upon all.
With some overlap in each section therefore, we learn from chapters 9-11 that Israel’s failure was the result of sovereign ordination, self-determination, and providential orchestration. All of which, as we’ve seen, is easy to understand, but difficult to receive.
Now, why do I say all of this, and what’s the point of approaching the passage in this way? Well, I emphasize this point because I think it’s important for us to remember that helping people understand the truth is not the same as helping them receive the truth. And so one of very the first things I think we need to learn from this section, and specifically the passage before us, is that difficult doctrine calls for delicate delivery. And to see that principle, I would call your attention to verse 1 of our text, because when we look there, we notice that right here at the beginning of this section, the apostle Paul (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) makes every effort to remove the suspicion, and minimize the resentment of his readers. And he does that in a few ways.
First, he does it by calling them “brethren.” Now, this word, brethren, occurring 14 times in Romans alone, is a term Paul often uses to introduce a new subject or mark a transition within a particular argument. But here he’s calling them brethren as “term of endearment,” because it serves to bridge the gap between writer and reader so as to maintain their trust and secure (at the very least) a fair consideration of his difficult teaching. Knowing that “a soft answer turneth away wrath,” (Prov 15:1), Paul upholds the principle of Ephesians 4:15 by “speaking the truth in love.” By appealing to their common “brotherhood,” Paul softens the blow and prepares them for the impact.
But that’s not all that Paul does here, because then goes on to display his true and heartfelt concern for Israel; not for his readers, but for the Jews themselves. In perfect parallel fashion, he mentions both the “desire of his heart” and his “prayer toward God.” And these two phrases, given side by side, and one after another, seem like their being presented as two parts of a complete process (from heart to God), possibly emphasizing the true sincerity of Paul’s concern. Previously, in chapter 9, we saw something similar. In verses 1, 2 Paul showed the authenticity of his burden for Israel, by appealing to the testimony of his own conscience in the sight of God, saying
I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart.
Another thing we see here is that when Paul speaks of the “desire” of his heart, the word he chooses there is the Greek term ευδοκια, which among other things, is used to express “good will,” As when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds in the field, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14). Apparently, by choosing that particular term (as opposed to more common terms for desire) Paul wants to highlight for us, the positive inclination of his heart, and therefore the benevolent character of his desire. Paul’s prayer doesn’t just proceed from his heart. Everything proceeds from the heart, Jesus said that “out of the heart proceed murders, adulteries, false witness and blasphemy,” but here, Paul wants to make it absolutely clear that his prayer proceeds from a heart of love. Just as 1 Corinthians 13:5 tells us that “love seeketh not her own” so Paul is not here seeking his own interests. Instead, he demonstrates his love by seeking the interest and welfare of others.
And if we’re looking for a point of personal application that we all can take away even from verse 1, we might just listen to the exhortation that was given to the Philippian congregation in Philippians 2:4,
Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” In other words, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.
In Paul we have a clear and powerful example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who not only wept over Jerusalem as Paul is weeping over Israel, but also gave of himself everything that he had – his life, his prayers, his tears, his blood; his own body and his own soul as an offering and a sacrifice for the sins of his people. And so while there’s nothing wrong with using godly men in Scripture as our examples – it’s always important to remember that even the best of men are men at best, and their examples, insofar as they demonstrate Christ-like love and compassion, are always and only ultimately designed to point us to the Lord himself.
Which is why of course, in 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul writes,
Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.
And here, that’s exactly what Paul does, when he says in verse 1, “brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel, is that they might be saved.”
The obvious implication of Paul’s prayer is that Israel, in their current condition, is not saved. And so Paul is here interceding on their behalf.
Now moving on to verse 2 Paul goes on to give us the reason for verse one. He explains Why it is that he desires and Why it is that he prays for the salvation of Israel. He says, I pray for Israel “because” or “for, I bear them record.” In other words, Paul is filled with compassion and he’s moved into prayer, because he knows that he has an accurate understanding of Israel’s true situation. That’s exactly what he’s is saying here, and in fact, Paul’s knowledge of Israel’s problem is so certain, he tells us that he can literally render eyewitness testimony to it, in a court of law.
And why is that?
What makes Paul so qualified to give such testimony?
Well I think that becomes clear when we look at the testimony itself.
And in verse 2 it comes to us in two halves. Paul says, “I bear them record that” first, “they have a zeal of God,” and that second, their zeal is “not according to knowledge.” In effect, as Paul takes the stand, he testifies to Israel in such a way that in one fell swoop he both commends them and condemns them.
1. They have a zeal of God
First, he says that they have “a zeal of God.” Of course we know, that in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with having zeal. After all, when Jesus cleansed the temple, overturning tables and driving out the money changers, he was acting in a spirit of zeal.
In John 2:17 we read, “
And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.
Moreover, Titus 2:14 informs us that Jesus died with the specific purpose of “purifying unto himself a peculiar people, zealous for good works.” So in many ways, we can see that having zeal is certainly a commendable thing.
2. Their zeal is not according to knowledge.
But secondly, although they do have a zeal of God, their zeal is “not according to knowledge.” Israel, according to Paul, suffers from an ignorant passion. And right here, we can see why it is that Paul is able to testify to Israel’s problem with such pin-point accuracy. It’s because prior to his conversion to Jesus Christ, Paul himself, as a representative of Israel, was driven by the very same power; a misguided and therefore misdirected zeal. Paul’s problem was that his passion was for the traditions of men, rather than the promises of God.
In Galatians chapter 1:13, 14, Paul writes
For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.
And, isn’t it interesting that this is exactly what Jesus told his disciples would happen?
In John 16:2 Jesus prophesied,
Yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.
