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Justice and the kingdom of God


Injustice opposes what God wants in his earthly realm. Many believers work for justice to promote the kingdom of God. For example, the Social Justice Secretary of the Salvation Army in South Australia says:

Working for justice means that we participate with God to reveal God’s Kingdom here on earth. Justice requires us to take a stand against unjust economic, legal, political and social systems – systems where people are marginalised and disadvantaged. Justice requires that we stand against poverty, racism and sexism as these structures inhibit human flourishing.
— Amanda Merrett, Justice the responsibility of all Christians, 2017.

When I began pursuing the kingdom of God a decade ago, I wondered if this is where it would lead me. The kingdom was Jesus’ main agenda. If I had the same agenda as Jesus, would it lead me to oppose injustice, attend protest rallies, write letters to governments and media about the issues of injustice that upset me deeply? There are many such issues, like locking people away for years when their only crime is coming to our shores to seek safety.

But seeking the kingdom of God has not led me to protest. While I share in the grief of those who are mistreated in our society and I empathize with my brothers and sisters who want to do something about it, I don’t believe we can promote the kingdom of God by appealing to existing powers to do better. Systemic evil is too deeply rooted for that to work.

Israel’s prophets

My friends remind me what the Old Testament prophets said:

Micah 6 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (NIV)

They’re right of course. The prophets kept confronting the kings of Israel and Judah over their abuse of power. Killing Naboth to take his vineyard is not acting justly (1 Kings 22). Filling Jerusalem with blood is not loving mercy (2 Kings 21:16). Fattening yourself at the people’s expense is not walking humbly before your God.

Ezekiel 34 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. … 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (NIV)

This was no idle threat to sack the kings who mispresented God’s power. Ezekiel’s words were his response to news that Jerusalem had fallen (Ezekiel 33:21). It really was the end of the kings of Israel and Judah.

In Hebrew lists, the final item packs the punch. The big issue in Micah 6:8 is leaders abusing power because they do not walk humbly before their God.

When power corrupted King Saul, God sought someone after my own heart, a leader to care for his flock as unselfishly as God does (1 Samuel 13:14). David was walking humbly before his God when he declared himself a mere under-shepherd: The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23:1).

Yet, every leader struggles with abusing power for their own advantage. What David did to Bathsheba and Uriah constituted eating the flock instead of walking humbly before his God (2 Samuel 12:4).

Opposing evil today

Do the prophetic confrontations of the Israel’s kings transfer to confronting political leaders today? Israel was a kingdom of God, a nation founded by the Sinai covenant under God’s direct rule. Australia is not. No country on earth today is a kingdom of God. The kingdom of God today has only one leader appointed by God. His name is Jesus the Christ, and he is Lord of all.

It makes no sense to reproach Anthony Albanese for failing to walk humbly before his God in his role as prime minister of Australia. We’re disappointed when our government does not act justly. We’re crushed when it doesn’t love mercy. We’re angry at the audacity of leaders who secretly grasp multiple ministerial portfolios because they do not walk humbly before their God.

But we’re not surprised. This is what human rulers do, whether they were elected or inherited power. Looking to them for justice is short-sighted. Sure, some are worse than others, but to expect justice from Pharaoh or Caesar is to misunderstand the gospel.

God’s gospel is his proclamation that his Son as our global leader (Lord of all). The gospel of the kingdom is the good news that God’s anointed is now in charge (king). We all belong under one leader, and he is the one we approach for justice and mercy in humility.

Oh, how the rulers of this world love it when we approach them as if they have the power to solve all our problems! The last thing we want to do is feed the hubris of those who portray themselves as the answer to all our needs.

Daniel

There was this Persian king who wanted everyone to believe he was the answer to all their needs, so he issued a decree banning all requests to any other ruler, divine or human. The penalty for bypassing the king’s authority was that he would feed you to his lions (Daniel 6:7).

So, what does Daniel do? Organize a protest rally? Write to the media to complain that Darius is not acting justly, loving mercy, or walking humbly before his God?

Daniel ignores the silly king and keeps making requests to the throne he believes in:

Daniel 6 10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. (NIV)

Why bother with the princes of this world who are here today and gone tomorrow? Daniel had seen Babylon fall. He knew Persia would too. It’s a mistake t0 expect the kingdoms of the world to bring us justice.

Jesus

When Jesus heard Herod had locked up John the Baptist, what did he do? Write a letter condemning Herod’s abuse of power? Picket Herod’s palace? “Justice for John!” would make a great banner.

Mark 114 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near.” (NIV)

Jesus insulted the old fox by ignoring him. He expected no justice from Herod. He asked nothing from Herod’s throne because he believed in another one.

