Why People Stumble Over Christ

Romans 9:30-33

September 28, 2008 | Brian Bill

Do you know what a caricature is?  One definition says that it’s “a representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect.”  Miriam-Webster offers a shorter description: “An exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics.”

Political figures are often depicted in this way (show John McCain and Barack Obama), movie stars (show Tom Cruise) and there are countless caricatures of Elvis available.  I want to suggest this morning that many people today have created a false caricature of Christ.  

  • Jesus is my buddy.  While it is true that Jesus calls believers his “friends,” He is not just a pal.  If we saw Him as He really is, we would fall flat on our faces.  When the Apostle John saw Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation, he says: “I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
  • Jesus is my good luck charm.  People who have this image of Jesus think that just because they have Him around their neck or carry Him in their purse that they’ll be protected.  Friends, Jesus is not lucky, He is Lord.
  • Jesus is my religious artifact.  Some people believe Jesus lives at church and they go there to kiss a picture or bow before a statue.  
  • Jesus is my meal ticket.  In this picture, Jesus wants to give me His “favor” and will make me healthy and wealthy.  Many people today believe that Jesus is the key that unlocks the door to every longing in the sinful heart.  Remember this: Jesus doesn’t work for you; you work for Him.
  • Jesus is my social conscience.  In this caricature of Christ, Jesus is an example for us as we seek to be involved in horizontal goodness.  Since Jesus was a nice man and a good teacher, I should be nice to others.  Friends, Jesus is an example but He’s so much more.

What we need is a true picture of Jesus, with nothing avoided and nothing exaggerated.  We must be careful to not overemphasize one aspect of Christ’s character at the exclusion of the totality of His being.

Can I draw your attention to the first part of Romans 9:30?  Paul writes: “What then shall we say?”  This is his common way of saying, “Here’s what I mean.”  

  • In Romans 9:1-5, we learned that evangelism will have little effect if we don’t love the lost.  Paul cried for the unconverted and so should we.
  • In Romans 9:6-18, we were reminded that God’s Word cannot fail because He is faithful and He is fair…and He will never drop you.
  • Then, last week while we focused on how to make sense of predestination in Romans 9:19-29, we uncovered this truth: God is supremely sovereign and we are responsible for our response to Him.  

We need to see Jesus for who He really is.  When we do, we will either stumble over Him or stand on Him.  Unfortunately, some people today don’t stumble over Him because they’ve shrunk the Savior to a more manageable size.

There are different stumbling blocks for different people.  It seems that those who follow religious ritual and rules may have the biggest struggle, while those who know they are sinners often understand and embrace the Savior far easier.  I have three stones up here on the stage with a different word on each one.   These words summarize our passage for today in Romans 9:30-33.  Before we get to them, let’s read it together: “What then shall we say?  That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.  Why not?  Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.  They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone.’  As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’”

Drop down to the end of verse 32: “They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone.’”  The word, “stumbled,” literally means to strike, slam, or dash against and was used of a traveler bumping into an obstacle that makes him slip or trip.  It carries with it the idea of suffering harm, taking offense, and being annoyed or enraged (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament).  Most of the New Testament uses of this word describe a figurative or spiritual stumbling.

Like stubbing your baby toe on the coffee table in the middle of the night, so is someone who stumbles over the stumbling stone.  I’ll demonstrate by walking into each of these stones [look surprised, express pain, and finally become enraged]. Let’s look now at each of these stumbling stones.

Stumbling Stone #1: SINNER

The first stone that makes many people stumble is the struggle to admit that they are sinners.  Look at the second part of verse 30: “That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith.”  The word “pursue” means to run swiftly after something or earnestly seeking a goal.  As we learned last week, a Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish.  For the most part, as we have seen in the early chapters of Romans, most people are not earnestly seeking a right relationship with God.  In fact, according to Romans 1:28, “…since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”  

Instead of running after righteousness, many are sliding south into sin.  Listen to the words found in Romans 1:29-32: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.  They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

Righteousness is a gift of God’s grace, not a reward for hard work

These same people, who are a lot like each of us, according to Romans 9:30 have obtained righteousness, even though they weren’t pursuing it.  One thing they did have figured out was that they were sinners.  They knew that their behavior would never qualify them as righteous; the only way for that to happen was “by faith.”  Literally this means “out of, or from” faith and is not just a mental assent but a firm conviction and surrender to the truth.  They received something they weren’t even looking for, much less striving to attain, but they received righteousness because of faith.  Don’t miss this.  Having a right relationship with God is not something you can work for because it comes as a gift.  Righteousness is a gift of God’s grace, not a reward for hard work.  I love Isaiah 65:1: “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.”

