The Breastplate of Righteousness

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, September 16, 2013 by Gordon Mackley

This phrase does not appear in the readings under consideration so it is necessary firstly to refer to where it does, which is Ephesians 6:10-17:

The Armour of God
10 “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

I intend to first look at a breastplate, what it is and what it does (the easy part) and then to look at righteousness and what that is (somewhat more complex!).

From there I shall show how a ‘breastplate of righteousness’ may defend us personally and as a group or army (to continue the military metaphor) for the Lord.

Paul would have been familiar with the three types of Roman breastplate (incidentally the Greek for breastplate is ‘thorax’, which has passed into English for that part of the body covered by this armour.

This leads on to a common misconception that breastplates only protected the front. In fact they were joined up to protect the back of the body also! They did not prevent all injuries but were very effective in avoiding or lessening the effect of the short stabbing daggers and swords and were likely to prevent fatal blows from this source, even if stabbed in the back (about which you can make your own conclusions).

Paul would also have been familiar with a scriptural reference to a covering of the part of the body, used for a very specific spiritual purpose. This is found in Exodus 28:29,

29 “Whenever Aaron enters the holy place, he will bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart on the breastpiece of decision as a continuing memorial before the LORD. 30 Also put the urim and the thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD.”

As we begin to consider ‘righteousness’, it will be worth bearing in mind the concept of Aaron making decisions for the Israelites based on a mystical connection between Aaron’s heart (the source of the intellect in Jewish thought) and God, through this special breastpiece covering.

The discussion of what constitutes righteousness is both much more complex and also controversial in Christian theology, with some differing views. Many of these Christian theological views are very different to the Jewish concepts of the time of Jesus and Paul.

I do not wish to get involved in these disagreements but I shall present what I believe was the Jewish view of righteousness (both of the readings on this day are Old Testament readings) and I leave it to you to decide whether scripture supports a different meaning for Christians in New Testament times than the Jewish Old Testament view.

Whatever we believe it means, ‘righteousness’ was an important concept to the Jews. The word appears 101 times in Psalms and 76 times in Proverbs alone.

Now in the Greek view, righteousness is an idea or ideal against which the individual and individual action can be measured. Contemporary English usage (which is more Greek based than we might choose to admit) reflects this. The (later) Roman concept was overlaid on this and made righteousness a legal concept, a pronouncement of release from any claim of guilt.

However, the Hebrew word for righteousness, ‘tsedaqah’, denotes not this ideal or concept of goodness, but instead a faithfulness to a relationship.

Righteousness signifies the meeting of obligations laid upon the individual by the relationship of which he or she is part. In other words, to be righteous is to be right in one’s relationship with someone else. Thus right relationship means more than an ideal or attribute and more than simply doing good things mechanically or because we think in our own mind that it is a good thing to do.

Relationship involves a faithful desire to keep in step with the other party of the relationship, particularly exemplified by covenant relationship with God.

Thus in the Old Testament, people were ‘righteous’ by discerning God’s will and then by doing His will for them. It should be noted that both parts are important.

You cannot do what God requires unless you are sufficiently in tune with Him to understand what that is. However actions must follow the discernment!

Here are some people who are listed in scripture as ‘righteous’ using derivatives of the Hebrew, ‘tsedaqah’ or its Greek equivalent in the New Testament together with the Biblical chapters where the reference is made:

We should immediately note that (like us) all of these people were sinners. David, who has two references in this list, was of course a person who tried to hide an adulterous affair by murdering one of his greatest supporters.

We can conclude therefore that righteousness in Hebrew thought does not line up with sinlessness! Indeed if it did, we should all be in great difficulty as Matthew 25:46 clearly states:

“Then they will go away … but the righteous to eternal life.”

Since none of us is sinless then, if being righteous means being sinless, none of us gets the gift of eternal life.

However, the description of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth in Luke 1 matches the covenant concept I have described earlier:

“Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly…”

This does not imply that they never did anything wrong, but that they heard from God and then did what he told them to do (thus they could not be blamed for not doing it – they were blameless in that regard).

Although the word, ‘tsedaqah’ righteousness does not appear in the passage, Genesis 5:22 gives a flavour of what is involved in the phrase:

“Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years.”

Here again, we can see the relational aspect between God and Enoch – “Enoch walked faithfully with God”.

Those I have listed previously were all sinners, but in Acts 3, 7 and 22, Jesus is referred to as ‘The Righteous One’ (note the definite article) thus making a clear distinction.

