Back by popular demand…more fun with Bible words.
Way back in the 4th and 5th century, a lot of Christianity was being reformulated and redefined by the Church of the West—the Roman Catholic Church. I say the “Church of the West” because there was also the “Church of the East,” in places like Jerusalem, Corinth, Ephesus, and Alexandria. Now remember that in language and practice in the earliest days, “church” actually meant an assembling together of called-out people, not a building or institution like we think of today. Subtle but important difference.
So in this time of redefining Christianity in the Western Church—American Christianity’s roots—a theme of “be good or else” emerged as an attempt to control the masses (kudos to naturally occurring puns), largely spearheaded by two iconic fellows named Jerome and Augustine. These two men are known for popularizing heavy works-based teachings (including compulsory tithing and purgatory) into Church doctrine. I think this is likely where many of our Bible words and themes today became masked or twisted from their original meanings.
We have looked at various words such as, church, soul, satan, and christ, and today we are going to consider the word, “righteous.” As it stands in most modern translations, major emphasis is placed on righteousness, especially in the New Testament (NT). In other words, “Be good or else!” Now, I’m not watering down the Bible’s clear teaching of the need to be a “good” person, but what I’m contending here is that, by the misconstrued nature of this particular word, we have placed over-importance on an erroneous concept and missed an important teaching of Jesus (and the OT).
The word often translated as “righteous” or “righteousness” is actually the Greek word “dikaios,” and is better translated as “just” (adjective) or “justice” (noun). From the online etymology dictionary: “Gk. dikaios ‘just’ (in the moral and legal sense).”
Also, note that the Greek word for “judgment” (in the sense of arbitration) is “dikazo,” and the word for “judge” is dikastes.” So you can see clearly the development of a sense of justice and fairness, especially in administering Law.
In many places, translators left this word with its proper translation:
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just (dikaios) for the unjust (adikaios), so that He might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18, KJV).
“Masters, grant to your slaves justice (dikaios) and equality…” (Col. 4:1).
But in most other places, you will see them translate the word as “righteous.”
“…unless your righteousness (dikaios) surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).
This verse has always been a stumper, especially since the Pharisees appeared to be very righteous in their outward adherence to the Law. Did that mean the rest of us have to be perfect? Well, had translators translated it correctly, the verse (and Bible for that matter) would make more sense. If you go to Matthew 23 and read Jesus’ vehement slams against the Pharisees, it’s all in the context of their injustice as administers of the Law. They were practically faultless in following rules, but they had no application or intent of restoring justice to those who were oppressed and who relied on their leadership.
So what’s the point? A major theme throughout the Bible is of a coming Kingdom on earth of JUSTICE, fairness, and uncorrupted rule. This is the intent throughout the Bible—restoring justice to the poor, needy, orphans, widows, and oppressed. Though this world is corrupt in its administration of “justice,” someday the tables will turn and those who were the humble underdogs will be ruling the Pharisees and hypocrites, setting things right (the first will be last and the last, first). This is a major teaching of Jesus, and it’s not just about being a good person.
Let me demonstrate through one last concept in the OT. If you look all the way back in Genesis 18 in the Greek Septuagint, you will find Abraham asking God if He will spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are any “JUST” people in the cities, not “righteous” as most translations render:
“And Abraham approaching said, ‘You would not destroy together the just with the impious, and the just will be as the impious? If there be fifty just in the city, will you destroy them’” (Gen. 18:23)?
If you look ahead to Ezekiel 16:49, once again this passage brings illumination. Ezekiel declares exactly why S&G were destroyed:
“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”
Attending to the needs of the poor and defending the rights of the oppressed (orphans and widows) is taught consistently throughout Scriptures as the way to administer Divine Justice. So this is the theme of the Scriptures—restoring justice to ALL through a just people ruling and governing in the future Kingdom of God.