As mentioned, the word righteous is a descriptor that means covenant faithfulness. Put a little more simply, righteous means rightness or being right. By saying it that way, the question immediately pops into our minds: “Being right . . . about what?” And that question leads us to look more deeply into the contexts in which Paul said that no one was righteous (Romans 3:23) and Moses said that Noah was righteous (Genesis 6:9).
Context is one of six c words I use to stand for six principles of interpretation. The first two we have sort of covered already—Content covers what the text directly states, and Context tells us what is going on in the surrounding passage.
Another important principle is Culture. There are obscure cultural ideas familiar to the author that may not be so familiar to us. The more we dig in to learn about these cultural obscurities, the more we can avoid interpreting our ancient texts based on 21st American cultural norms.
The next two cs are similar sounding and fairly similar in meaning. They are Coherence and Cohesion. I use Coherence to label the study of whether an interpretive meaning logically coalesces through the entire passage. If not, I probably need to discard that meaning and look for another. Cohesion takes a broader look as to whether an interpretive meaning coalesces with the foundation and principles of God’s overall purpose and plan.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is the principle of Christ. Actually, all the principles are important. But I emphasize this one because it seems to be the one people miss so often in struggling for interpretation. The principle seeks to discover whether the interpretation is Christocentric. Several meanings can be attached to Christocentric, so I’m going to explain what I mean by it. A Christocentric interpretation is not merely applied to a passage that foretells the coming of the Messiah. The broader scope of God’s whole restoration plan is included in understanding a Christocentric approach. Not only that, but since Jesus is the ultimate and complete revelation from God, what we see in Jesus gives us understanding as to who our God is.
Consider New Testament reminders such as Hebrews 1:3. There we read, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.” This statement is not providing two separate thoughts but rather one thought expressed in two ways. Glory, as defined by John Piper, is the manifestation of worth. Therefore, God’s glory is the manifestation of his worth. God is, in his essence, truth, goodness, and beauty. That is his worth, and therefore the manifestation of truth, goodness, and beauty is his glory. The Hebrews verse tells us that Jesus is the radiance of God showing forth his truth, goodness, and beauty. The second phrase is that same thought expressed just a bit differently. God’s nature (essence) is his truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore, Jesus as the exact expression of his nature, is said to express God’s truth, goodness, and beauty exactly.
That thought is overwhelming. We are told that who God is exactly expressed in brilliant radiance in Jesus. Pause to meditate on that thought; let it take hold of your imagination. And while Hebrews says it so well in this verse, the thought is repeated countless times in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul agrees in Colossians 2:9 when he says, “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ.” Again, look specifically at the qualifying words. “The entire fullness” means that there is absolutely nothing—nothing—about God that is missing from what we see in Jesus. No wonder Jesus was taken aback at Philip’s comment during the Last Supper, asking for Jesus to show them the Father. We can imagine the curious look on Jesus’s face as he turned to Philip and asked, “Have I been among you all this time without your knowing Me, Philip? The one who has seen Me has seen the Father!” (Yes, I believe there should be an exclamation point there.) That truth tells us that Jesus shows us God—all that can be known about God. There is nothing hidden about God that we can’t see in Jesus. And that means if we have some ideas of who God is that are not shown in Jesus, we have wrong ideas. It also means that if a verse or phrase or passage of the Old Testament hints at a God who is different in any way from what we see in Jesus, we are misinterpreting the passage.
So those six c words: Content, Context, Culture, Coherence, Cohesion, and Christ should be kept in mind as you read Scripture to ensure you dig deeply enough to fully understand what is being said. Unlike what some people may think—that the Bible should be regarded as a child’s book or reference book that you can skim over to pick up the plain meaning with hardly a thought—it actually is a book of complex literary forms that requires deeper consideration. It has history and letters and poetry and even one book written as a drama or play and apocalyptic literature—a highly symbolic form of literature, something we don’t even find written today but was prevalent in the first century AD as well as a couple centuries before that. And the Bible even warns and encourages us to study this book and to rightly handle it.
