Is Priority the Right Question? Part II: The Biblical Concept of Justice

Introduction

Justice. It is a word that often grates against our western, republican sensibilities. As a friend said to me once, “it smacks of entitlement.” Indeed it does. The word ‘justice’ in American parlance often drags around the ball and chain of socialist connotations. As a result, we are inclined to reject the concept outright. After all, we in the AG are Arminians (mostly). We believe in free will and the power to choose. We believe in the ability to pull one’s self up by the bootstraps, whether one actually has boots or not.

It’s important that when we talk about biblical justice that we don’t allow our politics obscure what God says to us through Scripture. The justice of God is a major emphasis in Scripture, stressing that God’s plan for humanity includes the righting of wrongs, the overturning of inequality, and the championing of the disadvantaged (see Part I). Why? Simply stated, because just-ness is an inherent aspect of God’s character. Thus, if God is to be consistent with His character then He must hate injustice. And to hate something and do nothing about it would smack of hypocrisy. And God is no hypocrite.

What in the World is God Doing?

To understand God’s justice and how it fits into who we are and what we do as the Church it is essential to understand what it is that God is doing in the world. Scripture gives us several important keys by which to discern the answer to this question. We discover one of these keys by considering what precisely it was that Jesus and His earliest followers actually preached.

Frequently, the NT defines “preaching” in relation to the coming of the Kingdom. Luke 4:18 can be seen in many ways as Jesus’ own mission statement, and as a description of what the coming Kingdom looks like:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed. (NASB)

As Pentecostals who so frequently make use of Luke-Acts, it would serve us well to pay close attention to Jesus’ stated purpose since in Luke’s two-volume work the purpose of the Church ought to naturally follow the mission set forth by Jesus. Lest we try to spiritualize this text, as we are so apt to do with those portions of Scripture that unsettle us in their most obvious, literal reading, a look back at the Isaianic passage being quoted sheds important light on what exactly Jesus is saying.

The OT passage that Jesus is quoting here is Isaiah 61, a text reflecting the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25). The Year of Jubilee represented a Sabbath Year of rest for the nation of Israel and called for treating one another with fairness and equality, especially in forgiving debts, and showing particular care for the poor and the foreign wanderer in the land (going back to my last post on this topic, this also mitigates against an understanding that serving the poor should take place only or even primarily within the church!). It was to be a time of rest and restoration for all God’s people as well as for the land, with the whole of it pointing proleptically forward to the time when God would right all wrongs and restore His creation to its original glory. The idea behind this was the notion that God Himself had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt, and therefore He owned every person, every parcel of land, and every animal. Deeply rooted in the Year of Jubilee was the notion of God’s desire to redeem His creation from both the physical and spiritual effects of sin (see Rom. 8:22).

Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would quote Isaiah 61 at the outset of his ministry. It was the essence of Jesus’ mission to usher in the Kingdom of God in his person and his work. This Kingdom is both an earthly and a heavenly reality, which is why Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, “your Kingdom come, on EARTH as it is in HEAVEN.” It is both a present and future reality. In other words, the idea is not that God is rescuing us out of a dying world, but is rather transforming this world by renewing and restoring all of creation to its former state of sinlessness and perfection. We see this in that there is a striking parallel between the picture presented of the original creation in Gen. 2:8-15 and that of Rev. 22:1-5:

In the Genesis passage, we see mankind dwelling in a paradise, situated within a garden, and prominently featuring a river and a tree. Connected to the tree was a call to obedience. As we know, this call was abandoned, and rebellion and the curse of sin entered the world (Gen. 3).

Similarly, in the new heavens and new earth of Rev. 21-22, humanity is now dwelling in a city (the primary difference between a garden and a city? Population! Heaven is populated by the redeemed of the Lord.). The city, like the original garden, also features a river and a tree. The river continuously waters the tree, whose leaves were for the healing of the nations. The curse has been lifted.

The point here is that what God is doing is far more than a spiritual work. Its a total work, wherein God is remaking all that exists by removing the effects of sin in all its many forms through the redemptive act of the Suffering Servant. We see this when considering the Greek word for “new”—kainos, which is the same word Paul uses in 2 Cor. 5:17, “if any man is in Christ, he is a new (kainos) creation.” The idea is not of wiping the slate clean, but of renewing, restoring and redeeming; so too with the new heaven and new earth.

I’m not saying that God will not ultimately bring about an entirely new heaven and new earth at the consummation of history. After all, Jesus did say, “heaven and earth will pass away” (Matt. 24:15). I am simply saying that Scripture bears out that the physical world is positively affected and transformed by what God is doing in the present, and that there is some continuity between the present physical world and the world to come. This is obvious in that in Jesus’ own resurrection body bore some continuity to his pre-resurrection body (i.e., his scarred hands, feet and side which prompted Thomas to declare, “my Lord, and my God”). The importance of this is that our life in Christ has both physical and spiritual significance, because we participate physically and spiritually in God’s redemptive plan.

