How Biblical Justification Looks “On the Street”
Everybody loves being right. It’s even better when you are recognised as being right in front of other people.
When those other people have scoffed and mocked you, the victory is all the sweeter. But the ultimate prize is when you are declared right, and your mockers declared wrong, and you are rewarded, and they suffer their consequences, and it all plays out in front of a cheering audience!
That’s vindication. In the Bible, it is called “Justification”.
The Persecuted People of God
From the landless tribe of Abram wandering the Ancient Near East, to the oppressed landless tribe in bondage in Egypt, to the distinctive landless tribal group wandering the desert again under Moses, to the warring tribal group in Judges, to the confederated tribal faction and the monarchy faction surrounded by competitors who were at various times friend or foe, to the national displacement to Babylon, to the inglorious return to rebuild a poor shadow of the former temple amongst apostates and synchretisers, to the subjugation and humiliation under the Greeks and then the Romans… the people of God had been mocked, reviled, criticised, and attacked.
Such a people longs for a time when they will be vindicated; a time when the world will know that they were actually right. It comes as no surprise then, to find countless assurances that such vindication will be given to them in no uncertain terms.
Such assurance was critical for the early Church as they also were persecuted, both by Jewish communities and by the Roman authorities. It was the sure knowledge that they would one day be declared to be right in their convictions which gave them the chutzpah to step forward and be martyred for their faith.
In this way, the future justification provides present transcendent power.
The To-Be-Vindicated People of God
In the Old Testament there are many promises of eventual justification for God’s people. This frequently takes the form either of Jerusalem, or the Temple, being supernaturally exalted. It also includes the idea that Israel’s enemies will be soundly beaten in battle, and also that those beaten enemies will then actually come to Israel to seek wisdom!
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
– Isaiah 2:1-4
These themes are played out through Isaiah in many ways, culminating in the final picture as follows:
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your descendants and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
says the Lord.
And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.
– Isaiah 66:22-24
Ezekiel dedicates his final nine whole chapters to describing the New Temple. The other prophets all similarly describe the final ultimate situation in parallel terms.
The Books of Maccabees are a demonstration of the effect such prophecies had on the people. From the time of Alexander the Great through to the final destruction of the Temple in 136AD, there were myriad uprisings and rebellions based on restoring the Temple worship and other Mosaic laws, specifically, it seems, in an attempt to realise these predictions.
The Jesus Conundrum
There is no doubt that at least some of Jesus’ followers (perhaps all), expected Jesus to fulfill these things in just such a dramatic way too. Imagine how they felt when he died! Even after he rose though, and despite three years of intensive teaching, they were still asking, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
The Jews desperately desired to be vindicated, to have their God come and pronounce to the world that they had been right all along, and that the world had been wrong. But all they saw was some Jewish peasant/rabbi rise up and get killed. He then rose from the dead, but that just seemed to confuse them all the more. Where was their vindication?
It began at Pentecost
When the amazing events of Pentecost occurred (Acts 2), Peter stood up and announced that what people were witnessing was the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Specifically, he pointed to the Prophet Joel’s language about what the “last days” would incorporate, leading up to the “great and glorious Day of the Lord”:
[What you see and hear] is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
– Acts 2:16-21
It worked out in history
The Roman Empire tried variously to ignore, or at other times to persecute, the Christians. Christianity was an annoyance in the Empire because the Christians would not join in the cult of Emperor worship. But the more they persecuted Christians, the more Christians it seemed that there were!
300 years later, a Roman Emperor (Constantine) became a Christian and the rest, as they say, is history. The “Holy Roman Empire” eventually dissipated, and we are left with the “Holy Roman Church”, its spiritual dimension. The political dimension is completely eradicated.
So the mighty Roman Empire was subsumed and dismantled, and left behind, by this little Jewish sect called “Christianity”. For Christians, this is pretty convincing evidence that the Christians were right to place their faith in Jesus Christ, and his teachings about non-violence, personal piety, and corporate charity. Because what he taught actually does seem to invoke the power of God in communities operating in his name.
Our Future Hope
The Christian hope is for a Final Judgement.
Traditionally, this is recognised as the setting in which the decisions are made as to who spends eternity in heaven, and who is consigned to hell. While that contemplation is an undeniable aspect of the Final Judgement, there is something else about it which is actually even more significant. Unfortunately when you belong to a people group who has not been persecuted, this is easy to miss.
Judgement is Vindication
The actual purpose of the Final Judgement is that it is a point in time when the faithful are recognised as having been right. This recognition is public, and is specifically performed in front of the assembled multitudes of all those who have ever mocked, attacked, scoffed, and otherwise doubted the people of God.
The recognition is going to be given to all who are properly “in” the faith. In New Testament terms, this is specifically those who have believed that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, but in more general terms it is those who place their faith in the God of Salvation. These things, properly understood, are precisely equivalent.
I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
– Revelation 20:12-15
The Personal Application
As the realisation about this vital dimension of vindication for God’s people dawned on me, I started to apply it very specifically to my ministry. In particular, I started using it as an assurance for God’s people in personal ways.
I deal a lot with people who experience marginalisation, mistreatment, disrespect, violence, manipulation, and generally discrimination at all levels of their lives. Many such people retain (perhaps incredibly) a conviction that there is a good, saving God, but they find that their experiences difficult to reconcile with that. But their faith is strong and they ask questions in order to make sense of it, in light of their experiences. Far from getting them to “pray a sinner’s prayer”, I find it important to affirm what faith they do have, because it is actually more impressive than much of what we find in church buildings on the average Sunday morning.
I have decided that this type of faith is actually a powerful example of what Jesus called for in the parable about the widow who insisted on justice: a parable about persistent prayer.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? – Luke 18:8
Therefore people who are persistently praying for justice to be done, particularly in their state of temporal powerlessness, are exhibiting a faith that Jesus considers exemplary. My friends often embody that precise faith!
On the Street
I now frequently tell such people that, on the Last Day they will be stood at God’s side and everyone who has ever doubted, scoffed, derided, and disrespected them will be arrayed in front of them, and God will speak saying, “Do you see this person? This is my faithful one. This is what I was talking about. This is faith, and you should have known better!”
When I tell people this it often moves them to tears.
It really matters to them!
It matters more than anything… even the idea of heaven and hell.
In fact, Jesus treats people’s faith in terms of such vindication:
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’
– Luke 7:9
And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
– Luke 7:50
He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’
– Luke 8:48
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’
– Matthew 14:31
What is the “Good News”?
The term “Gospel” means “Good News”. All too often it gets presented as a matter of relief from bad news instead: “Everyone is going to hell but you might be able to avoid it if you take God’s offer”. That’s not really good news in itself, but rather an escape clause. That is not the message that inspired people to become Christians in the 1st Century.
Lest we forget that the Gospel is Good News! Because the Gospel is actually about vindication (which is “justification”) for the people of God. It’s not good news for God’s enemies, in fact it is very bad news for them. It is good news for God’s people.
It is so good, indeed, that even God’s enemies can actually avail themselves of it. Because of God’s enormous love, even his enemies are invited to become his people, and thereby to benefit from the Gospel. Only in that sense can it be good for God’s enemies.
So the Gospel is very good news indeed; and as I am discovering, when it gets expressed correctly it is life-changing.
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