Justice and the Christian: Justice and the Church

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Smith Hopkins | February 14, 2018

This is part in an ongoing series on justice. You can access the previous posts here. The posts are based on a teaching series on Wednesday nights at Oliver Creek. Join us! 

How did the early church do justice? What stories or teaching come to mind? “Justice” may not be your typical category for it, but demonstrations of justice in love, generosity, and charity fill the pages of Scripture.

But why? Where did the church get the idea to do justice like that?

In this post I hope to share how the portrait of God’s justice we’ve been exploring in Israel’s law and prophets was carried in to a new people, in a new time, and in a new way by the church of Jesus Christ.

What is justice? Look at Jesus

This question has been driving the first half of our series. We’ve said more in the series than we can summarize, but here are some of the foundational findings from the OT.

  • Biblical justice is more concerned with restoration of relationships than retribution for wrongdoing. Justice is generosity and mercy in action, especially for the vulnerable—such as widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.
  • God’s justice is generous toward Israel and to the nations—he makes our problems his own.
  • Israel’s Law was given to instruct them to show the world God’s justice. The prophets, however, indicted Israel for injustice and promised a coming righteous Messiah who would usher in God’s kingdom of justice on earth as it is in heaven.

But how does our portrait of justice change in light of Jesus of Nazareth? How does the arrival of the Messiah fulfill, further reveal, and transform the biblical concept of justice? Well, as we saw in the last post, Jesus advances the revelation of God’s justice and righteousness. (In the NT, righteous and just belong to the same family of words.)

Jesus came to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). We see the threads of restoration and relationship (Matt 5:6, 20), as well as the promise of coming judgment for those who reject him (Matt 13:43, 49; 25:46). We see his just kingdom in action for the vulnerable with numerous stories of Jesus working for the benefit of the widow, the child, the immigrant, the poor, and the one living a dis-integrated life (Matt 11:4-5). In Jesus we see a justice that is more than skin deep (Matt 23:28), a person more righteous than the holy men of his day (Matt 5:20). In him we see the righteous One making even sinners his own problem In Jesus we see a truly just man (Matt 27:19, 24), who makes our problems his own as he dies for the sins of the unjust (Matt 9:13).

Do you see how Jesus fulfills, reveals, and transforms God’s justice? Take the Law, for instance. Jesus fulfills the law in his own life, revealing its true intent, even as he transforms its commands for those who would live in his new covenant community (cf. Matt 5-7).

A New Community of Justice: the Church in Acts

When we see the church it’s no surprise that it seems, at once, as if everything has changed and yet God’s call for justice has stayed the same. By looking at God and the OT Scriptures through the lens of Jesus, the early church began to live out the reality always intended by God for his people. In other words, they begin to do justice in a way that draws people in to the God of justice.

Where do you see scenes of justice in action in Acts? The book is filled with glimpses of a justice community of God’s people, now defined around Jesus the Messiah. In Acts 2:42-47 the believers “have all things in common,” as they sell and distribute their belongings “to all, as any had need.” It’s reminiscent of Israel’s laws of justice. They have hearts of joy and generosity, as they experience a right relationship with God and others (“praising God and having favor with all the people”). They have come to be and to experience God’s righteousness—in a word, they are “saved.”

The justice of the new faith community is intimately tied to the person of Jesus. In Acts 3-4, you cannot separate him from the announcements and demonstrations of justice. He is the source of “restoration” (3:21) and “salvation” (4:12). Where they help the poor, they do so in the name of Jesus (3:6). That’s because there is “no other name…by which we must be saved” (4:12).This is an important part of justice in the church to which we must return later. Consistently in the NT we see that God’s justice is defined around and proceeds through Jesus the Messiah. You cannot have true justice without the King and his kingdom. This does not reduce justice to mere words about Jesus either. Justice entails good deeds to the poor and good news to the poor. You cannot separate the announcement of the lordship of Jesus from justice; neither can you separate the demonstration of the lordship of Jesus from justice.