This was a messianic title (along with ‘The Holy One’, ‘The Anointed One’ etc. indicating the superiority of the nature of the relationship between the Messiah (or Christ) and God, compared to that of others.

If righteousness were simply us choosing to do good things, then God would have no part in the process and our justification would be by works. However, scripture makes it quite clear that this is not so. This is what Romans 4 states about Abraham’s righteousness:

1 “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 if, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. 3 What does scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ ”

Note here the emphasis that ‘Abraham believed God’. This is not simply a mental belief in the concept of God. This is stating that Abraham so trusted God in what he had said about his descendants that he was prepared to kill Isaac, his only legitimate heir, believing that somehow God would still be true to His covenant promise.

This was the degree of covenant faith shown by both the belief and deeds of Abraham that earned him the tag of being righteous.

To take an opposite view – if God were to simply give us all righteousness without us ever doing anything, then there would be no degrees of righteousness. We should all share God’s righteousness. However in Matthew 5 Jesus tells his listeners:

20 “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Pharisees had some righteousness (much of what they stated they believed and what they taught was correct) but their priorities for action in regard to that belief were wrong. In other words, they were not in step with God in regard to both belief and action and thus they were far from fully righteous.

James sums this up in chapter 2 of his letter thus:

24 “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Here James joins together faith or belief with deeds or actions and says that to be righteous, you have to get both right.

So it is being in right relationship with God, or being in step, which leads to correct priorities and actions which means you are righteous in God’s eyes in Hebrew thought.

How does this defend us like a breastplate personally?

Most obviously, God will never allow his plans to be thwarted so if you are so in step with God that you are doing the work He has planned for you, you are protected by Him in order to do it.

From a human perspective, attacks against us are probably more likely to be via people rather than by direct spiritual attack. If we are trying to carry out the ‘Great Commission’ of making disciples of Jesus, but are seen to be no different to anyone else in behaviour but simply go to church regularly, we are likely to be seen by those in the world as hypocrites and attacks on this basis can be very effective, thus making us very poor evangelists.

To be effective evangelists we need to be seen to have something that others want – we need to be seen to join together our faith in Jesus Christ with doing actions that reflect his life and thus God’s goodness. Neither one on its known is sufficient.

This applies corporately (church, nation etc.) as well as personally.

In regard to the two Old Testament readings specifically:

Psalm 71 begins as a request for God to honour His side of the covenant and to help the writer in time of desperate need. It then moves on to a great hymn of praise in regard to God’s righteousness (which not surprisingly far outstrips that of any human).

It thus changes from a cry of almost total despair to an upbeat faith in the God who because of his righteousness can be trusted to deliver on His promises.

Isaiah 32 opens with a contrast between the prevailing ethics that accompany a society when they have good in contrast to evil rulers. When written, King Hezekiah and a minority of citizens were deemed righteous but the majority of citizens were led by a ruling class that was not faithful to God. They were self serving.

There is a contrast between the current evil ethic that prevailed at the time of the prophecy (perhaps rather confusingly to us, referred to in the middle), and the action of a righteous God who by a miraculous intervention delivers the city from the Assyrians (placed at the beginning and end).

The description is made of the type of society naturally produced when the ruling class is totally committed to a relationship with God.

Goodness filters down to the lowest citizen, who becomes himself a bastion of righteousness.

On the other hand, when the ruling class pays lip service to God but has no relationship and does what it wants and is thus self serving, the results also filter down to those who are ruled and there is a break down in society. This is described in the first eight verses.

In the next section, the women of Jerusalem are invited to a period of lamentation because all the blessings of a good society are lost.

In the event however, there is a removal of the unrighteous and a revival of faith for at least a period (in the lifetime of the first hearers) which is to follow the miraculous deliverance to come. Note that in both of these readings, there is the concept of covenant relationship between God and man in regard to righteousness.

Summarising

We are by the grace of God saved, a holy people (this does not mean super sinless people floating along with halos on our head but those set apart, seen to be different).

If we really are to be seen to be different, we need to believe in God, to tune in to Him, by his word, by prayer, by help of others and/or by whatever means.

We then need, not to rest on our laurels but to do what He desires of us, to take the action He requires and thus be righteous in his eyes.

We can then protect ourselves against the attacks of the enemy with this ‘breastplate of righteousness’ and if this righteousness can be spread across larger groups in which we are involved, spread across our church, our local community, perhaps even our nation!

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