I had a moment of revelation as I was reading the book of Matthew, that nearly brought me to tears this morning. I had to sit quietly with it for a moment to gather myself.
I’m sure you know this verse well: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
What is righteousness, since we’re supposed to seek it? Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “acting in accord with divine or moral law; free from guilt or sin.” It’s certainly something Christians are taught to deeply value and pursue.
So what did it mean to the original audience of the Scriptures? Well, that turns out to be a bit of a trick question.
The word most often translated as “righteousness” in nearly every English New Testament translation is the Greek word dikaiosuné (deeka-yo-soon-eh), Strong’s number 1343. In the last few months, I’ve learned that I, like many English-speaking Bible readers, was unaware that in the original Greek dikaiosuné has a much broader meaning than simply our piety before God, as one might infer from Webster’s; it also specifically refers to our just conduct towards men. Simply stated, it would really better be translated “righteousness and justice.” It’s quite common for a single word to require more than one word in another language to fully convey its meaning and implications.
So what about the word translated “justice?” Are we reading that one richly enough? Well, perhaps surprisingly, that only appears a few times in our English translations of the New Testament, and is always related to judgement or a legal decision. The word is either ekdikésis (Strong’s number 1557) meaning vengeance or vindication, krisis (Strong’s number 2920) meaning a decision, or diké (Strong’s number 1349) meaning self-evident or a decision or execution of justice.
So “justice” which appears just a few times seems to be a far less important concept than “righteousness” which appears 92 times, and it really has little to do with our own treatment of others, instead focusing on legal matters. This is perhaps unsurprising: Jesus’ focus was on how we treat people, not how to structure the law.
So the common translation of dikaiosuné seems to create a big blind spot in our Bible translations, in that we have failed to understand that it’s intrinsically righteousness before God paired with justice towards our fellow man.
And perhaps this ought to be fully expected, because when asked about the greatest commandments, Jesus replied this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”
So whenever you see “righteousness” in the New Testament, it helps your reading comprehension to simply replace it in your mind with “righteousness and justice.” In fact, any of Jesus’ listeners – in other words, those to whom the Scriptures were spoken and written – would not have recognized any separation or difference between justice and righteousness – dikaiosuné was essentially a single unified concept to them. From their perspective, being righteous required not just being free from religious blemish, but also being just towards one’s fellow man, and specifically to the disadvantaged.
With that background information in mind, let’s reread Matt 6:33, but this time in its full context:
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 25 For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is life not more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky, that they do not sow, nor reap, nor gather crops into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more important than they? 27 And which of you by worrying can add a single day to his life’s span? 28 And why are you worried about clothing? Notice how the lilies of the field grow; they do not labor nor do they spin thread for cloth, 29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! 31 Do not worry then, saying, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear for clothing?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.
The entire theme of this section is pretty obvious: God’s provision.
That last verse simply isn’t about our piety.
What I suddenly saw here, that took my breath away for a moment, is best summed up in a rephrasing of this section of the so-called Sermon on the Mount: “You’re so worried about wealth and your own provision. Look how magnificently God provides for nature; how much more richly will He provide for you, His very own deeply-loved children? Those outside God’s kingdom seek provision and protection, but God knows His own children need them too. Seek God’s kingdom, both being pious before Him and also being just towards others, not serving your wealth but providing for the poor and needy, and the same will be done to you.”
How utterly different that looks, than “seek to be free from sin, and God will provide for your needs.”
That verse cannot stand alone! In fact, it can’t even only refer to your personal provision. Instead, it becomes a community, collectivist-society matter: “seek right standing with God by considering His standards for how to take care of those around you, and He will return that blessing upon you as your entire community is uplifted.”
I suddenly recognize that how I’d always heard that verse before – “be pious, so God will provide for you” – is transactional. That is, if we do something, God will respond accordingly. It’s almost like a vending machine – if we put in the coin of piety, God unfailingly spits out our meals and clothes. How that trivializes God and His unfathomably deep love for us, while we were yet sinners, Who “causes His sun to rise on the evil AND the good, and sends rain on the just AND the unjust!” (Matthew 5:45, emphasis mine)
At any rate, to cement this concept of righteousness and justice, consider Romans 3:21-22, which says “21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 but it is the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.“
Let me reread that passage the way Paul’s audience would have heard it, bearing in mind that God is inherently sinless and perfect, so that the revelation was of God’s JUSTICE, since His righteousness was already presumed: “21 But now apart from the Law the justice of God has been revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 but it is the justice of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.“
So why do I bring up this scripture?
