NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXXII)
So Stern now offers a second way of looking at it. He says that verses 31–32a must be taken to mean that the people of Israel were actively pursuing the perfect guidelines based on solid principles of divine righteousness contained in the Law of Moses. However, they failed to see that God’s offer of righteousness was a gift, they were convinced they had to work for it.
Then, in the end, Stern gives his third interpretation of what Paul expressed in verse 31. To him, when Paul spoke of the Law, he was speaking of the Torah, the Law of Moses. Anyone studying the Torah will find that God’s righteousness is expressed in four ways: Its source. Its method. Its demands. and its offer. When read in context, what should be stressed is that it offers the same righteousness obtained by the Gentiles. The problem was, although the Israelites kept pursuing the right goal by understanding the Torah and the righteousness it offers, yet did not reach their goal because they either failed to see or didn’t want to see that true righteousness is grounded in trusting God to do what man is incapable of doing. That is, they did not accept the fact that the Torah said righteousness was a gift, they were convinced they had to earn it.1
Verse 32: Why? Because they did not pursue righteousness as being grounded in trusting but as if it were grounded in meeting legalistic requirements. They tripped over the stone that makes some people stumble.2
Here Paul puts the focus on the Jews who were quite critical of the Gentiles, even those who were given the privilege to become part of God’s kingdom through grace because they did not also adhere to Jewish customs and traditions. Yet, they themselves, were, for all their efforts, failures in meeting the demands of the Law. But Paul makes this very clear to the Galatians: “Does this mean that the legal part of the Torah stands in opposition to God’s promises? Heaven forbid! For if the legal part of the Torah which God gave had possessed in itself the power to give life, then righteousness really would have come by legalistically following such a Torah.”3 Paul goes on to say: “Consequently, it is clear that no one can ever win God’s favor by trying to keep the Jewish laws because God has said that the only way we can be right in His sight is by faith.”4 Paul would then point out the impossibility of such an attempt, because it did not require just converting to Judaism, but in keeping every law on the books.5
We have the story of a young man who came to Jesus seeking to become part of the Kingdom of God. He too felt secure because he had obediently kept all the commandments. But when Jesus told him to do one more thing, and that was sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor, then come and follow Him, the man felt that was too high a price to pay.6 Paul knew what he was talking about here. We find his own story in the letter to the Corinthians: “God in His wisdom saw to it that the world would never find Him through human brilliance, and then He stepped in and saved all those who believed His message, which the world calls foolish and silly. It seems foolish to the Jews because they want a sign from heaven as proof that what is preached is true, and it is foolish to the Gentiles because they believe only what agrees with their philosophy and seems wise to them. So when we preach about Christ dying to save them, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. But God has opened the eyes of those called to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, to see that Christ is the mighty power of God to save them; Christ Himself is the center of God’s wise plan for their salvation.”7
When it comes to the Jews failing to be made right with God through their own efforts, early church scholar Ambrosiaster notes that when Paul talks about Gentiles fulfilling of the law by faith, it was because of their faith in Christ who fulfilled the Law for them. Meanwhile, the Jews who claimed to have the righteousness required by the law, such as observing the Sabbath, being circumcised, the rites, rituals, ceremonies, feasts, etc., did not come near to fulfilling the law because of their envy and rejection of the Savior. In other words, those who thought they were fulfilling the Law on their own were not, and those who were not fulfilling the Law on their own were doing so through Christ.8
Pelagius puts it another way by saying that Paul was explaining once again why the Jews did not find righteousness. They spent so much time glorying their works that they refused to believe and rejected grace on the grounds they didn’t need it, they were already righteous.9 In other words, God placed a stepping-stone in front of the Jews but they ended up making it a stumbling-block because of their lack of faith in the One who came to save them.
Reformer John Calvin is direct and straight-forward in his denouncing works over grace. For him, while the Jew’s false zeal seems to be a good excused, nevertheless, Paul shows that they are deservedly rejected because of their attempt to attain salvation by trusting in their own works. In doing so they abolished faith as a method of attaining salvation. Had they been able to gain their object, such success would have been the annihilation of true righteousness.10 Calvin then asserts that the Jews put too much trust in their works to make them right with God. However, that would be the chief hindrance in their obtaining righteousness which is a gift. That’s because there was a stumbling-block in their way to obtain righteousness through self-effort. Since God spoke by the Prophets that Christ was a cornerstone, it is clear that righteousness can only achieved with His help.
