Some people will answer, “Yes.” Others will be somewhat reticent and may say, “No.” Still others may be confused by the very word and respond, “I don’t know.” There are even those in some corners of the Christian Church who would respond that they are “carnal Christians.” These feel that no matter what they do God loves them anyway and despite their unrighteous life they will be saved.
The apostle Paul told a court of law, “God is going to resurrect both the righteous and the unrighteous.” [Acts 24:15] So there are only two groups who will be raised to that future Judgment Day. [Acts 17:31; Hebrews 9:26] It seems reasonable that a person - particularly a Christian - ought to know whether they are righteous or unrighteous. It is only to our own personal benefit and everlasting good that we understand what “righteous” [or, righteousness] means.
Webster’s defines “righteous” as “acting in a just, upright manner, doing what is right.” The word is drawn from “right-wise”. The root “right” is one of those words with scores of meanings, but in our context it means that which is straight from a spiritual and moral standpoint.
The word can cause a person to conjure up a perfectly pure and holy person without a flaw. However, that is going beyond the Biblical uses of the word. One way to understand it is to ask, “Am I known to be a just and fair person?” If you and others can answer, Yes, then you are a righteous person. Or, you might ask, “Am I known as a law-abiding person?” If you and your friends can answer, Yes, then you are a righteous person. For to be righteous means to obey the law, and so a righteous person is a law-abiding person.
Now a law-abiding person may sometimes break laws, as in going through a stoplight, driving faster than the speed limit, expressing anger in difficult moments, etc. However, if such became habitual, then the possibility of harming or killing another human being becomes a reality. If a normally law-abiding person runs a stop light and injures someone, then such a person is in serious danger of no longer being viewed as a righteous person. But, suppose the stop-light was run, a person was injured, and then the formerly law-abiding person fled the scene? Then, that person is no longer righteous, but has become unrighteous.
However, what does the Bible have to say on this subject of righteousness? A brief review may be enlightening and helpful.
One scholar explains “righteousness” in this manner: “Righteousness in the biblical sense is a condition of rightness the standard of which is God, which is estimated according to the divine standard, which shows itself in behavior conformable to God, and has to do above all things with its relation to God, and with the walk before Him. It is, and it is called dikaiosune theou (righteousness of God) (Romans 3:21, 1:17), righteousness as it belongs to God, and is of value before Him, Godlike righteousness, see Ephesians 4:24; with this righteousness thus defined, the gospel (Romans 1:17) comes into the world of nations which had been wont to measure by a different standard.” [Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 1946, p. 37]
In Hebrew the word most often used for righteousness is tse’dheq or tsedha·qah’ and these carries such ideas as just [justice], fair and honest, and the right use of God’s law. In Greek the word is di·kai·o·sy’ne and has a similar meaning. The word group “righteous[ness]” occurs about 870 times in the whole Bible.
The first person in the Bible to be called righteous was Abel, for the Lord Jesus characterized him as such. [Matthew 23:35] But chronologically it was Noah who walked with God. [Genesis 6:9; 7:1] Since righteousness is essentially the correct observance of law, there must be a rule or standard with some form of sanction or punishment. Since God had given no such law to humanity as yet, Noah’s righteousness was dependent on his obedience to God in building the Ark for the preservation of a new world of humanity.
The next person called righteous in the Bible was Abraham. [Genesis 15:6; 18:19] In addition to the patriarch’s personal righteousness, the account - and later Paul - make it clear that his faith was also “counted to him as righteousness.” This faith of Abraham was first manifest by his willingness to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and move 1500 miles to Canaan [now Palestine]. Such faith was later reinforced by his willingness to obey God and offer his only son as a sacrifice to Yehowah.
Abraham engages Yehowah in an interesting dialog about His justice and fairness - His own righteousness. It is recorded in Genesis chapter 18 where the word “righteous” is used several times. Abraham believed there must be some righteous persons in Sodom. As it turned out there were only three, Lot and his daughters. And though Lot is not called righteous in the account in Genesis 19, he is three times called “righteous” by Peter. [2 Peter 2:7, 8] And this despite the fact that he does some things most people would find undesirable. It should be remembered there were no laws as yet against such conduct.
Even a pagan nation can be termed “righteous” in a general manner, as Abraham does in Genesis 20:4. How can this be? Paul later shows that God has implanted a conscience in all human beings and so the judges at Nuremberg agreed that there was such a thing as “the universal human conscience.” [Romans 2:14, 15] Most nations have had their own laws and standards of right and wrong, justice and fairness. Indeed, millennia later Peter is to tell a non-Jewish Italian soldier,
“I absolutely perceive that the God does not show partiality, but in every nation the person fearing Him and who continues to work righteousness is acceptable to Him.” [Acts 10:34, 35 NCMM]
Thus, even outside God’s chosen nation with its 600 Laws of Moses, there have been righteous men and women.
