Divine Righteousness And Human Righteousness
Re-Translated In March 2000
1. "The poor in heart are blessed; the kingdom of heaven is theirs," (Matthew 5:3). I think it was back in the early days of elementary school when I memorized those words. It was a verse of recitation taught in Sunday school. I didn't get the meaning of it much [back then]. It was later that I knew that this was written in The Gospel According To Matthew. It was much later on that I had come to understand little by little what it meant. Yet, these words have not faded from my memory. Even though I didn't understand it at that time, being touched by the Bible when I was small would later have decisive significance [for me].
2. In The Gospel According To Luke it appears as "The poor are blessed." But, Matthew was probably trying to show that the Lord was not just talking economics. The word "poor" here does not mean just doing without enough. This is a word that expresses begging. It means not having anything. If a person doesn't have anything, he or she only receives. If you wonder from whom they receive [things], it is from God. We must receive help from God. Indeed, even more than that, we must receive forgiveness. To put it simply, "the kingdom of heaven is theirs" means "to be saved." [It means] persons cannot do a thing for their own salvation because they are like [poor] beggars. They only receive. The Lord says salvation is given to persons like this. The religious reformer Martin Luther said, "We are beggars. That's true." He said this as his last words. But, we can barely say them if at all. We don't like to admit our poverty. That "We are beggars" may be the last words we'd ever want to say. But, the person [who would not admit that], in the Lord's opinion, is not "blessed."
Righteousness According To Faith
3. These words of the Lord Jesus also have a connection with the words of Paul which we read today. Let's read beginning from verse thirty until verse thirty-three.
"So, what does this mean? The Gentiles who have not looked for righteousness have obtained righteousness, and a righteousness based on faith at that. But, though Israel has pursued after the law of righteousness, it has not reached the law. Why is that? Because Israel thought that it could be reached not by faith but by works. They stumbled on the stone of stumbling. 'Behold, I am placing a stone of stumbling, a rock of obstruction in Zion. The one who believes in this will never be disappointed,' as it is written," (verses thirty through thirty-three).
4. There may never have been as religious a people as the Jews on this earth. I don't think there has ever been anyone who has thought as seriously about God and salvation as they have. They have certainly sought for a righteous relationship with God. If we see things from their eyes, non Jews, that is, the Gentiles would have to be any peoples which do not seek for righteousness at all. When we read the word "Gentile" we should not think of people from somewhere else. It refers to none other than us.
5. We worship God, read the Bible and pray like this and we think that such a faith life must be ours not just on Sundays, but throughout the week. That's certainly very important. But, because it is important, at times it happens that the faith life itself is objectified for comparison. We compare other people with ourselves. That person is a fervent Christian. [He] is living a life that looks very Christian. Or we even make the comment as we evaluate others that "he is a true Christian." If one is "real," another is "fake." But, in so far as godly matters saturating our lives and controlling our entire lives, I don't think what we do can compare to the pious Jews. If seen from the perspective of Paul who considered himself "the most Hebrew of Hebrews and concerning the law a Pharisee," (Philippians 3:5) we would truly be "Gentiles who have not sought for righteousness" and may now be seen as "Gentiles who are not seeking for righteousness."
6. However, Paul says, "The Gentiles who have not sought for righteousness have obtained righteousness, and a righteousness based on faith at that." But on the other hand, he says the ones who had not attained a righteous relationship with God are the Jews who had consistently lived a religious life and had lived attempting to keep the law. When he said "they had not attained unto the law," that's what he meant. If we added a word to that, it would be "they had not attained unto righteousness according to the law." What was [their] problem? They were not poor in the sight of God, but rich. That is, the problem was they kept thinking the things that they possessed had caused them to attain a righteous relationship with God. In other words, they could not see themselves in how they were beggars in the sight of God. "Because Israel thought that it could be reached not by faith but by works," (verse thirty-two).
7. There is a parable of Christ related to "poverty" which reminds us of something else. It is not just about not having [anything] but it is a parable of a person who is in debt. We find it in The Gospel According To Matthew. Please look at chapter eighteen and beginning in verse twenty-three. "... A certain king decided to make a settlement of the money which he had loaned to his subjects. As he began to settle the accounts, the retainer who was in debt for ten thousand talents was brought before the king. But, since he could not repay, the lord ordered that he, his wife, children, and all his possessions be sold for repayment. The retainer laid prostrate and repeatedly implored him, 'If you would please wait, I will surely pay everything back,'" (Matthew 18:23-26). It is impossible to convert ten thousand talents accurately to today's money but we might consider it something like six hundred million days worth of wages of a laborer. In effect, it was an impossible amount of money to pay back. We understand that Jesus regarded the load of the sin debt which humanity owed to God as a sum that was impossible to repay. This is the load of my sin and the load of your sin. This man said, "If you would please wait, I will surely pay everything back." If for a moment this man really thought he could pay it back by his own efforts, he must have been in a state of insanity. If we look at it like Paul, this was surely the position of the Jews. When "righteousness" is spoken of in The Epistle To The Roman Disciples, if we put it the way this parable does, it would be "a state where there is no debt." He says they thought they could attain a debtless condition by [their own] works. Since they continued to say "We will surely pay you everything back" and gave it all they got, they would be in a hell of spiritual debt forever.
