Justice in the New Testament

Ted Grimsrud

In the Christian tradition, “justice” has often been seen as something far removed from Jesus’ life and teaching. However, when we posit a polarity between Jesus’ message and justice we undermined both our ability to understand justice in more redemptive and restorative terms and our ability to see in Jesus a political approach that indeed speaks directly to the “real world.”

Jesus and God’s Healing Strategy

Several Old Testament terms describe God’s healing work—shalom (peace), hesed (loving kindness), mispat and tsedeqah (righteousness/justice) prominent among them.  These terms often cluster together in a mutually reinforcing way.

Just a few examples include Micah 6:8 (“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness?”), Psalm 85:10-11 (“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other.  Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and justice will look down from the sky.”), and Psalm 89:14 (“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.”).

Jesus understood himself (and was confessed thus by early Christians) to fulfill the message of Torah.  He makes the call to love neighbors, to bring healing into broken contexts, and to offer forgiveness and restoration in face of wrongdoing central.

As he began his ministry, Jesus clarified his healing vocation in face of temptations to fight injustice with coercion and violence.  He made clear that genuine justice has not to do with punishing wrongdoers nor with a kind of holiness that cannot be in the presence of sin and evil. Rather, genuine justice enters directly into the world of sin and evil and seeks in the midst of that world to bring healing and transformation—a restoration of whole relationships.

Jesus began his public ministry with a call to repent (Mark 1:15)—turn from injustice and alienation and toward life.  The kingdom of God (the rule of God as presented in Torah of old) is present.  And in this kingdom, God has special concern for the wellbeing of the vulnerable, the excluded, and oppressed (see also Luke’s version of Jesus’ opening words in Luke 4).

The “justice” for which Jesus calls his followers to thirst in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:6) speaks of life, of reconciliation, the restoration of relationships with God and with one another (same as the “justice” the Old Testament links with peace and steadfast love).  Note, however, that Luke’s version juxtaposes those who do hear and respond to Jesus’ message with those who do not—and woe to the unrepentant rich, echoing those of Amos’s day (Luke 6:24-26).

Jesus incarnates Old Testament justice.  The prophets preached a message of justice where God enters the brokenness of fallen humanity and brings the possibility of healing—blessing all the families of the earth. God’s holiness motivates God’s compassion. As the Holy One in the midst of humanity, Jesus brings a message of compassion and healing, not condemnation and punishment.  God as seen in Jesus is “holy” not in the sense of being unable to be in the presence of sin and evil but in the sense of willingly entering directly into the reality of sin and evil with a message of compassion.  Matthew 8–9 gives a series of healing stories that illustrates this type of holiness.  Jesus heals all sorts of unclean and excluded people—touching their uncleanness with transformative love.

For Jesus, God’s will as expressed in Torah includes a direct challenge to injustice and oppression.  However, this will means to include everyone, sinner and just person alike, in a reconciled community that heals the wounds that lead to the oppression and injustice.  Even those who put Jesus on the cross deserve forgiveness (Luke 23:34).

Jesus’ Own Use of “Justice” Language

Jesus’ focus on justice has been obscured in the history of English-speaking Christianity by the decision of New Testament translators to render the Greek word dikaiosune and its derivatives as “righteousness” (and “righteous,” “unrighteous,” “wicked,” and “wickedness”) instead of as “justice” (and “just,” and “unjust,” and “injustice”).

The translations clearly can go either way.  Our main concern should be to resist the tendency of such terms to be understood in terms of present-day meanings for words such as “righteous” and “wicked” (and, of course, “justice” and “injustice”) and then reading that meaning back into the biblical text.

I want to suggest that we use “justice” (and derivatives) consistently to make clear that often words with the dik– root are being used together in ways that our English translations may make unclear.  Given the use of dik– words in the Septuagint to translate Old Testament justice language, we may justifiably read these words as “justice,” “injustice,” “just,” et al.

Let’s focus on Matthew, the gospel that uses this language more often than the other gospels.  Matthew calls Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary, a “just” man (1:19).  When he learns of her pregnancy he wants to protect Mary’s reputation and “dismiss her quietly.”  Then, as a more authentic expression of his justness, Joseph takes to heart the words of the angel in dream and realizes that Mary has the Lord’s blessing and he stays with her.

Matthew reports Jesus’ lengthy discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus outlines the basic characteristics of his message, presenting this message as an updated Torah.  He begins with a statement of the kind of people who will be most at home in this kingdom he is bringing nearer—including those who hunger and thirst for justice (5:6).  Such people will “be filled.”  As a programmatic statement, Jesus here links his message directly with the Old Testament prophets and their reading of Torah—and promises that justice will be done.

