A Biblical Example of Self-Righteousness

by Mike Ratliff

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:17 ESV)

Self-Righteousness: the attempt to meet God’s standards based upon one’s own merits.

A thorough study of our Lord’s earthly ministry reveals with certainty the following truth. Our Lord was merciful in every instance to those who were broken, humbled, and spiritually helpless before Him. On the other hand, the proud, the self-righteous, and the self-sufficient He rebuked and shunned, which is thematically summarized for us by James our Lord’s brother in his epistle. 

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:4-10 ESV)

I pray that you have seen very clearly my brethren that when the Word of God addresses self-righteousness that what is really being examined is a form of pride. What is the opposite of pride? It is, of course, humility. The proud may believe that they are prosperous (πλουσιος) in God’s economy, but, in fact, they are spiritually blind and, in our Lord’s own words from Revelation 3:17, wretched (ταλαιπωρος), pitiable (ελεεινος), poor (πτωχος), blind (τυφλος), and naked (γυμνος).

17οτι λεγεις οτι πλουσιος ειμι και πεπλουτηκα και ουδεν χρειαν εχω και ουκ οιδας οτι συ ει ο ταλαιπωρος και ελεεινος και πτωχος και τυφλος και γυμνος (Revelation 3:17 WHNU)

Here is a word-for-word translation of Revelation 3:17 from Greek to English, “Because you say, “rich I am and I have been rich and nothing need I have, and not you know that you are the miserable and need mercy and poor and blind and naked.”

Those who are truly self-righteous are spiritually blind yet they do not perceive that this is so. Their blindness is deep and humility is something to which they give lip service. These people do not have a true self-knowledge nor do they have a correct knowledge of God. The humble, on the other hand, are those who have had a true revelation of God and then have meditated or contemplated themselves in that light. Humility, then, is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness. If we take that definition then look at our Lord’s assessment of the Church at Laodicea we see a people much like most professing Christians in our time.  Let us look at the letter our Lord dictated to the Apostle John to send to this church.

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”(Revelation 3:14-16 ESV)

14και τω αγγελω της εν λαοδικεια εκκλησιας γραψον ταδε λεγει ο αμην ο μαρτυς ο πιστος και [ο] αληθινος η αρχη της κτισεως του θεου  15οιδα σου τα εργα οτι ουτε ψυχρος ει ουτε ζεστος οφελον ψυχρος ης η ζεστος  16ουτως οτι χλιαρος ει και ουτε ζεστος ουτε ψυχρος μελλω σε εμεσαι εκ του στοματος μου (Revelation 3:14-16 WHNU)

Laodicea was located about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia and 100 miles east of Ephesus. It was known as a banking center and had a famous medical school. The city’s water supply had to be provided from a distant source through pipes. The resulting water was lukewarm and barely drinkable. By contrast, the neighboring town of Hierapolis had medicinal hot springs, and a cold mountain stream supplied neighboring Colossae. Our Lord is making an analogy of the spiritual condition of the church in Laodicea comparing it to the “lukewarmness” of their water. The word translated here as “lukewarm” is χλιαρος and describes water that is tepid. Hot water has healing qualities. Cold water is refreshing. However, water that is χλιαρος when drunk, makes one want  εμεσαι εκ του στοματος (to vomit from the mouth). The verb ει in which our Lord is telling the Laodiceans that they “are” χλιαρος is in present tense, indicative mood, and active voice. This grammatical verb form asserts something that is occurring while the speaker is making the statement. This is a true statement of their condition and it is a spiritual condition that makes the Lord as sick to His stomach as those who drink that tepid water.

Then in v17 our Lord describes the reality of spiritual lukewarmness, which we looked at above. It is marked by a self-righteousness that is all about religion or the forms of religiosity. Those in this condition do not listen to or obey the Holy Spirit. They are apostate. Apostates are professing Christians, but are proving their disingenuousness by not “walking” within the Lordship of Christ as a way of life. In vv18-20 we have our Lord’s offer of salvation as they repent of this for He is merciful to those who see the truth of their spiritual bankruptcy and turn to Him alone for their salvation.

I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:18-19 ESV)

18συμβουλευω σοι αγορασαι παρ εμου χρυσιον πεπυρωμενον εκ πυρος ινα πλουτησης και ιματια λευκα ινα περιβαλη και μη φανερωθη η αισχυνη της γυμνοτητος σου και κολλουριον εγχρισαι τους οφθαλμους σου ινα βλεπης  19εγω οσους εαν φιλω ελεγχω και παιδευω ζηλευε ουν και μετανοησον  (Revelation 3:18-19 WHNU)

What does it mean to be zealous (ζηλευε) and repent (μετανοησον)? Both verbs are in aorist tense, imperative mood, and active voice. This describes commands by our Lord to these people. It is what those do who truly buy gold refined by fire from the Lord. Simply making a profession of faith solves nothing if it is not also accompanied by a change on the inside that results in being zealous and penitent. The word translated here as repent, μετανοησον, is a command to change ones mind or way of thinking towards God and about oneself. This is the result of regeneration. God opens their eyes so that they will no longer be spiritually blind.

Self-righteousness is the result of human pride. All not born of the Spirit, that is, washed by regeneration (Titus 3:5), are spiritually dead and the best they can be is lukewarm like the church in Laodicea. They are all about self. They have their own righteousness or merit and think that is enough because they do not posses true salvation, but are driven by human pride. No one can be humble outside of God’s grace. Only true Christians can be genuinely humble. These see the truth about themselves in light of God’s holiness and their lack outside of Him. They understand that they bring nothing to God that is acceptable for their justification. The humble are never self-righteous because they understand that anything good they have or do is from God not them. On the other hand, in their zealous obedience to their Lord, those in spiritual darkness who believe they are the purveyors of what true Christianity is will accuse these true Christians of being self-righteous because of their obedience in speaking the truth in rebuke while never compromising.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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