8. How did the Lord Jesus continue the parable? "The lord of that retainer felt pity, forgave him, and canceled his debt." Salvation depends on the forgiveness of the Lord God alone. It depends on his mercy. The ones getting freed from the hell of spiritual debt are not those who keep stubbornly saying, "If you would please wait, I will surely pay everything back." [Those who get freed] are those who admit they are spiritually bankrupt, accept with thanksgiving the free gift of God's forgiveness, rely on God's mercy and entrust themselves over to him. These are the people who receive "the righteousness that comes by faith."
[Some] Stumble, [Some] Believe
9. Well, this parable continues on, but please read it later. Let's go back to the book of Romans, our main focus.
10. The Jews who thought they could make it by works, Paul says, "stumbled on the rock of stumbling," and he quotes freely from Isaiah. This seems to be a quote from Isaiah 28:16. A few words are different from the original, but he clearly understands this stone as pointing to Christ and quotes [it that way]. [The stone] is the crucified Christ. Christ is a stumbling block to those who think salvation is attainable by works. But, for those who trust and lean on him, it is the rock of salvation which will never betray them.
11. Of course, Paul did not desire the destruction of the Jews who had stumbled. Paul's earnest desire was for their salvation. That's why he had been praying for it. Please look at chapter ten beginning with verse one. "O brothers, I desire with my heart that they be saved and I pray to God for them. I bear witness that they are serving God fervently, but their zeal is not based on a correct understanding. Because without knowing the righteousness of God they are trying to seek their own righteousness and have not submitted to the righteousness of God," (verses one through three).
12. Paul testifies to their zeal. We should not say regarding people who have tried to be saved by keeping the law and by works that "It was all just on the surface. Their hypocrisy is a big problem indeed." They had certainly been serving God zealously. Paul understood that well because he himself had been a Jew of the Pharisee sect.
13. The problem was not that their zeal had been "a [hypocritical] lie." That wasn't it, rather, their zeal "was not based on a correct understanding." First of all, they had a deficiency in their understanding regarding sin. They didn't understand the debt of the ten thousand talents. The wrath of God which came down on Christ on the cross shows forthrightly the weight of human sin. The wrath of God which ought to originally have come upon the sin of humanity was revealed right there [at the cross]. It was [for] my sin and yours. And [our] understanding towards the mercy of God was deficient. God determined by his mercy alone to put Christ on the cross, provide redemption, and grant to humans the righteousness of God. However, often times people do not consider God's method [for our salvation] good and go about seeking their own righteousness. The phrase "seeking their own righteousness" is also a phrase that means "trying to set up their own righteousness." That might be easier to understand. Anyway, that's where they stumbled.
14. However, a zeal, which lacks in its understanding of this and which attempts to set up its own righteousness, not knowing the righteousness of God, can be seen just as much today. People who think that whatever they do for God has decisive significance for their relationship with God do not consider it worthwhile entrusting themselves over to the mercy of God, giving thanks, worshipping Him, or living by participating in the blood and flesh of Christ. People whose most important business is what they themselves do for God look down on those who take part in Holy Communion without doing [any works] and propose that "They are not true Christians." A virtuous person zealous with pride in his or her works is the kind to say, "[I have a problem with Christianity;] I have stumbled over Christianity, [I have a problem with the church;] I have stumbled over the church, [I have a problem with christians;] I have stumbled over christians." But, in their talking like that, we really should acknowledge that what they really mean is that they have stumbled on Christ. They are stumbling over the Christ who will save a person not based on his or her works but by the mercy of God alone. They are stumbling over the Christ who shed his blood and was crucified in order to save sinners unable to offer anything for their own salvation. They are stumbling over the Christ who graciously justifies the person who believes in Him alone. Nothing has been so disastrous for oneself or for others as human zeal not grounded on a correct understanding.
15. Finally let's read verse four. "Christ is the objective of the law - in order to bring righteousness to all who believe," (verse four).
16. "The objective of the law" can be translated here as "the end of the law." Christ is the objective of the law, he is its fulfillment and so he is its end. The objective of the law is to justify a person. However, a person is not made righteous by the works of the law, but the righteousness of God is granted to him or her by Christ. It's not that a person does anything for himself or herself but rather that Christ has done it for him or her. Consequently, righteousness takes effect on whomever will believe. Righteousness is given and the objective of the law is fulfilled. All believers can live in a righteous relationship with God not any longer as debtors of a great sum, but as persons with canceled debts. Therefore, the way in which one used to be justified by the works of the law was shut down. The law hit a full stop. To the person who said, "I will surely pay everything back," God has said, "That's enough of that." Through God's forgiveness the believing person can begin to live with God anew. He or she lives with the understanding that "We are beggars. That's true." However, that is none other than living grounded with the understanding of oneself as a recipient of God's mercy. That is truly nothing other than living as the richest of persons. "The believing person will not be disappointed." The person who does not stumble over Christ is happy and blessed.