A God of Justice
God is righteous and just in himself and he desires justice in his creatures. His divine righteousness is thus the basis and obligation for human justice.
When we say that God is just, it means that ‘God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the final standard of what is right’. According to the late Dutch-American theologian Louis Berkhof, “Justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his deserts.” This is what God does, and he does so because that is what he is. In other words, God acts justly because he is just.
In Deut. 32:4, Moses declared concerning God that, “All his ways are justice. A God of truth and without injustice. Righteous and upright is he.” Abraham also appealed to this attribute of God when he asked rhetorically: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25)
A God for Justice
Justice is dear to the heart of God. Several Bible passages bear this out:
“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isa. 10:1-2)
“Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance.” (Mic. 2:1-2)
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” (Psalm 89:14)
In Psalm 82, God notably declares his anger against rulers who pervert justice.
The psalmist begins by painting a scenario whereby God sits in council with the leaders of the earth and rebukes them. Why? For judging unjustly and being partial to the wicked. Then comes the instruction to
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. (v.3)
He wraps up the meeting with a stinging rebuke of these princes in that much-twisted passage:
‘I said, “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince” ‘ (vv. 6-7)
The psalm comes to an end with an appeal to God for global justice, for all nations are his inheritance.
The prophet Jeremiah was also keenly aware of the contrast between God’s just character and the ungodliness in his society, and in 12:1-4, he called on God to act.
‘Righteous are you, O Lord,
when I complain to you;
yet I would plead my case before you.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
You plant them, and they take root;
they grow and produce fruit;
you are near in their mouth
and far from their heart.
But you, O Lord, know me;
you see me, and test my heart toward you.
Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter,
and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
How long will the land mourn
and the grass of every field wither?
For the evil of those who dwell in it
the beasts and the birds are swept away,
because they said, “He will not see our latter end.”’
A People for Justice
The church is the body of Christ, his arms and legs, continuing his work on earth. We are the light of the world, God’s elect and chosen people. Our lives should reflect the heart of our Father. Where, as we have seen, his heart beats for justice, his people cannot be indifferent.
Jesus also makes care and concern for the suffering a criterion for judgment on the last day. The King will assess how we have treated the stranger, the hungry, the sick and the prisoner while we were on earth (Matt.25:31-46).
The Nigerian Situation
Our own society requires the church to fight for justice. For anyone who has lived within or studied it for a while, Nigeria is a society in dire need of reform. Consider just one instance: our prisons.
We have overcrowded prisons and it is heartbreaking to learn that a huge percentage of inmates are yet to even go on trial! According to the World Prison Brief, we have 63, 142 prisoners in our prisons. Out of this total, 71.7% (45, 263) are awaiting trial or remanded. With an official capacity of 50, 153, our prisons have an occupancy level of 125.9%*.
Besides the appalling state of our prisons, we hear of repeated battery and harassment by members of the police force. Many are reluctant to report crimes to the police because they can end up being either branded as criminals or forced to part with money before their complaint is addressed.
What can the Church do?
As God’s community in the nation, what can believers do?
First, we should repent of our failures to take justice seriously as the church. In many respects, we have closed our eyes to the sufferings of the poor and the mistreatment of the weak.
Then we should pray for God’s justice to be restored in our land.
Next, we can petition parastatals and organizations that are noted for injustice and oppression. How about a signed petition from diverse Christian leaders urging the Nigerian Police Force to address abuses by its officers? Can we call on the Nigerian Prison Service to urgently address the plight of prisoners?
What about peaceful protests? We can organize peaceful demonstrations to call our government to tackle specific instances or areas of injustice. And we would do this in the name of Christ, who is the Judge of all the earth.
We should preach sermons which expound biblically the theme of Justice: both its nature as a divine attribute and our obligation to practice justice. Instead of messages which proclaim our comfort and prosperity, we need sermons which arouse our concern for the needs of others besides ourselves. And these sermons must be specific, highlighting how we often practice injustice to our employees, spouses, children, and neighbours.
In our individual spheres, let us cultivate fairness and justice. Are you in charge of a department or unit? live above board. Are you a parent? Avoid favouritism among your children. Are you a government employee? Be diligent and faithful. Do you run a business? Offer excellent service to both your employees and customers (in that order). Do you work in the Police or the Armed forces, I will repeat to you what John the Baptist said to the Roman soldiers in his day: “Be content with your wages”. Do you have the poor and needy around you (we all do)? Help them.
We must bear in mind the instruction of the apostle James:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jam. 1:27)
It is not enough to keep ourselves unstained from the world; we must also remember widows and orphans.
*World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Figures are as at end of March 2016.
“By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How shall we sing the LORD’S song
in a foreign land?”
