So what is righteousness anyway? What is God’s righteousness? What righteousness did the Gentiles attain and the Jews fell short of? I’ve spoken about this before and more often than not people say something like “Righteousness is goodness.”
But note the text states that the Gentiles were not pursuing righteousness: we can’t say they weren’t pursuing goodness. It would be ridiculous to state that for years upon years Gentiles were ignoring The Good and trying to attain only evil especially in light of the moral arguments of philosophers prior to Paul’s day.
Rather this righteousness was attained by faith and here people will be quick to interject their arguments about the Jews working for their salvation in the Law and the Law being useless and the Law detracting from Grace, but hold one minute. This is God’s Law, a perfect and holy and just law: how dare we.
Paul says that Israel was “pursuing a law of righteousness but did not arrive at that law.” Note what’s being stated here, the Jews were actually following the law of righteousness yet they didn’t grip the law, come to terms with it, arrive at it.
Here our Gentile minds start filling up arguments that Jesus was the only one that kept the entire law perfectly thus actually being the only man to have kept the Law.” And when we mention the Sabbath we get into sticky territory where we border on the edge of blaspheming the Lord by either supplanting the Sabbath or ascribing it to some tripartite division of the Law under the Ceremonial header or merely getting rid of the thing altogether.
They didn’t pursue God’s Law of Righteousness by faith but as though it were something to be attained by their doing so then they stumbled over the stumbling stone.
Here’s what Paul is actually saying. The Law wasn’t describing how to be good, although it did do that, nor was it describing what exactly you have to do to be saved on your own accord. The Law by making its propositions of do and do not is describing, by inference somebody who doesn’t have to be told all that.
I am reminded of the Father who tells the child “sit up in class, listen very well and take notes” knowing full well that such sort of actions point to an individual who will do well from that sort of attentionâ€”even if that individual is a myth in dad’s mind.
But the Law was perfect and belonged to God so there’s no hypotheticals about it. The Law was pointing to an individual–not to individuals who could actually earn the status the Law was pointing to. That’s where Israel stumbled, on the stone that was laid down and by its very existence points out that no one could attain that status: it can only be bestowed and that by faith (note Romans chapter 4 for further analysis on faith).
Therefore Israel is not saved because of the way they tried to attain a perfectly right righteousness: by earning it. With this fact in mind Paul finds himself still praying for their salvation!