Yet, for the time being, the doing of justice will result in persecution (5:11).  The status quo, founded on injustice, will not welcome the work of Jesus’ friends but will fight it tooth and nail.  Again, Jesus links his followers and their work for justice and its consequences with the prophets of old (5:12)—and promises God’s vindication.

Jesus calls his followers to a justice that surpasses that of the Pharisees (5:20).  This follows a strong affirmation of Torah.  His debate with the Pharisees concerns what constitutes the key elements of Torah.  Jesus sees himself in continuity with Moses.  His ministry of justice embodies the message of Torah—a message we will later hear summarized as love of God and neighbor.  The ministry of justice centers on love of neighbor.  Jesus will issue a blistering critique of the Pharisees precisely on his view that their application of Torah does not center on love and genuine justice (two closely linked motifs for Jesus and the prophets).

Jesus challenges his readers to avoid preoccupation with material possessions can too easily govern one’s loyalties.  God knows we need to eat and have a place to sleep.  We may trust God for these provisions.  Our preoccupation, though, should be with “the kingdom of God and its justice” (6:33).  As we trust in God and share God’s priorities (God’s healing strategy of restorative justice), God will meet all our other needs as well.

Matthew tells of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees over hungry people gleaning food and Jesus’ healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath—a conflict over the meaning of Torah.  Is Torah about “mercy” or about “sacrifice” (12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6)?  Matthew follows this encounter with a paraphrase from Isaiah 42:1-4 about the chosen servant of God (said to be fulfilled in Jesus) who, at the heart of his ministry (linking back to Genesis 12:1-3 and Isaiah 2:2-4) “proclaims justice to the Gentiles.”  The servant’s ministry of non-coercive love will “bring justice to victory….In his name the Gentiles will hope” (12:18-21).

Jesus gives another lesson on the meaning of justice in his parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20.  He tells of a landowner who hires some workers and promises to pay them a “just” wage for their work (20:4).  In the end, he pays them what he promised.  However, to the chagrin of the first workers, who worked all day for their wage, the owner paid the same amount to some workers hired later in the day.  Jesus suggests here that justice has not to do with strict fairness but also includes a kind of generosity that goes beyond what is expected—without short-changing the original commitments.  He challenges those who would question of justice of such generosity: “Are you envious because I am generous?” (20:15).

Matthew links justice and generosity toward those most in need again in a confrontation between Jesus and chief priests.  “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you,” Jesus asserted.  “For John came to you in the way of justice and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (21:31-32).

The “way of justice” here refers to restorative not retributive justice, a kind of justice that is inclusive and effects healing not a kind of justice that is exclusive and effects alienation between the haves and have-nots.

Jesus again reiterates the Old Testament sense the key elements of Torah complementing one another: mercy, justice, and shalom. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (23:23).

A final example from Matthew comes when Jesus speaks of the “end of the age.”  He concludes this teaching with an account of the great separation between those deemed to be just and those deemed to be unjust.  The decisive factor in this life or death expression of justice turns out to be acts of generosity and compassion:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and your welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35-36).  Such acts embody genuine justice and echo the words of Jesus about his own vocation in Luke four: freedom for the oppressed, sight to the blind, good news to the poor.

The final item on Jesus’ account in Matthew 25 of the just life ironically contrasts with what we saw above in chapter two concerning the practice of retributive justice in our society.  For our society, such “justice” involves locking people up under horrific conditions and essentially condemning them to a life sentence of shame and alienation.  In contrast, for Jesus genuine justice involves visiting prisoners—displaying welcome, hospitality, and healing.

If we translate the Greek word dikaiosune and related terms such as “justice,” et al, we will see that our topic is important in books such as Romans and Revelation.  And we will see that the concerns of these books reinforces what we said above about Jesus and justice.

Paul’s project

In his most thorough articulation of his theology, the letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul begins his argument with a programmatic statement in 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. In the gospel the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith.”

By “the justice of God,” Paul has in mind a cosmic transformation that brings together the personal and social in a unified transformative intervention by God to bring healing to all aspects of creation. Paul links “justice” closely with “salvation.” Paul understood God’s “justice” to be the characteristic of God that leads to salvation (not punishment) for God’s enemies.

Paul announces that God’s “justice” has now been “revealed.”  The term translated “revealed” (apokalypsis—the word from which “apocalypse” comes) in many cases in the Bible indicates an epoch-defining, transforming message from God.  For Paul, God “reveals” that in Jesus the kingdom of God has been made present.  Those who receive this revelation will never see the world the same again.

Paul asserts in 1:17 that the “just shall live by faithfulness.” As the letter to the Christians in Rome will reiterate throughout, this faithfulness most powerfully should be characterized by the coming together of Jew with Gentile.

