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, 9 times in the NASB, and 8 times in the NKJV. For those translations, “justice” shows up more in the book of Isaiah—around three times more, in fact—than in the entire New Testament.
I’m starting a new blog series on Justice in the New Testament because I want to get beyond the surface “Is justice in the Bible?” conversations. It seems like because justice is being re-discovered in American Evangelical churches, the only teaching we get is the “Justice 101: Don’t freak out, yes social justice is a Christian thing, too” sermons. When we are only asking whether justice is even in there, we miss out on so much. Specifically, I think Evangelicals are confused about how social justice/justice and righteousness fit into the New Testament.
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, 9 times in the NASB, and 8 times in the NKJV.
It’s hard to see that the New Testament values justice when it seems almost silent on the subject.
Part of the challenge of learning about biblical justice is that our Western-ish views of justice are so different from Hebraic views from the time the Bible was originally written in. When an American Christian hears about justice, the images that we think of probably things like police officers, punishment, and courtrooms (and maybe a great TV drama about all those things). Unfortunately, that can make us reject doing justice now because we think of it through our Western-ish lenses. If God were to love our Western-flavored justice, then that would make Him a law-obsessed, punishment-loving judge. That is so far from what we know about God from the New Testament, so therefore we reject doing justice as Christians out of a genuine desire to reflect the Bible. But that is not at all the right image of a justice-loving God, or how we as Christians should do biblical justice.
I saw him standing on the corner of the narrow downtown San Diego streets from the passenger seat of my friend's enormous white pickup truck. Something about his tired-looking face stood out to me. Immediately, I felt like I needed to go offer him socks and a sandwich. A few Saturdays each month, my friend and I would bring food and socks and hand them out as we hung out with some homeless people known to live in the area.
But the man didn't really look homeless, so I almost talked myself out of it. Wouldn't he be offended if a random stranger offered him a homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwich and generic white socks?
Do a quick check. If you got the news that God’s justice was coming, how would you feel? Confused? Scared? Nothing? The emotional response we see in the Bible makes a clear picture: God's justice and righteousness are so awesome that it makes everyone and everything everywhere ecstatic. This is an important lesson for us. Being shaped by God's own heart for justice and righteousness, and getting a biblical understanding for that they are, means that our reaction to justice and righteousness should include excitement, happiness, and delight.
I grew up hearing some version of: "READ YOUR BIBLE IT'S YOUR CHRISTIAN DUTY" all the time. But I had no idea how to do this "reading" that I was constantly commanded to do. The Bible not like other books, where you could open it up at the beginning and just read it through to end. I tried that once and stopped after Exodus.
A helpful illustration of just how different our Western views of justice are from Biblical justice can be seen in the two of the cultural's symbols: scales versus rivers.
A question that stuck with me when I first stared reading about justice in the Bible was: Why does God take justice and injustice so seriously? Is He like a law-obsessed ruler sitting on His far away throne, enjoying throwing lightening bolts at particularly sinful people? That fit the picture I had of Him when I was growing up. But it didn't explain His passion for justice I saw in the Bible, one that seemed profoundly tied to people and relationships.
America, and many other nations, are facing a crisis. Looking at our own past can be paralyzing. Our parents ate sour grapes- way more than we’d like to admit- but what are we supposed to do about it? Can’t we just erase those inconvenient parts from our history books and just talk about the great stuff they did?