Jesus and the call to Justice: what does Justice look like in a NT world?

Jesus and the call to Justice: what does Justice look like in a NT world? December 29, 2020

Justice and righteousness

In my last post, I listed verses from Genesis to Zechariah that emphasize the call for the people of God to do righteousness and justice. (if you haven’t read that post it is highly recommended that you do so).
It is important to observe that the call to do righteousness and justice is not simply found in the wisdom of Proverbs. The call reverberates throughout the entirety of the OT.

The call to righteousness and justice begins in Genesis with the call of Abraham. Note that the reason why he was called to do righteousness and justice was:

“so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Gen 18:19).

It is worth mentioning that the very next verse (Gen 18:20) connects that call of Abraham to do righteousness and justice with the cry of the oppressed in Sodom and Gomorrah:

“And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave’” (Gen 18:20).

The word “outcry” here indicates a cry of pain or help from those who are being oppressed. Consequently, we may affirm that Abraham was called to do righteousness and justice for the sake of the oppressed.

There is little doubt that the book of Exodus parallels the call of Moses with the call of Abraham. In Exod 2:23-25, Moses, like Abraham, was called by God to respond to the “outcry” of God’s people who were oppressed.

The pattern is established in Genesis and Exodus that God’s response to the outcry of the oppressed is to call His people to engage in doing righteousness and justice.[1] God calls Abraham, Moses, and us to be the means through which He brings righteousness and justice.

The call to do righteousness and justice continues into the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Its presence in the book of Deuteronomy is key. The book of Deuteronomy (name means: “the second law”) was central in the life of the people of Israel!

We should not be surprised, then, to find that the call to do righteousness and justice is a central theme in the historical books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. After all, it was in accordance with the Deuteronomic principles of righteousness and justice that the kings of Israel were expected to rule.

 

This leads us to the prophets who consistently implore the people of God to do justice. (The prophets were known as “covenant enforcers”; or simply stated: they made sure the people of Israel obeyed the law of the book of Deuteronomy).

The prophets warned the people of God of impending judgment if they failed to do righteousness and justice. And they reminded the people that their continued failure to do so would result in being cast out of the land.

And after the people were cast out by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians, other prophets arose to offer them hope of a restoration to the land.

Nonetheless, the people of God continued to come up short when it came to doing righteousness and justice.

Thus, throughout the OT there is a consistent promise that God would bring about a future king who will rule in righteousness and justice. 

A Problem with contemporary discussions of Justice

One of the problems with contemporary discussions of justice among Christians is that they tend to ignore this vital OT background. So much of the focus in Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, is on self that we have neglected the larger calling of the people of God. In doing so, we undermine the very fabric of the NT call upon the people of God.

It is abundantly clear that throughout the OT the people of God were called to do righteousness and justice. This included looking out for those who were disadvantaged: the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.

This was, in fact, the distinguishing mark for the people of God.

How does this translate into the NT?

The question becomes how does all this translate into the NT? Why doesn’t Jesus continue the call to do such?

The answer is: He does!

After all, Jesus Himself said:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).

As we continue reading through Matthew 5, we observe that Jesus cites several examples of what doing justice looks like: “do not murder”; “do not commit adultery.” Note, however, that in each instance Jesus does not merely affirm the abiding significance of the law, but He actually intensifies its demands for His disciples.

For example, with regard to the ethic of murder (Matt 5:21), Jesus does not simply affirm that murder remains a forbidden act in His kingdom, but, instead, He declares that in His kingdom hatred in one’s heart will be guilty enough to be thrown into hell (Matt 5:22).

In other words, prior to the coming of Christ one may have had hatred in one’s heart, which is where murder begins, but as long as one did not carry out the murder, you would not have been guilty of breaking the law.

Jesus comes along and intensifies the command for His disciples by saying that in His kingdom even hatred in the heart is no longer permitted.[2]

Similarly, with regard to the prohibition against adultery, Jesus does not abolish the law, but He intensifies it. He declares that in His kingdom having lust in the heart (which is where adultery begins) makes one guilty enough to be thrown into hell (Matt 5:28-29).

Jesus’ intensification of the law climaxes with His declaration on love: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:43-44).

Note that Jesus’ discussion of the law climaxes with His command to love!

This is truly radical. Our failure to see the radicalness of this is part of the problem.

Jesus’ declarations must be understood in light of the fact that His kingdom is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.

In Jeremiah 31, God promised that when His kingdom comes, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jer 31:33).

The prophet Ezekiel declared that the means through which God does this is by sending His Spirit: “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:26-27).

With the coming of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit our heart are circumcised—as Paul would say (cf Rom 2:29)—and are transformed so that, by His grace and through His Spirit, we too are being transformed.

In Christ and through the Spirit, we are called to not only not murder our enemies but to love them!

This is why Jesus emphasizes that obedience to the law transcends the mere appearance of obedience (i.e., not murdering someone), but begins in heart!

We may say then that righteousness and justice were the defining characteristics of the people of God in the OT. In the NT, we would say that love is a defining characteristic of the people of God.[3]

One of the major problems in contemporary debates in Christian circles regarding justice is that we have failed to recognize the necessary correlation between the two.

We affirm well that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law or the prophets (i.e., the OT as a whole). We must then recognize that the proliferation of the call of the people of God to do righteousness and justice is fully realized in Jesus’ call to love!

We may conclude (and I will defend this further in the next post) that Jesus takes the primary characteristics of the people of God—the call to do righteousness and justice—and absorbs them in his command to love.

What does love look like?

Though this may seem like a trite and simple question, I dare say that most Christians seriously underestimate the nature of love and what love really looks like it.

Simply put: love looks like Jesus! Jesus embodied love on the cross!

If the righteous are those who are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community, then Jesus is the ultimate Righteous One.

The Scriptures call us to love! And that love looks like Jesus. It is a call to sacrificial living for the sake of the other!

Not only does the NT continue the call to do justice, but it stresses that we are called to do so in love: that is, in a manner in which we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the other!

Who is the “other”? It is everyone.

But before we can tread down that path, we must establish more thoroughly the relationship between Jesus’ call to love and the OT call to do righteousness and justice. This will be the focus of my next post.

 

[1] See also, Psalm 34:17 and Deuteronomy 22:24, 27.

[2] Note: in the time before Jesus God did not want us to have hatred in our hearts either. The point here is that the Law did not punish one for such. The Law, as with the laws of any civil society, cannot regulate matters of the heart. With the coming of Jesus, however, that changes.

[3] We might make the argument that love was to be the defining characteristic of people of God in the OT and that the NT simply makes this clear.


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