This article is a transcript of the sermon delivered on Carey Sunday (1 August 2021) by Dr Michael Rhodes, Lecturer in Old Testament. Many Baptist churches used the video recording of this sermon in their Sunday church services that day. The sermon video, discussion questions, and other resources are online here.
“What’s the point?”
Have you ever found yourself asking that question? I have. Whether walking away from a river where I’d spent all day not catching fish, during a difficult season at work, or even looking at my life as a whole, I have sometimes found myself throwing my hands up and wondering: “What’s the point? What’s the purpose of all this?”
These questions matter because asking them leads us to either give up on whatever it is we’re wondering about, or recommitting ourselves to that activity in a deeper way. One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves today, then, might just be this one:
“What’s the point of the people of God?”
One way to answer this question is to start with Abraham in Genesis 12. The story comes amidst the aftermath of humanity’s rejection of their God-given role in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebel against God by eating the forbidden fruit. Genesis 4-11 offers a graphic, disturbing depiction of the ways their rebellion initiates an ever-increasing cycle of violence, until “every inclination of the thoughts of human hearts” in only evil all the time (Genesis 6:5, NIV).
This downward spiral of sin and violence raises the question: will God finally reject his creation? Will the LORD finally give up on his human image bearers? And it’s in the story of Abraham that we discover God’s answer to that question is a resounding: “No!”
In Genesis 12, the LORD meets with an old childless nobody named Abraham and calls him to leave behind everything he knows to go to the land that God will show him. Along the way, the LORD promises to give Abraham offspring, to make of him a great nation, and to give his descendants a good land. But while it may have been easy for Abraham, as it’s easy for us, to focus on these three material promises, the grandest promise of all came last:
“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3, ESV)
So what’s the point of God calling Abraham? The point is for Abraham to become the father of a people through whom God will bless the entire world. The purpose of the people of God is to be a conduit, a vehicle, a carrier of God’s blessing to the very ends of the earth.
That was the point of the people of God then, and that’s the point of the people of God now.
A community characterised by justice and righteousness
Digging deeper into Abraham’s story, though, we can say more. In Genesis 18, God comes to meet Abraham again. While God is with Abraham, the narrator of Genesis allows us to overhear God having a chat with himself about whether or not to reveal what he’s about to do to Abraham. In the middle of this divine monologue, God says this:
17 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” (Genesis 18:17–19 ESV)
Did you catch that? Here God reiterates that the point of calling Abraham is to create a community who be carriers of God’s blessing to all the peoples of earth. But now God fills in the details about how this will happen. The people of God will be a carrier of blessing into the world ‘by keeping the way of the LORD, by doing justice and righteousness.’ That is how God will fulfil his purpose for his people. He will make them a community characterised by justice and righteousness so that the LORD might bring blessing to the world through them.
I have to admit, I find that a bit staggering! For most of my Christian life, neither ‘justice’ nor ‘righteousness’ would be the first words I’d gravitate to in trying to answer the question “What’s the point of the people of God?” But here the LORD is quite explicit: He has chosen Abraham to head up a family that will keep the LORD’s way by doing justice and righteousness so that the LORD might use them to bring blessing to the whole world.
But if this is one biblical way to answer the question, “What’s the point of the people of God?” it may raise more questions for us than it answers. And perhaps the first of these new questions is this one: what do the words ‘justice and righteousness’ mean?
What do justice and righteousness mean?
“You Keep Using Those Words …”
When I think about this question, I’m reminded of one of my favourite scenes from the 1987 cult classic film The Princess Bride. Inigo Montoya, the vengeance seeking, sword-fighting Spaniard has had enough. Over and over again, events his boss Vizzini has declared to be ‘inconceivable’ have nevertheless occurred. After the final such outburst from Vizzini, Montoya looks at his boss and says: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like Vizzini, we need to consider the possibility that the biblical language of ‘justice and righteousness’ might not mean what we think it means. When I ask students to share the first words that come to mind when they hear the word ‘righteousness’, for instance, they often talk about personal piety and individual moral living. ‘Justice’, on the other hand, reminds them of judges, lawyers, legal proceedings, and maybe even that Greco-Roman image of Blind Lady Justice with her scales that sometimes still gets carved into the walls of our court rooms.
A deeper look into those words
Personal piety and fair courtrooms are good, biblical things, but they fall far short of what Scripture means by the kind of just and righteous character that would allow the people of God to be God’s conduit of blessing to the world. If we want to understand that kind of justice and righteousness, I suggest the best place to look is the story of Job, where a character that God describes as more “blameless” and “upright” than anyone on earth (Job 1:8, NRSV) shares the sorts of stuff he did when he put on justice and righteousness like clothing:
12 I delivered the poor who cried,
and the orphan who had no helper.
13 The blessing of the wretched came upon me,
and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
my justice was like a robe and a turban.
15 I was eyes to the blind,
and feet to the lame.
