Israel failed to ‘do justice’
By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
Many of us have a picture in our minds of rebellious Israelites getting out of bed every morning and running off to the nearest shrine to worship idols. Indeed, numerous passages in the Old Testament indicate that idolatry was a problem in Israel.
But two passages in Isaiah — Isaiah 1:10-13,16b-17 and Isaiah 58:1-3,5-10 — give a broader picture. Here Israel appears to be characterized by personal piety and outward expressions of formal religion: worshiping, offering sacrifices, celebrating religious holidays, fasting, and praying. Translate this into the modern era, and we might say these folks were faithfully going to church each Sunday, attending midweek prayer meeting, going on the annual church retreat, and singing contemporary praise music. Yet God was disgusted with them, going so far as to call them “Sodom and Gomorrah”!
Why was God so displeased? Both passages emphasize that God was furious over Israel’s failure to care for the poor and oppressed. He wanted His people to “loose the chains of injustice,” and not just go to church on Sunday. He wanted His people to “clothe the naked,” and not just attend midweek prayer meeting. He wanted His people to “spend themselves on behalf of the hungry,” and not just sing praise music.
Personal piety and formal worship are essential to the Christian life, but they must lead to lives that “act justly and love mercy” (Micah 6:8).
In the New Testament, God’s people, the church, are more than just a sneak preview of King Jesus. The church is the body, bride, and very fullness of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:18-23; 4:7-13; 5:32). When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus! When people look at the church, they should see the One who declared — in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor– that His kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.
In fact, we see this from the very start of the church’s ministry. When Jesus sent out His twelve disciples for the first time, we read, “He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). Later, Jesus sent out seventy-two others, commanding them, “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you” (Luke 10:9). The message was the kingdom of God, and it was to be communicated in both word and deed.
And in the very first passage concerning the gathering of the church, we read, “There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). Theologian Dennis Johnson explains that Luke, the author of Acts, is intentionally repeating the language we saw earlier in Deuteronomy 15:4 in which God told Israel: “There should be no poor among you.” Luke is indicating that while Israel had failed to care for the poor and was sent into captivity, God’s people have been restored and are now embodying King Jesus and His kingdom, a kingdom in which there is no poverty (Rev. 21:1-4). Indeed, throughout the New Testament care of the poor is a vital concern of the church (Matt. 25:31-46; Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:1-10; 6-10; James 1:27).
Perhaps no passage states it more succinctly than 1 John 3:16-18.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
These Bible teachings should cut to the heart of North American Christians. By any measure, we are the richest people ever to walk on Planet Earth. Furthermore, at no time in history has there ever been greater economic disparity in the world than at present.
Economic historians have found that for most of human history there was little economic growth and relatively low economic inequality. As a result, by the year 1820, after thousands of years of human development, the average income per person in the richest countries was only about four times higher than the average income per person in the poorest countries. Then the Industrial Revolution hit, causing unprecedented economic growth in a handful of countries but leaving the rest of the world behind. As a result, while the average American lives on more than ninety dollars per day, approximately one billion people live on less than one dollar per day and 2.6 billion — 40 percent of the world’s population — live on less than two dollars per day.
If God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments were to have a concern for the poor during eras of relative economic equality, what are we to conclude about God’s desire for the North American church today? “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
What is the task of the church? We are to embody Jesus Christ by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us: declare — using both words and deeds — that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. And the church needs to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor.
Adapted from When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself (Moody Publishers, 2009). Reprinted with permission. Learn about the Help Without Hurting Network at whenhelpinghurts.org.