Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.
We ought to have an intense longing for the salvation of all sorts of men, and especially for those that treat us badly. We shall see more conversions when more people pray for conversions. We should earnestly pray for the conversion of the kind of people who are here described: self-righteous people, people that have done no ill, but, on the contrary, have laboured to do a great deal of good.
I. WHY ARE WE SPECIALLY CONCERNED FOR THESE PEOPLE? Because —
1. They are so zealous. You see plenty of zeal where politics, fashion, art, etc., are concerned; but we are not overdone with it in religion. If anybody is a little zealous above others, great efforts are made to put him down. Therefore, when we do meet with zealous people, we take an interest in them, however mistaken their zeal may be. We like to associate with people who have hearts, not dry leather bottles. It does seem a pity that any zeal should be wasted, and that any one full of zeal should yet miss his way. And when we meet with any who are zealous in a wrong cause, they become peculiarly the object of a Christian's prayers.
2. They may go so very wrong, and may do so much mischief to others. Those who have no life nor energy may easily ruin themselves, but they are not likely to harm others; whereas a mistaken zealot is like a madman with a firebrand in his hand. What did the Scribes and Pharisees in Christ's day? And Saul afterwards? Take heed that none of you fall into a persecuting spirit through your zeal for the gospel, like zealous mistresses who will not have a servant in their house who does not go to their place of worship, and zealous landlords who turn every Dissenter out of their cottages.
3. They would be so useful. The man that is desperately earnest in a wrong way will be just as earnest in the right. See what Paul himself was.
4. It is so difficult to convert them. It requires the power of God to convert anybody; but there seems to be a double manifestation of power in the conversion of a downright bigot.
II. WHAT THESE PEOPLE ARE ACCORDING TO OUR TEXT. They are —
1. Ignorant. "For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness," etc. you may be brought up under the shadow of a church, you may hear the gospel till you know every phrase by heart, and yet be ignorant of the righteousness of God. There are many who are ignorant as to —
(1) The natural righteousness of God's character, and those who are satisfied with their own holiness are ignorant of this.
(2) The righteousness of the law. You may hear the ten commandments read every Sabbath-day, but you will not know anything about them by merely hearing or reading them. There is a depth of meaning in those commandments of which self-righteous persons are ignorant. For instance, "Thou shalt not commit adultery" — even a lascivious look breaks that. Let me stretch out the line before you for a moment. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart," etc. Who among us has ever done that?
(3) God's righteous requirements, viz., not only that thou shouldst do, but that thou shouldst think, love, and be that which is right. He desires truth in the inward parts.
(4) That God has prepared a better righteousness for us in Christ.
III. WHAT THEY DO. They go about to establish their own righteousness, but, like a statue badly constructed, it tumbles down. They use all manner of schemes to set up their righteousness upon its legs, but to no purpose. Or they have bad foundations for a house, and bad materials, and bad mortar, and they are by no means good workmen; and when they have built up enough wall to shelter themselves, it tumbles down. They are determined, somehow or other, to build up a righteousness of their own, which is worthless when it is built. At first the man says, "I shall be saved, for I have kept the law. What lack I yet?" Now, a very small hole will let enough light into the man's heart to force him to see that this pretence will not answer. No one of us has kept the law. When driven from this foolish hope, the man readily sets up another. If he cannot work, then he tries to feel. Or else he cries, "I must join a bit of religion to my pure morals. I will pray regularly, etc. And when I have done all this, do you not think it will come pretty square?" If a man's conscience is awake, it will not come square, and the man will say, "No, I do not feel righteous after all! There is something amiss." Conscience begins to call out, "It will not do." Peradventure the man is taken ill. He thinks that he is going to die, and he must keep his wretched pretence afloat somehow; and so he cries, if he is rich, "I will endow an almshouse." According to the church to which he belongs, the zealous person becomes a determined partisan of his sect. Now suppose that you were to get to heaven in your way, what would happen? You will throw up your cap, and say, "I have managed it after all!" You will glorify yourself, and depend upon it sinners saved by grace will glorify Christ. But our Lord is not going to have any discord in heaven; you shall all sing His praises there, or never sing at all.
IV. WHAT THEY WILL NOT DO. "They have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."
1. Why, there are some that have not submitted even to hear it! Our law does not judge any man before it hears him, but these people both judge and condemn the gospel without giving it an hour's attention. Are they not good enough of themselves? What can you tell them better than they know already? But it is always a pity not to know even that which we most despise. It will not hurt you to know. And yet there is such prejudice in the mind of some that they refuse to acquaint themselves with the verities which God has revealed. "Sinners saved by grace! It is all very well for the commonalty; but we were always so good." Very well, then; there is a heaven for the commonalty, and it is highly probable that you ladies and gentlemen are too good to go there. Where will you go? There is but one way to heaven, and that way is closed against the proud.
2. And then there are others who, when they hear it, will not admit that they need it. "What, sir! Must I go down on my knees and plead guilty?" Yes, you must, or else you will never be saved. "They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick."
3. There are others who will not submit to the spirit of it, to the influence of it, for the spirit of free grace is this: if God saves me for nothing, then I belong to Him for ever and ever. If He forgives me every sin simply because I believe in Jesus, then I will hate every sin, and flee from it. I will love Him with all my heart, and for the love I bear Him I will lead a holy life. The virtue I aimed at before, in my own strength, I will now ask for from His Holy Spirit. Many will not submit to that; yet they can never be saved from sin unless they yield themselves as the blood-bought servants of Christ.
(C. H. Spurgeon.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.