When I first started studying what the Bible said about justice topics, I thought I knew exactly how to find them: search for the word “justice.” But there’s a problem with looking for justice in the New Testament. If you type “justice” into a Bible word search engine, it doesn’t appear much. “Justice” appears only 11 times in the ESV translation,[i] 9 times in the NASB, [ii] and 8 times in the NKJV.[iii]
It’s hard to see that the New Testament values justice when it seems almost silent on the subject.
In the few instances where the word “justice” appears, the word primarily refers to legal justice, which feels distant from the Hebrew shalom-centered ideas of justice in the Old Testament. Verses like “Mercy triumphs over judgment [krisis]” (James 2:13b), or “Judge [krino] not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) make it seem like justice and judgment are opposite of mercy and, therefore, don’t belong in the New Testament.
To understand justice in the New Testament, we have to confront at a challenge we English-speakers have with translating some of the Greek words. The Greek word most often translated “justice” in our English New Testament is krisis and is related to “judgment,” krima. The definitions of krisis line up with our English definitions: legal decision, condemnation, punishment, or judgment.
Those are not exactly things we would associate with Jesus or grace or mercy. And these meanings miss the more holistic dimensions of justice we see in the Old Testament.
Those holistic, restorative dimensions do show up in the New Testament, however, through the Greek word dikaiosune.
Dik-stem words are common in the New Testament, showing up around 300 times. The concept of dikaiosune is captured by two English words—righteousness and justice—yet is almost always translated as one of the two: “righteousness.”
However, at the time the New Testament was written, dikaiosune was not just used to mean “righteousness.” In fact, translators of classical Greek literature usually did the opposite when translating dikaiosune into English, choosing for “justice” instead of “righteousness.” In classical Greek, dikaiosune meant “well-ordering,” and it was an important word for understanding justice and government at the time. Plato’s Republic, written almost four hundred years before Jesus’ birth, was among the most influential books on the ideal structure of government of the day and was much concerned with “justice”—dikaiosune.
Below is an image of a Roman coin with "dikaiosune" stamped on it. If dikaiosune had only private, moral, religious meanings, then why would the Roman government have used it on a their money?
[For all you level 10 nerds (#represent!), here is a short video by Dr. Clint Arnold, Chair of New Testament Studies at Talbot Theological Seminary and President of the Evangelical Theological Society, on translating dikaiosune. You're welcome.]
The picture of a “righteous Christian” life this translation issue creates
This translation issue can distort the images we then develop about what it looks like to live the Kingdom of God on earth. When English-speakers read the Bible, it seems like righteousness is what we are supposed to pursue, not justice. And because righteousness in our world is connected to private, personal morality, it can seem like the highest goal of Christian life is to be clustered inside of church buildings, never doing wrong, instead of doing right in the wider world.
Justice and righteousness: core to the Kingdom
Let’s look at a few verses that dikaiosune shows up and look at what they tell us about the Kingdom of God. For a long time, I got the message that the options were to EITHER pursue justice OR the gospel. The more I’ve studied the Bible, the clearer it has become how wrong that message is. Doing justice/righteousness won’t distract from “more important” kingdom work, they are kingdom priorities. They are central to what the Kingdom is and how we Christians live our lives:
- “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness/justice [dikaiosune] and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17 NASB). Jesus talks about the Kingdom a lot, but He never actually says what the Kingdom is. His audience at the time would have heard about the Kingdom of God, so Jesus didn’t explain it. Because of this, there is only one verse in the whole New Testament that directly says what the Kingdom of God is, and that is this one. Justice and righteousness are the Kingdom.
- “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness/justice [dikaiosune]” (Matthew 6:33a NASB). In the same breath that we are told to seek God’s kingdom, we are told to seek God’s justice and righteousness. If we are heading in the direction of the Kingdom, we are heading in the direction of justice and righteousness. Doing justice and righteousness are extending the reign of God on earth.
- “…those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness/justice [dikaiosune] will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17b NASB) Justice and righteousness are gifts that enable us to reign in life. The foundation of our call to use our authority on earth to bring heaven is justice and righteousness.
So to know what the Kingdom is, what Jesus tells us to seek, and how we reign in life, we need justice and righteousness. They are central, foundational, and essential to the Kingdom of God.
[i] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:3, 18:5, 18:7, 18:8; Acts 8:33, 28:4; Hebrews 11:33
[ii] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 7:29, 11:42, 18:7, 18:8; Acts 28:4, Col 4:1
[iii] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:3,; Acts 8:33, 28:4; Romans 9:14