Justice and the Christian: Justice and Jesus
John Bradford | February 7, 2018
This is the sixth 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! This post begins to explores the culmination of God's justice revealed in Jesus.
“But, that’s the Old Testament!”
Have you ever heard this comment before in reference to an unpopular or strange teaching in the Bible. It’s understandable. It’s difficult to know exactly how certain sections of the Law of Moses should relate to us today. (Am I in trouble for wearing mixed fabric?)
Some, though, raise a similar concern about justice. After all, many of the memorable passages in the Bible about social justice come from Israel’s prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. It might be tempting then to leave justice back in the OT. Some would say that God, in the OT, is concerned with land promises, law, and running a nation. In the NT, so the argument goes, Jesus is concerned with grace, forgiveness, and “getting people saved.” In this paradigm, it’s easy to see how justice fits in to old covenant, but harder to see how it fits in the new covenant.
But is this really the story of Scripture? Is the OT about God’s justice while the NT is about Jesus’s gospel of salvation? I think this division is unfortunate. What I think we should see when we look at Scripture is a unity between the ideas of justice and salvation in both testaments. God has always been and always will be concerned with both of these closely related ideas.
Salvation in the OT
If the cross is the big salvation event that the NT centers around, the Exodus would be that event for the OT. This is when God saved Israel.
He saved them? This may sound strange if your definition of salvation is basically forgiveness of sins. Or getting to go to Heaven. But forgiveness is only a part of salvation in the OT.
In the Exodus story, God primarily saves Israel by rescuing them. He delivers them from their oppression. Then he protects them from their enemies, gives them land, and makes them flourish. This is what salvation is about for the OT writers: deliverance (Ex. 14:13), protection/victory (1 Sam. 11:13) and blessing/flourishing (Ps. 14:7). And this should sound a lot like our definition of justice. God judges the oppressor, raises up the oppressed, and sets out to establish a society that looks like fairness and caring for your neighbor.
This doesn’t deny the importance of forgiveness. When Israel finds themselves in exile in Babylon, they long for all the same things God brought them in the Exodus story. But they know that for any of that to happen they need forgiveness as well. They have brought about their own circumstances by being unfaithful to God’s covenant. Forgiveness and justice then are essential parts of salvation in the OT.
So what’s with the OT lesson? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about Jesus? Yes. But, what I think is important to see is that when Jesus comes to bring salvation, he’s not just concerned with forgiveness. Justice is central to His gospel.
When Jesus first begins to preach the gospel he frames it in ways that would sound strange to some Christians. His gospel is a gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-19; 7:18-23) and a gospel of the kingdom (Luke 4:43). Jesus comes offering forgiveness, but not as an end. Rather forgiveness is the path to the true prize: an opportunity to be a part of God’s just kingdom. When God restores his world it’s going to mean good things for the poor, the enslaved, the physically broken, etc. Not because these people are more likely to have faith and enter the kingdom, though this may be true. But, because God’s kingdom is a place where these people are cared for. Forgiveness, justice, and salvation are all intertwined in Christ’s message and mission.
But Christ also embodied this just kingdom and what we see is that Jesus’s view of justice looks a whole lot like the Jewish/OT view. Jesus challenged those who oppressed others and promised future judgement. Sometimes this was religious leaders who were not concerned enough about justice and mercy (Mt. 23:23).
Jesus also took aim at those who are not generous. In one of his most famous, and challenging parables, Jesus pictures the final judgement as the separating of sheep and goats (Mt. 25:31-46). In this passage Jesus makes it clear that caring for those in need is a pre-requisite for participating in His kingdom.
This parable also shows an essential part of Jesus’s mission: he will judge the world. We may not easily see good news in this because we fear being on the wrong end of this judgement. But as Christians this shouldn’t be the case. Those in Christ should no longer fear judgement. Rather, we should see it as the time when God is going to set things right, through Christ.
In addition to challenging oppressors, Jesus also spent time lifting up the oppressed. He delivered people from spiritual slavery by casting out demons and healed many people of their physical brokenness. All of this is in line with the OT view that justice is not just fair laws, but also generosity to the vulnerable.
The Mercy of God’s Justice
It’s easy to get on board with justice when justice simply means fairness. We all want to have the same opportunities as others and no one wants to be taken advantage of. Neither is it difficult for most of us to say that we have a responsibility to lift up those who are struggling. Even righteous people will face hard times. But what about when those people aren’t righteous or who we have been taught to see as a threat?
Jesus sought out those on the fringes of society, often those who were there of their own choosing. He calls a tax collector into his inner circle. He ate with sinners, drawing criticism from the Jewish leaders. Perhaps most striking is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In this instance Jesus opts for mercy over the punishment called for in the Law of Moses. Assuming the woman was guilty, how could Jesus do this and still be just? Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. God describes his own character as gracious and slow to anger (Ex. 34:6-7). Throughout the OT we see He withholds just punishment in hope of repentance (Jer. 18:7-10)
Does this make God less just then? Paul says no. In the first few chapters of Romans Paul talks a lot about righteousness. God has it, humans don’t, but we can be justified. He says in Ch. 3 that this is done freely through God’s grace (v. 23-24). What he says next might surprise you though. Speaking of Christ’s sacrifice he says “he did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (v. 25-26).
Somehow Paul can say that God’s justice was revealed when Christ bore our burdens so that we might receive a merciful and undeserved judgement. And this I think radically challenges how we view our call to do justice. Justice is fair laws and practices. Justice is generosity to the downtrodden. And justice is burden bearing mercy to the undeserving. Giving people better than what they “deserve” is not only part of emulating God, it’s actually part of being just, as a person or a society.
This raises a lot of difficult questions about how to best do justice faithfully, mercifully, and responsibly. Luckily we have several more weeks to explore some of those. But for now ask yourself this question: How does the mercy of God’s justice challenge your own view and practice of justice?