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The Righteous Shall Live By Faith

What separates Pharisee and the tax collector is the doctrine of justification and the outworking of that religion in how we treat others.
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Editor’s Note: “Living by Faith” is an important topic for all of us to consider. In this series of articles, Bro. Richard introduces us to the first principle of “living by faith”. While this may not be listed in our Statement of Faith, it most certainly is a foundation of what we believe, and a first principle taught broadly in Scripture. I hope you will find these articles interesting and provocative.

Jesus once taught us a parable about two men who went into the temple to pray “one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10). The point of his parable was directed towards “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (v. 9).

While the Pharisee showed his arrogance, it was the tax collector who “went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (v. 14) as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). 

While many people prayed in the temple in New Testament times—after all, it was a house of prayer—there’s only one other time we’re specifically told someone went into the temple to pray. It was the Apostle Paul. When recounting his conversion experience, he told his listeners he was “praying in the temple.” (Acts 22:17).

This language connection with the parable is fitting because before he became the Apostle Paul, he was a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus. But it was as the tax collector in the parable, appealing to God for forgiveness, that he not only went down to his house justified but wrote extensively in his epistles of the doctrine of justification by faith.

The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector encapsulates the two opposing religions highlighted in the New Testament. What separates them is the doctrine of justification—whether from following the Law of Moses or by faith—and the outworking of that religion in how we treat others.

What separates them is the doctrine of justification

The Pharisee treated others with contempt. That’s the natural result that comes from justification by the law, a religion where one’s (supposed) righteousness is measurable and quantifiable. Looking down on others who can’t keep up with your standards of righteousness (notably, outward acts of ritualistic religion), a person who is justified by law will become judgmental and dismissive of others.

Justification by faith is an important doctrine because of the kind of person it develops. A person of humility, knowing their righteousness is imputed by faith and not by their ability to follow the law. A person of integrity, who has been open and vulnerable towards God, acknowledging their sin and appealing to his mercy and forgiveness. But not only that, justification by faith has also been designed by God to produce in its adherents a character of true righteousness. 

justification by faith has been designed by God

In the following series of articles, we’re going to trace the steps of the Apostle Paul as he expounded the theme, “The righteous shall live by faith.” It’s one of Paul’s stock phrases, quoted from the prophet Habakkuk and found in his epistles to the Galatians, Romans, and (if indeed he wrote it) Hebrews. 

Our journey begins with Paul on his first missionary journey to the area of Galatia, recorded in Acts 13-14. We’re going to look at his first recorded speech in which he preached Christ and concluded with the doctrine of justification by faith. 

Luke records: 

Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. (Acts 13:13-14). 

Having preached on the island of Cyprus, they left the port of Paphos and came to Asia Minor, before traveling from the coastal town of Perga to the inland city of Pisidian Antioch. Luke’s comment in verse 14 is very terse, simply recording the journey. However, this one-hundred-mile trek is a testimony to the zeal Paul had to preach the gospel message.

Paul was willing to take extraordinary risks

His route would take him through the treacherous Taurus Mountain range inhabited by bandits that even the Romans had difficulty controlling. But Paul was so determined to deliver the message to his fellow Jews and Gentiles, he was willing to take extraordinary risks. This was not a matter of a minor theological difference with his previous religion as a Pharisee. It was a matter of life and death.

Having sat down in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Luke tells us, 

After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” (v. 15). 

This was Paul’s chance, and he grabbed it eagerly, concluding with the following words:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (vv. 38-39).

That, in a nutshell, is the gospel message. Faith in what Christ has done for us frees us—or as the word translated “freed” means—justifies us, something which the law of Moses could not do. 

It’s easy for us, as twenty-first century Christadelphians, to gloss over statements like these. Of course, we understand we’re not justified by the law of Moses—in fact, we were never under it to begin with. However, on a psychological level, it is very easy to slip into the same mindset as the Pharisees.

We consider our sinfulness and efforts to justify our actions and behavior by thinking our attendance at meeting, Bible reading and study, and busying ourselves in ecclesial activities can make up for our shortcomings. They can’t. Nothing can make up for our sins but the mercy and forgiveness of God and our faith in his willingness to forgive us.

Before we get into Paul’s speech in detail, notice they first read from the Law and Prophets (v. 15). Just like our daily reading planner, the Jews had theirs too, only it was a weekly plan developed during their captivity in Babylon. These are the Sabbath readings still read in Jewish synagogues today.

Each portion, or parsha, has a name associated with it. For instance, towards the end of October (or the month Tishri in the Jewish calendar), Jews read from parsha B’reisheet, which is Hebrew for “beginning,” the title of the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, and the first word in the Bible translated “In the beginning” (Gen 1:1). On the Sabbath, the Law, or Torah, portion read is Genesis 1:1-6:8, and the Prophets portion is Isaiah 42:5-43:10. 

We can make an educated guess as to what parsha was read from before Paul’s speech in Pisidian Antioch, and just as Christadelphian speakers often exhort from the daily readings, it seems Paul based his remarks on the Law and Prophets that had just been read. Paul begins his speech in Acts 13:17 and starts with a short history lesson:

“The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.” 

