That’s what we read in
Romans 10:2-3 – 2 For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. 3 Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.
Starting with Abraham and Moses, there was a proper respect for who God is, his holiness, they had a proper reverence for God and an appropriate fear of his wrath as he punished sin. They understood the importance of sacrificing animals to cleanse oneself of sins and the significance behind the feasts and what they taught regarding the characteristics of God.
But somewhere along the way, something went wrong. The Israelites began to stray from God and his holy standards. And so God had to send prophet after prophet to call the people to repentance. And yet, they did not listen. And finally, God had to judge His people and withdraw His presence and there was a 400 year silence at the close of the Old Testament before the birth of Christ. And during that 400 year period of judgment, God’s presence was no longer with His people. God had withdrawn His loving hand and let the Israelites go their own way. They were essentially cut off. And without God’s presence, all they were left with was a hollow, empty religious system. And with the coming of Christ and later, the Apostle Paul, the gospel message shifted to the Gentiles.
And in that period of judgment where God was no longer present among His people, the Israelites lost grip on the essential truth that only God’s forgiveness could make one righteous and that this righteousness was a gift. Not something we could attain by our works. Instead, in v3, we read that they sought to establish their own method to attain righteousness. They had a religion instead of a relationship.
And because Israel had abandoned a relationship with God and replaced him with a religion, it follows in v4 that they could not see Christ as the culmination of the law. With the coming of Christ onto the scene, God was introducing a new righteousness based not on religious works and not on animal sacrifices, but by faith in Christ and he became our eternal lamb of God slain for our sins.
EVERYTHING in the Old Testament was a prelude to Christ. Everything, every law, every ritual, every truth was a pointer to Christ. By conservative estimates, Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies. His virgin birth, the city where he was born, his lineage, his betrayal, the kind of suffering he would undergo, all of these and hundreds of other prophesies were fulfilled by Christ. And for a practicing Jew familiar with the Old Testament law, out of anyone, they should have been able to recognize the coming Messiah, that Christ was indeed the fulfillment and culmination of the law. But they didn’t because they had their religion.
This is true to human nature. We all prefer religion. Because religion is easier. You perform some acts and you feel better. For many, going to church is like getting therapy. You leave service feeling better about yourself.
A relationship is much harder because a person is involved. Relationships take so much work. Take for example a spouse. It takes years of first learning each other’s bad habits, quirks, weaknesses just so you can accept them. Then it takes years to build new habits like saying “sorry,” like speaking your spouse’s language of love and learning how to communicate. It takes dying to each other. A lot of work. Whenever a person is involved, things get messy. There are emotions, demands are made, there are expectations, disappointment when expectations are not met. There is the hurt of spurned love. The pain of rejection when 2 parties are involved in a relationship. Believe me, religion is much easier than a relationship.
Why did they miss Jesus, the culmination of everything they believed in?
Religion is easier than a relationship, that’s one. But what else? Another way to think about this is to consider, by believing in Jesus, what did they have to lose?
By believing in Jesus, they risked losing their tradition, that which is familiar and comfortable. And this is something that we can identify with. We all get into routines. When I am driving somewhere, I prefer to drive the same path each time. Because then you can be in cruise control. You don’t have to be fully present, your mind is freed up to think about other things and you end up at your destination with minimal effort.
It’s easier to rely on tradition because you don’t have to really think. You just go through the motions and you get to the destination, whatever the religious destination may be for you — whether it is therapy, or an elevated self-esteem, or a relief of guilt, or a ticket to heaven — you get to your destination and you don’t really have to work for it.
On top of the comfort and ease of tradition, the leaders of the Jewish community had another thing to lose. Status. Respect. Their position and social standing in their community.
And as social beings, we know how important this is. I grew up in Flushing, NY. It was a pretty rough neighborhood. It was not a place where you would walk down the street and go to the park and play. You just got to where you were going and then went straight home afterward. So I grew up not playing many sports. In the fourth grade, my family moved from NY to a suburb in Philly. And they have many parks in the suburbs and the kids who grew up there played multiple sports from the age of 4-5. So for me, the most dreaded time of the day was recess. Kids gather and 2 team captains are chosen for kickball. And of course, as the only Asian kid, who also happened to be a bit chubby, I was the last one picked.
And kids like me with little skills, what do you do? You put me in the outfield, way out there so I can’t mess up. But I remember one day that was not like the rest. They put me out in right field. And a big white guy was ready for his kick. And this guy ended up playing collegiate football as a running back so he was obviously a gifted athlete even at that age. We were up by one with the bases loaded, 2 outs in the last inning. And he kicked it and ball soared a mile into the air. Me and the center fielder ran toward the ball to try to get under it and catch it. The ball hit me in the chest and if you ever played kickball, the ball is very bouncy and it bounced off my chest straight into the air. And the other guy wasn’t that coordinated either and he collided into me and knocked me down. And I was lying flat on my back and the ball just landed perfectly right into my lap. Game over. We had won. Kids who never talked to me, gave me a high five and said, great catch! Nice job! And for once, I was not the last kid picked on the team. I was a hero.
It’s strange when I think back. I don’t remember all the A’s I got on my tests. Because other than me and my parents, no one else knows about it. But it’s interesting — I remember things like that kickball game when I was a somebody for a change. Growing up, in junior high and high school, not many kids care to daydream about being the valedictorian or number one in community service. No, social standing is the name of the game. We want to be popular. We want to be the big man on campus, the top dog, the prom king or prom queen. And kids will do virtually anything to get that kind of social position. That’s how important social standing is.
And the same thing was happening in the Jewish community. Rabbis, and Pharisees, and teachers of the law and Sadducees were like the rock stars of the Jewish communities. They held positions of honor. And for a young Jewish boy, aligning yourself with the right Rabbi was a ticket to respect and success. And the more charismatic Rabbis had large enrollments at their schools. Because they were the rising stars in a Jewish world where Jewish law was held in high regard.
And I invite you to re-read the Gospels and count the number of times that Jesus bumps heads with Jewish religious leaders and tries to get them to repent. So many instances. And the message of Jesus was simple. Abandon your religion. Your religion cannot save you. You cannot make yourself righteous through your works. Your sin runs so deep that this band-aid called religion cannot provide an adequate solution. Start over. Look to me. I want a relationship with you. I can forgive you of your greatest problem of sin and I can make you whole.