It’s important to recognize that this pair of verses is part of Paul’s logical discussion of a set of Old Testament scriptures, which begins in verse 10 with “as it is written: There is no righteous person, not even one.“
Paul seems to be explicitly referring to Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, which both say “there is no one who does good.” It turns out that both verses in Psalms refer to injustice, not to following all the ten commandments and the whole code of the law. Psalms 14 says “There is no one who does good, not even one. Do all the workers of injustice not know, Who devour my people as they eat bread, And do not call upon the Lord?” Psalm 53 says “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good.“
In other words, both verses that Paul references are referring unrighteousness directly to injustice.
Now, since most of these verses we’re discussing are part of the Sermon on the Mount, let’s jump back to the beginning of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5, which He opens with the “Beatitudes:”
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We’re talking here about the word translated as “righteousness,” so please catch that phrase in verse 6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and in verse 10, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness.“
What’s going on in the Beatitudes, anyway? Who is Jesus speaking to, or about? It seems to me that His focus is on the unexpectedly blessed. He’s talking to the poor in spirit. The mourners. The persecuted. And the way I read this passage, those who respond to those challenges with gentleness, humility, mercy, and peacemaking are promised comfort and satisfaction.
You could read verse 6 as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for piety, for appearing right before God.” But maybe a better reading, given this general context of oppression and sorrow and hunger, is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice from their oppressors.” Maybe it’s not about our own personal piety, but how we deal with oppression and injustice and pain. And I think that reading is totally in line with so much of Jesus’ ministry, where He spent much of His time addressing how we treat “the least of these” (see Matthew 25:31–46).
And in context of Matthew 6:24, to which Jesus was referencing this entire discussion of provision in verses 24-33, note that He was specifically countering our attachment to wealth and self-provision. Remember, Jesus leads with “you cannot serve God and wealth.” Most conservatives seem to oppose the transfer of wealth by the government to the needy, saying the church should be caring for them instead. It’s suddenly breathtakingly obvious to me that Jesus Himself was in fact addressing exactly this concept: “Don’t serve wealth. Care for the poor and needy, and God Himself, who cares for you beyond your ability to comprehend, will provide for your needs.”
Look, if you want to believe in a transactional Christianity, full of conditional promises from God, at least consider this: our Heavenly Father commits Himself to providing for His children, and in this verse at least it appears that He ties that provision to our own justice-and-righteousness behavior towards “the least of these.” So don’t make it about your own piety, your own acceptability to God because you reject sinful behavior and follow the Ten Commandments. Instead, put it back into the context Jesus puts it here: how well you take care of others.
But I’d rather step back even further, and see this entire teaching from a much simpler, and much richer perspective: God loves me, and God loves you, so deeply that He’s committed to our provision – there are no strings attached. He asks us to partake in that process in the provision for the needy and underprivileged, and He offers us the blessings that naturally and supernaturally result from our generosity and compassion. Because there’s one last thing to observe here: the word “and” between the two halves of verse 33. “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided to you.“
But get this: “And” does NOT mean “and as a result of” or “and if you do.”
The Greek word kai, the most common conjunction in the Greek New Testament, used over 9,000 times, simply means “and,” “even,” “also,” “likewise,” or “both.” In fact, it’s often used to connect and contrast two opposing thoughts. It simply is NOT used to mean “if/then” where one action is a result of the preceding action.
In other words, what you should see here is also stunning: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness-and-justice. Likewise, also, similarly, even, all these things will be provided to you.” Not “because of,” but… AND.
There’s NO transactionality there at all. Don’t serve wealth; instead seek His Kingdom. God will provide. Period.
I hope this gently challenges you to do two things: one, to lift up your eyes to Jehovah Jireh, your Provider, Who meets your needs. “All these things will be provided to you.” And two, I hope it challenges you to open your eyes to your part in meeting the needs of those around you, and perhaps most importantly, those less well-off than you. Seek God’s righteousness-and-justice. For what blesses the least of these blesses you, too, in ways you probably cannot imagine.