Justice, Mercy, and the Kingdom of Heaven is an abolitionist commentary on the gospel of Matthew which is being developed as an ongoing project. It reflects many of the ideas undergirding the abolitionist movement today, developing how they interleave with a verse-by-verse study of the Bible. The introduction is included on this page; at the end is an option to download chapters 1-4.
Justice, Mercy, and the Kingdom of Heaven
Introduction and Purpose
Addressing Worldly Concepts of Justice
A common theme in today’s movies and television shows involves asking and answering the question of how to establish justice in the private and public realms. Often a plotline will involve solving a purported injustice done to the protagonist. Even more compelling, some heroes will work to establish justice for others, namely the downtrodden and the oppressed.
An example of this is the popular Star Wars franchise which has featured this theme prominently for decades, especially in recent years. Despite their Eastern blurring of the moral line between the dark and light sides of “the Force,” each episode nevertheless contains a conflict between those who are fighting for good things — freedom from tyranny, peace, the right to survive etc. — and those who oppose such goals in pursuit of selfish gain.
In nearly every cinematic production of this theme, a moralistic philosophy undergirds the method by which justice is established for the victim. There are good people (typically without power), and there are bad people (typically with power). If the good people remain committed to the cause, then against all odds they can outwit and overcome the bad people through their own wisdom, strength and endurance.
The theme of justice can of course become more complex than this simple good vs evil; “good” people are often recognized as having flaws, and they’ll have to wrestle with the question of how they are different from those they consider bad. Often the protagonists have to appeal to some moral line that they have not yet crossed, such as murder, or the effort or sorrow that they are exerting to redeem themselves from evils once committed. Sadly, this fictitious philosophy then leaks out of the television screen, and into the spiritual lives and everyday decisions of our culture.
Anyone familiar with biblical Christianity will recognize that there are great problems intrinsic to moralism. First, there are no good people; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), a point which Matthew develops as a major theme of his gospel. Second, bad people cannot be justified of their guilt by fighting and overcoming other bad people; true justice repays everyone according to his own works (Rom 2:6).
Evangelical Christianity rightly criticizes the simplistic philosophy of the world’s answer to injustice, demonstrating it to be self-refuting and self-destroying. However, I have found that the various answers which evangelicals often give to injustice can be simplistic in their own right, failing to provide biblical truth concerning how to address injustice in the present age, before the return of Christ. As a result, evangelicals fail to satisfactorily answer the questions that the culture is asking about how to address the problems in their world, and we are thus discredited in the minds of the next generation.
I’m reminded of a young woman I spoke with on the streets of Seattle several years back, who serves as an example of this jaded response to evangelical Christianity. I was engaged in an anti-abortion protest outside of a church — an activity which, if done biblically, every good protestant should appreciate — and this woman began counter-protesting against us, claiming abortion as a woman’s right. Our differing views on justice provided an opportunity to discuss the philosophical foundations of justice, and in time she expressed to me the real reason for her concern, namely that she had been raped, and aborted her conceived child in response to it.
The young woman had grown up in a large church, where she saw a great disparity between her mother’s poverty, and her pastor’s wealth and money-begging. Viewing this as a form of injustice committed by the Church, she concluded that Christianity had nothing of value to bring to the question of establishing justice in society. In the place of Christianity, and in the wake of her rape, she was then opened to the religion of the world, which offered her a cheap answer to the injustice she had experienced, through murdering the child conceived in her womb. It was easy to see that she was lost, broken, and hurting from her shattered life; her mother’s religion had failed her, but so did the religion of the world. In time, the Lord gave me the opportunity to share Christ with her in a way which answered the questions she was struggling with — what to do with the injustice in the Church, what to do with the injustice she had experienced, and what to do with the guilt that resulted from her actions.
When I look at the younger generation in America today, I see great potential for the gospel of Jesus Christ to take root in their hearts and minds — if the Church is willing to answer the questions that they are asking in a way which actually reflects what the Bible teaches. Sadly, many pastors today seem to preach as if the gospel of Jesus Christ only addresses the ultimate issue of heaven or hell, without any impact on issues of social justice, public policy, and the civil government of our present age. Most pastors are likely well-meaning in this regard; I believe that most simply do not have the biblical categories for building a systematic response to the world’s philosophy of social justice. As a result, the issue is ignored in favor of other doctrines and aspects of scripture.
This commentary is intended to help fill that gap, by providing an abolitionist perspective on the book of Matthew. For those unfamiliar with the modern controversy over abolitionism, some Christians today (the present author included) believe that the Church needs to return from predominant modern opinions toward social justice — which range from apathy and ignorance all the way to godless activism — back to a more biblical, self-sacrificial, and gospel-centered approach.