(Psalm 137:1-4 ESV)
You can feel the sorrow, the anguish, and the pathos. This is the cry of the captive Jew taken from his homeland down to Babylon. ‘On the willows there/we hung up our lyres.’ How do you make music in captivity? How can you rejoice in the land of the oppressor? Jerusalem was the location of the temple, signifying the throne of God on earth. It was the privilege of the Israelites to be the chosen people of God among whom He dwells. The songs of Zion were songs of worship sung in the temple; they were unique to the people of God.
Jeremiah would go on to deliver a message to these captives, encouraging them to seek the good of the city, in spite of their captivity:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jer. 29:7)
Yes, they were captives. And, yes, they were forcibly removed from their homeland. Yet, God was using their presence as a means of blessing their captors. Here was the Jewish community, God’s chosen people, bringing God’s blessings to the gentiles. Here was the seed of Abraham blessing the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). This was the Gospel in infancy. Prior to this time, God’s saving grace was largely confined to the Israelites. Now it was flowing out to the nations. As Paul would later write in Romans 11, the gentiles were being grafted into the tree of the original Jewish church. And as that happens, we cannot help bursting into praise alongside Paul:
“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33)
The songs of Zion were becoming the songs of the nations.
Isaiah wrote of a future time when the captive Jews will return to their homeland and be able to sing the song of Zion once more:
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa. 35:10)
But the very context of this passage indicates that this passage points beyond the return of the Jewish captives to their homeland in 538/539 BC. It looked forward to a time when ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped’ (v. 5), a reference to the ministry of Jesus. It also speaks of when ‘waters shall burst forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert’ (v. 6), a picture of the era initiated by the coming of Christ and to be completed at his return (cf. Isa. 43: 19; 44:3-5; Joel 2:28).
What was confined to the Jew has been made available to all nations. The dwelling place of God is no longer just with Israel, it is being extended to all – to all humanity who place their faith in the Redeemer. And eventually, all humanity shall come together to sing that song of Zion. As John observed in his vision of the end of history:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and he will be their God.” (Rev. 21:3)
God’s revelation leads us to look forward to that time when the Lord’s song will be sung by a great multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9)
And what song would they sing?
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v.10)
May we, through faith in Christ, be found a part of that joyful choir.
World unity is no longer a distant goal; it is already an unfolding reality. If only the nations and leaders of the world would embrace the Christ and his Church in which this unity is being realized.
According to Paul, the working out of God’s redemption in Christ brings about a unity between God’s erstwhile people (the Jews) and Gentile believers. Once the Gentiles were, as a whole, an unfavoured lot. Salvation was of the Jews, Jesus said (John 4:22). To become a member of God’s people and partake of their blessings and promises, one had to become a Jew. He or she had to be circumcised and literally become ‘one of them’.
All that changed, however, with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Those who had been ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise’ have now been ‘brought near by the blood of Christ’ (Eph. 2:12-13). Christ has removed the antagonism between both groups and made them one in himself. Through Christ, both the Jew and the Gentile now have equal access to God (chapter 2:18).
This unity is not between Jew and Gentile alone. There is equally a unity across gender, ethnicity, and class. In 1 Cor. 12:13, Paul points out that class distinction between slaves and freemen has been muted in Christ. And in Col. 3:11, he reinforces this by stating that differences in culture no longer apply; both the barbarian and the Scythian were now one with the Greek. ‘Barbarian’ refers to the uncivilized peoples who did not speak Greek, while ‘Scythian’ was a reference to someone from the local tribes around the Black Sea. They were often a subject of jest and mockery because of their uncouth manners. Yet these are now on the same footing with the sophisticated and cultured Greeks. Furthermore, the universal distinction between male and female, that ancient division (and oftentimes oppression) found in every culture between the sexes, is gone. As he wrote in Gal. 3:27, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
God’s plan of redemption, starting immediately after the fall, was for humanity as a whole. The covenant with Abraham bore this out. Through him (Abraham) all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). So while humanity was broken into diverse tongues and nationalities on account of their sin and rebellion (Gen. 11), and while the entrance of sin has often made the natural (and good) distinction between the male and female gender an avenue for oppression, the unfolding of God’s redemption restores unity. Of course, the differences are not eliminated. The Jew remains a Jew, the female is not transmuted into a man, and neither is the slave automatically set free because of his faith in Christ. No. Unity is realized in spite of the differences, thus rendering the distinctions irrelevant. Paul teaches us how to view these differences when he wrote: “For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ.” (1 Cor. 7:22). In other words, it does not really matter in what group you belong. Are you free or a slave? Are you cultured or uneducated? Are you male or female? Before God and in Christ you are the same with others – on equal footing! Do not be anxious or worried as though you are less accepted by God because of your ethnicity, gender, or social position; it simply doesn’t count.
World unity is a presently unfolding reality, but it lies within the community of God’s people. All that the nations and her governments need to do is submit to Christ, who is the head of this redeemed humanity, and enter into the communion of the saints where all socio-ethnic distinctions lose their significance. In this body, only Christ really matters. This is why they are called Christians.
