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Above all else, there is one event that has come to be definitive of my life, and that is that I have fallen under the power of Yeshua, Messiah of Israel, taking him as my king, striving to know him most intimately and to be known by him, yielding in the hope that His will be done, that I should be his servant and that he should be my God.

And yet, a time came, several years ago, when I decisively disobeyed my God.  There was an act which was clearly against His will.  But I had reasoned with myself about it and had allowed myself to conclude that, “although it is a violation of the expressed will of God, yet for me, at this moment, there is some justification.”  I then willfully violated God’s command.  Afterward, with much regret, I asked for His forgiveness, knowing that I had sinned.

Then, having carved a place for sin through “reasoning with” [lying to] myself, that opening did not just go away.  A few months later I again committed the same sin.  But this time I was able to omit the arduous prologue of reasoning with myself.  I just did it.  Having done this thing, I was surprised to see that my will had swiftly and suddenly bypassed the admonition of God, refusing all communication, turning a deaf ear to His voice.  A little later I pursued this sin yet again, on several occasions.  I now saw the sovereignty of God compromised in me, and saw the reappearance of the bitter sovereign Self.

Wearied by my inability to inhibit this sin, a major rebellious thought entered my heart.  I undertook a new line of reasoning, in an effort to question the truth of my unhappy behavior.  I consciously and deliberately asked God, “What is the purpose of this ‘goodness,’ this ‘righteousness’ anyway?  Is this really what you want in me, for me to be a ‘nice guy,’ a ‘pretty boy,’ a clean liver, a ‘virtuous’ man?  Aren’t you more interested in a rough-and-ready purposefulness? in directed activism that isn’t hung up on personal virtue?”

Chafing, I sought relief through refining a space between us.  But I had no thought of abandoning my God.  Nor did He have any thought of abandoning me.  I was capable of sin, but, by his Spirit, my heart wanted to know the truth.  When we love Him, He puts a hedge around us.  Satan can have at us, and he might make us fall, but he cannot have us.  As Daniel said, God allows us to “stumble, so that [we] may be refined, purified, and made spotless until the time of the end.”  Purity matters.  It also matters that we understand the purpose and gravity of the royal standards of Yeshua.  So God, seeing a fault in my foundation, put it in my heart to ask, “What is righteousness?”

It occurred to me that “righteousness” is one of those words which my brain surrounds in a protective bubble until I crash up against it and directly encounter its substance.  Words like “covenant, blessing, birthright, Sabbath,” and many more have a similarly distant and mostly historical significance in Christian culture.

I started my search by reading the book of Isaiah, in which “righteousness” is mentioned quite frequently.  I framed my questioning as a search for the importance of the “man of law” in the mind of God, and a search for the character of the “man of law.”  Who is he?  What does he do?  What does it mean to be ‘righteous’? Is there more to it than simple obedience to law?

The following is a selection of my notes from Isaiah, passages suggesting the character of righteousness both in men and in God:

“The ‘man of law’ is one who

opens his ears and is not rebellious [50.4,5] “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.”

seeks Yahveh and even a knowledge of the patriarchs [51.1] “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek Yahveh: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham your father….”

[God’s righteousness] [51.5]  “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

has the law of Yahveh in his heart [51.7]  “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: do not fear the reproach of men…my righteousness will last forever” [God’s righteousness]

will enter Zion with singing [51.11] “The ransomed of Yahveh will return.  They will enter Zion with singing…”

maintains justice, keeps the Sabbath [56.2] “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon  be revealed. [God’s righteousness]  Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.

is bound to Yahveh, worshipping Yahveh, keeping Sabbath and covenant [56.3,6,7]  “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to Yahveh say, ‘Yahveh will surely exclude me from his people.’…And foreigners who bind themselves to Yahveh to serve him, to love the name of Yahveh, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”

is contrite and lowly in spirit [57.15] “For this is what the high and lofty One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”

in sin or weakness, is healed by Yahveh [57.16-18] “I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me – the breath of man that I have created.  I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways.  I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.”

looses the chains of injustice, sets the oppressed free, does not ignore his own flesh and blood [58.6,7] “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

spends himself on behalf of the hungry and satisfies the needs of the oppressed [58.10] “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday.  Yahveh will guide you always…”

In Isaiah I saw that righteousness, by God’s own word, is a most significant aspect of his own character… and that it is much more than mere pursuit of an abstract code of behavior.  In fact, no external code can possibly “stand over” Yahveh.  There must only be his own word, his own oath…He alone who swears by Himself.  And what that word is needs to be investigated.  It is the word of his covenants with men.

Similarly, in Isaiah I could see that in men Yahveh’s idea of righteousness is something much more colorful, more ample than mere adherence to a code of law.  In every instance in Isaiah righteousness involves profound involvement with the person of God or the person of our neighbor.  It would seem that, to the extent that a certain level of behavior is imperative at all times, it is because all our life is lived for and before Yahveh and our neighbor at all times.

As Bonhoeffer so beautifully teaches, in Cost of Discipleship, Yeshua is mediator between us and God and also mediator between us and our fellow man.  There can be no moment of our lives from which our king is excluded.  Between us and our neighbor, between us and Yahveh, Yeshua is always present, always Lord, always calling us to our best, always expecting us to lean on Him for the miracle of His life, of His power and counsel.

