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Racing in the Wrong Direction

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 10:1–3

Unbelievers may be proud and passionate and even very religious in their unbelief. They do not need our condemnation; they need our love and compassion and our prayers. Paul’s attitude toward his unbelieving brethren is an example for us all.


I once had a listener write to me from Germany, saying, “We have a saying here in Germany that goes like this: ‘I left a suitcase in Berlin.’” He went on to explain that this saying means that you have kept some sort of connection to your hometown—to the people living there—even though you have moved away.

You have suitcases like that too, don’t you? They are in special places where you once lived or worked. Maybe it is the farm where you were raised, the school where you began your first teaching assignment, or that little apartment where you lived when you were first married.

When I was in seminary years ago, my wife and I served part-time, working with the church youth group. It was a tiny church with attendance right around sixty-five—I think the average age was about the same. But that little congregation was special. The pastor let me preach once a month. That church ordained me into the ministry, and all those grandmas and grandpas just adopted my wife and me. They loved us, and we loved them. We have never forgotten them—we left a suitcase back there.

As we set sail today into Romans chapter 10, it is obvious that the apostle Paul has left a suitcase in Israel. He writes in verse 1, “Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they [Israel] may be saved.” In other words, he is deeply connected—he is emotionally tied—to the nation of Israel.

That shows up here in two character qualities Paul reveals. I will call the first one an inward passion. He speaks in verse 1 of his “heart’s desire.” The Greek word for “desire” (eudokia) refers to satisfaction. Paul is effectively saying, “I would find nothing in the world more satisfying than to see my people come to faith in Christ.”

This is remarkable when you consider what Paul suffered from the hand of his fellow Jews. He was beaten, stoned, humiliated, ridiculed, hated, hunted, mocked—you name it!

But listen, his passion fueled his perseverance. What about us today? What is our attitude toward those who mistreat us or mock us because of our faith? Does it drive us to bitterness, or does our passion for their salvation fuel our perseverance?

Second, Paul’s inward passion is coupled with an upward pleading. Verse 1 again: “My heart's desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved.”

Beloved, starting a prayer list for lost people is a good way to turn up the passion burner in your heart. Passion for the lost increases from a heart that prays.

Paul lists four characteristics of the Jewish people he is praying for during these days. These same characteristics are seen today in many people you know who reject the gospel of Christ.

First, Paul says the Jewish people are unwavering in their religious passion. He writes in verse 2, “They have a zeal for God.”

The word for “zeal” in the Greek language, zēlos, refers to passionate enthusiasm.[1] The term gave rise to the name Zealots, describing a fanatical Jewish group who tried to kill as many Romans as they could. Zealots were zealous for God, for their country, for their people.

The Jewish people as a whole were passionately driving down the highway of religion. The trouble was that they were driving in the wrong direction. And when you are lost, beloved, it does not matter how fast you go—that is not going to help. But they were unwavering in their religious passion.

Second, they were unteachable in their spiritual position. Paul writes, “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (verse 2). They are zealous for truth, but it is not God’s truth.

I shared the gospel with a young woman some time ago, and she had various opinions and thoughts and bits and pieces of religious knowledge. She did not accept the Lord then, but she did accept my challenge to read the Bible. Sometime later, she wrote me, explaining that she had been searching for facts—for knowledge. But then she said, “Guess what? The best source of knowledge was right here in front of me all along, in God’s Word. How wrong I have been . . . but I have now accepted the gift of salvation from God!” She had been zealous for truth, and finally she found the truth of God’s Word.

Here is a third characteristic: The nation of Israel—and unbelievers to this day—are uninhibited in their spiritual performance. Paul writes in verse 3, “[They are] seeking to establish their own [righteousness].”

The Greek word for “establish” referred to the building of a monument or a shrine. In essence, Paul is writing that the lost are constantly trying to build a shrine—a monument—to themselves.

As I traveled throughout England and Scotland, I often saw shrines—elaborate tombs—inside various cathedrals. In Westminster Abbey’s famous corridor, stones are marked with the names of people buried beneath your feet. It always struck me as tragic that so many of the people buried there were antagonistic to the gospel of Christ. Some of them openly persecuted Christians, and many more rejected God’s Word. But they sure wanted to be buried in a church.

How ironic to walk across one large stone in Westminster Abbey, engraved with the name Charles Darwin. Imagine spending your life and energy arguing against the biblical record of creation and then being buried inside a church representing the existence of a creator God.

But let me tell you about a grave that deeply encouraged me. A pastor named John Knox was buried there. He courageously led the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, leading thousands of people to the truth of the gospel, even though Bloody Queen Mary was reigning nearby, and she hated John Knox.

Behind the cathedral of St. Giles, where Knox pastored, you will find his grave. It is easy to miss. And that is because it is underneath the asphalt of a parking lot. The only thing that marks his grave is a small square of yellow paint on parking space number 23. When I went over to take a closer look, there was a car parked in that space.

No shrine, no monument—not even a gravestone—marks the spot. There is just some yellow paint on a parking space, while Charles Darwin is honored in Westminster Abbey. But frankly, I do not think for a moment that John Knox would have cared about any of that.

Here is one more characteristic: They are unyielding in their spiritual pride. Paul writes in verse 3, “They did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Literally, the Jewish people were unwilling to humble themselves and trust in the righteousness of God. They were too busy polishing their halos, rather than humbling themselves in repentance and faith.

Sanford C. Mills, a Jewish man who came to faith in Christ, wrote these words:

Israel wants to be the captain of her own soul, the master of her own ship. But Israel lost both her rudder and her compass … what is to save her from being drawn into the vortex of hell?[2]

The answer is not more speed, more wind in your sails, or even a better boat. None of that matters when you are sailing toward the edge of eternity.  

What matters is what that young lady I mentioned earlier wrote me. She added these words: “I was wrong. It wasn’t about finding my own solution, feeling good about knowing certain facts, even feeling worthy to approach God. I have simply, humbly accepted the gift of salvation that comes freely from God.”  

If you have not done that yet, my friend, stop! The farther you race down the wrong road, the farther away from home you go. Stop and accept the gift of salvation that comes freely from God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

[1] Albrecht Stumpff, “Zēlos,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2 ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1964), 877.

[2] Sanford C. Mills, A Hebrew Christian Looks at the Book of Romans (Dunham Publishing Company, 1968), 56.

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