Last Sunday I gave a message on Biblical justice. You can listen to it here. We combined this with communion where we illustrated the light of Christ exposing injustices with this candle above a set of injustices in the world (see zoomed in view at the bottom).
My notes for the message below, and quite rough, but if you want to get the general idea without listening:
The foundation of Biblical justice is the amazing, wonderful work Christ did for us on the cross, in satisfying justice, demonstrating justice, and revolutionizing justice. I want us to be able to see the reality that he didn’t just vindicate God as being just, but fundamentally altered what it means to be just. And isn’t the way of Jesus, not just to point out what is right, but transform how we even think about, and pursue what is right? He didn’t just affirm justice, but gave us new understanding of justice. But before we look at the work of the cross, let’s consider a few OT passages.
Psalms 72 ends with the statement that this is the end of the prayers of David. The conclusive thoughts of David as he hands his throne to Solomon and looks towards the future messianic reign. These OT passages that describe righteousness and justice point forward to Jesus:
1 Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
2 May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
3 May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
4 May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
There are two key Hebrew words for justice:
tsed-awk’ or tsed-aw-kaw’ – Single hebrew word for justice and righteousness, equity, fairness, rightness, and justice.
mish-pawt’ – judgement, the act of making decisions towards others
2 How long will you judge unjustly
And show partiality to the wicked?
3 Vindicate the weak and fatherless;
Do justice to the afflicted and destitute.
4 Rescue the weak and needy;
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.
Note also a key part of justice is equity, this verses indicate of to defend those might be vulnerable.
15 By me kings reign and rulers issue decrees that are just;
Now in English we have this word “justice” that is pretty vague and broad. It covers a lot of ideas. but we do have more precise terminology that we can use. It helpful to understand the different forms of justice. When we talk about Justice, it is understand the more specific forms of justice:
* Retributive justice – Pay back, retaliation, what someone “deserves” for their wrong-doing.
* Deterrence Justice – Punishment for the sake of deterring the wrongdoer and others from committing the crime, for the purpose of protecting the innocent.
Distributive justice – Fair distribution of goods, monies.
Rrestorative justice – Enable a wrong-doer to be restored to play a beneficial role in society.
Moving back to Jesus, he satisfied retributive justice, in turn opening the door for new types of justice. Jesus draws us out performance-based relationships. The Kingdom of God is not one where your standing or relationship is judged by your past performance. I would suggest two key ways that Jesus has transformed our understanding of justice. Our basic natural instinct of justice is to have past-oriented approach and me-oriented approach. By past-oriented, it means we judge people on what we has been done, on someone “performance”, effectively, the bad and the good of it, rather than look towards someone’s potential. Past-oriented justice can be judgemental, inaccurate, and destructive. Future-oriented justice on the otherhand, motivates us and propels us. This is demonstrated in parable of the 11th hour worker:
Mat 20:11 And on receiving it [one day’s wages] they grumbled at the master of the house,
Mat 20:12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
and then ‘Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
And later with David’s victory to get his wives back from the Amelekites adn and his treatment of his men after the battle at the brook of Besor:
1Sa 30:22 Then all the wicked and worthless fellows among the men who had gone with David said, “Because they did not go with us, we will not give them any of the spoil that we have recovered, except that each man may lead away his wife and children, and depart.”
1Sa 30:23 But David said, “You shall not do so, my brothers, with what the LORD has given us. He has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us.
Future oriented justice looks at how we can enable people, empower people, give them opportunity to succeed. This is exactly what Jesus displayed on the cross in an act of justice towards us. He showed grace-based justice.
Jesus saw our past, our lousy performance, he saw that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory. We looked upon us, while we were yet sinners, and offered us abundant life. This is grace. Now we have to recognize that grace doesn’t mean the absence of justice. It ushers in a new and higher form of justice. It is easy for us to look at grace as if it Jesus simply satisfied justice and so now justice can be pushed aside and ignored. This is not a complete picture. The cross doesn’t eradicate God’s justice, it points us forward. I believe we can rightly say that Jesus satisfied justice, in the retributive sense setting that aside, but in this new covenant we are the targets of God’s justice in the restorative and distributive sense, where He gave all of us an opportunity to be restored and enjoy a relationship with him. This is also vividly displayed in the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus acts to break down the barriers to the Gentiles worshiping God. Jesus made it abundantly clear that we have “fair” and equal access to God. Their is no hierarchy, no castes, no performance-review based on last year’s behavior. God’s spiritual justice looks to giving us all the opportunity to come before him. We do still have consequences to our actions, but these are for discipline (deterrence justice), to shape, and sanctify us, to give us more of an opportunity to follow truly God. And likewise when we look to others, We can trust in God to handle retribution, while we pursue enabling justice.
Jesus also points toward other-centered justice, rather me-centered justice. This is stated most clearly and obviously in the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do to you”. Also, he teaches this in the Sermon on the Mount with his instructions to turn the other cheek, and to pray for our enemies. Note that turning the other cheek is one ethic that can’t be applied in reverse. It demands other-centeredness in our view of justice.