Keep reading about the earliest church, and you will see the threads of biblical justice woven throughout. At the ends of Acts 4, once again, the church “had everything in common.” The members sold land and property and “distributed to each as any had need” (4:36), so that “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34, emphasis added). Where did the church get the idea to do this? There are echoes of Jubliee and the Sabbath year and the justice laws for the poor in Israel. More than echoes, Acts 4:24 quotes Deuteronomy 15:4. Tim Keller comments in Generous Justice, “This was the pinnacle of the ‘social righteousness’ legislation of the Old Testament, which expressed God’s love for the vulnerable and his zeal to see poverty and want eliminated. It is remarkable, then, that Acts 4:34 is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 15:4.” Or what about Acts 6:1-7? Where did the church get the idea to have a daily distribution to care for the needy widows? It’s reminiscent of the gleaning laws, now reinterpreted for a new people and a new context.  

One of my favorite glimpses of justice in the early church is in Acts 20:33-38. Paul has one last meeting with the Ephesian eldership. But this elder’s meeting is, shall we say, out of the ordinary. Words of love, much weeping and crying, hugging and kissing. After this, they part ways to never see one another again. It’s an emotional moment. His last words are important. What does he choose to say? Paul tells them to watch out for greed and to “help the weak.” Paul’s final words are to help the vulnerable. Where did he get this idea that the church must help the weak? Jesus. “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (20:35).

The early church looked to Jesus to see God’s true justice, but they also looked through Jesus to read the laws of justice in light of him.

A Corinthian Test Case: Righteousness in 2 Corinthians

Paul, too, reflects biblical justice in light of Jesus throughout his letters to the earliest churches. He has much to say about justice, justification, and righteousness. He uses the words more than 100 times. Instead of summarizing all of that, I’d like to hit the highlights of just one letter of Paul—2 Corinthians—where we see some of his themes of justice and righteousness. 2 Corinthians shows that we are given a righteous status and we are called to righteous living.

Paul teaches that in Jesus the Messiah, we have been made righteous. We have been granted a right and restored relationship with God and his (new) covenant people. But how? Paul says our justice and righteousness before God is because of God assumed our problems as his own in Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The status we’ve been given by God in Christ must work itself out in our relationships. “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?” (6:14). It must also work itself out in our actions and habits. Doing righteousness and justice is not a way of achieving your status as right before God, but it is a way of proving it. Paul teaches that actions of justice—making other people’s problems your own—are a sign of the genuineness of your faith (8:8). One key way he called people to do justice and righteousness in 2 Corinthians is through acts of charity, a major emphasis in chapters 8-9.

As an example of justice in actions, Paul points to the Christians of Macedonia, who in “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (8:2-3). They were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints” (8:4). That’s what happens when you are made righteous: you give yourselves “first to the Lord” and then it results in God giving you to the good of others (8:5). Paul calls on Christians in far-off places to give financially to help the poor. But where did Paul get his idea of how to do justice? Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9).

In 8:13-15, Paul explains that the privileged should give from their abundance and excess to meet the needs of those underprivileged. It’s a “matter of fairness” (ESV). “The goal is equality” (NIV). And then Paul cites his authoritative source—Exodus 16:18—“Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” Paul is re-interpreting the manna story and laws and applying the principles of justice for a different context.

In 9:6-10, Paul tries to persuade Christians to view their money given away as seeds of God’s justice. If you sow sparingly, you will reap sparingly (9:6), so “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (9:7). This concept is, once again, drawn straight from Deuteronomy 15. But not there alone. He points to the nature of God’s righteousness, citing Psalm 112:9. “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” If God gives freely in his righteousness to provide for you, then he “will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (9:10).

Paul, like the church in Acts, looked to Jesus to see God’s true justice, but he also looked through Jesus to the just laws in Israel’s Scriptures to see how to wisely apply them to a new people, in a new context, with a new set of challenges.

Justice and the Church

So how should the church do justice today? That’s the question driving the second half of our series.

But we’ve now explored what justice is, and we’ve begun to see where Christians got these ideas for how to do justice. By looking to Jesus, the early church saw the source of our righteousness before God, and they saw the call and the way to live in righteousness in his world. By looking through Jesus, the early church saw the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms as a rich resource to be reinterpreted in light of the Messiah and applied to the situation of a very different people in a very different time. This is the task of the church still today—to look to and through Jesus to see how to do God’s justice in our day.

Smith Hopkins