By Sam E. Stone
In the three summer months we will focus attention on an important theme throughout Scripture—justice. The lessons will include highlights from 12 Old Testament books. They make it plain that God is concerned that his people be consistent in practicing his kind of justice in our very wicked world.
The book of Exodus does not simply tell about how the children of Israel left Egypt. In addition it contains the laws laid down by God to serve as a guide for his people. The basic rules—the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)—are familiar to us. The following chapters (21, 22) discuss many less familiar situations, however (such as relations with servants, personal injuries, protection of property, and social responsibility).
Justice is not simply about punishing the “bad guys.” It also includes how to treat everyone, whether good or bad. What God had in mind ultimately for his people is revealed fully in the New Testament.
Don’t Follow the Crowd
The first verse is both a repetition and an illustration of the commandment against false testimony (Exodus 20:16). Giving a false report (lying) whether under oath or not is wrong. A malicious witness can cause great problems. No one can excuse dishonesty by saying, “Everybody’s doing it.” Going along with the crowd may mean going away from God. Lying is never excusable in God’s eyes. To participate in such activity is to pervert justice. A mob can intimidate people. Instead of being influenced by them, God’s people are to be fair. One writer observed, “Avoid even the suburbs of the evil place.”
Show Compassion to All
The command, Do not show favoritism, is at the heart of God’s plan. It is equally wrong whether one is favoring the poor or the rich. Centuries later James expanded on the principle: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism” (James 2:1). He describes how a wealthy worshipper might be given preferential treatment when he comes into the assembly. At the same time, a poor person might be ignored or mistreated. “Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). Instead James calls on all Christians to follow the “royal law,” loving your neighbor as yourself (2:8).
Our text in Exodus illustrates another side of the temptation—favoring the poor person while putting down the wealthy. C. F. Keil called this “showing partiality to the poor or weak man in an unjust cause, out of weak compassion for him.” Jesus reminds his followers that justice is for all, rich or poor.
It is easy to “look the other way” when you notice something bad happening to your enemy. Suppose his ox wanders off. What do you do? Take it back to him, says God. If the person can’t carry the load he has on his back, be sure you help him with it! All of this was summed up by Jesus when he said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Paul directs us to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21). J. C. Connell explains, “The ill feeling which a man shows towards another, or even actual wrong done, does not absolve the injured party from the usual duties of kindness both to the man and his beast.”
Seek Justice Always
Everyone is to be shown justice, whether rich or poor. All actions are to be unbiased. Society develops laws attempting to accomplish this, but Christians are expected always to honor one another (Romans 12:10). Because justice is the very foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14), he will never acquit the guilty.
All dishonesty is condemned. Bribery is never right. The prophets frequently specified this (see Micah 3:11). Giving such a “gift” can unquestionably influence the decision of the recipient. A bribe blinds those who see.
Do not oppress an alien. In telling the children of Israel of their responsibility, Moses reminded them of their own experience: You yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt. God intends that all people (Jews and Gentiles) treat all other people with justice. He had not freed them from slavery in Egypt so they could enslave other nations to serve them.
Christians are sent into the world to represent God to everyone. Some churches express their goal like this: “Love God; Love people; Impact the world.” Though living on earth, we are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). This is why we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.