Paul consistently portrays this throughout the NT. For instance, in Romans 8:22-23, Paul says, “the whole creation groans….and not only this, but even we ourselves groan within ourselves while we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, for the redemption of our bodies.” Notice Paul doesn’t say we wait for the redemption of our souls! He makes this same point in Phil. 3:21—“who will transform the body of our humble state, into conformity with the body of his glory.” In 1 Cor. 15, Paul uses a couple of metaphors, such as that of seedtime and harvest that also bear out this idea of continuity and transformation.

What in the World are We Saying?

Jesus’ instructions on preaching often took two distinct forms in the NT. At times, Jesus instructs his followers to preach the “Gospel,” or “good news” (Gr. euggelion). But this “good news” is also defined more precisely as the “gospel of the Kingdom” (Matt. 24:14; Acts 8:12; 20:25; 28:31). What is the significance of this distinction? It is simply that the good news to which the Church is called to proclaim is the good news of Christ’s rule and reign. The biblical concept of justice is rooted in the fact that this rule and reign is founded upon God’s plan to restore creation and right all wrongs, to especially overturn the misfortunes of the poor and needy. In a sense we are all poor and needy, due to the effects of sin, but there are those among us who are poor and needy in both body and soul, and it is for those that God shows special concern.

We see this in the Psalmists declaration that “justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne” (Ps. 89:14; 97:2). The words justice (Hb. mishpat) and righteousness (Hb. tzedeqah) are twin concepts found throughout scripture that tell of God’s passion and concern for those who suffer at the hands of others, those who are poor and needy (see Gen 18:19; 2 Sam 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; 1 Chr 18:14; 2 Chr 9:8; Job 29:14; 37:23; Psa 33:5; 72:2; 89:14; 97:2; 99:4; 119:121; Prov 1:3; 2:9; 21:3; Eccl 3:16; 5:8; Is 1:27; 5:7; 9:7; 16:5; 28:17; 32:16; 33:5; 56:1; 59:9, 14; Jer 4:2; 9:24; 22:3, 13, 15; 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 18:5, 19, 21, 27; 33:14, 16, 19; 45:9; Hos 2:19; Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12; Mic 7:9). When Scripture says that these concepts are “the foundation of His throne,” it is saying that they are the chief characteristic of God’s rule.

So, when we declare the gospel of the Kingdom, we are declaring the good news of Christ’s reign and sovereignty, and the justice and righteousness entailed therein. At the heart of that reign is God’s own righteousness and inherent justice, which he brings in His person. This is the meaning of Jesus’ Luke 4 reading of Isa. 61. It is a reign that begins in the present, that broke in especially at the resurrection of Christ, and is unfolding through God’s sovereignty and through God’s people as history moves toward the time when God will ultimately make all things right and fully reign in the new heaven and new earth. Thus, the Gospel we preach has both a physical and spiritual nature because it addresses both physical and spiritual realities. To miss this is to misunderstand what God is doing in the world, and to miss what we are called to do as a result.

Conclusion

We as God’s people are called upon not only to preach the Gospel but to emulate Jesus in every way. “Come, follow me” still stands as the beckon call for would-be disciples. As such, we are to embody all that Jesus taught and did. At the heart of Jesus’ own ministry was the breaking in of God’s rule and reign, founded upon righteousness and justice of God, promised in the OT, and declared emphatically by Jesus to be the very essence and heart of His own life and ministry. Therefore, everything we do in Christ, whether it embodies the present reign of Christ through signs and wonders, or whether it points forward to that reign in acts of righteousness and justice carried out in the world, is meant to anticipate the final Day when God will make all things right. In a sense, we Pentecostals seem to understand this more than some, for we hold that the atonement of Christ wrought not only healing for our souls, but also healing for our bodies. And yet, oddly, we still seek to establish a hierarchy when it comes to discussions of evangelism and acts of compassion. My point in all of this is that this hierarchy is largely absent from Scripture. Instead, we see a God whose rule and reign and coming Kingdom encompasses all of creation in both its seen and unseen aspects, in both body and soul, physical and spiritual, present and future. God declared of creation in the beginning that, “it is good.” Well, though a bit damaged and corrupted, this creation of God’s is still good and worth saving, for God is still great and what he calls us to is a life that anticipates and embodies all that He is doing in us and in the world as we move inexorably toward the consummation of all things. And so we go forth preaching and embodying the Kingdom, proclaiming the good news of God’s justice and righteousness, and living out the Kingdom paradigm in Pentecostal power and in practical acts of love and service until our enemy the devil is finally and fully defeated. To proclaim this ‘good news’ and not live it out is to implicitly deny what we ask others to believe. No more than we can separate Jesus from his words can we separate the Gospel from its implications. It is, by nature, it is at its core, completely holistic.

*for any wishing to further explore this topic, I recommend two excellent resources: Tim Keller’s Generous Justice, and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

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