As we understand this other-centered and future-centered approach to justice, we can start seeing the vast amount of passages that describes God’s passion for defending the poor, the vulnerable, the weak makes sense. We are to view those as the ones that would have the least opportunity to succeed and prosper on their. God looks towards the future and how to enable and empower them. And note that isn’t necessarily just handouts. We are not just instantly perfect, but He gives us an opportunity to succeed. He gives us freedom. And it is important to see how he gives us freedom. We often live with the illusion that freedom is the absence of any intervention, but Chris radically intervened into our lives to give us freedom. His freedom wasn’t just to let us do whatever we wanted, but to step in and give us true opportunity, to alter the environment, spiritually and physically, such that he would a real opportunity to come before God, not just a impossibly unlikely opportunity where we can only come to the father if we are perfect. This must shape our understanding of justice towards others. It is easy to find mistakes and wrongdoings in those in the poor, the vulnerable, but God came to us in the same situation.
It is easy to find an excuse why someone is poor, or sick, or out of work. We also have to recognize how this contradicts our natural instincts.
Justice is more than just another activity to pursue, it is relational. In Jeremiah 22: 16 where God is talking to Shallum about his father Josiah, king of Judah:
16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the LORD.
An intrinsic part of knowing God, to be in relationship is to pursue justice. This also seems to highlight on integral justice is in evangelism. Evangelism is telling people about God, and knowing God is to know his beautiful justice. To strip the gospel down to just some things you say about God is to distort the gospel. The gospel is the good news, and the full good news, including his justice, and for the fullness of the gospel to be seen, it must be made visible through justice being carried out.
The final aspect of justice I wanted to consider and challenge us with is how it relates to light and dark.
Over and over in the bible is a clear message that evil exists in darkness where it can hidden, but where light shines (Jesus is the light of the world), evil is exposed, it can’t thrive, good prevails. Likewise injustice is an evil, and evil exists in the dark. Injustice wants to be hidden.
Throughout history, it is those that committed themselves to the central biblical theme justice, and exposed hidden injustices with the light of Jesus, that evil dwelt in the dark was challenged with light of biblical justice. The reality of how biblical justice has changed our society is amazing. Let’s look back at history and some of the amazing influences biblical justice has had.
Augustine’s developed just war theory, which influenced modern critieria for armed conflict and Geneva conventions.
Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century Christian theologian is considered incredibly influential and exposing society ills with biblical justice. for example, he brought to light distributive or economic injustices in society that existed within the culturally accepted norms of transactions. He again brought light to something that was hidden from most people’s eyes. His work is considered to be the foundation of our the concept of social justice, which is effectively applying biblical justice to society, and recognizing the injustices that are part of the accepted norms of that society.
People have associated a lot of different with the term social justice, but at its foundation, it is application of biblical justice to expose societal injustices. Again this wider view has helped us to see how Biblical justice is greater than compassion alone. Compassion can amount to simply charity. But social justice works to actually empower people. To give them a real opportunity rather than a handout. To remove the barriers that are unfairly place on some.
William Wilberforce fought for abolition of slavery. Remember when we think of slavery, that this was a societal problem. As much as we would like to be able to pin the blame on some slave owners, that they were largely acting in malice. I know that we love to play good guy, bad guy, and be able to point to others as the bad guys. However, recognize that before the slavery was abolished, it would be misleading to point to the individual slave owners as the problem. Christians owned slaves, Jonathan edwards for example. But the problem was the actual society’s acceptance of this, the cultural norm of considering blacks as less human, less worthy, that directly contradicted biblical teaching. Let’s remember this with some humility. None of you even come close to being the radical, christian theologian like Edwards, yet he didn’t see this.
Even more non-Christian thinkers either directly from Christian influence, or incidently arriving at the same conclusion, Ghandi and Kant.
Those that established the American government and constitution.
Others that following the path of biblical justice to fight for humans rights and battle racism like Nelson Mandela and his innovate truth reconciliation commission (once again actively looking for injustices, and taking the biblical path of reconciliation) and the continued efforts in South Africa from Desmond Tutu. Here in American, the efforts of ML King, who recognized how biblical justice pushes us toward solidarity and challenges racial segregation.
“justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love”
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Amos 5:24 He was not satisfied until justice really took place”
I know it is easy to look around and feel like the world is so unjust, so immoral, but the reality is that the pursuit Biblical justice has truly transformed our world in a spectacular way.
And we starting to learn more about just how injustice affects mentally, amazing research on the effects of inequality on a countries level of those who suffer from mental health, criminal activity, suicides, and equality leads to longer lifespan, more stability, etc.
Injustice doesn’t knock on your door, it doesn’t advertise itself. Injustice hides itself, evil persists in darkness, light exposes it. Jesus is the light of the world. Evil can’t thrive in light. Perpetrators don’t want to be known.
We need to be students of injustice, we need to research, read books, understand others. For example, how does corruption destabilize democracy and prevent development? Where are the the 90-100 million missing girls compared to normal birth rate ratios? What are the effects of trade policy and subsidies for helping and hurting farmers in developing countries? Why have African countries pay back the $500 billion of debt of previous governments yet still remain owe billions?
And we look back some injustices that men like Wilberforce and King fought against, sometimes is seems crazy that these things existed, that we really had blatant slavery and racism. But this was the norm. What will our children look back on from our day and say I can’t believe this was allowed to happen. What were you thinking? Hopefully we can tell them we recognized and this and stood against and we are part of the reason that you it is inconceivable in your day.
Endeavor to learn about an injustice, or the causes of an injustice this next month. Something new to you, something you didn’t know about before, and something that affects others besides yourself (not the injustice of your tax rate being a little too high!). Don’t be just following your ideologies.