Sir Alexander Fleming was a Scottish researcher working at a laboratory in a London hospital. He was studying staphylococcus, the bacteria that causes staph infection. Now apparently, Fleming had the reputation for being a somewhat careless lab technician.
Before leaving on vacation, Fleming prepared some petri dishes with the bacteria. His intention was that when he returned from vacation, the bacteria would have grown and he would have more material with which to do research.
However, when Fleming came back from vacation he found that a mold was growing in some of the petri dishes. He noticed that in those petri dishes there had been little to no growth by the bacteria. The petri dishes that Fleming had set up before leaving had not been entirely clean. They were contaminated with a mold. But Fleming recognized that something about this mold prevented the growth of the bacteria. Fleming wasn’t looking for it when he set up the petri dishes. But the mold he found when he returned from vacation was the medical break through that produced penicillin, and it went on to save millions of lives.
In our epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul describes an even greater unintended discovery. He speaks of how the Gentiles were not seeking God’s righteousness – his work that has brought salvation. Despite this, it has now become theirs through faith. And on the other hand, he explains the sad irony that the Jews who were pursuing God’s righteousness have not obtained it.
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s what Jesus told the twelve apostles in the Gospel of Matthew as he sent them out with the instruction: “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”
This limitation of their mission to the Jews – to the descendants of Israel – sounds rather surprising to our ears. Yet it teaches us an important point that we easily forget. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah. Purely because of grace, God had taken Israel to be his people. He had rescued them from Egypt in the exodus. Yahweh had made them his treasured possession as he brought them into a covenant with him. He had promised the Messiah who would descend from Israel’s king David. God’s righteousness – his saving action to put all things right – was meant from the start for Israel and her descendants.
Now to be sure, God had also declared that he was working through Israel to bring salvation to all people. When he called Abraham, God told him, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Yahweh had said through the prophet Isaiah about his Servant: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Jesus Christ had died on the cross as the sacrifice to provide forgiveness to all people. God had raised him on the third day as he defeated death and began the resurrection of the Last Day. As we learn in the Gospel of Matthew, the risen Lord had now told the apostles to make disciples of all nations.
Paul, then known as Saul, had been a persecutor of those who believed in Jesus. But the risen and exalted Lord had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Christ turned Paul’s life upside down as he called him to be an apostle. Paul had proclaimed the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. Yet the special focus of his ministry was certainly the Gentiles. In fact, in the next chapter he describes himself as the “apostle of Gentiles.”
The work with the Gentiles was bearing great fruit as they believed in Jesus Christ across the Mediterranean world. Certainly, there were Jews who did believe. But the reality was that the majority of Jews – the descendants of Israel – were rejecting the Gospel.
Why was this happening? In chapter nine through eleven in his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul deals with this question. In our text he considers a key and central factor that has already dominated the earlier portion of the letter. He begins by saying, “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.”
The Gentiles had not even known God. But now through faith in Jesus Christ they had received God’s salvation – his righteousness. However, the Jews who knew God and had received his law, had treated this law as if it was a means to the righteous standing before God, and it had not produced this result for them.
Paul explains as he goes on to say: “Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” The fundamental error was that they treated their own works as if they had a role to play in their standing before God. It is not as if Jews completely ignored God’s grace. But we also know they had a rather positive view about human abilities in spiritual matters.
Here, they were dead wrong. And this is by no means an error that was unique to the Jews of the first century. People always want to run things in the way of the law. No matter whether they think everything will turn out ok after death because they have been a “good person,” or whether they believe God’s grace enables works that justify, or whether they think they can believe in Jesus by their own power – everyone wants to think they can do something.
Yet Paul has already killed this idea. He has said in chapter three “that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” In our fallenness, sin is a power that has robbed us of all spiritual abilities. That is why he said in the same chapter, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Works and doing can never give us a right standing before God in any way. Instead, Paul declares that this occurs through faith – faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose from the dead. Paul has said earlier that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses.” He received God’s judgment against our sin. But on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. In doing so he conquered death for Paul says in this letter, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
In our text, Paul describes the Jews’ failure to believe in this way: “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.” Combining words from Isaiah, the apostle contrasts two different reactions to Christ. He is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense to those who want to rely on themselves. However, those who believe in the risen Lord will not be put to shame. They have salvation with God.
These words from Isaiah reveal why we need Jesus Christ. In their original setting they were a part of texts that told Judah how in the face of the Assyrian threat, they needed to trust in God and in God alone. The same thing is true in our lives as we face challenges related to health, relationships, and work. Do we trust in God completely? Are we free from all worry? The answer is no. And in this we see our sin as we break the First Commandment.
This is why we need the good news that all who believe Jesus Christ have forgiveness. As Paul says “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” And then he goes on to add the exact same verse from our text: “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Because we believe in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness and salvation. We know that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. The law is no longer something that is our concern as we look to receive God’s saving righteousness.
At the end of our text, Paul says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Here Paul is probably playing on the Greek word translated “end” since it can mean either “end” or “goal.” Christ is the end of the law for righteousness, since it is only by faith in him that we can be justified. But at the same time, Christ has been the goal of the law all along – the fulfillment of God’s covenant and the means by which Israel has become a light to the nations.
Christ is the end of the law when it comes to attaining a righteous standing before God. Christ is the end of every idea about doing when it comes to salvation. Instead, it is faith alone – faith in Christ – that provides this.
Faith which receives this gift is passive. In fact, Paul defines it as the opposite of doing. Earlier Paul quoted the verse from Genesis, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Then he went on to add: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Yet faith which has received this gift is not passive. I cannot be because the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead has created it. In both Romans and Galatians the apostle Paul addresses the issue of whether works are involved in being saved. In both letters he adamantly declares that faith alone saves. Yet in both letters he then goes on to speak about how faith acts in love.
In fact Paul says this very thing to the Galatians when he writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Then a little later he adds: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” We find the same thing in Romans chapter thirteen where Paul says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Faith in Christ acts in love towards those around us. It acts in service to our family, friends, and neighbors. Led and enabled by the Holy Spirit this love fulfills the will of God. In doing so, it fulfills what the law given to Israel was all about.
For those who act in this way, Christ is not a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” Instead, they are those who have received the saving action of God – his righteousness – through faith in Christ. Their faith acts because of Christ. It acts knowing that the one who believes in Christ will never be put to shame.