A Portait of Biblical Justice
By Rick DuBose | Posted In What Does the Bible Say
In this article, you won’t find a one-sentence definition, a one-word answer, or a cure-all for the sin of injustice. You won’t find a statement that’s just repeating any one political party or religious fellowship. You will find the effort to capture an aspect of God’s character that shows His heart for all people. And all means all.
Justice is a characteristic of God. We see this clearly communicated in Scripture when Moses declared God’s just nature in a song to the people of Israel with this line: “Everything [God] does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!” (Deuteronomy 32:4, NLT). Justice, or mishpat (מִשְׁפָּט) in the Hebrew Bible, has two aspects: retributive and restorative. More often than not, mishpat is used by biblical writers to refer to restorative justice—not stopping at punishment for wrongdoing but going beyond to what brings healing.
Restorative justice cannot be fully understood without the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. In Eden, God created humankind in His image. This image, or these God-given qualities, is what sets humanity apart from the rest of the created order and what makes all humans equal in value and purpose. When humankind chose their way over God’s (the Fall), they opened the door to all types of dysfunction, including choosing themselves over other people. This is the opposite of how those created in the image of God should be treated. We are all equal in God’s eyes no matter how we are dressed or where we come from, and we violate God’s image when we set ourselves above others. This understanding of the image of God is foundational motivation for treating people equally. Those who misunderstand this are those who commit evil against their fellow person, violating God’s image. The innate drive for self-preservation and the thirst for power motivate people to take advantage of one another, perpetuating selfishness from individual to global levels. This is a portrait of a godless society.
In Genesis, God called the man Abraham to start a new group of people who would stop violating the image of God in others. Genesis 18:19 records God’s words: “I have singled [Abraham] out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (NLT). He longed to create a society of people who would make misphat a way of life. This is a radical way of life. It was a way different from every other society of Abraham’s time, which functioned by distorting rather than upholding justice. It was a call to divine dependence rather than human intuition.
It’s no secret that living out mishpat can be hard. The Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, were oppressed by an unjust system in Egypt for more than four centuries until God delivered them; but when they were free, they also perpetuated injustice at times. The victims became the victimizers, and something had to be done for the Israelites and for everyone throughout history. It was also for you and for me. We all have the capacity to repeat this cycle.
While every person may not actively engage in injustice, passively we all have the potential to participate through self-serving tendencies inherent in our sinful nature. Whether we are perpetrator or victim at any moment in time, we have all sinned and thereby violated God’s standards of mishpat.
And this is the very reason Jesus came to earth. He came to take the punishment (retributive justice we deserved) and offer wholeness instead. He was the victim of injustice, and humanity was the accuser. We deserve the punishment He received, but instead of killing us, He allowed himself to die and then offers us the gift of His resurrected life so that we can walk in the mishpat He provided.
He saves us to justice, not from it. Receiving the promise of resurrected life is more than just a status change; it’s a lifelong call to service. Jesus saves us so that we can give our lives to mishpat: to fight for the lost and vulnerable, speak up for the under-served, and reach those whom society has rejected. All are God’s image-bearers and deserving of the justice Jesus offers. This biblical portrait of justice has the power to transform the world. If we could just consider every person as equal, worthy of a second chance at life, and worthy of the gospel of Jesus, then we could become agents of that transformation.
The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist announcing the person and ministry of Jesus. It is not until the 15th chapter that Jesus dies for the sins of the world. The first 14 chapters detail His ministry of engaging with people in their suffering and bringing them to places of hope, healing, and confession of Christ. In fact, Mark 10:45 sums up Jesus’ earthly ministry well: “[T]he Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” How often do we fail to do this? How often do we preserve our lives at the risk of losing the souls of others (cf. Matthew 16:25–27)?
Jesus, during His earthly ministry, also challenged the thought of the people in His day. On one occasion, He confronted participants of the established religious system by calling out their hypocrisy: “For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.” (Matthew 23:23, NLT). Even faithful religious participation doesn’t exclude you from mandatory participation in justice.
In his biblical book, James taught the church, the new people of God, that the foundation for justice is the absence of discrimination and prejudice. He wrote, “Suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” (James 2:2–4, NLT). In this passage, the Bible calls this discrimination evil—the very opposite of God.
When God established human authorities and laws based on His incorruptible wisdom, He did it so that we could manage human interaction and society in fair, lifegiving ways. But so often, we don’t. Humanity’s breakdown of applying God’s system comes when anything other than mishpat, restorative justice, is the goal of those in authority. What are sins? They’re a corruption of justice. Racism corrupts justice. Discrimination corrupts justice. Negligence corrupts justice. Hatred corrupts justice. Complacency corrupts justice.
What then can we do in response to a portrait of biblical justice?
Jeremiah 22:3 is a great starting point: “This is what the Lord says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent!” (NLT).
God is still calling His people to do what's right. He’s calling us to express mishpat in our world. No matter what’s been done to us and no matter how we got where we are, God’s command is that we should seek and invest in restorative justice for all. Here are five ways we can commit to mishpat today:
1. We can recognize the image of God in all people.
2. We can repent (literally turn in the opposite direction) for any violation of mishpat we individually and collectively have committed, asking forgiveness for our thinking and acting.
3. We can reevaluate the systems we use to determine how people are evaluated and treated.
4. We can reengage with our communities by actively seeking out the weak and vulnerable for the purposes of lifting them up and giving sacrificially to help them.
5. We can represent Jesus, the embodiment of mishpat, by sharing the Good News of His resurrected life. Through Him, the guilty can be declared righteous and retribution can meet restoration.