I’ve been reading a book called Reclaiming Our Forgotten Heritage by Curty Landry and one of his comments about what we’re supposed to “seek first” caught my eye. This book is about how understanding the Jewish roots of Christianity can transform your faith. It’s amazing to me how much we can miss when we read the Bible in English with a Western cultural mindset. And it’s equally amazing how much it can deepen our understanding of God and His ways to dive-in to the roots of our faith.
One of the things Landry talks about is how our interpretation of words and stories in the Bible can change based on whether we approach them through a Western philosophical lens or a first-century Jewish one. An example is how we see the word “righteousness” in Matthew 6:33.
When we read “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” we in the Western world tend to think this means we have to be righteous in the sense of being a “law-abiding citizen” of heaven. But a Jewish person listening to Jesus would have thought of the Hebrew concept of tzedakah, which changes how you interpret this verse. Let’s take a look at that.
Righteousness in Hebrew
Tzedakah is about justice, righteousness, and truthfulness (Brown, Driver, Briggs lexicon, entry H6666). It’s associated with God’s fairness and is also tied to acts of charity and giving. At my Messianic congregation, this word is written on the box where we put tithes and offerings because tzedakah is so closely connected with righteous giving.
In her article “God’s Kind of Righteousness,” Lois Tverberg points out that “tzedakah means more than just legal correctness – it refers to covenantal faithfulness, often resulting in rescuing those in distress and showing mercy to sinners.” It’s quite a bit different than what most of us think of when we think “righteousness,” but it’s very much in line with God’s character.
From this Jewish perspective, then, one would better read Matthew 6:33 in this way: “Seek first the kingdom and the righteous acts of God – seek first kindness, seek first abundant benevolence, seek first gracious acts and deliverances – and all these other things will then be added to you.” Read in this way, Matthew 6:33 requires a daily walk of faith that still challenges me to this day. (Landry, p. 134).
Doing and Believing
It might not sit well with many American Christians that we need to do what is right in addition to believing what is right. Or, depending on exactly what you believe, it might be challenging to know that our obedience has to go beyond legal correctness. But as a deeper look into tzedakah demonstrates, true faith involves ongoing growth and change as we become more and more like God. Nothing we can do will save us — “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, all scriptures from the WEB translation). But after we’re saved, we do take certain actions in accordance with God’s ways — “faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself” (James 2:17).
He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Jesus called justice, mercy, and faith “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23). These are things which must not be left undone by God’s people. And though righteousness isn’t on this list, it is closely associated with mercy and justice (see Ps. 33;5; 889:14; Is. 16:5; Hos. 2:19). We’re supposed to become like God and since righteousness is part of His character it should be part of ours as well.
Yahweh, Our Righteousness
Our God loves righteousness (Ps. 11:7; 33:5). He even reveals it as one of His names which He puts on His people — Yahweh Tsidqenu, the Lord our Righteousness (Jer. 23:6; 33:16). In the Matthew 6:33 verse we opened with, Jesus doesn’t say “seek to be righteous” or that we should seek righteousness in general. He’s very specific. We are to seek God’s righteousness.
Yahweh says, “Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom. Don’t let the mighty man glory in his might. Don’t let the rich man glory in his riches. But let him who glories glory in this, that he has understanding, and knows me, that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh. (Jer. 9:23-24)
Knowing God involves understanding that He exercises and loves righteousness. If we want to be righteous as He is, we need to come to Him. He will reveal His righteousness when we follow His ways and keep seeking Him, as Jesus told us to in Matthew 6:33 (Is. 54:17; 56:1; 61:10).
Pursue His Righteousness
Returning to the idea that righteousness involves more than just law-based obedience, Jesus taught “that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:20). He said this during the same sermon where He told us, “seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness.” Seeking righteousness is a foundational part of our faith, and yet the most scrupulously obedient religious elite of Jesus’ day didn’t practice God’s righteousness in a way that pleased Him. There is more to it than simply following rules.
We aren’t saved based on how well we measure up to God’s just laws. Jesus Christ died for us “so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life” (Rom. 5:21). As we talked about earlier, God’s type of righteousness has to do with His kindness and benevolence — righteous acts that spring from His righteous character. His righteousness toward us isn’t about legal justification based on us already being perfect, but rather about bringing us into a right state with Him and empowering us to follow His example of righteous doing (Rom. 3:21-31).
Through Christ, we have “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We’re to be “filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). Righteousness isn’t just passively applied, though. We must “follow after righteousness” (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22) and seek God’s “instruction in righteousness” from scripture (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 5:13). To quote Curt Landry again, seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness “requires a daily walk of faith” that challenges each of us today.
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