16 I was a father to the needy,
and I championed the cause of the stranger.
17 I broke the fangs of the unrighteous,
and made them drop their prey from their teeth. (Job 29:12b-17, NRSV)
Now that’s what justice and righteousness looks like on its feet and at work in the world! Not mere personal piety or blind Lady Justice with her scales, but the orphan-adopting, outsider-defending, fang-smashing love of God at work on behalf of the neighbour. Not just individual morality or fair courtrooms, but, as Old Testament scholar John Goldingay puts it, “the faithful exercise of power in community.”1 But maybe Cornel West says it best: “justice is what love looks like in public, not simply an abstract concept to regulate institutions, but also a fire in the bones to promote the well-being of all.”2
Why justice and righteousness?
And why, you might ask, is this justice and righteousness at the centre of God’s answer to the question: “what’s the point of the people of God?” Why does the Bible claim again and again that this kind of justice and righteousness ought to be at the centre of our purpose in the world?
Because, as the psalmists say, the LORD “loves righteousness and justice” (Psalm 33:5, ESV), indeed “righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne!” (Psalm 89:14, ESV). Justice and righteousness, it turns out, are in the first sentence of the LORD’s CV and at the top of his Instagram bio. That’s why justice and righteousness should be at the top of our metaphorical CV’s and Instagram bios as well! A central part of our purpose as the people of God is to embody the LORD’s own justice and righteousness so that the LORD can use us as a vehicle of blessing to the world.
So far so good. But even as I draw our attention to these texts celebrating justice and righteousness as the centre of God’s purposes for his people, I find myself thinking, to borrow a phrase from an old jazz song: “Nice work… if you can get it!” “Nice idea,” you might be thinking. “But have you seen the people of God lately?”3
Where are justice and righteousness in the world today?
I don’t know about you, but when I look at the people of God in the USA (where I am currently living while we wait for COVID-19 restrictions to allow our family to move to New Zealand), past and present, I’m suddenly aware that if justice and righteousness is about the faithful exercise of power in community, God’s people have quite a history of unfaithful exercise of power in our communities. I’m writing this from my neighbourhood, an overwhelmingly African-American community that’s one of the economically poorest in our state, a community whose poverty has direct roots in early 20th century racist politics, not least as those politics wrongly confiscated African-American homes.
I’m just around the corner from the very place where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered for taking a stand for the rights of Sanitation Workers who’d been forced to work for poverty wages and in unsafe conditions. And I write as a child of a white Christian community who, by and large, either turned a blind eye, or more often, actively participated in these and other atrocities. After all, the vast majority of written defences of slavery were written by white ministers, and my own church had policies of racial segregation into the 20th century.
As an American speaking to Christians living on the other side of the world, I’m well aware that only you will know whether similar failures of justice and righteousness characterise the church in Aotearoa’s past or present. For my part, the inspiring message that justice and righteousness stand at the centre of God’s purposes for his people is always accompanied by the disturbing reality that we’ve fallen far short of that ideal.
A history of falling short
For what it’s worth, though, these failures place us in good biblical company. Just consider the people of God in Isaiah’s day. In Isaiah 5:1-6, the LORD describes his people as a vineyard that he’d planted expecting good fruit, but that had unexpectedly produced bad fruit instead. Then the LORD unpacks this parable to make sure the people of God get the point:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:7, NRSV)
“The very reason I planted my people in the first place,” the LORD is saying, “was that they would bear the good fruit of justice and righteousness. But when I came looking for the harvest, I found unjust bloodshed and heard the cries of the oppressed instead!”
The LORD’s solution
Once again, then, we ask ourselves: how will God respond? Will he finally reject his purpose for his people? Once again, the answer is a resounding “No!” As we read Isaiah, we discover that God’s solution for his people’s failures increasingly focuses on God’s Servant. Listen, for instance, to what the LORD says in Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV):
1 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
The LORD’s solution to his people’s unrighteousness and injustice is to send a Spirit-empowered Servant who will “faithfully bring forth justice.”
But who is this Servant? As readers wrestle their way through Isaiah’s teaching about the Servant, at some points, we see that the Servant just is God’s people doing what they’re called to do. God himself calls Israel “my servant” in Isaiah 41:8.
But as the book goes on, the Servant starts to sound more and more like an individual, one who is of the people of God and from the people of God, but yet also represents the people of God, indeed works and even suffers on the people of God’s behalf. Isaiah, in other words, declares that God’s solution to the peoples’ injustice and unrighteousness would be a righteous and just Servant, a Servant who would make many sinners righteous by taking up their infirmities, carrying their diseases, and dying in their place (Isaiah 53).
God’s promise to send this Servant, then, is God’s solution to His peoples’ failures. The early church boldly declared that God had been faithful to this promise, that God had sent the Servant, and that his name was Jesus. Jesus came as God himself in the flesh, both from and of the people, but also for the people. Where the people of God were faithless, God himself came as the Faithful Human One. This Jesus brought “justice to victory” (Matthew 12:20b), faithfully exercising power in community by healing the sick, feeding the poor, casting out demons, welcoming the outsider, and, in the end, by dying on the cross in the place of his unjust people.