That there are degrees of righteousness is shown in the case of Judah and Tamar. [Genesis 38:24] Though engaging in what some today would consider sexual immorality - remember the Law had not been given yet - Judah acknowledges that Tamar was “more righteous” than he. [Compare also 1 Samuel 24:17.]
In the Law of Moses Yehowah commands: “Stay clear from falsehood. Never put to death the innocent and the righteous, because I will never declare someone wicked righteous.” [Exodus 23:7] Thus, God set a standard for Himself, that he would never declare a wicked person “righteous” It was only to the nation of Israel, the Hebrew descendents of Abraham, that Yehowah gave His Law:
“Is there any other there people to whom I have given my righteous rules and judgments like the Law I place before you today?” [Deuteronomy 4:8]
From that moment on any Israelite would know what was righteous and unrighteous. [Deuteronomy 6:25] God had made his standards for Israel clear and they agreed as a nation to keep His commandments.
Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem,
“It is then that You [Yehowah] will listen from heaven and judge your servants in order to punish the wicked for their own responsible actions, and to pronounce righteous the righteous person by repaying him for his righteousness.” [2 Chronicles 6:23]
In the end righteousness will be rewarded and unrighteousness punished.
The words righteous and righteousness occur most often in the poetic books Psalms and Proverbs, a total of 250 times. Most of these praise God for His own righteousness and justice. David prays to always walk according to God’s standard of righteousness, for Yehowah “blesses anyone righteous.” [Psalm 5:7, 12] David acknowledges his own righteousness. [Psalm 7:8, 9] Only those who continually walk in righteousness will inhabit His tent. [Psalm 15:2] It is the righteous who will behold God’s face. [Psalm 17:15] Yehowah rewards the righteous. [Psalm 18:20] The Shepherd only leads in paths of righteousness. [Psalm 23:3] Yehowah looks upon the righteous. [Psalm 34:15] The righteous poor are better off than the wicked rich. [Psalm 37:16] Ultimately the righteous will inherit the earth. [Psalm 37:29] The Messiah is to love righteousness. [Psalm 45:7] Humanity will one day have to recognize the fruitage of the righteous person and it will be proof that there is a God who judges the earth. [Psalm 58:10]
Only the righteous are written in the Book of Life. [Psalm 69:27] In the future the whole earth will experience righteousness under the Messiah as King. [Psalm 72:2, 7] The righteous will become enlightened. [Psalm 97:11] Those who are fair and just - constantly righteous - are blessed. [Psalm 106:3] The righteous will be remembered. [Psalm 112:6] The true worshipper of God must be able to say: “I have continued to be righteous.” [Psalm 119:121] Priestly persons must be clothed in righteousness. [Psalm 132:9] No one is perfectly and absolutely righteous. [Psalm 142:7] Yehowah loves the righteous person. [Psalm 146:8]
So, in the Hebrew Bible it is stressed over and over that God is righteous, He loves righteousness, will judge a person according to righteousness, and that a righteous person has every reason to rejoice. But what did Jesus teach about righteousness?
The Nazarene’s first use of the word “righteousness” was at his baptism. When John resisted the idea of immersing Jesus, the Lord responded:
“Let it be this time for in this way it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” [Matthew 3:15 NCMM]
Thus, right at the beginning Christ indicates the need to “fulfill all righteousness” and that baptism in water is part of that.
