What is righteousness?
So let’s look at what we understand by the term righteousness. The bible says that we have a righteous Lord who loves righteousness [Psalms 11:7] and that He shall judge the world in righteousness [Psalms 9:8].
- ‘Righteousness’ means to conform to God’s standards or in other words to have a ‘right standing’ with God, because as He is righteous we ought to be righteous to be in front of Him as if there was no sin to separate us from God.
In the Old Testament, when the Law was given to Moses; the people of Israel were commanded to follow the Law and if they were diligent in following it to the letter, then they would earn righteousness as in [Deuteronomy 6:25] (NRSV) which says “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us”.
However the Israelites had a difficult Law which consisted of about 613 different rules and regulations. Now if you were to be keeping this law and you broke the law in one area, then according to [James 2:10] you were guilty of breaking it all. Therefore the Israelites were burdened with a Law which they could not keep and yet they knew that their only hope to be in right standing with God was through the fulfilling of the Law. Yes you could say that they were in a catch-22 situation and there was no way out or at least so it appeared to them.
This is why we see Israel time and again falling back on their covenant with God; if you read the book of Judges you will notice the following cycle repeating at least about 7 times:
- Israel forsakes the Lord
- Israel falls into the hands of oppressors
- Israel serves the oppressor
- Israel cries out to the Lord
- The Lord raises up a deliverer
- The oppressor is subdued
- The land has “rest” for some years
Now it does not take much to figure out that Israel were struggling to remain faithful to the Laws and Commandments of God which they had previously agreed to be obedient towards. However, when Jesus came in the flesh, He made it more difficult by saying in [Matthew 5:20] (NKJV) “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. The Pharisees were already the most righteous people of Jesus’ time or so it was understood by all the Israelites. Making such a statement would have caused all hopes of righteousness and entry into the kingdom of heaven to cease. This is also the reason why the Pharisees particularly hated Jesus, because in their own eyes they had achieved the impossible and felt as righteous as God Himself.
Jesus did not stop there, he continued from [verse 21] onward to explain that if anyone uses foul words against his brother or even calls him a fool shall be in danger of hell fire. Every man that even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” [Matthew 5:39-42] (NKJV). He went on to tell us to love and greet our enemies and so on and so forth.