7. Justice in Romans and Revelation

As with the gospels, our awareness of the centrality of “justice” in the theology some of the central books of the New Testament is hindered by the tendency of English translations to use the term “righteousness.”  However, if we translate the Greek word dikaiosune and related terms 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 have discovered about justice in the Bible so far.

Paul’s program

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 (see especially Marshall, Beyond Retribution).

Paul links “justice” closely with “salvation.”  In the Bible, God’s “justice” describes God works to bring healing in the face of brokenness—“restorative justice.” Paul understood God’s “justice” to be the characteristic of God that leads to salvation (not punishment) for God’s enemies (see Romans 5:1-11).

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.

The Nations

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.  This exchange, Paul insists, is not necessary.  God has shown the world what is needed.  “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…, seen through the things he has made” (1:19-20).  However, when human beings exchange “the glory of God” for images that resemble created things they lose their ability to discern God’s revelation.

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 (1:26), shameless acts (1:27), debased minds (1:28), and profound injustice and violence (1:29-31).

Works of the Law

Paul’s concerns in 1:18-32 center on idolatry and the need to be free from the bondage idolatry fosters.  If one points fingers at other idolaters while denying one’s own tendency to worship idols, one will never find such freedom.  Hence, “the very same things” (2:1) that those who point fingers (the “judgers”) do are themselves forms of idolatry.

Paul himself, before he met Jesus, had experienced his own exchange of God for the boundary markers protecting the “truth faith” that required a violent defense.  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).  This understanding of God’s justice leaves no place for self-superiority.  “What becomes of boasting?” Paul asks.  “It is excluded” (3:27).  All have equally practiced idolatry and all have equal access to the healing justice of God.

The “Just” God of Revelation

In Revelation, the New Testament’s only piece of apocalyptic literature, God’s justice here 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 passage prefaces the series of seven bowl-plagues that make up chapter 16.  The bowl-plagues are the third and last series of seven-fold plagues.  In these plagues, John reports on pictures of reality, what has happened and will continue to happen.  These things, by and large, are evil.  What John saw in the Lamb opening the seals (6:1) and thereby setting the plagues in motion, however, affirmed that God uses even these evil things to bring about God’s purposes.

The vision in 15:1-8 juxtaposes plague with worship language.  John sees the worship of the “conquerors” who sing the song of Moses and of 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.

John alludes to Exodus 15 (crossing the Red Sea).  Those who “conquer” the beast are heirs of the children of Israel whose faithfulness liberates them from the dominance of the evil powers.  The “song of the Lamb” indicates they conquered through following the way of Jesus.

The “song” in 15:3-4 contains phrases from various Old Testament passages that together 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.

The plagues and outpouring of God’s wrath somehow link with God’s justice.  The songs of Moses and the Lamb serve to tie the plagues in with the exodus and with Jesus.  The ultimate effect and central manifestation of God’s “just deeds” are salvific, leading to the celebration of the “conquerors” and the worship of the nations.  The “conquerors” celebrate because they have, by their conquering of the Beast, contributed to the nations’ coming to worship God.

Giving the Oppressors Their Due: 16:4-7. In the third bowl-plague, we see God called “just” twice.  The “angel of the waters,” the one pouring out the bowl that turns water into blood, calls God “just.”  Then follows the “altar” in a likely reference back to 6:9-11, where John saw under the altar the souls of the martyrs who cry out for God to avenge their blood.

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.  This seems like a clear case of simple eye-for-an-eye retributive justice—but maybe not.

The plagues, stated to be instruments of God’s “wrath” (cf. 16:1), show God at work in the midst of the evils and catastrophes of human history.  God does not directly cause these 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 (cf. Hanson, The Wrath of the Lamb).

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. Following the destruction of Babylon in chapter 18, John reports a scene of celebration.  God’s judgments are “true and just.”  These “true and just judgments” lead to the wedding of the Lamb in 19:7, the focus of the celebration.  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. The rider is Jesus, of whom 19:11 states: “in justice he judges.” He comes as the one who has conquered through his death and resurrection.  He comes to this apparent battle with the forces of the antichrist (a “battle” foreseen in 16:14) already the victor. The outcome of the “battle” is not in question. The rider, called “faithful and true” remained such even to a martyr’s death.  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. He can already ride the white horse having conquered with his death and resurrection.

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.

The Beast and the kings and armies have only to be “seized” and “thrown” into the lake of fire (19:20).  We see no trace of any battle.  John believes that Jesus’ death and resurrection won the only battle necessary to defeat evil.  The picture of Christ’s victory in this passage simply reveals the one sufficient victory he has already won.  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

Revelation uses “just” as a key term to characterize God’s involvement in human history.  Why does John call God “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).

Revelation indeed contains visions of destruction.  However, visions of God as creator and redeemer (chapters 4–5) who makes all things new (chapters 21–22) bracket and interpret the plagues.  The chaos fits within God’s plan and leads to the fulfillment of human destiny in final union with God.  The plagues do not exemplify God’s justice but only serve the true end of God’s justice: the redemption that leads to the new world.

The core of Revelation lay not with the descent of the city of God, described in its closing visions, but with the vision of God and the Lamb in chapters four and five.  The slain and risen Lamb has accomplished redemption, risen to the throne of God, and begun his reign.  The turn of the ages lies in the past.  To see the most decisive expression of God’s justice, look at Jesus.

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.  Christ’s way alone can bring the struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil for ultimate sovereignty over creation to its final conclusion.

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.

One thought on “7. Justice in Romans and Revelation

  1. Pingback: The wrath of God | Bill LawtonKey Sensitivity

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