2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.
3 For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
1901 ASV Translation:
2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.
3 For being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.
4 For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth.
I. Paul's Desire For His Kinsmen According to the Flesh.
1. "For" I bear witness in regard to them ... . This is the way "reasons" are introduced.
2. There is a bit of an oddity involved in Paul's argument. He says that it is his heart's longing for his kinsmen to be saved, but he implies with the "for" that his rationale rests upon their "ignorant zeal for God". One would expect that his "rationale" would be "positive" in the sense that he sees them "ignorantly" proceeding down the wrong path, but it is his basic theological line that this "ignorance" has been created by their own pride and that no one will stand before God with an "ignorance" excuse (1:20). So, he sees them as plunging arrogantly along and still has a heart's desire that they be saved. How is this? The answer, I think, rests in Paul's thought in 1 Timothy 1:13. There he claims that he was "a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief." In other words, Paul sees a mirror of himself in his kinsmen and is not put off by their arrogance because he had been in the same shape (the word translated in 1 Timothy 1:13 "injurious" is actually the word from which we get our word "hubris" -- extraordinary pride).
a. The question Paul raises in 1 Timothy 1:3 is how he can argue that he "obtained mercy because he did it ignorantly in unbelief" in the face of his proximity to the Gospel before he believed it. Judas was probably the only unbeliever in that generation who had more information about Jesus than Saul of Tarsus. He, himself, argued before Festus that "none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).
b. However, Paul has a meaning for "ignorance" that does not derive from the amount of information available. When he says "ignorantly in unbelief", he is saying that "unbelief" creates a kind of misunderstanding that makes "ignorance" inevitable.
c. But, if Paul was "ignorant in unbelief" and he obtained mercy because of it, why not everyone else who is "unbelieving"? There is no "answer" for this. God's freedom to "show mercy to whom He will show mercy" (Romans 9:15) means that Paul was not really shown mercy because of his ignorance. He was really shown mercy because God decided to show it to him for His own reasons. Ignorance, in the theology of 'mercy', is simply a declaration of the fact that his unbelief had not yet reached the "point of no return" so he was at the very least a possible candidate for mercy. It was in this sense that he was shown mercy "because" he was unbelievingly ignorant -- he was a possible candidate because he had not yet stepped over the line of final depravity.
d. Thus we can understand Paul's "heart": having become an object of mercy in spite of his "hubris", he sees his kinsmen in their pride as simply reflections of himself and wishes that they could have what he got.
3. The attribute of "having a zeal for God".
a. The issue of "zeal" is significant. In Jesus' letter to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3, He declared that He actually prefers "coldness" to "lukewarmness", though He really prefers "hotness" to both of the former. In His declaration, "I would that thou wert cold or hot" (Revelation 3:15), Jesus actually reveals that God has something in His character that makes Him prefer an "out and out enemy" to a "lukewarm friend". "Zeal" is, apparently, an admirable trait evenwhen it is found to be in an avowed enemy. And that raises the issue of just what "zeal" is. A thoughtful reading of the various texts in which it is used creates the feeling that "zeal" is something that has an "indomitable" root; it will not be denied if the person of zeal can help it.
b. The "problem" here is that such an intransigence with respect to God makes it very difficult for any who disagree. Disagreement is simply not acceptable to the "zealous".
4. The fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1): the "zeal" is ignorant.
a. Paul says the zeal of his kinsmen is "not according to knowledge".
b. The particular word that Paul used for "knowledge" is intensive. It signals a very profound level of relational understanding. This is highly significant because one of the characteristics of "legalists" is that they cannot enter into "profound levels of relationships". The rules get in the way. Because the underlying understanding of the rule-breakers is that they could do better if they would, there is a lot of anger toward rule-breakers and that keeps profound levels of relationship from ever developing. This is particularly true with God: capable people who refuse are unforgivable. When one views oneself as "capable" but "having failed", there is no way to get around the sense of impending judgment and that keeps the Judge at a "relational" distance. The only way one can develop "knowledge" is to "accept" the person with only a few, most critical, reservations so that the barriers to relational knowledge are lowered. For Paul this meant "acceptance" upon the exercise of the humility of faith. The humble, who believe, are capable of entrance into the most profound levels of relationships because they have nothing to hide and their demands are rooted in the necessity of the humility of faith.
c. The particular "ignorance" problem was focused upon one issue: the righteousness of God.
1) Very early in Romans, and immediately in his beginning of the Gospel, Paul made sure that his readers understood that there is a "righteousness of God" that is revealed in order to generate "faith" (1:17). The Jews, who had seriously resisted the most fundamental intent of the Law, had, for the most part, rejected this revelation for all of their history. Having rejected the "tutoring" of that Law, they were in no shape to "come to Christ" (Galatians 3:24). Thus, they were "ignorant" of "the 'of God' righteousness" (Paul's statement translated literally).
2) But, the issue of "righteousness" is too critical to simply "blow off". Many do, but those many also rage under the sense of divine condemnation and the certain knowledge of fearful judgment. For those who are too uncomfortable to simply rage at God and sneer in the face of His judgment, the issue of "righteousness" becomes a matter of two things: intense pursuit and selective blindness. Thus, these set about to establish a righteousness of their own so that they can have some level of "comfort" in their souls. They multiply the details of the meaning of the "laws" and they keep their focus upon the failures of others so that they can retain a blind ignorance of their own.