Pastors’ Blog

Biblical Justice Part 2


Categories: Biblical Justice

The first thorough treatments the Bible gives us of God’s justice are in the Law of Moses. The book of Genesis tells us many important things about God and human beings, but we are not given a lot of precise details on what God considers to be just and unjust. Abraham is a model of faith, but also a sinner like everyone else. His life is far from perfect, so it will not due to simply say “Abraham did this and we should do likewise.” However, when God gives his Law to the nation Israel through Moses, He has a lot to say about justice.

Not Under Law

One of the difficulties of picking out a single subject (like justice) in the Bible to discuss is that all the subject matter in the Bible is inter-related. Before we can fully discuss justice in the Law of Moses, we must understand a little bit about the Law of Moses and its function in scripture. Some, observing that the New Testament tells us that we are “not under Law” (Rom 6:15), might be tempted to think that the Law has no relevance for contemporary Christians. But this cannot fit the teaching that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

The fact that we are not under the Law means that we are not under the Law as a system. The Law had several purposes in Ancient Israel.[1] For example, it gave Israel a national identity. It revealed their sin and the need for atonement, which was symbolized by the animal sacrifices. It provided a civil code to prevent and punish crime. And it revealed the righteousness of God. While the Law as a system was rendered unnecessary by the death and resurrection of Christ, we can still look to the Law to understand God’s righteousness. In fact, the moral commandments of the Law are almost all repeated in the New Testament. The Bible is clear that keeping these commandments cannot save us, but they do show us God’s moral character. By obeying these commands, we share in His moral character.

Some Bible teachers have found it helpful to discuss the Law of Moses in three categories. As long as we recognize that the Law functioned as a unit, these divisions can be helpful. The categories are : 1. the civil law, 2. the ceremonial law and 3. the moral law. We must understand that, for the ancient Israelite, these were all moral laws in the sense that violating them would be disobeying God. We must further understand that the moral law was part of the Law system. Thus, we cannot say (as some have)[2] that we are not under the civil and ceremonial laws, but we are under the moral law. Not under Law means all of it! Once we do understand this, however, New Testament Christians are prepared to learn from each area of the Law.

The Civil Law

The civil law refers primarily to legal consequences in ancient Israel for certain actions. The consequence for murder was stoning, etc. The civil law shows us many things, but more than anything else, it shows us God’s wrath over sin. The severe punishments for immorality and idolatry show us that God’s wrath over sin is real, which helps us understand our need for a Savior.

The Ceremonial Law

The ceremonial law refers to religious practices that Ancient Israel observed. It shows us that salvation from sin can only be accomplished by the shedding of blood. The Book of Leviticus is full of pictures of Christ and his work. Every animal sacrifice symbolized the death of Christ as a substitute for sin. Every ceremonial washing symbolized the need for cleansing from sin. Every atonement ceremony shows us that God’s wrath for sin must be satisfied.

The Moral Law

The moral law refers to commands that simply tell us how God commanded Israelites to live. “You shall not commit adultery,” etc. This aspect of the law has the most bearing on our subject of justice. The moral law shows us God’s righteousness. God’s righteousness is His moral character. His justice is a sub-category of his righteousness. Though some Hebrew words can mean either “righteousness” or “justice,” depending on context, sometimes these two concepts are seen together. Psalm 84:14 tells us that righteousness (tsadiq) and justice (mishpot) are the foundation of God’s throne. Commenting on this verse, Dr. Tony Evans explains:

“Righteousness is the moral standard of right and wrong to which God holds men accountable based on His divine standard. Justice is the impartial and equitable application of God’s moral law in society. And God wants both.”[3]

God’s righteousness as revealed in God’s Law shows us God’s heart. It shows us his cares and concerns for his relationship with human beings and human beings’ relationships with one another. And one of the paramount concerns is justice.

“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut 16:20).

God is particularly concerned that his people should not deny justice to those who are most vulnerable in society. In the world of Ancient Israel, this meant the poor, widows, the fatherless and the immigrant.

“Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits” (Exod 23:6).

“Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deut 24:17).

The word translated “alien” in the NIV is rendered “resident foreigner” in the NET Bible. This word could also be translated as “immigrant.” The word translated “fatherless” by the NIV is sometimes rendered as “orphan,” but “fatherless” is preferable because the person described might have a living mother. Swanson explains the meaning of the word as follows:

“An orphan with a dead father and a widowed mother, as a class of persons helpless and without resource (Dt 10:18), note: it is possible in some contexts both parents are dead, but this is not explicitly stated.”[4]

In these verses, the poor, widows, those with no father and immigrants are viewed as classes of people that are in danger of injustice. Why? Because these were (and are) groups with little or no power to defend themselves. Thompson explains:

“Justice towards defenseless people, such as the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow, is a classical theme of all ancient moralists whether in Egypt, Canaan or Israel. The Old Testament insists that the protection of the weak is a duty not only for kings (Ps. 72:12–14) but also for the whole of society (Deut. 10:18; 27:19; Exod. 22:22; 23:6–9; Lev. 19:33; Prov. 22:22).”[5]

Why were these groups vulnerable? In the case of the poor it was because wealth meant power. This has been the case throughout human history. Those with wealth can defend themselves, and can take advantage of those less powerful. Those with nothing are easy targets.

Widows and the fatherless were vulnerable because they had no grown man to provide for them and defend them. In a pre-industrial, agrarian society, most people survived because of their ability to work the land. The work was hard, and women and children were not able to provide for themselves without a husband and father figure. They also had no man to stand up for them against oppressors. It is easy for people living in a world of office jobs, law firms and Starbucks cafes to say: “who needs a man?” In the ancient world, that was simply not reality.

Immigrants were vulnerable because it was natural for others to view them as, at best, second class citizens. Human beings have a tendency to side with those who look and talk like them, in court and in general. This was why God had to be so explicit about the rights of immigrants in Israel.

All of these groups have a contemporary equivalent in any society, including the modern-day United States. Thus, God’s eternal moral character, as revealed in God’s Law, has very important applications for us today. In the next few blogs, we will discuss what the Bible says about justice for these groups in greater detail.

[1] J. D. Pentecost, for instance, explains ten purposes of the Law. “The Purpose of the Law” (Bibliotheca Sacra 128:511 [July, 1971]), 227-33.

[2] Some teachers seem to misunderstand the phrase “not under Law” to mean that there are no moral standards and we can do as we wish. This is not what the New Testament teaches. Rather, it teaches us that the Law was part of the Old Covenant, and God has placed us under a New Covenant, with its own commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15). He gave many commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The Bible refers to Christ’s moral teaching as the “Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:2) and the “Law that brings freedom” (James 1:25, 2:12).


[4] Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[5] J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 271-72.

Author: Pete Vik