|Romans 9:30-33. Question 4: What then shall we say in conclusion?
Paul’s fourth and final question, repeated from verse 14, is addressed to himself. In the light of the argument he has been developing, what conclusion would it be legitimate to draw? In particular, faced with the unbelief of the majority of Israel and the minority status of believing Israel, how have these things come about? In response, Paul begins with a description, continues with an explanation, and ends with a biblical confirmation.
The situation he describes is completely topsy-turvy. On the one hand, *the Gentiles* (better ‘Gentiles’ without the definite article), *who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith* (30). To describe pagans as ‘not pursuing righteousness’ is a major understatement. Most of them at least are godless and self-centred, going their own way, lovers of themselves, of money and pleasure, rather than lovers of God and of goodness (2 Tim.3:1ff.). Nevertheless, they obtained what they did not pursue. Indeed, when they heard the gospel of justification by faith, the Holy Spirit worked in them so powerfully that they ‘laid hold’ of it almost with violence (*katalambano*) by faith. *But Israel*, on the other hand, *who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it* (31). Israel’s pursuit of righteousness was almost proverbial. They were imbued with a religious and moral zeal which some would call fanaticism. Why, then, did they not ‘attain’ it? Paul uses a different verb (*phthano*), meaning to ‘reach’ or ‘arrive at’. And the reason they did not arrive is that they were pursuing an impossible goal. Paul anticipates what he will say in the next verse by setting over against the Gentiles’ *righteousness* that is by faith what he calls *a law of righteousness*, which must be a reference to Torah viewed as a law to be obeyed. Here, then, is Paul’s description of the upside-down religious situation of his day. The Jews who pursued righteousness never reached it; the Gentiles who did not pursue it laid hold of it.
But why was this so? And with regard to the Jews who did not arrive, *why not*? Significantly, Paul’s answer on this occasion makes no reference to God’s ‘purpose in election’ (11), but instead attributes Israel’s failure to arrive to her own folly: *because they pursued it not by faith* (which is how the Gentiles laid hold of it, 30) *but as if it were by works*, that is, as if the accumulation of works-righteousness were God’s way of salvation. *So they stumbled over the ‘stumbling-stone’ (proskomma, 32)*. What Paul means by this is not in doubt, since he uses the same imagery (although a different vocabulary) elsewhere. In particular, he calls the proclamation of Christ crucified ‘a stumbling-block (*skandalon*) to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23), and refers also to ‘the offence (*skandalon*) of the cross’ (Gal.5:11). And why do people stumble over the cross? Because it undermines our self-righteousness. For ‘if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing’ (Gal.2:21). That is, if we could gain a righteous standing before God by our own obedience to his law, the cross would be superfluous. If we could save ourselves, why should Christ have bothered to die? His death would have been redundant. The fact that Christ died for our sins is proof positive that we cannot save ourselves. But to make this humiliating confession is an intolerable offence to our pride. So instead of humbling ourselves, we ‘stumble over the stumbling-stone’.
It only remains for the apostle to provide biblical support for what he has written (33). Like Peter in his first letter (1 Pet.2:6, 8), he brings together two rock-sayings from Isaiah. But Paul goes further than Peter and conflates them. The first and final phrases he quotes are from Isaiah 28:16: *See, I lay in Zion a stone*, and *the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame*. In between these, however, the other two phrases come from Isaiah 8:14: *a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes then fall*. The primary affirmation is that God himself has laid down a solid rock or stone. It is, of course, Jesus Christ. He boldly applied to himself the prophecy of Psalm 118: ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ (Ps. 118:22; Mk. 12:10; cf. Acts 4:11; 1 Pet, 2:7). In addition ‘no-one can lay any foundation other than one already laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor, 3:11). So everybody has to decide how to relate to this rock which God has laid down. There are only two possibilities. One is to put our trust in him, to take him as the foundation of our lives and build on him. The other is to bark our shins against him, and so to stumble and fall.