Although we live in a culture that talks incessantly about injustice and oppression, it’s often hard to picture a culture with less clarity on what those things really mean. To avoid making that mistake ourselves, let’s begin with a few definitions.
Injustice – Depriving someone of justice.
Oppression – To afflict, mistreat, hold down, or exploit.
Those are pretty basic, right? Not much controversy yet. But, you’ll notice that each of these definitions presuppose a standard. And that’s where the problem begins. How can there be injustice if there isn’t first justice? Likewise, how is it possible to mistreat someone if there isn’t an objective standard for how people should be treated in the first place? And it’s the failure to properly define the positives that lead to such distorted understanding of the negatives.
Biblically, it’s clear that the positive of injustice is justice. And biblical justice is giving that which is deserved, or that which God requires.
The biblical positive of oppression is a little trickier. In most basic terms, it’s probably love. To oppress someone is to give them that which is bad, keep them from them some rightful good, or to take from them something that is theirs. But to love someone is to graciously give them that which is best, strive together with them for every good, and to take their burdens from them.
As we see constantly, apart from clear and specific definitions of justice and love, injustice and oppression can simply become placeholder words for whatever we might not like at the moment. In this way, we can simply cry “injustice” whenever someone attempts to hold us accountable for our actions. And we can cry “oppression” whenever someone withholds something from us that we want.
That is not to say there aren’t tragic injustices and acts of oppression in the world today. It is also not to say that Christians are allowed to be indifferent to injustice and oppression when we find it. It is to say, however, that there is a great deal of confusion about what those really mean, which leads to a good deal of confusion about what it means to rightly oppose them.
With all of that, welcome to Orphan Sunday. This is an annual event that we’ve participated in for many years at Grace. Insodoing, we’re joining Christians and churches from around the world in seeking to put down the oppression and perversion of justice for the fatherless, while also lovingly fighting for their cause. We do so primarily because God has commanded it. And God has commanded it primarily because it paints such a clear picture of the gospel.
To all those ends, we’ll consider one of the greatest marks of both godlessness and godliness, as well as some practical ways we can work together against injustice and oppression and for justice and love for the orphan.
The big idea of this sermon is that the way we treat orphans is the great divide of humanity. God has called His people to care for the orphan as a living picture of His care for us. At the same time, His fiercest condemnations are for those who do otherwise. And the main takeaways are that we would fight together to grow in the kind of Christ-like character out of which orphan-care is entirely natural, and to fight together to make a real difference, for the glory of God, according to the Word of God, in the lives of the fatherless.
THE GREAT MARK OF GODLESSNESS: TO OPPRESS OR DEPRIVE JUSTICE FROM THE ORPHAN
I wonder what you think of when you think of the most significant mark of godlessness. In the next few seconds, try drawing to mind whatever biblical passages you can think of that speak to the things that most frustrate God. Or, what might we do that is most antithetical to God’s character?
You might be surprised to find out that the continual refrain of God’s Word is that one of the surest pieces of evidence of godlessness is the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable—particularly the widow, the sojourner, and the orphan. There is no surer sign that you do not know the love of God than that you wrongly take from others or hold them down simply because you can.
I want to show you numerous passages that speak to this to help you feel the weight of what God’s Word has to say about this and to help you see that this is not a minor issue in the Bible. Let me say this as clearly as possible. According to God’s Word, we cannot believe our faith is genuine and knowingly participate in the oppression of or deprive justice from the fatherless. One of the greatest marks of godlessness is mistreating the orphan.
Exodus 22:22-24 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Deuteronomy 24:17-18 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
Psalm 94:3-7 3 O LORD, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? 4 They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. 5 They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage. 6 They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; 7 and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Isaiah 1:23 Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
Isaiah 10:1-3 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, 2 to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! 3 What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?
Jeremiah 5:26-28 For wicked men are found among my people; they lurk like fowlers lying in wait. They set a trap; they catch men. 27 Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; therefore they have become great and rich; 28 they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Ezekiel 22:6-7 “Behold, the princes of Israel in you, every one according to his power, have been bent on shedding blood. 7 Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.
Malachi 3:5 “… I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against…the fatherless… and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
In Job, the mistreatment of the vulnerable is among the worst possible charges against someone.
Eliphaz’s harshest accusation was tied to the mistreatment of the fatherless. Job 22:9 You have sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless were crushed.
And Job laments the wickedness of the wicked, declaring, Job 24:9 There are those who snatch the fatherless child from the breast, and they take a pledge against the poor.
Finally, consider carefully the company kept by those who pervert justice for the fatherless; consider it and tremble!
