This last part of the Nicodemus series examines an element that was clearly missed in the first century and most certainly would have been met with a surprised response from the learned Nicodemus, despite his vast knowledge of Torah and Judaism. The difficulty as always is joining the dots to make sense, in a cohesive way, of what we are reading in the Scriptures.
This last area touches upon the nature and definition of righteousness, and more importantly HOW we achieve it. Judaism poses us with a dilemma: An infinite G-d who reveals His righteousness to mankind through the Torah, His absolute standards of holiness and consecration, and then apparently sets us up to fail. I say apparently, because there is not one person alive or dead who has ever kept the Torah and its standard of righteousness. King Shlomo put it this way in 1 kings 8:46 ‘there is no one who does not sin’. Rav Shaul put it in a similar fashion: ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of G-d’. The definition of sin is breaking a commandment and you can therefore hear the desperate heart cry of the followers of Yeshua Mashichaynu in Matt 19:25 who asked ‘who then can be saved?’ Yeshua’s answer is interesting: ‘With man this is impossible, but with G-d all things are possible.’ In essence He is saying that man can never reach that level of righteousness needed to enter the Kingdom, to be a part of Israel now and in eternity. But G-d CAN make a way for this to happen.
To be fair to our brothers in the first century, the Prushim (Pharisees) have been given a very, and undeservedly, bad press. Yeshua’s castigation was not laid against them because they were not righteous, far from it, but because their righteousness was not enough! Matt 5:20 makes this clear; our righteousness as Jews must EXCEED that of this particular sub-group in Judaism of the first century. Nicodemus would, in all likelihood given his background, have fully identified with the level of righteousness demonstrated by this sect of Judaism, and more importantly their approach to achieving it. The question then becomes how to exceed this level of righteousness, given that these men had indeed a level of righteousness and were Torah observant? If they failed to meet the mark, still struggling with sin (and they did), then what hope does anyone have? Again, Yeshua’s words point the way ‘with G-d all things are possible’.
So how DO we achieve a level of righteousness that will allow us access to G-d’s presence? Thankfully the Lord has not left us to work this out for ourselves. One of His own names is Adonai Tzidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Our G-d IS our righteousness and we have to have His righteousness given to us if we are ever to be righteous enough. The next question then becomes, how do we receive such a righteousness? Do we have to earn it, pay for it, or just receive it? Is it dependent upon us at all? The answer is maybe surprising for those who have worked within the parameters of more recent forms of Judaism. The model of righteousness turns out to be Avraham avinu, who because of his faith, or better faithfulness in response, was given G-d’s righteousness, freely and undeservedly despite his own personal sin. G-d justified him because of his response towards what G-d was promising. If we can understand that this transactional act between G-d and man occurs through faith alone, then we can understand one of Rav Shaul’s most misquoted and misunderstood verses. In his letter to the Jewish community in Rome (3:21) he states that ‘now the righteousness of G-d apart from the Torah has been revealed’. Most read this as if the Torah was therefore abrogated. Not at all. It IS most definitely the righteous standard of G-d revealed. The problem is we can’t keep it. But by being credited with that righteousness, the very righteousness of G-d through faith instead of through obedience, it IS now possible to be righteous before G-d. This is what the verse means and is critical to understanding Rav Shaul. This is no abrogation of Torah but a strong affirmation of it. ‘Apart from’ does not mean ‘instead of’.
Only by being credited with G-d’s own righteousness do we stand a chance of ever standing in His presence, a core desire and aim of Judaism. The writer to the Hebrews puts it in a radical way: (a) boldness to enter the Holy of Holies. This is no sacrilegious or iconoclastic act, but an understanding that through faith salvation can come, and that through the sacrifice that He alone could bring for our sins: Yeshua. With faith making righteousness possible we can come fully into His presence and not fear death.