“He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things…The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on an illusion.  All the time we thought we had enjoyed a direct relation with men and things.  This is what had hindered us from faith and obedience.  Now we learn that in the most intimate relationships of life, in our kinship with father and mother, brothers and sisters, in married love and in our duty to the community, direct relationships are impossible.  Since the coming of Christ, his followers have no more immediate realities of their own, not in their family relationships nor in the ties with their nation nor in the relationships formed in the process of living.  Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the nation, stands Christ the Mediator, whether they are able to recognize him or not.  We cannot establish direct contact outside ourselves except through him, through his word, and through our following of him.”[1]

Yeshua is in all things mediator for this is the fabric of the new covenant.  We are in the new covenant.  We belong to Yeshua through the grace–filled promises of God in his new covenant.  The weakness of human resolve is now transcended by the love and resolve of our God to make his home in our hearts and bring to us his Spirit and his life.

Upon reading Isaiah I anticipated all the more that in the Hebrew understanding of “righteousness” lay a greater meaning with which I was not familiar.  I began to search for articles on the meaning of righteousness in the Old Testament, and articles addressing this issue began to appear, most notably an essay by the late Art Katz entitled “Righteousness in the Old Testament.”[2]

Mr. Katz makes the case that the true meaning of “righteousness,” tzadik, is not readily accessible to us in our culture, and he argues that righteousness assumes its true character only in personal relationship, in relationship defined by covenant: 

“Righteousness, as understood in the Old Testament, is a thoroughly Hebraic concept, foreign to the western mind and at variance with the common understanding of the term. The failure to comprehend its meaning is perhaps most responsible for the view of OT religion as “legalistic” …Righteousness is not a behavior that is in accordance with an ethical, legal, psychological, religious, or spiritual norm; neither is it conduct that is dictated by human or divine nature.  It is not an action appropriate to the attainment of a specific goal; neither is it a ministry to one’s fellow man.  Rather, righteousness in the OT is the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship [emphasis mine], whether that relationship be with men or with God…Each of these relationships brings with it specific demands, the fulfillment of which constitutes righteousness[3]

So we see then that when God speaks of his own righteousness, as in Isaiah 51.5[4]—He is not speaking of his adherence to an abstract standard or of his own “goodness.”[5] He is speaking of something specific:

“My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.  The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.”

Here, when God speaks of his own righteousness he is speaking of his capacity and faithfulness to fulfill his covenant promises, be it the covenant promises to Abraham [still in process], the covenant promises to David [being fulfilled in Yeshua], or the covenant promises of Yeshua in the New Covenant [fulfilled in all who, throughout history, claim salvation through the Lamb of God and not through their own works.]

“There is no norm of righteousness outside the relationship itself.  When God or man fulfills the conditions imposed upon him by the relationship, he is, in OT terms, righteous. … David was righteous because he refused to slay Saul with whom he stood in covenant relationship [I Samuel 24.17;26.23]”[6]

We see then that when Yahveh speaks of righteousness in us he is speaking of our own faithfulness to Him within the new covenant, we being made alive in Christ through the miracle of rebirth which he works in us through the gift of his Spiritual presence within us.

Now in the new covenant it is no longer the failure of the weary promise that we, by our own will, should fulfill and obey the demands of God.  Now in the new covenant we have life due to the promises of God that he would put his law in our hearts, that he would take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh, that he would bring to us a new spiritual birth, that he would come and live with us and make us one with himself.  Righteousness in the new covenant is God working a miracle in us, and without that miracle we cannot be righteous.  We do not depend upon our own resolve, as this was the downfall of the old covenant.

Under the old covenant men stood before the expectations of the commandments with only their education and discipline and power of the will to aid them.  It was not sufficient.  Their hearts failed.  The bone of the law was too much for their resolve, and so it came to stand between them and their God.

Under the new covenant, Yeshua awaits us in the chambers of the heart.

“Behold I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and sup with him and he with me.”     [Revelation 3.20]

From the moment of our opening the door he awaits us, teaching us, leading us into a life of love of his law, love of his order, of profound expectancy of his most noble expectations, without fear as he escorts us, as he leads us to new places, as we know that he will provide the strength we need, that he will hold us if we stumble and fall.  He is there.  Through everything He holds the heart and never goes away.  The life of self- reliance must die.  We now find our life in him.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches.”[7]

Now I see the discomfort inherent in the Western idea of righteousness.  I see why Art Katz said that the failure to understand the Hebrew meaning of righteousness leads to the feeling that the old covenant is legalistic.  The issue is this: Does righteousness [law] have an independent existence such that it hangs over us, measures us, and delivers us to judgment?  Or does righteousness [law] live only inside the covenant relationship between God our king and us his subject people.  The answer of the Greek/ rationalist tradition is that all truth is “reasonable” and therefore has an independent existence, even independent of the will of God.  The answer of the God of Israel, under the old covenant, is that the terms of the covenant [law] are dependent, existing in the intimate space between Himself and his people, and that He is a God of mercy.

Then Yahveh, the God of Israel, goes a step farther.  He creates the conditions of a new covenant under which he installs the substantial presence of his own eternal life in our hearts and binds us to Himself through unbreakable cords of Spirit so that the righteousness and justice which he loves can become our love also.

 

Lawrence S. Jones

Chicago, IL

August 20, 2016

 

email lstewartj@sbcglobal.net

website: www. jerusalemgraffiti.com

 

 

[1] Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, Simon and Schuster , pp 95-97

[2] artkatzministries.org.  See also “Why the Old Covenant Failed,” by Joe Crews

[3] Art Katz, “Righteousness in the Old Testament,” artkatzministries.org

[4] Isaiah 50.5 “My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way and my arm will bring justice to the nations.”

[5] We speak meaningfully of the “goodness” of God when we speak of his provision of all that is needed for life and for the fulfillment of history.

[6] Art Katz, Righteousness in the Old Testament, artkatzministries.org

[7] John 15.4,5

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