After this introduction, Paul turns to the big problem.  He analyzes dynamics that move people from the rejection of truth to lack of gratitude to trust in created things to out of control lust to injustice and violence.  This dynamic expresses “wrath,” which has to do with God “giving them up” to a self-selected spiral of death.

In 1:17 we have the salvific “revelation” of God’s justice.  In the next verse, we have the suppression of truth that leads to the “revelation” of God’s wrath.  With “justice,” people see created things for what they are (pointers to the creator), not false gods worthy of ultimate loyalty.  Such sight leads to life.  With “wrath,” the act of giving loyalty to created things results in truth being suppressed and a spiral of lifelessness.

God has built within creation itself directives that should lead to “justice” (linking “justice” here with a basic stance of gratitude towards life that encourages kindness, generosity, and wholeness in relationships).  Many people have not lived in gratitude (1:22) and as a consequence brokenness characterizes much of human life.

People trade their humanity as God’s children for “images” that resemble created things.  This trade leads to an exchange of justice for wrath leading to an exchange of justice for injustice, of life for death. In 1:28, Paul once more refers to the dynamic where “God gives them up,” in this case to a “debased mind.”  They can’t see reality as it is.  The revelation of God’s love becomes wrath for them rather than whole-making justice.  When people trust in things other than God, their ability to think and perceive and see and discern is profoundly clouded.

When people worship “created things,” the progression moves inexorably toward injustice—suppression of truth (1:18), refusal to honor and give thanks to God (1:21), darkened minds (1:21), the exchange of God’s glory for lifeless images (1:23), being “given up” to lusts that degrade their bodies (1:24), the worship of the creature rather than creator (1:25), degrading passions and acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

Paul’s “degrading passions” were not sexual but ideological—and led to the same result, injustice and violence. After Paul met Jesus he learned that violence is always a sign of falsehood.  The truth he thought he served was actually a lie.  The works of the law that he defended turned out to be idolatrous.  He had been just as much of an idolater as those who run the Roman Empire.

Paul writes of “God’s just judgment” in 2:5 using the same terms that in 1:32 are translated as “God’s decree.”  The latter is what the first set of idolaters know but ignore in their injustice.  The former is what will be revealed to the second set of idolaters “on the day of wrath.”  The injustices of 1:29-31 and the judging of 2:1-2 are the same kind of phenomena; both blind people to God’s authentic justice.  By denying the life-giving justice of God, both types of idolaters condemn themselves to experience God’s justice as wrath.

Justice Apart from Idolatry

The conclusion to Paul’s argument in Romans 1–3 shows us that Paul’s own liberation followed a revelation of Jesus apart from “works of the law.”  This is how the idolatry problem is solved:  “The justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22).

God’s “justice” here joins the thread throughout the first three chapters that links together justice, injustice, and God’s decree/just judgment—all terms with a dik- root.  Another dik- word, “justification,” points to how God will set things right and bring about healing and reconciliation.

Contrary to Saul the Pharisee’s idea that “justice” leads to persecution of followers of Jesus, now Paul the Apostle asserts that justice involves reconciliation.  God makes this justice known in an epoch-transforming disclosure.  God’s work is primarily a work to “make known,” to transform minds, to enlighten those whose idolatry had darkened their awareness.

The “law and prophets” attest to God’s disclosure of genuine justice (3:21-22).  They had proclaimed the same message.  To be just means to love God and neighbor and bless all the families of the earth.  The law and prophets also attest to the problems that arise when the law becomes an idol that underwrites injustice.

Jesus’ faithfulness in his life discloses God’s justice.  As Jesus emphasized, the law is to serve human beings, not human beings to serve the law.  Jesus’ own life of freedom from the Powers and their idolatrous dynamics frees (“redeems,” 3:24) all those who trust in his way as the true disclosure of God’s justice.

When Paul speaks of Jesus’ blood as the means of “a sacrifice of atonement” put forward by God, he refers to Jesus’ self-sacrificial life that led to his crucifixion as a witness to God’s justice.  God “put forward Jesus” in order “to show God’s justice” (3:25).  Jesus’ self-sacrifice was “effective” through his faithfulness (3:25). God’s justice leaves no place for self-superiority. All have equally practiced idolatry and all have equal access to the healing justice of God.

The “Just” God of Revelation

In Revelation, God’s justice has to do with a view of the ultimate fate of humanity and links with God’s “wrath.”  How does God’s work envisioned in Revelation reflect God’s “justice”?  Let’s look at the four texts that specifically refer to God’s justice.

