In Matthew 1, we are introduced to the character of Joseph, the man who would eventually become Jesus’ earthly father (technically step-father). We are introduced to him because Mary was pregnant, but not by him, her betrothed. This gave Joseph legal right to put her away publicly for adultery. But even before an angel of the Lord appeared to him and explained the situation, we are told, “And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly” (Matt 1.19, NASB). Did you notice that? Joseph is still called a “righteous man” (some translations have “just man”), even though he was not willing to avail himself of the full legal recourse of the Law of Moses.

Further, Joseph’s being a righteous man and his not wanting to disgrace Mary in this matter are treated as being hand-in-hand with one another, rather than in opposition. It does not say that Joseph was righteous but did not want to disgrace her. His not wanting to disgrace her was part of his righteousness. This might be a little shocking to us (it certainly would have been to people in the first century). After all, we often equate justice with full legal recourse. When a criminal is caught, tried, and given the maximum penalty, we say that “justice is served.” When we are wronged, we demand “justice”—for the one who wronged us to be punished for what they did.

I’m not advocating that we should never punish anyone. But I do wonder if maybe our definition of justice—of righteousness—is a bit narrower than God’s definition. When we look through Scripture, what constitutes righteousness, both for God and us? Is God’s righteousness and justice defined only by His pursuit of what is right? Are these ideas separate (and opposite) His grace and mercy? What about us? Does righteous living consist only of trying to follow all of God’s precepts, or is there something more—something deeper—to it?

There are many places we could go in Scripture to define righteousness. One of my favorite places—one that highlights the difference between man’s view of righteousness and God’s view of righteousness—is Micah 6. The book of Micah is one of many in which God presents His complaints against the people for their wickedness. In chapter 6, after God had presented His rebuke of the people and the punishment to come from it, God asks the people for their rebuttal. He frames it much like a court trial, where they are to “plead their case,” with creation serving as witness. What case are they to plead? Micah 6.3 says, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” Basically, God asked them to demonstrate how He was oppressing or wearying them.. What is their response? Micah provides it in verses 6 and 7:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Essentially, their complaint is that God demanded so much for their sin. And it is true that the Law of Moses had quite a bit to be said about what was to be done for sin. We might sum up their response as, “What do we have to do for You to be satisfied?”

But the people were missing the point. They were failing to understand the principles that God was seeking to teach them in the law. Micah’s inspired response to this is found in verse 8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do Justice. The first element of biblical righteousness is the keeping of the ordinances and judgments of God. The word that is used here is the same one used in Psalm 119 to speak of the ordinances of God (i.e., the word of God), and in other places to speak of God’s acts of judgment against the wicked. One cannot call himself or herself a seeker of God’s kingdom (His divine rule) and His righteousness (Matt 6.33) if he or she will not seek to keep God’s commandments and laws. We should not seek loopholes in the commands of God (as the Pharisees and elders were accused of doing in Mark 7 and elsewhere), nor should we teach others to do so. Even the least of the commands of God is to be obeyed (Matt 5.19).

Love Kindness. Other translations render this as “mercy.” Righteousness is not merely the doing of right, but also the extension of kindness and mercy when needed. Earlier in Micah, those who acted unmercifully were condemned. In chapter 2, woe was pronounced upon the ones who devised wickedness because “they covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” The problem in the first century was that the law (really, the tradition of the elders) was enforced without mercy. The problem in our case is that we ourselves need mercy from God because of our own failings (and so, Jesus said that the ones who are merciful will receive mercy, Matt 5.5). But mercy is not opposed to God’s justice and righteousness. God’s desire is for all to be made right with Him. Grace and mercy are God’s provision for us to be made right with Him. It is worth noting that He does not extend such to those who flagrantly (“presumptuously”) disregard God’s command (Heb 10.26–31), but rather to those who continue to seek His will in spite of their own past failures, because they are seeking to do this last thing:

Walk Humbly with Your God. Ultimately, righteousness is found in placing ourselves in a subordinate position to God. We can never boast of righteousness simply because we keep commandments or act mercifully. Rather, we can recognize righteous living in our lives when we have done those things in an effort to do as God would have us to do. The other place this Hebrew word is used says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” (Prov 11.2)