When it comes to words, this one scared me. Righteous. How could I ever be that? During college, when I committed my first big moral failure—a pregnancy out of wedlock, with disappointment writ large on the long-suffering faces of my devout but uncondemning Christian parents—it was the last thing I could imagine. My own righteousness.
Sure, the word was part of my background. I grew up in church. I’d heard the Beatitudes from my youngest days in Sunday school. So, I could imagine Jesus—His eyes sad, seeing the scruffy crowds described in Matthew 5. Looking out on their noise and confusion, His heart breaks. They’re lost—their souls churning with panic, greed, fear, and spiritual turmoil. He needs to teach His disciples His way of understanding such unloved masses, His commitment to God’s intended gifts for each of them deep. Thus, Jesus climbs to a hillside and sits down to teach. And to praise God. This won’t be a rushed sermon.
Some scholars say the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount—including the Beatitudes—was probably preached over several days. Why? Massive truth about God’s kingdom needed to be addressed. Heaps of nuance about real faith, and how God rewards it, needed to be corrected.
For the crowd.
For the crowd, indeed, Jesus intends that His disciples understand His audacious love for each crushed soul. This was true even though, as the writer Frederick Buechner put it, “they’re not what you'd call a high-class crowd—peasants and fisherfolk for the most part, on the shabby side, not all that bright. It doesn't look as if there's a hero among them.”
Yet for their sake, and with love, Jesus takes His sweet time. Righteousness is no quick fix. Thus, He begins: “Blessed …”
The disciples must’ve gasped. Blessed? Did Jesus say that? About this crowd?
“It doesn't look as if there's a hero among them.”
But who better to speak such a word?
Jesus, as evangelist Charles Spurgeon preached, “was not only the Prince of preachers, but He was beyond all others qualified to discourse upon the subject … Being Himself the ever-blessed Son of God, and the channel of blessings, He was best able to inform us who are indeed the blessed of the Father.”
So, the Lord—sitting on a hill outside Capernaum, a working-class fishing village—doesn’t mince words. His words twist our thinking, in fact. Blessed are the poor. I’m sure I spent many childhood Sunday mornings trying to figure out the sweet, astounding truth of this beatitude No. 1. Therefore, in beatitude No. 8, any talk of righteousness was far beyond my understanding.
Righteous people, as I saw it, were the elderly people in my church. Holy and old, they always sat on the front pew, praying with their eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces.
In contrast, I’d never choose that for myself. That’s what I declared—until my own life hit rock bottom.
Then, suddenly, I understood why the “holy and old” people were crying in church. They were sinners, too. Just like me. Except they understood what I was just beginning to learn:
When we put our faith in Jesus, our Father God doesn’t consider our sin—He sees the righteousness of our Christ.
That our entire world is a scruffy and fallen village, stained by relentless sin. How did Paul put it? That when it comes to you and me, “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10).
Yet God is loving, and when we put our faith in Jesus, our Father God doesn’t consider our sin—He sees the righteousness of our Christ.
As I write that, I’m sure I sound like a seminarian. Kind of holier than thou myself. But I’m nothing of the sort. Instead, I’m still little first-grade Patricia, still stunned, in fact, that Jesus loves me.
This is great news, especially to an adult—that despite my sins, I’m counted in Christ as righteous, and you are, too. Of course, we’re not to keep sinning. But knowing we’re justified before the Father by the righteousness of the Son is a blessing, indeed.
Writing about it, John the apostle spoke to another scruffy world of sinners: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
He was an old man himself then, determined to reteach those led astray by false teachers of their day. As he explained: “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29).
Many, however, were lured by antichrists, who denied Jesus was God. And so, John declared the truth of Christ again, adding a warning: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7).
We’re not to keep sinning. But knowing we’re justified before the Father by the righteousness of the Son is a blessing, indeed.
This is righteousness made real, especially for early believers persecuted by hostile religious leaders for turning from the law to take up the cause of Christ. For that crowd, Jesus sat on that hillside and declared:
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Or, My reign over all the earth, Jesus is saying, will include you. Can you imagine what this means? A fairly low-rent mass of unwashed, downtrodden folks would now—because of their faith in righteous Jesus—be declared one of His blessed. Members of His heavenly kingdom right here on earth.
In a parable, Jesus taught it like this: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous? So the last shall be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20:15-16).
This is righteous good news, and I have needed it more times than I can count.
Like you, I don’t deserve to be blessed by God. Nor move from last to first. But He died to put us aright. Why in heaven would we tell Him no?
Illustration by Adam Cruft