Much is already written, both historically and today, concerning the duty Christians have to abolish national sins, immediately and without compromise, and in this commentary I am not intending to duplicate that effort. Abolitionists of slavery and abortion in particular have written extensive, systematic defenses of abolitionism, working to defend it from the criticism of gradualists, and to demonstrate the biblical and practical deficiencies of the pro-life and colonizationist movements of gradual abolition.
The purpose of this work is to address a more subtle need. Despite an increasing awareness of the Bible’s teaching concerning social justice, there remains today a significant gap between how Christians think when the subject arises in conversation, and what we do in the everyday pathways of life. I believe this gap represents a failure on the part of abolitionists to adequately address how the abolition of sin integrates with our everyday reading of scripture, a failure which I hope to remedy (at least in the mind of pastors) through this work.
For purposes of this commentary, abolitionism can simply be defined as an attempt to understand and apply the biblical perspective concerning justice to the world around us today. The end result of the abolitionist perspective leads Christians to abolish (end) various forms of sin which threaten the well-being of mankind, and the earth under his dominion. This commentary is intended to highlight those aspects of Matthew which address these issues of justice, mercy, and the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, providing special focus on the injustice of abortion, because of its prevalence in our age.
Some readers may be concerned about the advisability of focusing on a single issue (abortion) while providing commentary on one of the gospels. Concerns regarding eisegesis (reading one’s own perspective and agenda into the text) could legitimately make readers hesitant to consider a commentary that intends to focus on a specific issue, in this case social justice applied to abortion.
There are three points that I’ll make in response to this concern. First, the writers of the epistles had no problem giving commentary on a particular text, for the sake of establishing a focused and limited point. For example, both Paul and James cite Genesis 15:6, where Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” However they use that verse to establish two different points, about the importance of faith and the importance of works in Abraham’s relationship with the Lord. Neither one fully develops the theology surrounding how these two points can be true and in concert with one another; rather they each use the text for a specific purpose, and continue with the primary argument they are trying to establish.
Commentary with a specific purpose is never a problem if the commentator is committed to unearthing the true meaning of a given passage, rather than read his agenda into it. None of us does this perfectly of course, and like anyone else I will certainly have problems in my representation of what God is saying to His people. But the certainty of error should never stop commentators from working to promote truth, any more than the certainty of sin in a life should stop one from pursuing holiness. So when (not if) you encounter a problem or inconsistency in this commentary, just be willing to think critically, be a Berean, and honor the word of God above the endless books of man.
The second thing I’ll say is that production of a verse-by-verse commentary has a somewhat different purpose than other pieces I have written on abolition, which typically are systematic defenses of abolitionist theology. Systematic theology can be persuasive and powerful in establishing a specific point from scripture; however it can often come at the cost of understanding how that doctrine is interwoven into the fabric of scripture and redemptive history. In trying to persuade pastors to spend more time fighting injustice in a more biblical fashion, I have found that they can often be persuaded to consider one point or another, but eventually fail to see how the abolition of injustice integrates with their understanding of the gospel, and what Christ wants them to do in their leadership over His flock.
So in this commentary, I do intend to present abolitionist ideas and emphases from the text, but I also want to demonstrate how they integrate with other concepts and doctrines in the Bible, many of which may already be familiar to readers. In theory, this should allow me to speak about subjects unrelated to the abolition of sin, if such things can be found in the Bible.
The final thing that I’ll say in response to those who would object to a focused commentary is that it is possible for a specific motif (such as justice) to legitimately become a lens through which we helpfully view and understand the whole of scripture. For example, covenant theology sees the whole of scripture through the lens of a covenant, a relationship between God and man forged in a life or death agreement. Whatever one may think about the particular conclusions of covenantalists, it seems undeniable that the motif of a covenant can be helpfully used to frame and understand God’s entire plan of redemption, as His work to save us from the sanctions of a broken covenant.
Similarly, the motifs of justice, mercy, and the kingdom of heaven can all be found throughout scripture, and each concept can be helpfully used as a lens to highlight different aspects of truth therein. Even the specific injustice of abortion, which tends to be a focal point for modern abolitionists, can be used to describe and frame the entire story of redemptive history, as the early pages of Matthew’s gospel help to illustrate. In the next section I’ll give an overview of this relationship between abortion and redemption, then work to situate Matthew’s gospel in that context as presenting Christ’s work to abolish human abortion through the power of the gospel.
For this section however, the point is simply that specificity is not a bad thing when providing commentary on scripture. Often I find myself wishing that pastors would be more specific when addressing the sins of their congregations; they often refer to sin in general terms, dealing only with the core principles, without working out the implications in concrete, specific areas. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we find that Jesus had no problem being specific with the people around Him; neither should we.