God’s Justice and the Song of the Lamb: 15:1-8. This vision juxtaposes plague with worship language.  John sees the worship of the “conquerors” who sing the song of Moses and the Lamb, and affirm God’s deeds as just and true.  All nations will come and worship God because God’s just deeds have been revealed. The “song” contains phrases from Old Testament passages that emphasize God’s greatness “all nations” to worship God because God’s “just deeds have been revealed.”  These same “nations” have bowed before the Beast in 13:7 and raged at God’s judgments in 11:18.  God’s justice does not destroy but converts them.

Giving the Oppressors Their Due: 16:4-7.  The specific references to “justice” here have to do with God’s judgment on those who “have shed the blood of God’s saints and prophets” (16:6).  In judgment, God giving the blood-shedders blood to drink through the agency of the angel who turned drinking water into blood. God does not directly cause the plagues but rather God uses the powers’ evil act for God’s own purposes of destroying those evil powers and establishing the New Jerusalem.  The “wrath” in Revelation, attributed to God, is the impersonal working out, within history, of evil destroying itself.

This passage portrays the outworking of “wrath” as part of God’s justice.  God’s wrath is necessary for evil to be destroyed, which is the only way creation can ultimately be liberated.  God’s wrath serves God’s redemptive purposes.

The Wedding Supper of the Lamb: 19:1-10. God’s “true and just judgments” lead to the wedding of the Lamb in 19:7.  The “Bride,” the followers of the Lamb, made herself ready by putting on the fine linen.  The linen “stands for the just acts of the saints” (19:8). This passage celebrates salvation.  All that has stood in the way of God’s rule has been removed, and the New Jerusalem may now come down.  The key aspects of “justice” here are: (1) the tying together of God’s justice with the destruction of the evil powers and salvation, and (2) the emphasis on the importance of the Lamb’s followers doing deeds of justice.

The Warrior for Justice: 19:11-21. Jesus (“in justice he judges”) comes as the one who has conquered through his death and resurrection. He gained the white horse due to this faithfulness. In 19:13, the rider approaches the “dressed in a robe dipped in blood.”  The blood has already been shed before the battle begins, an allusion to Jesus’ cross.  So no actual battle takes place here.

The “armies of heaven” (19:14) carry no weapons.  They too have already conquered.  The only weapon mentioned at all is the sword that comes out of Jesus’ mouth—his word, the gospel (cf. Heb 4:12 and Eph 6:17).  This sword eventually brings the nations to their knees. Jesus’ “war” for justice (19:11) sets things right and establishes God’s kingdom fully with the weapons of powerful love.

Why God is Called “Just” in Revelation

John presents God using all that happens in human history for the purpose of establishing the New Jerusalem.  God’s “just deeds” are ultimately redemptive—for creation, for the faithful witnesses, and ultimately for the nations and the kings of the earth (cf. 21:24).

Visions of God as creator and redeemer (chapters 4–5) who makes all things new (chapters 21–22) bracket and interpret Revelation’s plagues. The plagues do not exemplify God’s justice but only serve the end of God’s justice: redemption that leads to the new world.

The centrality of the Lamb in Revelation leads to a reversal of conventional wisdom regarding power and justice.  The power of love equals true justice.  The Lamb reigns over history, not as a crowned king like Caesar, but as the incarnation of love itself.  This love goes so far as to give itself, to abandon itself.  The Lamb’s kingly power rests on this kind of love.

God’s just deeds accomplish the destruction of the evil powers that imprison humankind.  John differentiates between these powers, who are God’s real enemies, and human beings, for whose sake these powers must be destroyed.  Fighting evil with the violent tools of the beast only adds to the evil.  The Lamb’s way of persevering love offers the only possible victory over the evil powers.

The “just deeds” of God, according to the overall message of Revelation, seek not the punishment and destruction of people but rather the destruction of the destroyers of people.  It is upon these that God’s retribution falls.  And as a consequences, the dragon’s human allies, the kings of the earth, find healing.  God’s just deeds lead to salvation even for those who rebelled against God.  The leaves from the tree of life bring justice as healing to the nations—fulfilling the promise of Genesis 12:3 that Abraham’s descendents would bless all the families of the earth.

5 thoughts on “Justice in the New Testament

  1. Lowell Noble

    Ted, I discovered your essay on justice in the NT yesterday, and I reread it again this morning. Over the years I have been discovering pieces of the NT puzzle/message on justice. You are the first scholar who has put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Thank you so much.

    A request: that you do the same with the oppression/injustice message of the NT. If you are not familar with Thomas Hanks two books, God So Loved the Third World, and The Subversive Gospel, I suggest that you begin here. You already seem to understand adikia as injustice.

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  3. Ch.David Branham

    Dear Ted this article on justice and righteousness is truly informative as well as challenging present christian view on this topic ..you have carefully blended love mercy and kindness as true justice in God’s intention. I am personally blessed and motivated thank you !

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