That’s why when someone pulls a verse out and tries to insist you pay attention to only what it may say on the surface, you can probably be assured of a couple things: (1) that person wants to force his or her own private interpretation of something (“don’t think past the plain meaning”) and (2) that same person would probably be arguing differently (against a plain reading) with some other verse. For example, how many of you who are women wear headcoverings to church or simply when you pray? Probably for most of you, you have come to some other conclusion than the plain reading of 1 Corinthians 11:6–7 would indicate. Likewise, with Acts 2:38, most Christians would not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation as the verse seems to imply. There are many “easy” verses like that for which we disregard the plain interpretations and dig just a little deeper in our study. But it should be so with all Scripture so that we can truly discover what God has for us.
The complaint that not taking the plain meaning will lead us to all sorts of wild interpretations is not necessarily true. Of course the extreme of seeing everything as figurative is dangerous to the truth. But just as dangerous is requiring a limitation be put on Scripture to interpret only in a surface rendering. Holding on to all six of our principles of interpretation will help guide us toward truth.
So with that interpretive guidance, we can go back to Genesis 6:9 and recognize from context that Moses is speaking of Noah being right in a different sense than Paul was speaking of everyone being not right. By context in Romans, we know Paul’s perspective was of ultimate standing in relationship with God. And he was right that no one, on his or her own, is perfectly right before God. Not only are we guilty of sins committed, but we carry in this flesh—our physical essence—a curse. However, Moses was not speaking of this guilt and curse in relation to Noah. Moses, rather, understanding that we are all under this curse from Adam’s sin, pointed at Noah as one who was attempting in his person—his spirit—to pursue God, to call upon God, to depend on God. And that was the right thing to do. Because Noah was doing that right thing (while no one else was in pursuit of God), Noah was called righteous.
That designation also helps us to understand what is going on with the overview of what’s going on here in Genesis. Moses has so structured the books as to give us a summary of the whole plan of God right here at the beginning before getting too far in. Let’s look back at the major sections covered so far:
2. The Fall
3. Downward Spiral of Sin
4. The Flood
Moses (through God’s influence) is showing us how God must treat humanity—his creation. As we have discussed, God’s purpose in creating was for everlasting love relationship. That was his purpose because that is who God is. He is at his essence truth, goodness, and beauty. His operation is in love—the communication of that truth, goodness, and beauty. So when God decided to create, he didn’t change into something else. He created in love for love.
That is also why love relationship must be based on the truth, goodness, and beauty that comes only from God. In choosing to try to get TGB from creation instead of from God, Adam and Eve chose a false path—a path that could not lead to love relationship. The result was they fell from relationship with God to a self-serving scrounging, destroying even relationship of human with human.
The downward spiral of sin was shown in Cain’s line in Genesis 4. The end of chapter 4 is meant to offer a glimmer of hope. Seth comes on the scene to replace murdered Abel. The replacement idea is not merely son for son. Abel was considered righteous—wanting to pursue God (Hebrews 11:4). Seth comes along to introduce the line of those who also wanted to call on Yahweh (Gen 4:26). That whole genealogy in Genesis 5 is given not merely to recount records of firstborn sons. It starts with Seth the third born (at least). Thus, the emphasis is on God-pursuers rather merely genealogy. The line brings us to chapter 6 in which we see all these God-followers as interacting with those who were not following God (sons of God through Seth intermarrying with the daughters of men through Cain). Of course, it is not literally that each son pursuing God was marrying a woman of Cain’s line who was pursuing selfish interest. It is rather that this literary structure merely emphasizes that point—left on our own, humankind will be overcome by evil. And by Genesis 6:5, we learn that “every scheme” of the human mind “was nothing but evil all the time.”
Except Noah. Noah was righteous. Noah was right about still wanting to pursue God.
The flood story comes in as an image of the end—of everything. God cannot have relationship with those who reject him. He cannot force or coerce love. Even if the forced partner accepts it, it is still coercion and misses the definition of love. And those who reject God must be separated from God. Without the TGB of God holding them, catastrophic destruction occurs. But for the God pursuer, care and embrace are shown.