This is the gospel! But if we’re following the storyline carefully, we find ourselves once again facing new questions. If Jesus came in our place, if he’s the One whose just and righteous life allows him to be a vehicle of God’s blessing to the world, then what’s the point of the people of God today?
What’s the point of the people of God today?
Brothers and sisters, let me be clear: the good news of the gospel is not that Jesus came as the just and righteous servant who died in your place so that you and I could get let off the hook for being the people of God, a vehicle of his blessing in the world. No! The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came as the just and righteous servant who died in your place in order to restore us to our purpose as a just and righteous community through whom the LORD promises to bring blessing to the very ends of the earth.
That’s why the risen lord Jesus stood before his disciples in the gospel of John and breathed on them his Spirit, declaring “as the Father sends me, so send I you” (John 20:21). That’s why when Jesus’s Spirit fell on the people at Pentecost, the people came to saving faith in Jesus, shared their possessions with one another to such an extent that there were no needy persons among them, and then, not least because of that just expression of what love looks like in public, the Spirit added daily to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2). That’s why James prophetically confronted those who practiced injustice against the poor at work (James 5:1-6), and why John decried the idolatry and the injustice at work in Rome’s economy, military, and politics (Revelation 18).
What’s the point of the people of God? To be a vehicle of Jesus’s blessing to the world, not least by becoming members of God’s own family, a family that keeps the way of the Lord by doing justice and righteousness. That was the point of the people of God then. That’s the point of the people of God now.
How might we respond to this purpose to which God has called us today?
First, and probably hardest, if justice and righteousness stand at the very centre of God’s purposes for His people, we’ve got some repenting to do. At least if your community is anything like mine, our first response to being reminded of God’s just and righteous purposes for his people is to repent of the ways we have unfaithfully exercised power in community, both as individuals and as the body of Christ.
But second, when we repent of our injustice and unrighteousness, we are invited to come to Jesus as the only true source of the justice and righteousness for which we so long. God not only offers us forgiveness, he invites us to come to him, to be united to him and filled by his Spirit to such an extent that we become people who produce the just and righteous fruit for which he planted us in the first place.
And that includes all of us! So often when we think about justice and righteousness, we think about huge problems far beyond anything that our little rag-tag band of fellow churchgoers could possibly do anything about. But God’s Word always comes to little bands of rag-tag people, and always with the incredible plan to transform us into the kind of just and righteous community that can become a vehicle of blessing, in big ways and small, to our neighbours and neighbourhoods and the very ends of the earth.
Jesus, the only source of justice and righteousness
Third, finally, and best of all, when our communities bear the fruit of God’s justice and righteousness, we discover that this is the very fruit that our neighbours are dying for. If your community is like mine, it’s filled with people who are less and less interested in Christianity, but who are longing for justice and righteousness, longing to see power exercised faithfully in community, longing to see the poor and oppressed lifted up. Just imagine what would happen in their lives if the justice and righteousness for which they are longing was being lived out in the church. Ask yourself what would happen if such a church not only lived that justice and righteousness with their lives, but declared with their lips that Jesus of Nazareth, God-in-the-flesh, was the only source of the justice and righteousness that we all long for. The good news of the gospel is not only that God promises to work justice and righteousness in us, but also that God promises to use that justice and righteousness he produces in our lives to draw the nations to himself.
What’s the point of the people of God? To become a community so filled with God’s Spirit that we become so characterised by God’s way that we become a vehicle of God’s blessing to God’s world. So let’s draw near to Jesus, plead with him to pour out his Spirit on us, so that we might bear just and righteous fruit in the world, for his glory, for our good, and for the good of our hurting world.
If you would like to hear more from Michael Rhodes, included in the Carey Sunday resources is a webinar recording on the topic:
Contributor: Dr Michael Rhodes
Michael Rhodes is a lecturer in Old Testament at Carey Baptist College. Michael’s passion is to help the church hear and respond to Scripture’s call to embody God’s justice and mercy on behalf of the marginalized. This passion inspired Michael and his wife Rebecca’s decision to live, work, and worship in an economically impoverished community for the ten years prior to his coming to Carey.
Interest in how the church might become a community of justice and mercy also fuelled Michael’s dissertation research on moral formation and economic ethics in biblical meals, as well as his current research project on moral formation for justice in Scripture. Michael is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. His PhD is from the University of Aberdeen/Trinity College Bristol and is titled: “Formative Feasting: Practices and Economic Ethics in Deuteronomy’s Tithe Meal and the Corinthian Lord’s Supper.”
Here is the video if you want to listen to Michael’s sermon:
- John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, 21.
- Cornel West, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, 23.
- “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a popular song and jazz standard composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.
Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.