Deuteronomy 27:15-25 “‘Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD… 16 “‘Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother.’ … 17 “‘Cursed be anyone who moves his neighbor’s landmark.’ … 18 “‘Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind man on the road.’ … 19 “‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ … 20 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.’ … 21 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with any kind of animal.’ … 22 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.’ … 23 “‘Cursed be anyone who lies with his mother-in-law.’ … 24 “‘Cursed be anyone who strikes down his neighbor in secret.’ … 25 “‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’…
The orphan-oppressor is on par in godlessness with the idolater, the parent-curser, the thief, the most sexually perverse, and the murder.
Can you see how detestable it is in the eyes of the LORD to put down, mistreat, afflict, exploit, or pervert justice for the orphan? Can you imagine harsher words from the LORD concerning those who do? Is there worse company than that which orphan-harmers keep? Is it clear that one of the greatest marks of godlessness is to oppress or deprive justice from the fatherless? Is it obvious that according to God’s Word, one of the key questions we’re meant to ask when we consider whether or not our faith is real is how we treat those who cannot stand up for themselves and have no one to stand up for them?
In kind, older brothers and sisters, it is no small thing to pick on your younger siblings. Bosses, it is not inconsequential for you to use your employees rather than serve them. Parents, can you see more clearly now why, one of our dedication questions is, “Do you promise to…serve [your children] and not use them? Husbands, it is a treacherous thing to use your strength against your wife. Abortion is a great abomination, the killing of the most vulnerable of all. Consider the words of the LORD and tremble!
THE GREAT MARK OF GODLINESS: TO LOVE AND PURSUE JUSTICE FOR THE ORPHAN
While it’s good for us to hear God’s word on the matter of godlessness as it relates to the cause of the orphan, I imagine that’s not the main application for us here, this morning. If you are participating in any way in depriving injustice for the vulnerable, repent now, but for most, this next section is probably where our prayers, thoughts, repentance, and actions need to be most directed.
Grace, it is not enough to merely not harm the weak. The great scriptural divide is not between those who oppress orphans and those who are indifferent to them. The chasm between godlessness and godliness is between those who pervert justice for the fatherless and those who lay down their lives for justice for the fatherless.
In other words, as you might not have considered, but now probably expect, one of the greatest biblical marks of godliness is the pursuit of justice and love for the orphan. Reading, memorizing, and meditating on Scripture is very good. Sharing the gospel with unbelievers is right. Spending time in prayer pleases God. Christian fellowship is vital. But right up there with those things (along with the rest of the means of grace), and in some ways more so (for reasons we’ll come to near the end), is pleading the cause of the orphan.
Again, I want to steep you in scripture to demonstrate this and then help explain why this is the case according to God’s design.
Fighting for the Orphan Is What God Does
The first and main way we see orphan care as a great mark of godliness is in the simple fact that God is merciful toward the orphan and, therefore, orphan-care is what God does. If godliness is sharing in God’s character and actions, then plainly seeing that God is entirely committed to being a Father to the fatherless and all that entails, is the first step toward godliness in us.
Deuteronomy 10:17-18 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.
We considered Exodus 22:21-24 earlier from the perspective of the wickedness of mistreating orphans. Consider it again from the perspective of God’s determination to crush those who do. …22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Hosea 14:1-3 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. 2 Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him… 3 … In you the orphan finds mercy.”
Psalm 10:12-14 Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted…14 … to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless.
Psalm 10:17-18 O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear 18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
Psalm 68:4-5 Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is the LORD; exult before him! 5 Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
Psalm 146:5-9 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, 6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever; 7 who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. … 8 … The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down… 9 The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin
Again, if godliness is sharing in God’s character and actions, may God help us see plainly that His character and actions are for the vulnerable. Several years ago during Orphan Sunday, I preached an entire sermon on this and my main point was that all the greatness of God is for the fatherless. That is, right at the center of God’s own heart is a love for the orphan.
Spend some time this week meditating on the passages I just read and prayerfully consider what it would mean for you as an individual and for us as a church to think, feel, and act with greater godliness in this area.
Fighting for the Orphan Is What God Commands
The second main way the Bible teaches that orphan care is essential to godliness is in the fact that God not only fights for the cause of the orphan, but He also commands His people to join Him in it. We don’t just have His examples, we also have His charges, and our first passage helps us to see that the two are inseparable.
Deuteronomy 10:18-19 [God] executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 14:28-29 (see also Deuteronomy 24:19-22 and 26:10-13) “At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. 29 And the Levite, …and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
Deuteronomy 24:17 You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge…
Psalm 82:3-4 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Proverbs 23:10-11 Do not move an ancient landmark [moving someone’s property line so as to make their portion smaller and yours bigger] or enter the fields of the fatherless [to take it or its fruit from him], 11 for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.