But King Jesus does require his people to extend his care to those who’ve been missing out. Everywhere he went he cared for those who were unwell and oppressed. Some people might view his social justice programme as something other than the gospel, but not Jesus. This was how he expressed the gospel, the good news of his kingship (Matthew 4:23).  He said he’d give his kingdom to the poor (Matthew 5:3), and he did.

Caring for the poor is kingdom work. Condemning the current rulers is not.

Jesus did confront the religious leaders in Jerusalem. He said they were hypocrites, acting as if they had God’s authority while rejecting his king (Matthew 23). There’s definitely a place for standing against those who claim to represent God’s kingdom but prefer to kill the king than to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before their God.

Pardon my cynicism, but we’re wasting our time trying to get any long-term justice from the governments of this world.

Paul

Arrested in Philippi, Paul did not confront the authorities over their injustice against a Roman citizen. He didn’t even mention his citizenship until the next morning when he needed to help the jailer who had found the real hope of the world (Acts 16:22-38).

Paul never confronted Caesar’s abusive practices. Opposing Caesar’s injustice is not kingdom-of-God work because Caesar doesn’t lead the kingdom of God.

Paul spends all his energy declaring earth’s true Lord, the king God has anointed for his kingdom, in summary: proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:31).

Paul writes his letters to the communities who acknowledge Jesus as Lord. He calls us to practice justice, to love mercy, and to live humbly before our God. He insists we no longer live the way the nations do with their futile thinking (Ephesians 4:17).

Kingdom-of-God work calls for justice, mercy, and humility before God in those who recognize the king. It’s not condemning the kingdoms of this world for their injustices.

Revelation

The Bible’s final book can sound anti-imperial. A city set on seven hills, led by a beast, falling like Babylon — aren’t these visions condemning the evil empire?

Revelation is not addressed to Caesar’s government. It’s addressed to seven assemblies of the true ruler. King Jesus confronts his churches over how we represent his throne. He warns us to be careful who to look to for justice.

Rome does not have the throne. The one who has the throne has appointed his Christ as ruler of the kings of the earth (Revelation 1:4-5). Satan’s throne among us causes unjust suffering (2:13-14), but we’re aligned with the reign of the one who has his Father’s throne (3:21).

Injustice has tied up the edicts God intends for his world, but no leader has the power to break them (5:1-5) — no one except Christ who exposes the injustices as he breaks them: conquest, war, famine, and death, even death for those who proclaim earth’s true Lord (6:1-11).

The only leader who can bring justice is the Lamb who received the throne by giving his life (5:5-7). He is the one to whom we make our appeals (5:8). Seriously, no one else is worthy of the name (5:9-14).

It’s been over 2000 years, and we want justice faster than he gives it. We take up our banners and chant, “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

We ask, “How many more have to die?” God never says, “Go fight for it!” He says, Wait a little longer (6:10-11). God’s rescue programme will resolve all injustice, but not in my lifetime.

The kingdoms of the world come and go. Whatever “Babylon” has the ascendency in our time, it won’t last. In the end, the whole Babylon system that opposes God’s reign will fall —great grief for those who were in power (Revelation 16–18), but celebration for the multitudes who say, Our Lord God Almighty reigns (19:6).

Revelation never calls believers to condemn Caesar. It calls us to proclaim Jesus’ kingship. For the evidence of Jesus’ [authority] is the spirit of prophecy (19:10).

Conclusion

You won’t hear me raise my voice in the streets. Jesus rejected that approach to justice (Matthew 12:18-21). Condemning sinners and governments is not our calling. It’s not kingdom work because the king never made us judges. That’s the wrong picture of God.

Our prayer is not, “Sack the evil-doers!” Our hope is in a higher throne to whom we pray, Your kingdom come … and deliver us from evil (Matthew 6:9, 13).

We also pray, Give us our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Our bread, not mine. Sharing our bread and forgiveness is kingdom work because it enacts the gospel that Jesus is king.

What others are saying

Bartholomew of Constantinople, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 152:

Transformation is our only hope of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and injustice. It is vicious precisely because it is the fruit of vice and selfishness. Yet this vice is not incorrigible; it is again a matter of choice for us — as individuals and as institutions. Furthermore, it is a matter of choice that calls for change in us — both in personal practices and in collective policies. For this to happen, however, as the precondition of such change, transformation requires conversion or metanoia, the Greek word for “repentance.” Transforming our world requires commitment, courage, and conversion. It demands of us a willingness to become communities of transformation and to pursue justice as the prerequisite for global transformation. It is the way of sacrifice; but it is especially the way of generosity. Where do we stand along this way?

For a contrary opinion:
Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, 15th ed. (Orbis Books, 1988), 174:

The theology of liberation attempts to reflect on the experience and meaning of the faith based on the commitment to abolish injustice and to build a new society; this theology must be verified by the practice of that commitment, by active, effective participation in the struggle which the exploited social classes have undertaken against their oppressors.

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Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
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Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.

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