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Biblical Righteousness--Part 1

Jul 15, 2009

There are a number of biblical words which cannot be expressed by a single English translation. This can be confusing to some people and can even lead to misunderstanding of the Word.

To Hear and to Obey

In the Hebrew, the word shema means both to hear and to obey. In Deut. 6:4 we read, "Hear, O Israel." But 1 Sam. 15:22 says, "to obey is better than sacrifice." One might say that the cultural idea behind this Hebrew word tells us that if one hears only with the ears on one's head, then one has not really heard at all. Only if there is a response of obedience can it be said that a person has truly heard.

In other words, biblical hearing is really about the use of the ears of one's heart, not the ears on one's head.

James understood this perfectly when he says in James 2:17, "Even so, faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone." Since faith comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17), hearing is proven by the response of obedience. That is the teaching of James.

Paul makes the distinction between hearing and obeying, but not in contradiction of James. Paul makes the point that faith precedes obedience (i.e., "works") in Rom. 4:6. His point shows that faith is not produced by obedience, but the other way around. The Jews of his day were attempting to please God and to qualify for righteousness by being "zealous" for Torah (the law). They were taught that if they could be scrupulous enough, they would receive the reward of God. Unfortunately, because "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), they had already been disqualified, and no amount of zealous obedience, however good, could make up for that first sin in their life.

Both Paul and James were correct in their own contexts. There is no need to believe one over the other, as if they contradicted each other.

Justice and Righteousness

The Hebrew word tsedakaw is translated either justice or righteousness. In Genesis 15:6 we read the well-known passage about Abraham, "And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness." Yet in Deut. 33:21, the same word is translated, "He executed the justice of the Lord."

The point is that the righteousness of God is also the justice of God. One cannot separate righteousness from justice, and justice is a term of law. When applied to God, it denotes the fact that God will always be a righteous judge. In other words, He will not do injustice when He judges men and nations. He will be absolutely impartial in His judgments. He will not acquit the guilty, nor condemn the innocent. That is the righteousness/justice of God.

In the New Testament we see this same idea expressed in the Greek term dikaiosune, "righteousness/justice." The translators always translate this word "righteousness," and NEVER "justice." This is probably because they understood righteousness to be by faith and separate from works, according to their view of Paul's writings.

Another form of the same word is dikaios, which is translated "righteous" in Romans 3:10, "there is none righteous, no not one." But in Romans 1:17 the same word is rendered "the just shall live by faith." So it is apparent that the translators knew that being "righteous" and being "just" is the same thing. In fact, the Greek words were selected to express Hebrew concepts.


Perhaps the most important form of this word, for our purposes, is the verb dikaioun, "to justify." Because the term itself is rooted in dikaios, "just/righteous," and to dikaiosune, "righteousness/justice," it sheds much light on the biblical topic of justification.

Justification is a legal term that applies particularly to a court room setting. God is the judge in this scenario, and you are the accused (on account of your sins). Satan is the "adversary," because that is the meaning of the word sawtawn. Fortunately, as a believer, you have a very capable council for the defense. He is your defense attorney, or Advocate (Greek: paracletos). Jesus spoke of him in John 14:26,

"But the Comforter [paracletos], which is the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you."

The concept of a defense attorney was prophesied throughout the Old Testament by the wordnacham. This is the name of the prophet Nahum and Nehemiah (comforter of Yah). It is prophesied in Isaiah 40:1, "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people." The old man, Simeon, understood this when Luke 2:25 says that he was "waiting for the consolation [paraklesis] of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him."

To the Hebrew mind in that day, Israel (along with Judah) was God's chosen nation, having the one true God to whom all nations would ultimately have to bow. But the non-Israelite nations were competing with Israel, even as their gods competed with Yahweh. The great hope, then, was for God to render a verdict in the divine courtroom that would vindicate the Israelites and rule against the other nations.

They conceived of this divine court case in terms of Israel vs. non-Israel with God as the presiding Judge. They sought vindication, or JUSTIFICATION, where God would rule in favor of Israel and make them the rulers of the earth. The great question was WHO would be vindicated and shown to be the Covenant People on that great day of judgment?

The Messiah was the one who could lead them to victory as an expression of that divine justification or vindication. Hence, Simeon waited in the temple for the paraklesis of Israel, and he understood that he would see the Messiah before he died (Luke 2:26).

The problem is that both Israel and Judah had failed in their callings. Instead of being vindicated or justified, Israel had been taken captive to Assyria in 721 B.C. because of their idolatry. Likewise, Judah had been taken to Babylon a century later, and even though they had returned to the land, they had remained under foreign rulers up to the time of Christ.

In other word, God had NOT justified Israel or Judah, but appeared to have justified the foreign nations. In other words, God had rendered His verdict against Israel and Judah because of their sin. They were all in captivity, because they were not justified. They were not justified, because they (as nations) did not have justifying faith. Israel was yet in idolatry "beyond Euphrates till now" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XI, v, 2). Judah was "zealous" but "hypocritical," because "they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). Judah as a whole had rejected the true Messiah, because they were looking for one who would vindicate/justify the nation in spite of their sin.

Paul knew this zealous Judean mindset firsthand, because he had been more zealous than all of them in his early life, persecuting the Church. The zealots in those days believed it was their religious duty to persecute and even kill their fellow Jews who were less passionate about Torah observance. It is the same even today in the Israeli state, as seen in 1995 by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

This is the cultural and religious contrast to Paul's doctrine of justification, which I will discuss further in the next weblog.

This is the first part of a series titled "Biblical Righteousness." To view all parts, click the link below.

Biblical Righteousness

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Category: God's Law
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones