The 12th Sunday After Trinity September 7, 2003
2 Corinthians 3:4-11
246, 385, 297, 283
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.” But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach).
Dear Fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus,
“Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” You may remember that joyful refrain from the Wizard of Oz. You might recall the scene of the joyful inhabitants dancing in the streets because the witch who had oppressed them was now out of their way.
It’s not surprising that we consider it a special occasion if people have escaped from some great oppression. We celebrate the fourth of July as Independence Day—our independence from what was called the tyranny of a monarch across the ocean. But our instinctive desire for freedom can have a dark side, too. Charles Darwin, in articulating his theory of evolution, declared “I have got rid of God.” Liberal theologians during the twentieth century rejected traditional Christian theology to the extent that they declared “God is dead.” This blasphemous declaration was seen by some as a liberating moment—a moment freeing man from the confines of traditional viewpoints about God.
If it is a dangerous liberation to say that “God is dead,” it can be no better to declare that His Law is dead. What kind of disorder and anarchy would arise in this world if we were rid of God’s Law?
So then what does Paul have in mind when he says “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes?” What good can result from declaring “the end of the law?” That was a question which many people raised in apostolic times. These preachers of Jesus Christ seemed to be proclaiming that He was the Son of Jehovah, the Jewish God. But they also seemed to abandon the strict God given laws of the Jewish religion. People didn’t know where these Christians stood. The Jews, in particular, considered them a threat because they abandoned the ceremonial laws of their ancestors. If Christ was the end of the Law then that would be, in their mind, the end of religion.
That same phrase concerns us today, because we are surrounded by people who would abandon many of the morals and values that we hold dear. If we say that Christ is the end of the Law, it sounds like we are also flirting with very dangerous ideas. If Christians somehow feel that the Law ends with Christ, what sort of control will they have over themselves?
So today, we explore Paul’s declaration that Christ is the end of the law. We’ll consider that I. Through Him Gentiles succeeded where Israel failed II. Before Him the believer lives while the self-righteous stumble and III. With Him, salvation is by promise, and not deed.
Paul, in this section in his letter to the Romans, is discussing the fate of Israel. This was a major question for those in the Church, since Jesus was a Jew, and much of the Church had Jewish roots. Paul himself was a Jew. But many non-Jews, or Gentiles, were also coming into the Church. Some Jewish believers felt that these Gentiles, if they were to be saved, must adopt Jewish ways and abide by the legal requirements God Himself had given Israel long before.
At this point, Paul begins to suggest that there are limits to the value of the Law the Jews embraced so fervently. “Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.” [vv.30-31] Paul shows that salvation is by faith by showing how and why Gentiles are coming into the kingdom that the Jews assumed would be their own.
Ever since God had spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai, the Law of God had been the governing factor over Israel. With the Moral Law, God exposed and condemned the sins of mankind. With the Ceremonial Law, God gave the promise to the Israelites that despite their sins they would be saved through a coming Savior. This body of laws and their unique impact in the life of the people, distinguished and separated the Israelites from all of the other nations. Through this body of law the Jews were to be a righteous people, holy to the true God. But they looked at the Law—especially the Ceremonial Laws governing worship—as the means to righteousness. When Jesus came, calling upon Israel to believe that they were righteous in God’s eyes only through the redeeming work He would accomplish, the people wouldn’t accept it. They thought they could attain to righteousness through their own laws which they had added to God’s Law. But none of that law could render a person truly righteous. “Not all the blood of beasts, on Jewish altars slain, could give the guilty conscience peace, nor take away the stain” (cf. TLH 156).
At Paul’s time, the Gospel of Christ was going forth not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles. Many Gentiles were forsaking their heathen religions, repenting of their godless ways, and confessing Jesus Christ as their Savior. These were people who had never had the Mosaic Law, they hadn’t heard of the prophets, and they weren’t descended from Abraham. In Paul’s terms, they “did not pursue righteousness.” They hadn’t had the law to distinguish them, like the Jews did. But here they were, accepted members of the Church of Jesus Christ, heirs of the promises, and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven right alongside a small minority of Jewish believers. These were Gentiles who succeeded by receiving righteousness through faith, while many Jews failed to become righteous through the Law. To those who rejected Christ in preference to the Law, the law became a dead end. It could not save. It could not give them the standing with God that believing Gentiles received through faith in Jesus Christ.
