Romans 10:1-3, “10 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.”
Zeal without knowledge has wreaked incalculable havoc through history. All we have to do is think of the scores of political movements and would-be saviors who have promised the impossible while relying on the ignorance of the masses as to their true agendas. For all the horror that has resulted on the earthly plane on account of zeal without knowledge, it ultimately pales in comparison to what happens spiritually when zealotry is joined with ignorance. Combine a lack of understanding with spiritual zeal, and you end up with everything from legalism to religious terrorism. Even worse, as long as people continue in such ignorant zeal, they remain alienated from Christ and on the path to hell.
Paul faced this ignorant zeal in the first century, and humanly speaking, it kept many first-century Jews from seeing that Jesus was their Messiah. The Apostle tells us as much in today’s passage as he continues to explore the reasons why his brethren rejected Christ (Rom. 10:1-3). If anything characterized first-century Judaism, it was zeal for God and His law. The Jews in Paul’s day were descendants of those who had gone into exile for their flagrant violation of the Mosaic covenant and the progeny of those who returned when Cyrus came to power in Persia (2 Chron. 36). Hoping to avoid a second exile, the returned Jews emphasized the study and practice of God’s law, building synagogues in Palestine and everywhere else Jews were living outside of the Holy Land. This effort was commendable, but what started off as obedience motivated by repentance and gratitude for God’s forgiveness (Neh. 9) had by the first century AD devolved into a system of works-righteousness for many people. Many Pharisees, for example, became preoccupied with keeping the right rules at the expense of heartfelt trust in the Lord, and they justified themselves before men, making a display of their works-righteousness (Matt. 23:23-26; Luke 16:14–17). Before his conversion to Christ, Paul was at home with these individuals (Phil. 3:4-7).
In their zeal, these individuals missed the righteousness of God (Rom. 10:3). It was not that they were completely wrong about the Lord’s standards, for they did know the Almighty is righteous. Instead, they did not see how the Mosaic law points to their own inability to meet God’s standard and their need for Him to provide the righteousness that can avail before His judgment seat (Deut. 31:20-21; Isa. 53:11). Consequently, many of the Jews stumbled over Jesus, who is the very righteousness that the Lord has provided.
All of us can fall into a mind-set that says we must add something to the finished work of Christ in order to be truly acceptable to God. Let us be clear: obeying the commands of our Savior is not optional (John 14:15). However, our good works are not the means by which we establish a right relationship with God, and we do not make ourselves more worthy by our obedience. We are accounted worthy of heaven only by the righteousness of Jesus, imputed to us by faith alone.