Jeremiah 22:3 Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
Zechariah 7:9-10 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
What’s more, God consistently calls His people to orphan care as a true mark of genuine repentance. When the Israelites began to recognize the folly of their ways and turn their grumblings to God, God would often call them to show it in their actions and not just in their words. Among the first actions God would call for was to stop oppressing the weak.
Isaiah 1:16-17 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
Jeremiah 7:5-7 if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
In relation to the fatherless, then, what does genuine godliness look like? As we’ve just seen, it means being merciful toward (Hosea 14:3), being genuinely concerned for (James 1:27), feeling deep sympathy for (Deuteronomy 10:19), expressing generosity toward (Deuteronomy 24:19-21), providing help for (Psalm 10:12), sacrificially rescuing (Psalm 82:4), feeding, freeing, watching over, lifting up, upholding (Psalm 146:7-9), protecting (Psalm 68:5), prospering, and defending (Jeremiah 5:28) the orphan. It is not merely not harming them or being indifferent to them. It is actively working to end their oppression and lift them up in love that marks genuine godliness.
Grace, let me quickly say three things about this. First, everyone in the Church must give ourselves to all that God calls us to. And among the things God has called us to work against those who would oppress the vulnerable and for their flourishing in love. You and I personally need to care about the orphan. Second, not everyone in the Church can do every good thing that God calls us to do all the time and in the same way. God gives specific burdens and gifts to specific people at specific times. Third, God means us to be strengthened by one another’s gifts. I might never be as burdened for and gifted in orphan care as my wife is in the same way as she will probably never be as burdened for and gifted in doctrinal precision as I am. But instead of looking down on each other for lacking our burdens or feeling guilty that we don’t share them, we’re meant to learn God’s fuller heart from one another. Fourth, and this is a big deal and good news, God looks to us as a people and not merely as individuals. Grace, find joy in the fact that God is pleased by what we do collectively, as a body. He is pleased by what we give ourselves to as a church as well as with us in our personal obedience. In that way, the orphan care that any of us do as a covenant community is orphan care that we all do.
This leaves us with two questions that I want to close with: 1) Why is orphan care so much a part of the heart of God and the call of God on His people? and 2) What might this really look like in practice?
Fighting for the Orphan Portrays the Gospel
Orphan care is central to God’s heart and commands because it so clearly portrays the gospel. Orphan care is in many ways the gospel incarnate.
What orphans experience physically and emotionally, all mankind experiences spiritually. Orphans are vulnerable and helpless on their own. They have nothing to offer and no way to rescue themselves. Their only hope is that someone would be merciful to them.
That is all of us in Adam. We are dead in our sins and have no way of escaping. We cannot rescue ourselves or to be reconciled to God on our own. Our only hope is that God would turn to us in His mercy and grace. And He has, Grace Church, through Jesus Christ His Son!
There is, perhaps, no clearer picture of this physical/spiritual orphan parallel than in Ezekiel 16.
4 And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. 5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.
6 “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ 7 I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment.
This also shows up over and over as God ties His commands for orphan care to the fact that the Israelites were once helpless slaves themselves in Egypt (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:19, 17:19, 24:18).
And it is also a key aspect of our salvation. By grace through faith, we are not only forgiven and cleansed of our sins, we are also adopted into God’s family as His sons and daughters.
Ephesians 1:3-5 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
The sweetness and goodness of this spiritual adoption is why we are reminded every week that “by the blood of Jesus you are welcomed into the presence of God as his beloved sons and daughters.”
The great divide between godlessness and godliness is so closely tied to orphan-care because orphan-care is so closely tied to the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is true of the orphan physically is a clear picture of all of us spiritually. And in these ways, the way we treat orphans speaks loudly concerning the way we understand our relationship to God.
PRACTICALLY LOVING AND PURSUING JUSTICE FOR THE ORPHAN
Finally, then, what does this look like in practice? Truthfully, more often than not it is messy and difficult. Just as doing ministry to sinners as a sinner is often hard, so too is caring for orphans. The very fact that there are orphans means something is broken. What’s more, the system that is in place to care for orphans is broken—the government in assuming responsibility for something it’s not designed for or charged with and the Church in abdicating our role. It’s challenging because of so much brokenness, but it’s also worth it because of the gospel.
That said, the Orphan Sunday team at Grace has given us nine ways that we can work to this end. Would you please prayerfully consider how you might take a step toward one of them or help someone who already has?
- Speak up for them
- Provide for their needs
- Support those who support them
- Protect them from harm
- Visit them where they are
- Give sacrificially
- Encourage them to press on
- Adopt them
- Help mobilize your church
For the glory of God and the good of the fatherless, according to the commands of God, empowered by the Spirit, and as a living picture of the gospel, let us increasingly give ourselves (individually and collectively) to this particular form of godliness.