On a California beach, young surfers use the word righteous to describe a big wave, a drug-induced high, or a sexual adventure.
In a nearby church, members of a prayer circle use the same word to talk about behavior that complies with the moral laws of the Bible.
I’m guessing the beach crowd knows they are giving their own spin to a word rooted in the language and story of the Bible. But could the church group also be missing something?
In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, author Kenneth E. Bailey explains that the Hebrew word translated righteousness is often used in the Bible as a term of relationship rather than morality. That’s an important difference. It helps us understand how the Bible can call people like us righteous, and why all of us can be so eternally grateful for the righteousness of God.
Bailey goes on to suggest that righteousness is like a cut diamond. What follows is based on what he sees as four of this rich word’s many facets.
1. In the Bible, God’s righteousness often refers to His mighty acts in history to save. For instance, the prophet Samuel recalls the righteous rescues of the LORD when confronting Israel for demanding a human king to protect them from their enemies. Samuel reminded them that they were forgetting the way the King of heaven had repeatedly kept His covenant commitment to save them from their enemies even after they had been unfaithful to Him (1 Samuel 12:6-12).
What was not clear in Samuel’s words, however, was how God could rightfully rescue a nation that had so often turned their backs on Him.
2. God’s rightness is seen in the sacrifice He makes to justify sinners like us. Only in an ultimate act of self-sacrifice could God bring a sinful people like us into a relationship with Himself.
This is the good news of the new covenant in Jesus. Through immeasurable suffering and death, followed by a bodily resurrection, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).
But if sinners can be declared and accepted by God as righteous, what will keep those who come to God “just as they are” from going on with a “just as they were” attitude?
Bailey answers this question by reminding us that all relationships come with expectations of conduct.
3. A right relationship with God is honored by a desire to be right with others. By personifying the merciful righteousness of God, Jesus brought fullness of meaning to one of the oldest stories of the Bible. Thousands of years earlier God had said of a man named Job that there was no one else like him on earth (Job 1:8). Yet it was Job himself who helps us understand why he was singled out—first by God, and then by Satan. After suffering a series of terrible personal losses, Job reflected on how rich his life had been before his troubles began. In his own words, “I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth” (Job 29:14-17 NIV).
Looking back, the suffering of Job, together with his heart for others, foreshadows a far greater righteousness, suffering, and vision of Christ for the world.
4. Seeds of peace produce a harvest of righteousness. The prophets of Israel foresaw a day when people of all nations would be reconciled with God, with one another, and even with nature. In that day, the relational rightness of the King of kings will fill the earth. Weapons of war will be recycled into farming equipment, and the wolf will live with the lamb (Isaiah 2:4; 11:1-10).
For now, the prophet’s vision may seem like a dream too good to be true. But for those who have come to understand the relational meaning of the righteousness of God, doing whatever we can to anticipate the peace of the world to come is a worthy occupation.
It was such a vision that seems to have captured the heart of a New Testament author by the name of James. Seeing the relationship between real faith and the work of peacemaking, he urged his readers to show their relationship with God by planting seeds of peace. So he wrote, “Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:16-18 NIV).
Father in heaven, in our best and most thoughtful moments, we long for such peace. Thank You for being so patient with us. We are learning slowly why our self-righteousness is so wrong—and why Your rightness is so good.