Sometimes things work out exactly like we think they will. We can see how circumstances are lining up and the outcome seems quite predictable before it happens. For example, in the area where we live if the weather gets too warm too early in the year, it’s almost inevitable that bad storms that spawning high winds and tornadoes will follow. But then there are also those times in life when we are caught totally off-guard by an occurrence. We scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “Who saw that coming?” That is the circumstance Paul is dealing with in Romans 9:30ff.
The situation he is addressing has to do with the fact that many of the Gentiles, who did not pursue God’s righteousness, nonetheless ending up finding it. At the same time many of the Jewish people, who did pursue righteousness, ended up missing it. But it’s more than a conundrum to puzzle over, it’s a painful reality that Paul has faced throughout his ministry and it has brought him intense grief (see 9:1-4).
His explanation for what has happened revolves around the word “righteousness.” There is a righteousness which is associated with faith (v. 30), and a righteousness connected with the law (Torah – v. 31). The Gentiles pursued the righteousness associated with faith while the Jews went after the righteousness connected with the Torah. While that is a straightforward explanation, the challenge comes in understanding exactly what Paul means by these two types of righteousness.
Torah righteousness has to do with following God under the law He gave to Israel through Moses. Contrary to some popular understandings, there was nothing legalistic about this arrangement nor did it demand perfection on the nation’s part (see Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 30:11ff; Luke 1:5-6). There was an obvious element of grace in the covenant (think about the sacrificial system). Furthermore, the people were expected to respond to God through an obedient faith (Hebrews 3:18-19), just as Paul calls upon the Gentiles to do (1:5, 16:26). There is some definite continuity between the Torah and the gospel that we need to recognize and appreciate.
While individuals could be and many were in a right relationship with God under the Torah, it nonetheless became a covenant of death for the nation as a whole (Acts 15:10; 2 Corinthians 3:7ff). Paul discusses in detail in Romans 7 how sin used the Torah to capture Israel’s focus, corrupt their heart and choke out their life. Their desert wandering, continual idolatry and exile all spoke to the nation’s unfaithfulness. Because of this, God inaugurated a new covenant with the nation through Jesus (Jeremiah 31:31ff; Hebrews 8:6ff). He is the end of the Torah both in that it terminates in Him and is fulfilled by Him (Romans 10:4).
And that brings us to the situation in Romans. On the whole, the Jewish nation is continuing its pursuit of Torah righteousness even though it has been supplanted by God’s righteousness through Jesus (Romans 10:3). God is now relating to the world through His Son Jesus, not the Torah. Nonetheless, the nation stubbornly clings to it Torah identity with its fleshly emphasis and national exclusivism. They are blind to God’s faithfulness in fulfilling His promise to Abraham and blessing the world through Jesus. They have made the Torah (and their national righteousness) an end in itself rather than accepting how it points to Jesus (10:4).
In this regard, Paul’s quote of Leviticus 18:5 in 10:5 is telling. The person who did the things of the Torah would live by them. Paul’s point is that “the person” who is under consideration in the Leviticus text is an Israelite and no one else. They could find life under the Torah but no one else could because the Torah wasn’t intended for the other nations (Deuteronomy 5:1-3). This built in exclusiveness was evidence that the Torah was not the means through which God was going to reach the world, it was proof rather of its limitation and temporary nature. Torah righteousness was fine for the purpose and era for which it was intended for but that was over.