I respect the zeal with which many Muslims practice their religion. In fact, it can be said that Islam is more about practice than doctrine. The first of the Five Pillars of Islam is this simply confession that is to be repeated by Muslims: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The first statement declares a monotheistic and transcendent god. The second statement asserts that Muhammad is the unique and final prophet sent by god for all of humanity.
The other four pillars are then about things that a Muslim does. They are to pray five times a day at set times. They are to give alms as an outward sign of piety. They are to fast during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan. And they are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
In particular the practice of prayer should catch our attention. Muslims practice the discipline of stopping five times a day in order to pray. They have a set schedule that orders their day and while Muslims prefer to say the prayers in a mosque, they will stop their day wherever they are in order to pray. The prayers themselves follow a set pattern of words and gestures.
There is no doubt about the zeal. But as St. Paul says in the epistle lesson today about the Jews in the first century, it is not according to knowledge. Because they have relegated Jesus Christ to the role of merely being a prophet who came before Muhammad, Muslims do not know the true God. They do not know the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity.
And in another aspect that relates directly to our text, their zeal is not according to knowledge. Muslims practice with zeal because Islam is a religion of the law. While Islam does say that God is “the Compassionate One the Merciful,” this has nothing to do with how one is saved at the judgment of the Last Day. Instead, the picture given is that a person’s deeds will be weighed in a balance. The good deeds must outweigh the bad. Only martyrs have the certainty of paradise. For everyone else the only promise of paradise is made to “those who repent and believe and are righteous in act.”
In a number of important ways first century Judaism was similar to Islam today. Judaism did not completely forget about God’s grace. They knew that Israel and her descendants had been brought into the covenant with Yahweh only as a result of his grace. They knew that he had put them in this position.
But when it came to the question of how one achieved a righteous standing on the Last Day the answer focused on what a person did – on the works of the law. Judaism had a very positive view of the individual’s spiritual abilities. The grace of God’s covenant put you in the game. But after that, it was up to you. And the way you did it was very similar to modern Islam – key features were prayer, alms and fasting.
In this section of Romans, Paul is dealing with a difficult issue for him. While Gentiles were believing in Jesus Christ, most Jews did not. Certainly there were some – the very first Christians were all Jews. But by the time Romans was written the matter was clear – Gentiles were becoming Christians and Jews were rejecting Jesus.
Now this was rather challenging, because Paul proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. For example he began this letter by writing, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God - the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul’s Gospel declared that Jesus was the Christ – that he was the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures and the descendant of King David. Israel’s Messiah had come bringing end time salvation. The problem was that it only seemed to be the Gentiles who were believing in him. If Paul was right about Jesus and God’s promises to Israel, how could that be?!?
We hear part of Paul’s response in the epistle lesson. He writes, “What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.”
Paul tells us that the Gentiles who were outside of the covenant – who had not received the Torah and were not pursuing a right standing with God – had received it. They had received it through faith in Jesus Christ. But most of the Jews had not. Paul says the reason is: “Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.”
The apostle describes Christ as something that trips people up, and he quotes the prophet Isaiah in order to do so. Isaiah wrote: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
Jesus Christ was the reason the Jews had stumbled. The basic problem was that one can only deal with God by faith in Christ and not by works – not by doing. The anguish this caused Paul is apparent as he says, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”
The Jews had zeal. But it wasn’t a zeal shaped and guided by knowledge. Paul says, “Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” The Jews were trying to establish their own righteousness by works, instead of submitting to the righteousness that God provides through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jews were focusing on their works – the works of the law – as the means by which they showed themselves to be righteous and ready for salvation.
Since the Fall and the entrance of sin into our world, this has been the orientation of all people. Because after all, the world works in the way of the law. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to get something, you have to do something. And beyond this, we want to believe that we can do something. We want to believe in ourselves, because then we are not dependent on anyone else. Then we are strong, independent and self-sufficient individuals.
But earlier in this letter, Paul had already pulled out the rug from underneath any such delusions. There he wrote: “For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.” Paul tells us that we are not free. Our powers and abilities are not going to do us any good in dealing with God because we are under sin. This sin causes us to do one thing – sin more. Pauls says, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The way of the law – the way of doing looks appealing. It does because as those created in the image of God we still have the law of creation – the natural law – written on our heart. It does because the old man does not want to rely on anyone but himself. He wants to be his own god, instead of fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things.
Yet this thinking is disordered by sin. It is zeal that is not according to knowledge. It is zeal that seeks to establish its own righteousness, rather than submitting to God’s righteousness. It’s a lie from the father of lies, the devil.
In the first chapter of the letter, Paul announced the theme that runs all the way through it. There he stated: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
God’s righteousness is his saving action that now declares you righteous – that declares you justified. It was God’s doing in sending his Son to die on the cross and rise from the dead on the third day. Now, through faith in him, you have received redemption. You have been freed from your sin. As Paul said in the previous chapter, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Already now, because of Jesus, you know the verdict of the Last Day. It is “innocent, not guilty.”
This righteousness is received by faith. It is received by faith because Christ is the end of the law for righteousness. The way of law – the way of doing – has been eliminated for the sons and daughters of God. We know that it’s a game we can’t play; it’s a game we shouldn’t play. Instead we look in faith to Jesus Christ. We believe in him. And Paul assures us in our text that, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” We know that we will not be put to shame, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.