In his teachings Jesus goes on to mention righteousness often. Right in his Sermon on the Mount he reveals many factors about the subject. The blessed will be those who hunger for righteousness. [Matthew 5:6] The righteous will be persecuted. [Matthew 5:6] If one’s righteousness did not surpass that of the Jewish hierarchy they would not enter the Kingdom. [Matthew 5:20] A disciple should not exhibit righteousness [charity, prayers, etc.] with the motive of being observed by others. [Matthew 6:1] The disciple should put righteousness first in life. [Matthew 6:33] The person who shows kindness to a righteous person will be rewarded. [Matthew 10:41] The righteous disciple will one day “shine like the sun” in the Father’s Kingdom. [Matthew 13:43] At the parousia-Judgment the righteous will be identified and separated from the wicked Christians. [Matthew 13:49] Some may appear righteous but are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:28] The righteous are compared to charitable and compassionate sheep in the Judgment. [Matthew 25:37] There will be a resurrection of the righteous. [Luke 14:14] Jesus promised that when he sent the spirit-helper it would give testimony on the subject of righteousness. [John 16:8]
Just as Jesus promised, the spirit-helper began its influence as a “guide into all the truth” by placing the subject of righteousness - as well as “sin and judgment” - in all the inspired epistles of these men. Luke calls a non-Jewish, non-Christian “a righteous man.” [Acts 10:22] Any person in any nation who is righteous is acceptable to God. [Acts 10:35] There will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous leading to judgment. [Acts 17:31; 24:15]
We see the spirit-helper - who was to give evidence regarding righteousness, sin and judgment - working on Paul when he spoke to Felix about: “… righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment.” [Acts 24:25 NCMM] Paul makes righteousness one of his major sub-themes. In his use of the word “righteousness” Paul gives it also an absolute sense meaning perfect innocence before God. There is such an unqualified, unlimited righteousness in his writings. [Romans 3:10] The righteous must also be persons of deep conviction. [Romans 1:17] The righteous with deep conviction - and that love associated with such belief - may expect God’s declaration of perfect righteousness. [Romans chapters 4 and 5]
Despite this act of justification - the pronouncement of innocent from past sins - the forgiven disciple must now use various members of the body as “tools of righteousness.” [Romans 6:13] The disciple must become a “slave to righteousness” with the result of holiness. [Romans 6:16, 18] There are those who are self-righteous. [Romans 10:3] Though the heart’s conviction leads to righteousness, it is the mouth’s confession that leads to salvation. [Romans 10:10] The Kingdom of God involves a righteous life. [Romans 14:17] Christians are urged to follow righteousness and not to sin. [1 Corinthians 15:34] The righteous have no partnership with the lawless. [2 Corinthians 6:14]
Righteousness is associated with charity and compassion. [2 Corinthians 9:10] Satan’s workers can appear as “ministers of righteousness.” [2 Corinthians 11:15] The New Person in Christ is characterized by righteousness. [Ephesians 4:24] The Christian should arm self with the “breastplate of righteousness.” [Ephesians 6:14] The disciple should be “brimming over with the fruitage of righteousness.” [Philippians 1:11 NCMM] Righteousness should be something given close consideration. [Philippians 4:8] Timothy is urged to “pursue righteousness.” [1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22] The Scriptures are beneficial for “disciplining in righteousness.” [2 Timothy 3:16] Christians are urged to “live in righteousness.” [Titus 2:12] Regeneration and justification to perfect righteousness are not based on personal righteousness, but rather by God’s Grace through Christ. [Titus 3:4, 5]
The wise person is characterized by “righteous fruitage.” [James 3:18] A righteous man’s prayer has considerable power. [James 5:16] The one Christ died for must “discontinue sin and live in righteousness.” [1 Peter 2:24] Ultimately the future new earth will be inhabited only by the righteous. [2 Peter 3:13] Those born of God “continue in righteousness.” [1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10] The Saints are clothed in righteousness. [Revelation 19:8]
The subject of righteousness [obedience to law] is a major theme of the Bible. It is one of the three subjects that the promised spirit-helper would give “convincing evidence” to the world. God is righteous. Christ is righteous. The Saints must be righteous and be able to say so. Absolute righteousness is not possible for humans. God’s declaration that the Saints are pronounced innocent is based, not on personal virtue or righteousness, but rather on His grace through Jesus Christ. Such persons justified from previous sin, however, must continue to be slaves to righteousness and produce the fruitage of righteousness. Thus, though no one can gain salvation on the basis of personal righteousness, neither can a person gain salvation without personal righteousness.
The path of righteousness does not come easily for most people. It is a matter of discipline and humble obedience to God. Paul puts it this way:
“Solid nourishment belongs to mature persons, those who through the use of their sensory organs have been trained like an athlete to be able to distinguish between what is good or bad. … For, indeed, these [human fathers] disciplined us for a few day according to what seemed [right] to them. However, [the Spiritual Father] does so for our benefit that we may partake of His holiness. Of course, at the moment any discipline is not joyful but causes grief. However, afterward [discipline] produces peace to those who have been trained by it with a righteous reward. [Hebrews 5:14 NCMM]
With a determined heart trained in righteousness, and with daily effort to become a slave to righteousness, the new Christian will find in time that more and more attitudes and actions are focused on righteousness. When a slip or false step happens, overcome the temporary discouragement, and press on following a life of righteousness. Remember one of the Bible’s concluding exhortations, “Let the righteous remain righteous.” [Revelation 22:11 NCMM] May your foot always remain on the “path of righteousness.”
Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller
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