Calvin goes on to say that by calling Christ a stumbling-block, he’s telling us that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Jews made no progress on the road they chose to become righteous. It was through their willful stubbornness that Christ became a rock of offence, in spite of the fact that God showed to them the Way, the Truth, and the Life so plainly. We must never think of the term stumbling-block as defining Christ. To the contrary, it is when sinful people try to get around Him, go over Him, get by Him, or push Him out of the way to get to God that their actions become a stumbling-block to them getting true righteousness.11 In other words, any person who tries to fulfill God’s requirements for salvation because they stumble over the fact that Christ is the only way to achieve it, it is not Christ’s fault, it’s their own fault because they made Christ as a stumbling-block instead of a stepping-stone.
Adam Clarke follows the same line of thinking when he asks if we can we spot the mistake that Judah and Israel made? First of all, they did not understand what God‘s righteousness meant. They didn’t see that it was His method of saving sinners by faith in Christ. So with closed minds and closed eyes, they went about trying to establish their own righteousness. They wanted to create their own method for obtaining everlasting salvation. They did not go back and read the covenant God made with Abraham. Had they done so, they would have clearly seen that it was backed by the principles of grace and faith. Instead, they turned all their attention to the Law of Moses. They imagined that their obedience to that Law gave them a right to the blessings of the Messiah‘s kingdom. But when they were told that they must seek to enter the Messiah’s kingdom through the instructions found in the Gospel, they rebelled. The Gospel elevates a believer’s interest in seeking and knowing God, and the privileges of His Church on a higher level. Since they were offended by this and refused to come into the kingdom that way, it became a stumbling-block to them.12 And just as ignoring the Gospel was a stumbling-block back in Paul’s day, it is as big an obstacle to receiving salvation today.
As Robert Haldane sees it, the Apostle Paul is asking why the people of Israel did not attain the righteousness they were seeking? He asked that question to get people excited about the answer that was coming. And that answer was that the Jews missed the mark because they were looking for it in the wrong place. They were looking for it in themselves when it can only be found in Christ. Instead of putting their faith in the righteous work of Christ, they chose to put faith in their own righteous works. It wasn’t because they didn’t try, but because trying was not enough. The complete fulfillment of the demands of each and every law had to be completed perfectly. No one was up to such a task. It was impossible to attain the righteousness God required in that manner. Had they succeeded, then Christ would have come in vain. But God would make no such mistake. It is that Christ must be Lord of all or He is not Lord at all.13
Albert Barnes explains that while we understand that a stumbling-block is a stone or impediment in a person’s path over which they may fall, Paul uses it here to mean “that obstacle which prevented the Jews from attaining the righteousness of faith.” This became the obstacle that led to Judah and Israel’s fall, rejection, and ruin. It was caused by their rejection and the crucifixion of their own Messiah. It showed their unwillingness to be saved by Him because of their contempt for Him and His message. As a result, they could not reach the place where the blessings of justification were available because God refused to compromise His plan of salvation. So as the Church marched out of Jerusalem, into Samaria, and then into the world they were left behind.14 Since God had made exceptions before, such as in the wilderness when He saved all those under the age of 21 instead of getting rid of them all,15 they may have felt that God would make an exclusion again.
Charles Hodge makes the note that in light of all that Paul said in a previous portion of this chapter, and the overall theme of Scriptures on the subject, the ground of the distinction between the saved and the unsaved is not found in what people do, but in what God has done. He has mercy on whom He will have mercy. But it is different when it comes finding the reason for condemnation. God condemns no one, just as Jesus refused to condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery,16 people bring condemnation on themselves.
It seems strange that the Jews would not accept becoming right with God a gift. They felt they had to work for it to make it worth something. In fact, they really wanted to get credit for earning it because it’s easier to brag about it that way. Believe it or not, there are people today who feel the same way about love. They just can’t understand that love is a gift. They are prepared to do anything to earn the love of someone else, that way it becomes a trophy for them. It doesn’t work with God, and it won’t work with other’s as well. As the Apostle John made it clear, once you find out that you are in love with God you’ll also discover it was because He loved you first.17
1 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Isaiah 8:14
3 Galatians 3:21 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 Ibid. 3:11
5 Ibid. 5:3
6 Matthew 19:16-22
7 1 Corinthians 1:21-24 – The Living Bible
8 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Calvin: ibid.
12 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 191
13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 493-494
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Numbers 14:29
16 John 8:11
17 1 John 4:19