Friend, do you have it figured out that you’re a sinner?  If not, you’ll keep stumbling over this one until you do.  If you’re settled and you know that you’re a sinner, that’s a good thing for in Matthew 9:13, Jesus says: “For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  I should warn you however, that sin can also cause us to miss the message because of its potential to hold us in bondage.  Listen to the words of 1 Peter 2:8: “They stumble because they disobey the message…”  That hearkens back to Genesis 4:7: “…But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” 

Stumbling Stone #2: SAVIOR

The Jewish people at that time struggled to admit their sinfulness and as a result didn’t see their need for a Savior.  Notice the contrast in verse 31: “But Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it.”  Even though they pursued the Law, they couldn’t reach the Lord behind the Law, because they somehow thought they could attain righteousness on their own.  They were grasping but could never reach the goal of righteousness.  The word “attained” means to come suddenly and unexpectedly upon a goal.  Israel was working hard but they couldn’t get to where they needed to be.

Galatians 3:10-14 fills in some of the details about why Law-living alone does not make one right before God: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’   Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’   The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’   Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’  He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” 

The Jews tried to keep the law scrupulously, they offered gallons upon gallons of animal blood on the altar; they followed the dietary laws and did whatever else they thought they should do.  Romans 9:32 gives some more clarity about this: “Why not?  Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works.  They stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone.’”  Why did they not find what they were looking for?  Because righteousness is never a result of work; but comes only by faith. God wants more than just ritualistic rule-keeping; righteousness comes out of a relationship with Him by faith. This idea goes all the way back to Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed in the Lord and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

They were so privileged that they thought they could reach righteousness on their own.  As is true with Gentiles, so it is true for a Jew – the only way to a right relationship with God is “by faith.”  That explains why most Jews were so incensed at the Savior.  First of all, they didn’t want to admit they were sinners and secondly, they thought they had no need of saving.  As a result “they stumbled over the ‘stumbling stone.’”  That reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1:23: “…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews…”  They were looking for a mighty Messiah who would wipe out the Roman Empire.  While looking for a bold lion, they missed the bleeding Lamb of God who came to take away the sins of the world (see John 1:29).

As a result, most of the Jews recoiled from Jesus because He failed to meet their expectations and they were offended by His exclusive claims.  Kind of sounds like the caricatures of Christ that people have today, doesn’t it?  Many acknowledge that Jesus was a good teacher but they want nothing to do with the fact that He is the only way to the Father.  Shortly after Jesus was born, Simeon predicted in Luke 2:34 that Jesus would be a stumbling stone, causing people to be separated into two groups: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against…”  This happened time and time again as Matthew 13:57 says: “And they took offense at him…”

One commentator explained it this way: “The offense of the Cross, at which they stumbled, is not simply the fact that it is a cross, whereas they expected a Messianic throne; the Cross offended them because…it summoned them to begin their religious life, form the very beginning, at the foot of the Crucified, and with the sense upon their hearts of an infinite debt to Him, which no ‘works’ could every repay.”

In Matthew 21, Jesus uses some strong language to communicate that no one who comes in contact with Him can stay the same.  Referring to Himself in verse 42, Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected and He is now the chief cornerstone of the building of believers He is making.  In verse 43 He tells the Jewish religious leaders that because they have rejected Him, the message will now go to the Gentiles: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  That’s exactly what we learned last week.  And in verse 44, Jesus declares: “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”  Either we will be humbled and broken so that we believe in Him or we will be hardened and end up being crushed by Him.  But no one can stay the same.  We can put it this way: You will either stumble and fall over Him or become humble and call on Him.