In the Yoruba worldview, the individual’s identity is closely tied to the community. A person could say of himself that, ‘the community is, therefore I am.’ Out of this context emerges the Oriki. It is a praise poem, celebrating the individual as a member of his family or clan. And it summarily recounts the exploits of his ancestors and forebears.
Becoming a Christian is a momentous change; it involves the adoption of an entirely new community – the community of faith. And the believer boasts of a new lineage, with Jesus Christ himself as the ‘firstborn’ (Col 1:18). His identity is now based on his membership in God’s family, the Church. He has God as Father and Christ as brother, with a multitude of siblings united by faith in the same redeemer. Hence he gets a new Oriki.
Child of grace,
Born of love
– Through the blood of Christ the King,
Forever sealed with his blessed Spirit.
Made of dust, indwelt by breath –
Breath of God Most High.
Child of God,
Brother to the saints.
Shall I tell of my fathers,
Or recount the deeds of my brothers?
Of the faith of Abraham,
Not a little has been heard.
Who left his home for an unknown land,
In obedience to the word of the King.
Of Jacob the brave;
Wrestling with an angel till break of dawn,
He earned himself the name of Israel.
Of Joseph the slave,
Who became a prince over the Mighties of the world.
Of Moses the man of God,
Who led Israel out of the hell of Egypt,
Through the Sea of Reeds,
Across the fiery desert.
Of Joshua the courageous,
Who broke the pride of Canaan,
And made it the homeland of the Jews.
Of Rahab the penitent,
Who, through faith, became a mother of the Messiah.
Of Samson the strong,
Though impulsive and reckless, he routed the enemies of God.
Of Gideon the timid,
Who received strength at the edge of a river.
Of Deborah the Judge;
Fearless and bold, men took cover under her.
Tell me of David the great king;
Mild and gentle, adroit and bold.
A lad slays a giant and becomes a father of kings;
Emblem of Christ himself.
Shall I speak of Elijah and Elisha,
Prophets of renown,
Commanding fire and oil in the name of the King.
Shall I tell of Daniel,
Astute and fearless;
The wisdom of kings and the fear of men.
Tell of Mary the favoured virgin;
Humble maiden, mother of Christ.
Oh, Sing of the sweetness of John,
Apostle of love, Herald of grace!
Tell of the acts of Peter,
Apostle to the Jews;
Faithful steward, tender shepherd.
Recount the labours of Paul:
Eminent writer, tireless preacher;
Planter of churches; lover of gentiles.
Sing of the One whom they all served –
Mighty Saviour, Great Redeemer;
Yeshua the Lamb,
Jesus the King,
Christ the Lord.
“Culture covers the whole range of human society.”
Brian J. Walsh
The relationship between the church and human culture is one of neither total acceptance nor pure rejection. Every culture, on account of our creation in God’s image, has some elements of truth, goodness, and beauty within it, which the Christian should not despise. Nevertheless, no culture is so preserved as not to be fallen and corrupted with the rest of humanity. The church needs to be discriminating, examining every cultural artifact, style, art form, or product in light of God’s revealed word.
Culture is a broad term. It encompasses all that we do as humans in developing God’s creation. When we design and build furniture out of wood, glass, or steel; when we compose music, write plays, or produce engrossing movies; when we set up institutions for promoting literacy and education, we are building culture. Fallen human nature, however, implies that our products as cultural beings will be tainted with sin. Our music may be brilliant while the lyrics extol pride and vanity. Our noble effort to establish a political group might be tainted by a lust for power. And even a commercial business, which clearly serves an important need in society, could be managed by ambitious leaders who abuse and humiliate their subordinates.
So culture, while a God-given privilege and task, often bears the marks of humanity’s fallen nature. This is why discernment becomes necessary. We cannot abandon all cultural pursuits as evil, neither can we naively embrace all ideas as legitimate. Truth, goodness, and beauty must still remain our objective in assessing every form of culture.
Bringing this home, the church in Nigeria must be culturally discerning. Too often, we adopt either one posture or the other. Music, products, institutions, ideas, are generated across the diverse cultures of Nigeria. Embrace them as neutral? No. Reject them as worldly activities which do not befit the saint? Not at all. Culture must be assessed in light of God’s word. Does this song’s lyrics express truth or promote a lie? Is this institution in line with God’s design for human society? As the light of the world, we have a responsibility to pronounce on our society’s cultural pursuits. But we cannot stop there. We will also work to produce cultural products that bear the evidence of Christ’s redemption. Businesses in which managers demonstrate servant leadership, music which delight the ears and inspire the spirit, products which display excellent craftsmanship, and institutions which selflessly champion the public good. In this way, we would not only be dispelling the darkness, but we would also be giving light.