What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 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.” – Romans 9:30-33 ESV
Righteousness is by faith. That has been and continues to be the crux of Paul’s argument in these verses. Paul’s Jewish brothers and sisters were having a difficult time letting go of their strong belief that getting right with God was based on their Hebrew ancestry and their ability to keep the Law, given to them by God through Moses. But Paul presents a completely different set of facts. The reality is that the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness have actually received it, by faith. They did not know the Mosaic law and wasted no time trying to keep it. And yet they had been made right with God by placing their faith in His Son as their sin substitute. In contrast, the Jews, who were busy seeking righteousness through keeping the law, never attained that righteousness. Why? Because they could not live up to God’s exacting standards. He never expected them to. The law was given to reveal their sin and expose their helplessness. It had been intended to wake them up to their need for a Savior, a Messiah. They could not make themselves right with God, so He sent someone who could do it for them. But they had to believe. They had to repent from their current way of thinking. They had been placing their faith all along in themselves. When Jesus came onto the scene, He told them to repent, to turn away from their false views of sin, God and salvation, and accept Him as their Savior. And as Paul says, “they stumbled over the stumbling stone.”
Paul is quoting from Isaiah, chapter eight, where God is warning the people of the northern kingdom of Israel of the coming invasion of the Assyrians. The people of Israel had been unfaithful to God. They worshiped their own, man-made idols and had established their own temple. God was fed up and was bringing punishment on them in the form of the Assyrian army. But Isaiah warned them, “The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does” (Isaiah 8:11 NLT). He tells them to stop fearing the Assyrians and to start fearing God, to show Him the reverence and respect He deserves. “Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life. He is the one you should fear. He is the one who should make you tremble. He will keep you safe” (Isaiah 8:13-14a NLT). They needed to see God as their salvation, not themselves. Not some foreign ally. But Isaiah went on to give them the bad news, “to Israel and Judah he will be a stone that makes people stumble, a rock that makes them fall” (Isaiah 8:14b NLT).
Years later, God would tell the people of Judah, as they scoffed at the idea of their coming destruction. “We have struck a bargain to cheat death and have made a deal to dodge the grave. The coming destruction can never touch us, for we have built a strong refuge made of lies and deception” (Isaiah 28:15 NLT). They were putting their faith and hope in something other than God. But He would warn them:
Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on.” – Isaiah 28:17 NLT
Like their ancestors before them, the Jews of Paul’s day were stumbling over the stumbling stone. Rather than seeing Jesus as a precious cornerstone, they were seeing Him as a rock of offense. They just could not accept the fact that righteousness was based on faith, not works. They could not bring themselves to believe that faith in Jesus was God’s intended path to righteousness. And as a result, what the psalmist predicted became a reality. “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see” (Psalm 118:22-23 NLT). Outside the city walls of Jerusalem, the Son of God would be put to death in order to pay for the sins of men. He would become the sacrifice to satisfy the just demands of a holy God. And whoever believed in Him would not be put to shame. It is that promise that caused Paul’s Jewish brothers and sisters to stumble. And it still presents a problem for people today, both Jews and Gentiles. The whole idea of man’s sin and his need of a Savior comes across as ridiculous to the vast majority of those who hear it. It seems far-fetched. It sounds too good to be true. Which is why it requires faith. We must believe that it is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. Sure, it makes no sense to us. It seems illogical and unreasonable. Over the centuries, the message of salvation through faith in Christ has caused so many to stumble. But there have been millions upon millions who have placed their faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ and enjoyed salvation from sin and death and a restored relationship with the God of the universe.