Look at the phrase “made the people great.” It’s the same Greek expression found in the Septuagint (LXX) of Isaiah 1:2, where God says through the prophet, “I have begotten and reared up children.” The reason we want to look for verbal links with the LXX is because it was the commonly read version in Jewish synagogues of the first century. 

There are also connections with Deuteronomy 1. In verse 18, Paul continued his history lesson, saying, “And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness.” That’s an unusual thing to say until we realize that the Greek for “put up with them” is used in Deuteronomy 1:31—“The LORD thy God will bear thee as a nursling.”

Then in Acts 13:19, Paul says, “And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance,” using the same Greek expression as Deuteronomy 1:38—“for he shall cause Israel to inherit it.”

While just a few verbal links aren’t conclusive, although they are concentrated in Paul’s introduction, it is interesting to note that in parsha Devarim, the Law and Prophets sections read were Deuteronomy 1 and Isaiah 1. The parsha Devarim is read during the summertime, the Jewish month Av (our July), a prudent time for Paul and his companions to make the trek through the Taurus Mountains.

But it’s when we look at the context of these Law and Prophet portions we see their aptness for Paul’s message. 

For the Law to be effective it needs explanation

The Book of Deuteronomy, called Devarim, meaning “words” in the Hebrew Bible, was Moses’ message to the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. The previous generation couldn’t enter the land because of their lack of faith. So, the Book of Deuteronomy is a message to the generation of the faithful in which “Moses undertook to explain this law.” (Deut 1:5). For the Law to be effective it needs explanation because we know the Jews struggled to see beyond its letter and thought righteousness came by following its rules and rituals. 

Isn’t that precisely what Paul was doing in his speech and all his preaching? He was explaining the Law and Prophets. Paul’s speeches and epistles are replete with references to the Law and Prophets read on every Sabbath. Having been converted, he could now look at them with new sight, the eye of faith. The gospel message is very much an explanation of the Law and Prophets.

But there’s another intriguing connection to Paul’s message seen in the word “explain” from the verse in Deuteronomy. It’s an unusual word only found here, one other time in Deuteronomy, and in one more place, the prophecy of Habakkuk:

And the LORD answered me: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. (Hab 2:2).

This just happens to be the introduction to the prophet’s famous statement, taken up in Paul’s preaching of justification by faith—“but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (Hab 2:4).

Deuteronomy 1, just like Paul’s introduction in his speech, is the historical prologue to the book. Referring to the generation that lacked faith, Moses reminds the people that God “set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them.” (v. 8).

However, “in spite of this word you did not believe the LORD your God.” (v. 32). Paul’s speech reminds his listeners again of the promise and concludes with a lesson regarding the importance of faith.

Isaiah 1 can also be seen as a springboard into Paul’s speech. He told his listeners “You could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39) and Isaiah says the same:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. (v. 11).

Performing ritualistic sacrifices can’t justify anyone, and what God is looking for instead is for Jerusalem to “be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isa 1:26), not the city of righteousness where the rituals of the Law of Moses were kept.

The next verse says, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” In other words, Isaiah 1 expands the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. The multitude of their sacrifices makes a way to find those who have faith in God and repent.

Returning to Paul’s little history lesson, we find out he is in a hurry to get to the time of Saul and David (vv. 21-22). He wants to make sure his listeners understand who the seed of David is, their true Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth.

Paul could have preached the gospel in another way, so why focus on the time of David? Having spent a few verses leading up to his time, he spends almost the rest of the speech talking about David and his seed.

Notice in verse 22, he contrasts David with his predecessor: 

And when he had removed him [Saul], he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ”I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.”

That predecessor was Saul’s namesake, and if you think about it, we have here another example of the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. King Saul was just like Saul of Tarsus; There are several examples of him engaged in a ritualistic mindset, enough for Samuel to ask him,

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” (1 Sam 15:22). 

David, on the other hand, is like the tax collector. When you read what Paul said of him—“who will do all my will” (v. 22),—you wonder if you take it from a legalistic point of view. David’s sin with Bathsheba stands out as a stark reminder that he did not always do God’s will. And yet, because of his confession and repentance, David, rather than Saul, went home justified. 

At the core of God’s character is His faithfulness

And so, in verse 34, Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah: “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.” The context of these words helps us understand God’s attitude towards David and the tax collector. Here’s the full verse from Isaiah:

Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isa. 55:3).

It is because God made an everlasting covenant with David that He continued His steadfast, sure love for him, despite his sin. At the core of God’s character is His faithfulness. God was faithful to David because he was a man after God’s heart, which means he was loyal to Him. That’s the kind of relationship God is looking for. Not one based on our ability to keep a list of rules and rituals, but one where our faith in God and loyalty to Him means He is pleased to forgive us for those times when we fall short.

In next month’s article, we will start delving into the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith” by first going to the origin of the words in the prophecy of Habakkuk.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA

1 All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

Suggested Readings
To further understand the implication that the righteous shall live by faith, let’s consider the origin of the phrase found in the book of Habakkuk.
For our consideration in this article, we’re going to have a look at the context of the words, “The righteous shall live by faith” found in Romans.
What God is looking for are people of character. You can read the Bible, pray, and go to meeting until you’re blue in the face, but unless it comes from a character of compassion, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and justice, it is for nothing.
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