That prophecy was partly fulfilled in the apostle Paul. In Philippians chapter 3, after giving a long list of supposed Jewish credentials, he adds in verse 6, “concerning zeal, persecuting the church.” And, in 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul confirms the whole point here when he says, “I did it [all] ignorantly in unbelief.”
It’s probably worth pointing out that even though the fruit of Paul’s ignorance was the persecution of God’s people, that’s not the primary concern of our passage. Remember, Paul in this context is praying for Israel, not the church. The focus here is much more foundational. In Paul’s mind, ignorant Jewish passion is a problem not because it’s dangerous to the church, but more importantly, because it’s damning to the soul. And I say that because according to verse 3, 4, the ignorance of Israel led her to reject the one and only thing that could possibly save her – namely, the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.
For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God; for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.
Now in these two verses there are several things we could explore. But, in the interest of time and space, I only want to make two or three observations that that I think will help us understand the basic meaning of the passage. Before we get there however, we should probably note that although many commentators assign a qualitative difference between επιγνωσις, found in verse 2, and γνωσις, used elsewhere in the New Testament (as if the former refers to saving knowledge and the latter refers to generic knowledge), such a distinction is hard to substantiate.
For example, John Murray commenting on this very term, writes,
It is, however, unwarranted to draw a hard and fast line of distinction between γνωσις and επιγνωσις in the usage of the New Testament as if the former always fell short of the richness and fulness of επιγνωσις and the latter always referred to the knowledge that is unto life.
Murray then goes on to list several passages wherein the term επιγνωσις is used in a way that clearly falls short of it supposed fulness, including Romans 1:28 which tells us that God gave men over to a reprobate mind, precisely because “they did not like to retain God in their knowledge (επιγνωσις).”
Moving now to verse 3, notice that the apostle Paul sets up before the eyes of his readers, an absolute contrast between two mutually exclusive categories: On the one hand there’s the righteousness of God and on the other hand, a righteousness of their own. In verses 5-6 Paul further identifies these categories as “the righteousness which is of the law” and “the righteousness of faith.” The main point here is that these two sources for righteousness are essentially incompatible and therefore cannot co-exist. To pursue one, is to leave the other.
And actually, I should state the point more forcefully than that, because when Paul says they have not “submitted” themselves, that term for “submit” is literally “subject” or even better, “subordinate” because the word he uses is a military term referring to the the chain of command. So it’s not so much that the Jews just sort of neglected God’s righteousness; they were in total defiance and rebellion against it!
The reason I bring that out is because when Paul says that the Jews were ignorant, some commentators seem to suggest that maybe the real problem was that all along Israel had never been presented with the right information. However, when we look at the whole context of Romans chapter 10 we can see right away that such conclusion is totally false. You’ll notice that down in verses 17-21, after concluding that “faith cometh by hearing” (v 17), Paul goes on to ask, “But I say, Have they not heard? Yes indeed, for their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world. But I say, did Israel not know?” And in verse 21 he confirms the point “But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.” So clearly, rather than being the result of Divine oversight Israel’s ignorance was the outcome of their willful resistance.
Moreover, in moving from the abstract to the concrete, the apostle Paul shows us that the righteousness of God is only found in Jesus Christ. And he does that by using the term “for” at the beginning of verse 4. He says, they have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness.”
And here we have to ask What does it mean that Christ is the end of the law? And of course this question has been the focus of considerable debate. I think part of the reason for that is because the term end, or τελος, is just about as ambiguous in the Greek as it is in the English – mainly because it has such a wide range of connotations. Among other things, this term carries with it the idea of aim, goal, purpose, fulfillment, completion and termination – each of which is almost competing for its own particular nuance.
But generally speaking, I think that in some sense, each of these meanings has something helpful to contribute to our understanding, even to the point that theologically we might affirm them all. For example, we might say that Jesus Christ in in fact the aim, goal, purpose, fulfillment, and with respect to the Covenant of Works the termination of the law for those who believe.
John Calvin, commenting on the meaning of this term seems to favor the interpretation that Christ is the aim and purpose of the law when he writes,
he is a false interpreter of the law, who seeks to be justified by his own works; because the law had been given for this end,—to lead us as by the hand to another righteousness.
What Calvin is saying here is that the whole time Israel was pursuing the law, the law itself was pointing her to Jesus Christ. Because even though the law can teach us what righteousness is, the law itself is totally incapable of providing that righteousness to us, or producing that righteousness in us. According to Romans 8, that’s precisely what the law “could not do in that it was weak through the flesh.”
In Galatians 3 Paul says it this way,
for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
In other words, God never intended to use the law, as a means to justify sinners. Instead, he gave them the law to show them their sin and drive them to Jesus Christ. And of course, this is exactly what Scripture tells us when it says in Galatians 3:24,
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
In conclusion, I think it’s important that we ask the question more directly – Why is any of this important for us today?
And the answer to that is simple. It’s because the tendency to put one’s trust in the works of his own hands, is ultimately not a Jewish problem. It’s a human problem, that arises from the corruption of our fallen hearts, so that each and every single one of us is right now susceptible to it. So long as we continue in these mortal bodies, dragging around the dying carcass of our sinful natures, we’ll always have to fight against the natural tendency to exalt ourselves on the basis of what we do. The only way we’re gonna steer clear from the sin of self-righteousness is by continually reminding ourselves of the supremacy and sufficiency of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Because in him there is a full and complete righteousness, accepted by God available to anyone who believes.
And if you want a summary of that, you can find it on Lord’s Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which sums up beautifully everything I just said.
In Question 60 the Catechism reads, “How are you righteous before God?”
The answer is,
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.