Seeking the righteousness of God
Updated: Nov 19, 2022
In the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Jesus taught his disciples about the laws and precepts of the kingdom of God; in other words, how a person is required to live under God’s rule. In this wide-ranging address, Jesus highlighted virtues such as kindness, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit — virtues that are foreign to the world in which we live, a world that is under the influence of the evil one, being dominated by selfishness, greed and competitiveness.
Jesus’ entire discourse can be summarised in one sentence: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Mat 6.33). The Greek word zeteo, translated ‘seek’, means to crave, search for, and strive after. It is present tense, active voice, imperative mood, which in layman’s terms, means that it is something we should be continually doing. “Seek and keep on seeking …”
Seeking God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness is a way of life. It denotes the constant and never-ending pursuit of the things that are valuable in God’s sight. The Amplified Bible puts it this way: “But seek (aim at and strive after) first of all His kingdom and His righteousness (His way of doing and being right).”
The word ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosyne) is an ethical term that signifies equity of character or action. In contrast, ‘justification’ (dikaiosis) is a forensic term that signifies acquittal from guilt and right-standing with God. The former refers to the ongoing transformation that takes place in our lives as we yield to and are directed by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8.4-14). The latter refers to the legal position that was secured on our behalf by the death and resurrection of Christ, a position that is appropriated by faith (Rom 5.1; 10.9-10).
The Amplified Bible defines righteousness (dikaiosyne) as being “upright, conforming to the divine will in purpose, thought, and action, living a consistently conscientious life” (1 John 3.7). Thus, righteousness does not only signify a legal standing, but an ever-developing state of conformity to Christ, who is the image of the invisible God.
Simply put, ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosyne) is living in the way God requires, or as Paul expressed it in Colossians 1.10, “walking worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work.”
As David DeSilva observes, Paul’s concern is not simply with ‘justification’ in the sense of acquittal or forgiveness of sin, but with believers being brought fully in line with God’s standards of righteousness. And for this reason, the work of justification includes a highly transformational element (The Letter to the Galatians, NICNT, 250, 252).
What would Jesus do?
The idea that God requires us to live in a certain way seems somewhat anachronistic in today’s self-pleasing, me-too culture. After all, Jesus wants you to live your best life, now! (Or so we have been told). He came so that you can have an abundant life, aka, so that you can have everything you want. The problem is, that’s not what the Bible teaches.
The prophet Micah said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8). The rabbis analysed the Law and found 613 precepts. Micah distilled God’s requirements into 3 principles: Practice justice, Cherish compassionate faithfulness, and live in submission to God.
Jesus, in turn, summarised God’s requirements in two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He went on to say, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mat 22.37-40).
Seeking the righteousness of God in each and every situation means finding out how God requires us to live, and then acting accordingly. However, finding out the will of God and conforming to it in thought, purpose, and action, is easier said than done.
Asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” is a great place to start our quest. He is the Pattern Son, who pleased the Father in every way (Rom 8.29; Mat 3.17; John 8.29). He is the example we must emulate (John 13.15). He is the standard to which we must conform (Eph 4.13).
For example, what would Jesus do if he found a person in a compromised moral situation? Stone them to death, spread scandalous rumours on Twitter, post photos on Facebook, or set them free from the controlling power of sin and give them another chance at life? (Check out John chapter 8).
What would Jesus do if he was falsely accused? Fight fire with fire, file a lawsuit, hire a spin doctor to restore his reputation, or remain silent in the face of his accusers and trust God to vindicate him? (See 1 Peter 21-23).
What would Jesus do if, because of cultural animosity, people misunderstood his mission and rejected his ministry? Call down fire from heaven, pronounce divine judgment, reinforce the cultural divide, or act in a humble, conciliatory and salvific way? (Take a look at Luke 9.51-56).
Choose this day
Life is a series of choices. Joshua said to the people of Israel, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24.15). The fact is, we don’t just have to choose today, we have to choose every day; we don’t just have to choose once, we have to choose multiple times each day.
We have to choose between our way and ‘God’s way of doing and being right’. This was brought home to me in a very poignant way back in 2006, as my father lay dying in hospital. I was driving from work to see him during my lunch break, when I got a call from my mother. “Don’t say anything negative to Dad, or talk about him dying” she said. (Mum was still desperately hoping and praying for a miracle).
I was so frustrated with this hyper-faith nonsense, I was about to say, “Look, if I can’t speak the truth, I won’t go and see him at all!” I was sorely tempted to just turn the car around and go back to work. But somewhere, deep in my heart, I felt the Spirit of God restrain me. And unusually for me, I didn’t blurt out what I was thinking and feeling, but humbled myself and said, “Ok, Mum.”
I spent 20 minutes alone with my Dad in his hospital room. He told me things that I still remember to this day. He talked about revival and the call of God. As I kissed him goodbye, I said, “Dad, you’re my hero!” I didn’t realise that I would never see him again in this life. For at 10 pm that night, my Dad went home to be with Jesus.
If I had chosen my way instead of ‘God’s way of doing and being right’, I would have missed my last opportunity to see my Dad in the flesh. I shudder to think how close I came to making such a terrible mistake.
Believe me when I say, it pays to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. It pays to trust in the Lord with all your heart and not lean on your own understanding. And it pays to choose God’s way of doing and being right! For then and only then, “all these things” (the things that you really need) will be added to you.