In the Apostle Paul’s day, there were 613 written, Old Testament laws that Jews strictly adhered to. If that sounds like a lot, it is.
But there’s more. In addition to these hundreds of laws, devout Jews also developed a set of traditional customs to help ensure they didn’t break any of the 613. They called these the “hedge about the law,” like a hedge around a pit that keeps you from falling into it. The logic was that if you didn’t break the “hedge,” you certainly wouldn’t break the laws themselves.
For example, Jews had 39 different rules about Sabbath-keeping, including the literal number of steps you could take before you were considered to be “working.” The result was they were always counting their steps (which was much harder pre-Fitbit). My wife learned about this recently and has started to use that on Sundays: “Hey J.D., I know you’ve been preaching all morning, and that might seem tiring to you, but technically, it’s zero steps. Meanwhile, I’ve been chasing these kids around all morning. So fix me something to drink, would you, Sugar Plum?”
OK, so that’s not quite how it works at our house. But you get the idea.
Romans 10:2 says, “I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (CSB).
The Jews’ problem, Paul says, is not that they lack zeal for God. They counted every single step they took on the Sabbath, after all. Jews were the most zealous people on earth; they’d put modern-day fundamentalist Muslims and Buddhists to shame.
Paul says the problem is that their zeal, admirable as it is, is not pursued with an accurate knowledge about God because your zeal for God is only valuable if it is attached to the right truths about God.
This flies in the face of one of our most cherished cultural maxims, that sincerity in religion is all that matters. Paul is saying that if ever there were a people who were sincere, it was the Jews. But their sincerity didn’t save them.
In fact, the Jews’ zeal in religion took them to a very dark place—toward self-righteousness and hatred.
We’ve all seen that, haven’t we? Religiously zealous people can be the worst. They can be violent, judgmental, bigoted, and just difficult to be around.
Don’t believe me? Just look at Facebook. If all I knew about Christianity were based on what I saw Christians post on Facebook, I would not want to be a Christian. I feel like Jesus would reply to most of these posts with hashtags like #whitewashedtomb or #didIreallydieforthis.
Zeal for God is only valuable if it is attached to the right truths about God. Otherwise, our zeal leads us to a pit.
There is no dark place that we cannot turn from, however. Right before this, Paul talks about his genuine heartbreak that his fellow Jews missed the gospel: “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God concerning them is for their salvation” (Romans 10:1). This is no mere academic pursuit for him.
Not even Paul, after talking about God’s sovereignty, lets that truth keep him from recognizing the role his prayers play in bringing Jesus to others. He knows his zealous prayers are the means by which God works in the life of others, so he doesn’t cease praying for God to open their hearts to the gospel.
And neither should we.