Stumbling Stone #3: SIMPLE

Many stumble because the way of salvation is simple

Are you stumbling over the fact that you’re a sinner?  Are you in crisis because you don’t want to confess Christ as your Lord?  There’s a third thing that people stumble over today.  Many stumble because the way of salvation is simple.  Check out verse 33: “As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.’”  I want to point out a couple things here from the phrase, “As it is written…”

  • This is in the perfect tense which emphasizes the lasting and binding authority of what has been written.  It still “stands” written.
  • The Apostle Paul quotes freely from the Old Testament in his writings.  This is a good reminder for us to know the Word so that we can quote it as well.

Actually, Paul is combining parts of two passages from Isaiah 8:14: “…A stone to strike and a rock to stumble over, and a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And many will stumble over them, then they will fall and be broken.  They will even be snared and caught” and Isaiah 28:16: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed.  He who believes in it will not be disturbed.”  Paul combines these two passages to show that Jesus is either a Rock of Refuge or a Stumbling Stone.

Let’s go back to Romans 9:33.  The little word “see” in Hebrew narrative means “look!” and is designed to call attention to something.  Paul wants every one of us to look to the stone in Zion that causes some to stumble and also to the rock that will trip up those who are filled with pride.  That phrase “makes them fall” was used of any entanglement around the foot.  Those who are unwilling to fall on their own will be made to fall from the force of the rock.  This same rock is the refuge for those who respond in repentance and faith.

Robert Haldane said: “A free salvation becomes an offense to men on account of their pride – men’s desire is to do something…to merit their salvation, at least in part.”  The requirement is simple – it’s called trust.  Once we settle our sinfulness and see Jesus as Savior then we’re called to simple trust.  I love how Jesus reframed his listeners desire to “work” for their salvation in John 6:28-29.  It’s as if He’s saying that if they want to work, here’s their job: “Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’  Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”  This is similar to what we read in Acts 16:30-31 when the Philippian jailer asked this question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  The answer was simple: Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.”

Salvation is simple because Jesus did all the work.  It’s free because He paid the price for your sins.  And it’s a gift because all you need to do is receive it.  Because we are sinners we can trust Him for our salvation and we can also trust Him with the stresses of our lives.  

As I thought about the sermon last week, I realized that there’s one more practical and very personal application we can draw from the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.  Since God is in complete control and has ultimate authority, you and I can trust Him with all the horrible headlines and the uneasy uncertainty that is swirling around us.  The end of verse 33 says: “And the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.”  The word “trusts” is in the present tense, meaning that we can always trust, every day and every moment.  The door is still open.  And when we do, we will never be put to shame.  It’s difficult but it’s also simple.  As a way to get this imprinted in our heads and on our hearts, I’m going to read several statements and I’d like you to respond with this phrase after each one: “I will trust Him.”

  • With hurricanes and other weather-related catastrophes…“I will trust Him.”
  • With our national economy teetering as Wall Street affects Main Street, even when Warren Buffet has referred to this crisis as our “financial Pearl Harbor,” and President Bush has said that “our entire economy is in danger”… “I will trust Him.”
  • With the threat of an “October surprise” terrorist attack…“I will trust Him.”
  • With higher gas, food and utility costs…“I will trust Him.”
  • With our presidential election coming up in less than 40 days…“I will trust Him.”
  • With the potential for the Pontiac Correctional Center to close…“I will trust Him.”
  • With the uncertain harvest of corn and beans…“I will trust Him.”
  • With our own church offerings falling off…“I will trust Him.”
  • With whatever you are facing…“I will trust Him.”
  • I own the fact that I’m a sinner and I believe that Jesus is my Savior.  And now by simple faith I receive Him into my life…“I will trust Him.”

Jesus is either a Rock of Refuge or a Stumbling Stone.  Are you standing on the rock or are you stumbling over being a sinner, understanding the Savior and exhibiting simple trust in the One who died in your place?   Those who trust in Him will never be put to shame. That means you’ll never be sorry that you gave your life to Jesus.  Others who stumble over Him now will be ashamed that they have wasted their lives in their pursuit of possessions and other pleasures when they see Him face to face.  

Which one is He for you?  Will you trust the One who will never let you down or would you rather be crushed by Christ?  Don’t be content with a caricature of Christ or of the Christian life when you can have the real thing.  

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?