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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary


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Throughout the Bible, justice is closely connected with righteousness. Both words have a breadth of meaning in relation to character and conduct, and both are commonly concerned with doing right or being in the right (see RIGHTEOUSNESS).

God, the sovereign ruler of the universe, is perfect in justice (Genesis 18:25; Deuteronomy 32:4; Revelation 15:3). At the same time he is merciful. Sinners can have hope only because of the perfect harmony of justice and mercy within the divine nature (Exodus 34:6-7; Zephaniah 3:5; cf. Job 4:17; Malachi 3:6-7). There is no way that sinners can bring themselves into a right relationship with a just and holy God, but God is merciful to them. Through Jesus Christ, God has provided a way of salvation by which he can bring repentant sinners into a right relationship with himself, yet be just in doing so (Romans 3:26; see JUSTIFICATION).

In addition to the justice that is evident in God’s way of salvation, justice should be evident in the common affairs of human society. This is the aspect of justice that the present article is chiefly concerned with. The perfect expression of justice in governing human society is seen in the authority exercised by Jesus the King-Messiah (Isaiah 9:7; John 5:30; Acts 22:14; see KING). But God wants justice in the operations of all earthly governments, and likewise in private dealings between individuals (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

Basic concerns

Since people exist in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), there is within them an awareness of things being right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. The law of God is, as it were, written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). Though sin has hindered people’s understanding and dulled his consciences, the law of God remains within them. This unwritten law is what makes it possible for them to know what justice is and to draw up law-codes to administer justice in society.

The ancient Hebrew law-code demonstrates how the universal and timeless principles of justice can be applied to the cultural and social habits of a particular people and era. Moses’ law, given by God himself, sets out the sort of justice that God requires (Deuteronomy 16:18; Deuteronomy 32:44-47).

Justice must be the same for all, rich and poor alike (Exodus 23:3; Exodus 23:6-7; Deuteronomy 1:15-17). Laws must not be designed to suit the people of power and influence, but must protect the rights of those who can be easily exploited, such as foreigners, widows, orphans, debtors, labourers and the poor in general (Exodus 21:1-11; Exodus 22:21-27; Exodus 23:6-12; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; Deuteronomy 15:11). Also penalties must fit the crime, being neither too heavy nor too light (Exodus 21:23-25; see PUNISHMENT).

Although the history of Israel mentions many kings, judges and other administrators who upheld such principles of justice (2 Samuel 8:15; 2 Samuel 23:3-4; Psalms 101; Isaiah 33:15-16; Jeremiah 22:15), it also mentions many who ignored them (1 Samuel 8:3; 2 Kings 21:16; Ecclesiastes 5:8; Isaiah 5:23; Jeremiah 22:17; see RULER). In both Old and New Testament times godly people were fearless in condemning injustice, whether committed by civil authorities or religious leaders. Civil power gives no one the right to do as he likes, and religious exercises are no substitute for common justice (Isaiah 1:14-17; Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 59:14-15; Amos 5:11-12; Amos 5:21-23; Micah 7:3; Mark 11:15-17; Mark 12:40; Luke 6:25; Luke 16:19-25; James 5:1-6).

Influence for good

God’s way of dealing with the sinfulness of human society begins not with changing the social order, but with changing individuals. Those individuals, however, are part of society, and they will help change society as they promote the values of life they have learnt through coming to know God (Matthew 5:13; Matthew 5:16; 1 Corinthians 7:21-24; Ephesians 4:17-24; Ephesians 5:8-11). Genuine moral goodness includes within it a concern to correct social injustice. This involves not merely condemning evil, but positively doing good (Isaiah 1:17; Amos 5:15; Amos 5:24; Micah 6:8; Matthew 23:23; Luke 3:10-14; Colossians 4:1; James 1:27).

Political conditions vary from one country to another, and these will largely determine the extent to which God’s people can actively try to persuade the government to improve social justice. Much depends on what rights citizens have to choose their government and influence its decisions (see GOVERNMENT). But no matter what kind of government they live under, God’s people should always work to promote values of human dignity (cf. Psalms 8:5-8). In so doing they may undermine unjust practices and eventually see them removed (Ephesians 2:13-16; Ephesians 5:25; Ephesians 6:5-9; Philem 16; see RACE; SLAVE; WOMEN; WORK). No government, however, can relieve them of their personal responsibility to help the disadvantaged in society (Leviticus 25:35-40; Isaiah 58:6-7; Matthew 5:9; Matthew 25:34-36; Luke 10:30-36).

Bearing with injustice

Christians may suffer injustice in the form of discrimination and even persecution, both from governments and from citizens. Like Jesus they must accept any such opposition bravely and not try to retaliate (Romans 12:19-21; 1 Peter 2:15; 1 Peter 2:21-23; 1 Peter 3:13; 1 Peter 4:16; see PERSECUTION). There may be cases where they claim their rights in support of those principles of justice that government officials are supposed to administer (Acts 16:35-39; Acts 22:25; Acts 25:10-11), but they should not use their rights for selfish purposes.

When Jesus told his followers that they were not to demand ‘an eye for an eye’, he was not undermining the basis of civil justice (which does demand ‘an eye for an eye’ and positively ‘returns evil for evil’ by imposing a penalty to fit the offence). Rather Jesus was telling his followers that the spirit ruling in their hearts must not be the same as that which operates in a code of legal justice. God’s people must always be prepared to sacrifice their rights and even do good to those who harm them (Matthew 5:38-42; 1 Corinthians 6:7-8; Philippians 2:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15).

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Justice'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. 2004.

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