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.”
In this chapter Paul has looked at salvation history from God’s perspective. That history is the product of God’s sovereign choice, guided by his mercy. God has so ordered things that only a remnant of Israel remains faithful while Gentiles come to faith. And these things should come as no surprise, because God telegraphed them through his prophets. From this divine perspective Paul now shifts his attention to the human side.
These four verses both conclude what Paul has said and introduce what he will say in chapter 10. Israel failed to recognize and receive Jesus as her Messiah. For that she is guilty.The race to righteousness
Paul’s word choice (“pursue” or press on as to a goal and “attained”) suggests a foot race between two teams. This competition seems one-sided from the start. The “I” team trains hard. Their mental and physical discipline is without equal. In contrast, the “G” team does nothing to prepare for the race. Sizing up their opponents, the “I’s” are confident of victory, certain they will obtain the prize—Righteousness.
But as the race goes on all the “I” team runners stumble and fall and the “G” team glides effortlessly to victory. Asked after the race the secret to their success, the winners explain, “Why work hard. We knew the prize was a gift.”Israel is blind to Christ
Israel stumbled because she mistook both the way to attain the goal and the goal itself. Israel so focused on her own self-centered pursuit of the Mosaic law as the way to attain righteousness that she failed to see that Jesus Christ is the goal. He is the inner meaning of the law and the fulfillment of that law. He is the way (John 14:6).
Had Israel perceived that Christ is the goal, she would also have found him to be “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:2 NIV). Unlike laboring Israel, Gentiles understood that Christ is the source of righteousness and that God awards this prize as a gift attainable only through grace by faith in Christ (5:17).
Israel’s failure is the irony of all ironies. Her blindness to her Messiah caused her to trip over him. Christ became for Israel “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” For his quotation in verse 33 Paul combined Isaiah 28:16 and 8:14. (For the Messianic background of the stone metaphor, see Genesis 49:24; Psalm 118:21–23; Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45; and Matthew 21:42–44. Also see 1 Peter 2:6–10.)
Douglas Moo frames the metaphor this way: “Israel is like a person walking a path, whose eyes are so narrowly focused downward on the path itself that she trips over a stone in the middle of that path.” And as Moo further suggests, she compounds the failure by continuing “on that path after it had served its purpose,” that is, after passing Christ and not realizing he is the goal (see 10:4).The law and faith
God’s sovereign action in the person and work of Jesus Christ requires that humans respond with faith and obedience. Verses 30 and 31 are a study in contrasts between Israel’s self-righteousness and Gentiles’ righteousness attained by faith.
We see in verses 31 and 32 that Israel’s problem was not her pursuit of the law but the manner in which she did so. Her sin was her attempt to make herself righteous through obedience to the law. But as Paul has said previously, sinful humanity cannot fulfill the law’s requirements (see 7:8–11 and 7:12–13, and 8:3). People seeking to obey the law by faith will recognize that they cannot fulfill it by their own efforts.
Jesus characterized Israel as a Pharisee who congratulated himself for his obedience to the law. The tax collector, in contrast, beat his breast and cried out for mercy. This man Jesus declared righteous (Luke 18:9–14). Had Israel pursued the law with such humility, she too would have cried out to God for forgiveness.
This passage warns people (and there are millions of them) who think they are “good enough” for God to accept them into heaven. The Jews thought they had no need for a Messiah who died on the cross for their sins. Don’t be like them.Living by complementary truths
Robert Utley asks, “Are humans saved by (1) God’s sovereignty; (2) by God’s mercy in the Messiah’s finished work; or (3) or by an act of personal faith? Yes!” The Bible teaches all three, so we affirm all three. J. I. Packer wrote a marvelous book titled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. He points out that God is in control of salvation from first to last. And yet human beings are responsible for their response to God’s offer of that salvation.
Packer brings up C. H. Spurgeon’s answer to a question about the sovereignty of God and the free will of humanity. Asked if he could reconcile these two truths, Spurgeon replied, “I wouldn´t try. I never reconcile friends.” Two truths, seemingly irreconcilable, do not fight each other but unite as friends. We should not take one side of this theological pairing. Knowing both are true, we trust in the one and obey with the other.