Core Concepts 2: God’s heart for justice
What does the Bible say about God’s call for lives of love and justice from His people? Scripture speaks very clearly:
There are hundreds of verses that speak of God’s heart for justice, and of course there are over 2000 verses on poverty alone. Not to mention what the bible says about wealth and self-sacrifice. Read the scripture lists here.
The Psalms praise the attributes of God:
Psalm 89:14: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you.
Much of the Old Testament is about revealing the attributes of God. The Psalms begin to reveal this beautiful mystery of righteousness and justice. Throughout all of scripture runs a common thread of righteousness and justice intertwined and inseparable. This lived out in Jesus Christ – love and faithfulness certainly went out before him.
The Proverbs share the wisdom of a Godly king:
Proverbs 29:7: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.
Here again the righteous are active in justice for the poor – one in the same. Saying “of course I feel bad that some people are poor” does not cut it. There is an active involvement implied. Righteousness is only so when put to action. You can not be righteousness/holy without action. Doing nothing is not an option – to sit idly by is just as culpable as being the oppressor. Sins of omission are every bit as serious to God as sins of commission.
The prophets speak to God’s people directly about what matters to God:
Amos 5:21-24: I hate all your show and pretense, the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your hymns of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, a river of righteous living that will never run dry.
“Away with your hymns…they are noise to my ears” This is a sharp admonishment to churches that focus so much on music designed to appeal to the crowd and get people in the doors. We need to take a deep look at the implications these verses have. Isaiah levies a similar warning:
Isaiah 1:11, 17: “I am sick of your sacrifices,” says the LORD. “Don’t bring me any more burnt offerings! I don’t want the fat from your rams or other animals. I don’t want to see the blood from your offerings of bulls and rams and goats.” 17Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows.
Dan Allender provides an excellent reflection:
“God commanded his people to offer burnt offerings, and then said, “They make me sick.” He wants us to live with a heart of passion for justice – period. Religious deeds, be it prayer, fasting, giving, sacrifice, song, or dance, turn God’s stomach when we do them without a heart for righteousness. And living out righteousness is no less than creating a holy, beautiful, sacred space for glory to grow. God doesn’t give us a to-do list; instead he calls our hearts to holiness and justice. “
Again, Isaiah is God’s instrument to point His people back to what matters:
Isaiah 58: 6-7: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? When you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Is it really different these days? We seem to continually miss the point. For example, many churches focus a lot on sexual sin and personal piety (very important in their own right) but perhaps a little too much attention is given: what was the sin of city of Sodom? What comes to mind? This is what Ezekiel says:
Ezekiel 16:48-50: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.
Both righteousness (“detestable things”) and justice is present here too. Is “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” a fair critique of American culture? How about of the American Church?
In Jeremiah defending the cause of the poor and the needy is equated with what it means to know God:
Jeremiah 22:16: 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.
The New Testament sheds new light:
Did you know that the word justice does not appear in some translations of the New Testament? That could be a bit disconcerting for those who understand biblical justice to be central to Christian life and practice. The reality is that God’s heart for Justice is so integrally linked to His Righteousness that the original Greek word used was “dikaiosune,” which has a meaning that fully encompasses the complexity of this attribute of God, but has always been translated into English as the word “righteousness.” The Hebrew equivalent (used in the Old Testament) is tseh’-dek, tzedek, meaning righteous, integrity, equity, justice, straightness. It is best understood as the product of upright, moral action in accordance with some form of divine plan.
That means that in specific passages we can gain a fuller understanding of them by adding “and justice.” Read the NIV passages below with “and justice” added and spend some time reflecting on them:
Matthew 6:33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.
2 Cor. 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness and justice of God.
2 Tim 2:22: Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness and justice, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.
1 Peter 2:24: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness and justice; by his wounds you have been healed.
Jesus Christ exemplifies in word and deeds the character pleasing to God:
Matthew 23:23 (Cross reference to Isaiah 1:11,17): “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). The Pharisaic attention to religious detail was hypocritical. Here we see Christ’s admonishment identical to Isaiah’s: how holy you become (while so very important and just as central as what we are talking about here) is irrelevant without justice, mercy and faithfulness. Of course, the reverse is every bit as true. Important to notice is that this is about their giving – giving money to support others does not satisfy God’s demand for righteousness nor justice.
Matthew 25:37-40: Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Again, it is the righteous who served and who loved compassion and justice (for the stranger nonetheless). This section of scripture is one of the most profound in the entire Bible. To do for others is to do so as if they were Jesus Christ Himself. You could spend the rest of your life discussing and responding to the implications of this – and hopefully you will.
The apostles teach clearly what a Christ-like response to God looks like:
James 1:27: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Here again, both righteousness and justice together are laid out simply and clearly as the response God expects. This is it, nothing else. Does this verse describe your life?
You cannot outsource discipleship. You wouldn’t say that since someone else is doing a really good job at staying uncorrupted by the world then you can just leave it to them and cheer them on from afar – so why do we do that with service? Each and every person that calls themselves a Christian must be engaged personally with looking out for orphans and widows, the poor and oppressed, the hungry and thirsty, the week and the needy.
James 2:26: As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
1 John 3:16-18: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
Raymond Aitchison’s thoughts are noteworthy here:
“God’s way of promoting social justice in this present age is to increase the number of people who pursue justice and righteousness in their social relationships because they have received Christ by faith, and through the indwelling Holy Spirit have been “created anew in Christ Jesus for good works.” See Ephesians 2:7-10.
Throughout all of scripture runs a common thread of righteousness and justice intertwined and inseparable.
To close this lesson, listen to the music and reflect on the lyrics of “Instead of a Show” by Jon Foreman – an excellent song based on Amos 5:21-24: