What is Justice in the Bible?
In the Bible, justice starts with God. The psalmist says “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne…” Psalm 89:14. Isaiah declares that the Lord ‘loves justice’ (Isaiah 61:8). And John describes God as ‘faithful and just’ in forgiving our sins (1 John 1:9).
Justice is central to God’s character. And because justice is in His nature, He instilled in us a desire for justice and established laws and processes to ensure justice in our interactions.
God’s Prescription for Justice
As in our culture, justice is fairness. Fairness in our treatment of others, in our determinations of guilt, innocence, and restitution. Exodus 23:1-9 sets forth the foundational aspects of justice as:
- Relying only on honest testimony without malice.
- Not being swayed by crowds.
- Neither favoring nor denying justice to the poor.
- Returning found property to its owner.
- Not denying justice to the poor people in their lawsuits.
- Not executing an innocent person.
- Not accepting bribes.
- Not oppressing foreigners.
Justice must be neither oppressive nor partial. Justice must be administered equally and fairly to all people, regardless of their station in life:
The Role of Judges and Priests
When the Lord gave the law to ancient Israel, He did so in order that they may have a framework for living as a community. Procedures for the administration of justice were a necessary part of this framework.
So, God instructed the people to ‘appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly’ (Deuteronomy 16:18). The judges had the responsibility of adjudicating criminal charges as well as civil disputes and were commanded to ‘follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (v 20).
Cases that were too weighty or difficult for the judges to decide could be brought to the priests (Deuteronomy 17:8-9). As the priests were the keepers of God’s law, they served as the highest court in Israel, and their verdict was final (vs. 10-11).
Even in the New Testament, we see that the Sanhedrin (the ruling group of priests) served as judges over matters related to Biblical law (Mark 14:53-55), even though larger civil matters were ultimately decided by the occupying Roman government (Mark 15:1)
Justice and Revenge
Just as our modern justice systems do not permit vigilante violence against persons or property, the Biblical justice process was designed to ensure that justice was not usurped by revenge.
If you’ve read our prior examination of what the Bible says about revenge, then you may be familiar with the Biblical safeguards against revenge, including:
- Multiple Witnesses: The testimony of a single witness was not enough to convict someone of a capital crime. The accused could only be convicted (and subject to execution) by the testimony of two or more witnesses
- Refuge Cities: Refuges were established throughout the land to ensure that the accused would not suffer acts of vengeance before they could face proper justice.
- Fair Sentencing: ‘An eye for an eye’ ensured that sentences were fair and that excessive restitution would not tip the sentence from a just resolution to an act of court-sanctioned revenge.
Justice and Peace
Where Biblical justice diverges from our modern sense of justice is in its emphasis on mercy. Through the prophet Micah, God instructs the people to ‘act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).
And even Jesus affirms tempering justice with mercy when he pronounces woe on the Pharisees for their failure to observe justice, telling them that they ‘have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (Matthew 23:23).
But why? Because, as both Micah and Jesus testify, tempering justice with mercy is how we remain humble in our administration of justice and faithful to the God that we serve. As James explains in his epistle:
It is only in Jesus that we can resolve the apparent paradox that unites mercy with justice. God is merciful because of His great love for us. And it is His mercy that opens the door for us to receive forgiveness and be made righteous before God, and no longer subject to judgment.
Having been made righteous, we are given peace with God, and He calls us to share that peace with others by acting with mercy even while administering justice. We do this not by ignoring wrongdoing or failing to address it, but by overcoming wrongs with mercy, as these stories show:
Examples of Justice in the Bible
Onesimus: Paul’s short letter to Philemon records the story of Onesimus, who was Philemon’s runaway slave. Onesimus had stolen from his master and fled but was later caught and thrown in prison. While there, he met the apostle Paul, who was a friend of Philemon. Through Paul, Onesimus came to know Jesus.
Justice required that Onesimus be held accountable for his actions, so Paul sent him back to Philemon as the law required. But, administering justice with mercy, Paul pledged to pay whatever restitution Onesimus owed. The outcome, we infer by the preservation of this letter and its inclusion in scripture, is one of reconciliation and peace.
The Woman Caught in Adultery: John 8:1-11 records the story of a woman who was brought to the temple to be stoned for adultery. Jesus challenged the improper administration of justice (the judges were her accusers) by inviting any in the crowd who was without sin to cast the first stone. One by one, they went away, thus leaving the woman spared from the vengeful actions of an angry mob.
Although she was guilty under the law, Jesus refused to allow justice to be applied unfairly or without due process. And when there was none left to accuse her, he dismissed her as an act of mercy.
Zacchaeus the Tax Collector: In the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the crooked tax collector had a life-altering encounter with Jesus. Confronted with the presence of Jesus and the righteousness and justice that He represented, Zacchaeus repented and pledged to repay four times what he had cheated.
Meeting Jesus compelled Zacchaeus to act with justice, and we should be likewise compelled by the presence of Jesus within us.
We have been called to act with mercy. But justice requires that we do so without ignoring or failing to address wrongdoing. This is especially true when the sin is our own, and restitution is required.
In such situations, Jesus instructs us to be proactive in making just restitution:
By making amends for our wrongs, not only do we act justly, but we also invite mercy on ourselves, and peace with our neighbor.
This is why Jesus, just a few verses later, further instructs ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well’ (Matthew 5:40). We serve God by going above and beyond in repaying our neighbor, and establishing peace before the consequences of justice are administered.
Consequences of Injustice
God is slow to anger and rich in mercy. So, He calls us to administer justice with mercy. But a time will come when those who do not turn to Him will experience the full measure of His justice.
And like vengeance, justice ultimately belongs not to man, but to God. And He has reserved judgment for those who do not practice justice themselves. As He says through the prophet Isaiah:
against the elders and leaders of his people:
“It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty ” Isaiah 3:14-15
And even Jesus, as He warns the Pharisees against their own injustice, and calls them to repent by declaring ‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?’ (Matthew 23:33).
Because the condemnation of hell awaits those who subject themselves to God’s judgment through their own acts of injustice. But if we call on the righteous mercy of the cross, then we avail ourselves of the justice that Jesus has received on our behalf, and we find forgiveness and salvation.