Open Matthew 10:40-42.
In the grounds of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is the Garden of the Righteous. It honours gentiles who protected Jews under Nazi threat, people like Shindler or Corrie Ten Boom. They’re considered righteous because they did the right thing by the people of God, even though they themselves were not descendants of Jacob. The way you treat God’s people is the way you treat God.
That’s how the word righteous (ṣǎd·dîq in Hebrew) functions in Jewish thought, but Christians tend to be horrified by this word. For the last 500 years, protestants have emphasized texts like Romans 3:10: “No one is righteous, not even one.”
Then we’re thoroughly confused when other texts talk about righteous people. The Gospels label several as righteous (dikaios in Greek):
- Joseph (Matthew 1:19)
- Abel (Matthew 23:35)
- John the Baptist (Mark 6:20)
- Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:6)
- Simeon (Luke 2:25)
Jesus taught that God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). He spoke of many righteous people (Matthew 13:17). He even expected Galileans to recognize his disciples as righteous people (Matthew 10:41).
What do you do when one part of the Bible doesn’t match other parts?
Some people construct a system to accommodate both parts, e.g. they might say that the examples in the Gospels are before the cross whereas Romans was written after the cross. Those systems don’t tend to be very convincing. Romans 3:10 is actually quoting a text from before the cross (Psalm 14:1).
A better approach is to understand what each text says its context. Everyday language is not legalese. Words have a range of meanings, especially in different settings.
Romans 3:10 is part of an argument Paul built to show that all of humanity needs reconciliation with God. Humans have all been unfaithful in our responsibility to God (unrighteous, doing wrong by God). By contrast, our heavenly sovereign has remained faithful to us (the righteousness of God, doing right by his people). Jesus is the righteous one, i.e. he is the manifestation of God’s righteousness towards his recalcitrant earthly realm. Jesus is the faithful one, the manifestation of God’s faithfulness towards his realm. So people can be declared right by God through him (Romans 3:21ff).
This is really good news: we’ve all done wrong, falling short of the human vocation of imaging God’s glory (Romans 3:23). However, saying that no one does right all the time is not the same as saying that no one ever does anything right.
When the Bible describes some people as righteous, it’s saying they lived right. They weren’t perfect; but they did do right:
- Joseph lived right. Discovering his fiancée was pregnant, he did right by her: he felt the right course of action would be to end the relationship without shaming her, even though shaming her could have saved face for him.
- Abel was doing right (honouring God with his offering) when Cain killed him.
- Herod recognized John the Baptist as someone who lived right.
- John’s parents and Simeon were righteous people, i.e. they lived right before God.
These people made a lifestyle of doing right, just because it was right. They lived well, respecting the way of life our heavenly sovereign requires of his subjects.
Jesus expected his disciples to live that way too. If a villager recognized one of Jesus’ disciples as a prophet (one carrying a message from God), the villager would be rewarded as a prophet (since they helped ensure God’s message was delivered). If someone recognized Jesus’ disciple as a righteous person (someone who lived right), that person would be treated as a righteous person since they did the right thing by the king in the way they treated his servant.
Matthew 10:40-42 (my translation)
40 Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. Anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who commissioned me.
41 Anyone who welcomes a prophet for the authority behind the prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.
Anyone who welcomes an upright person for the authority behind the upright person will receive an upright person’s reward.
42 Anyone who gives a cold water to one of these unimportant disciples for the authority behind him, I’m telling you, they won’t miss their reward.
Jesus was describing the chain of command. When a villager recognized the disciple as a servant of King Jesus, they were recognizing Jesus’ authority. And in recognizing Jesus’ regal authority, they were recognizing the God who anointed Jesus as king. The sovereign of the cosmos notices how people respond to those he appointed.
The twelve seemed unimportant. For some of them, we have no record of anything they did. Yet even the least of them was a representative of the king appointed to rule the earth. And King Jesus represents the greatest power in the universe.
So perhaps the Holocaust Museum has it right: the way you treat God’s people is the way you treat God.
Doing right matters. Living right matters. We can’t use the excuse that nobody’s perfect to avoid living as our King expects. We all need a Saviour. We have a Saviour who makes us right with God. So get on with living right as our King expects.
How else will people see the world set right if we don’t model it?
What others are saying
Craig Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville: B & H, 1992), 182:
“Righteous” people, as consistently in Matthew, are those who obey God’s will by following Jesus.
Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 398:
“Prophet” refers to one who speaks for God (cf. 5:10–12; 7:15–23); “righteous man” is a generic category for one who has the righteousness of the kingdom that comes from obeying Jesus (cf. 5:20).
Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 315:
A righteous man can also be rendered as “a man who does God’s will” or “a man who does what God requires.”
Roger L. Hahn, Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007), 144:
Whatever reward there is for discipleship is shared by those who give the positive reception to the good news of the Kingdom. If a disciple is called to witness as a prophet, those who accept the prophet’s message will share in the prophet’s reward (10:41). Likewise, if a disciple is called to witness as a righteous person, those who receive the righteous one will share in a righteous one’s reward.
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