Abortion, Abolition, and Redemptive History
The whole of redemptive history can be helpfully viewed as God’s work to abolish human abortion from the heavens and the earth. Various scriptures can be cited to establish this point, but the one most relevant to Matthew’s gospel can be found in Revelation 12.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne. (Rev 12:1-5)
One of Matthew’s common themes is the cooperation between Jewish and Gentile (non-Jewish) rulers in seeking to destroy Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s inconvenient and unwanted child. In Genesis 3, God told the serpent who deceived mankind (the dragon above) that his head will be crushed by the promised seed of the woman. Since that time, Satan has often attacked the children of man through actions like perverting the bloodline (Gen 6), destroying the children of Israel in Egypt (Exo 1), destroying the sons of David through Athaliah (2Ki 11), passing Israel’s children through the fires of Molech (Jer 32), and killing the children of Bethlehem when Jesus arrived on the scene (Mat 2).
The scene above depicts this overarching conflict as Israel giving birth to the promised seed, and Satan waiting to devour him. The woman here seems to be in cooperation with the dragon, since he only attacks her after the child is taken up to God, her husband (Rev 12:5-6, 13, Isa 54). Even if that detail is a bit circumstantial to this passage, we know from the rest of scripture that Jewish leadership did not want Jesus to remain alive, so they fed Him to Rome to be crucified. The Roman government in turn was, is, and/or will be (depending on one’s eschatology) a beast given authority by the dragon to rule over the earth, and make war against the saints (Dan 7, Rev 13). In cooperating with Rome, the rulers and people of Israel chose to murder the promised child, sacrificing and aborting her own redeemer and king.
From God’s perspective, in viewing Israel as His adulterous wife (Hos 2), and Jesus as their son, Israel’s crucifixion of Jesus was a form of child sacrifice. This collusion between Jewish and Gentile rulers to murder the promised king of the Jews began when He was a young child (Mat 2), continued throughout His ministry (Mat 12:14), and ultimately culminated in His death on the cross (Mat 27). By cooperating with the Gentiles in this injustice, the Jews demonstrated that there was no categorical difference between the righteousness of Jews and Gentiles; both were wicked in the eyes of God, another common theme in Matthew and the New Testament at large. As Stephen said prior to his own death at their hands,
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (Act 7:51-53)
Calling a Jew uncircumcised was a tremendous insult at the time of Christ. Circumcision being a sign of the covenant between God and Israel (Gen 17), to claim that a Jew was uncircumcised was effectively to say that he was just like the lawless Gentiles, and would therefore also face the wrath of God (Exo 4:24-26). Jews tended to view themselves as morally superior to Gentiles, on account of the law that they had received from God through Moses. Yet in collaborating with the Gentiles to crucify an innocent man, Israel demonstrated that she was “resisting the Holy Spirit;” thus the law she had “received as delivered by angels” was unable to give her a righteousness that differentiated her from Gentiles in any significant way.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law;
And if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth —
You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision… For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom 2:17-29)
As a tax collector, viewed as an extortionist and traitor to his people, Matthew was well accustomed to being despised for his collusion with the gentile beast of Rome. When Jesus first called him to be a disciple, Jesus received immediate criticism from the Pharisees for His willingness to spend time with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mat 9:9-13). In reply, He cited the prophet Hosea, whom God used to depict Israel as a harlot sleeping with gentile lovers.
Without minimizing the lawlessness of tax collectors and sinners, Jesus demonstrates that the religious elite of His day were no more righteous in their own keeping of the law than Gentiles, and this seems to have endeared Him to Matthew. Of the synoptic gospel writers, only Matthew records this detail, and throughout his gospel Matthew is constantly driving home the Gentile-like nature of Israel, and the greater righteousness that is required and provided by God, through faith in Jesus Christ. Finally encountering a better righteousness than what the levitical priesthood of his day had to offer, Matthew left a lucrative position with the Roman government to follow Jesus — during Christ’s earthly ministry, through His death, resurrection and ascension, past the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, all the way until Matthew’s own death as a martyred missionary to Gentiles in Ethiopia.
The nation of Israel however, despite her outward repentance from gentile idol worship, as a whole continued her history of child sacrifice straight into the New Testament era, through her murder of the promised seed by the hands of lawless Gentiles. Both Matthew and scripture at large place child sacrifice at the very heart of the gospel, and thus the center of Christ’s work and ministry in redeeming a people unto Himself. While it is hardly the only motif by which redemptive history can be viewed and understood, the thwarting and abolition of child sacrifice is a key theme in scripture, a fact which should drive us to consider deeply how we as Christians relate to the genocide of abortion in our own midst — the most destructive form of child sacrifice that has reared its head to date in history.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8)
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My Platform: REPENT
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (Jhn 3:16-19)