This didn’t seem fair to the many pious Jews who centered their lives around the Law. Fairness, however, is not the main question in God’s dealings with man because sinful man does not have a clear sense of what fairness is before God. What counts in Paul’s eyes is God’s grace—His undeserved love. This gracious love is what Paul sees when He sees Jesus Christ. But not all in Israel saw the same thing when they saw or heard of Jesus.
Paul points to Israel’s failure to reach righteousness because they “stumbled” at Jesus. Remember how Jesus in His ministry did not cater to the religious folks, but to those who were ashamed and despised in their lack of purity? Jesus kept company with “sinners”—the common term for those who didn’t exactly walk in the same righteous requirements followed by the leaders.
Jesus saw Israel as a people troubled by sin and oppressed by ignorance of God. In Him, they would find God. They would find His unsparing love and mercy, they would discover His gracious forgiveness, they would have a Rock on which to build their hopes. It was among these so-called sinners and those whose guilt burdened their souls that Jesus found the greatest and happiest reception. It was they who responded to His invitation “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
By Jesus’ miracles, by His healing deeds, by His God-honoring words, and finally, by His resurrection, these weary souls believed that Jesus was the Son of God. In Christ they came to know that they were forgiven and accepted by God and that nothing could harm them. In Him, they found true spiritual life, despite their shadowed and checkered past.
In contrast, those who trusted in their own righteousness and leaned on their own deeds for peace and justification before God—those for whom the Law was a means by which they set themselves above others—found Him to be an offense and a stumbling block. They couldn’t accept Him and they couldn’t get around Him. If a person thinks he will gain God’s favor on his own, he will have no need or desire for the righteousness we find by faith in Christ. If someone thinks he has no problem with God, then receiving forgiveness through Jesus is an offense—it is the surrender of a proud soul. It is a concession to God which they are unwilling to make. Such self-reliant sinners are actually in rebellion against God. This is what happened to the bulk of the Jewish nation. Jesus was the stumbling block that caused them to fall It exposed their proud self-righteousness. It revealed the reality of their religious rebellion.
Paul saw the fall of Israel and God’s rejection of His wayward people as entirely just because they were practicing a religion which was altogether different than the one truly taught by the Law and the Prophets of old. This satisfies Paul’s questions about the justice of God, but it doesn’t take away his sorrow for the path chosen by his kinsmen. He still appeals to God that they may be saved. And he knows that the means and the promise are still there. Repenting and putting their trust in Christ would bring life to them through Him. “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one who believes it.” [v.4]
Jesus Christ is a revolutionary. He does break all the rules and abolish all the assumptions of sinful man because He is the end of the law—He is its terminus. He is its ultimate goal. All of the Old Testament Messianic pictures were fulfilled and made perfect in Him who suffered and died as the Lamb of God taking away the sins of the world.
People don’t think that way. We are always inclined to think that we must do something to merit salvation. We assume that we can excuse our way into heaven by pointing to a few good deeds. But the history of the Jews is a stunning sermon on how hopeless and destructive that approach is. In self-righteousness people reject Christ—their one way of salvation! The law given by God was a good thing; it made Moses’ face shine in its holiness. But it required 100 % perfection and no one except Jesus Christ could fulfill it. This is why the Law condemns us and all who would try to be justified before God by their deeds.
No one will be justified before God by heroic efforts. Paul explains that by using the picture of someone going to heroic lengths to bring Christ to us: “Who will ascend into heaven…who will go down to the abyss.” [vv.6-7] Did you and I bring Jesus down into this earth? No. God sent Him here. God gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation. Did the apostles go into the grave to resuscitate Jesus and bring Him back among the living? No. God raised Jesus from the dead, and they were all witnesses that He did just that. They also understood that it was His way of affirming that everyone who trusts in Jesus is counted righteous. Everyone who believes in Him will be saved eternally.
Christianity is a revolutionary thing, not because it overthrows order and justice and true righteousness, but because it overthrows all of man’s false and proud notions and brings us into a true and living relationship with the God of order, justice, and righteousness. May Christ, our Savior not prove to be a stumbling block to our faith, but turn our hearts to lives of peace, love, and truth. Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one who believes. Amen
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.