January 9, 2011: What Does Righteousness Mean to the Believer?

Let us pray: Dear Savior, teach us today that in receiving from You the righteousness that comes by faith we have complete peace, total forgiveness, and now wear Your holiness as we stand before Your Father’s gaze. All this has been made possible by You—in saving us and in giving us those blessings via our baptism. Amen

GRACE MERCY AND PEACE ARE YOURS FROM CHRIST, THE GIVER OF TRUE RIGHTEOUSNESS!

TEXT: Matthew 3: 13-17

Dearly Beloved By Christ:

How many times each 24 hour cycle does someone say to you: “Have a good day.”? How many times do you utter those same words? Does anyone in America ever stop to think what that phrase really means? I know, we often use it as a throw-away line. It is our way of conveying to another that we don’t wish them ill or that they are given happiness. But, that’s not really the original meaning of that phrase. In Old English, actually Anglo-Saxon, we know that the word “good” was derived from the word “God.” Hence, “Good Friday” literally means: “God’s Friday.” So, by saying: “Have a good day” you’re wishing another God-given blessings and hopefully an appreciation of those blessings. Puts a new twist on it, doesn’t it?

As I’ve gotten older, I take less and less for granted when it comes to how people perceive and understand Scripture. Even simple words found in the Bible don’t seem to convey the same punch that they had among previous generations. And we preachers don’t seem to recognize that fact to the detriment of our members’ understanding. For example, take the words: “holy” or “sacred.” Do children really “get” what they mean? Both convey specialness to God. Both mean that a holy place or a sacred object is so important to God that it should never be treated with contempt or with a ho-hum attitude. Instead, it should be held in the highest regard and viewed with awe and wonder. But, how many people even have such thoughts cross their minds today?

For a while now I’ve been concerned about an extremely important word that we run across more than 600 times throughout the Bible. That word is: righteousness. I’ve been wondering: “Do my members really know what it means? Do they have a depth of understanding as to how awesome that word really is?” Since we run across it in today’s lesson, it’s time to address the problem. So, let’s consider:

WHAT DOES RIGHTEOUSNESS MEAN TO THE BELIEVER?

I

Take the word apart and you begin with “right” as in right vs. wrong, or correct vs. incorrect, or truth vs. error. Now add a moral valuation to the equation, specifically God’s moral truth, and true justice, or what God expects and demands from us—and things begin to take shape. The various synonyms for righteousness in the Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, all 600 uses, bring all this richness out.

We really don’t use the word righteousness much in our society. In fact, outside of God talk, the only reference I can think of is when police shoot a violent criminal, the oversight board eventually pronounces it a: righteous shooting. That is, the officer was correct in his judgment and bears no moral condemnation.

If you break down all those 600 odd references I’ve referred to, you’ll find they sub-divide into two basic camps. There is the righteousness that God expects from all people and also the righteousness He gives to those who believe in Christ. One is pure Law, the other is pure Gospel. And the difference between the two is found only in God’s Son. Today’s lesson helps us understand all this a bit better.

II

Jesus is just beginning His public ministry. He’s reached age 30, the age of gravitas in that social setting. He’s about to call disciples and begin His work of saving our souls. But first, Jesus travels south from Nazareth and seeks out John the Baptist along the Jordan river. He wanted John to baptize Him, to wash Him with water into a life of repentance that He would live perfectly for us. John well knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that He was without sin. He knew that Jesus didn’t need to repent of anything. And in humility he says to Christ: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” You can almost hear the incredulity in his voice, can’t you? But, Jesus responds this way: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, John consented.

Now, look back on today’s OT lesson from Isaiah 42: 1-7. In that prophecy, God is talking about His Servant, His Son Jesus. He’s describing His work of saving souls, or of carrying out God the Father’s loving will of making sinners like us right, holy, and forgiven before Him. He’s talking about Jesus carrying the moral condemnation of all human evil, dying for it on the cross, and thereby making eternal peace between God and humans. So, this line: “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness.” Yes, the right way for God to save us was to punish His Son in our place. That was the ultimate act of love by the Father for us and love by His Son in carrying it all out. So, the baptism of Jesus was really the formal beginning of such cosmic love played out on this earthly stage. All God’s demands and expectations of total perfection in our thoughts, words, and actions were coupled with and rolled into His love and justice. In Christ all were fulfilled. Are were carried out. And the result is: we’re now forgiven by and through God’s beloved Son! In Him literally all our evil has been washed away.—Isn’t righteousness a glorious word?

III

All 4 Gospel writers record this event. That’s how important it is. Matthew tells it this way: “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'”

Jesus was baptized in order to formally place Himself into the cross hairs of the cross. As the Bible says: “Cursed is anyone hanged on a tree.” So, right here Jesus begins assuming the curse for our sins—all to take them away from us! In that instant, both the Father and the Holy Spirit make their will and presence known and agree to, yes even celebrate, this glorious work of saving our souls. It’s all quite mind-boggling unless you add God’s love for fallen human beings to the equation. Then, then, it becomes glorious!

Back to our original question: What Does Righteousness Mean To The Believer? St. Paul expounds on all this in Romans chapter 3. After first dealing with the perfect rightness necessary to stand before Almighty God and how no mere human possesses it on his or her own and is thus condemned, he switches gears and says this: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Because we, too, believe in Jesus; because we, too, have been baptized into His life and death; God has placed Christ’s rightness upon us. We’re saved. We don’t ever have to fear death.–Life doesn’t end, glory begins. We’re at total peace with God and totally pure, moral, upright, and holy in His sight. Christ’s righteousness has been transferred to us and has worked faith into our hearts. Aren’t the ways of God wonderful?! Amen