The words death penalty waft through an Orlando courtroom, the tension as thick as Florida’s humidity. Casey Anthony continues to solemnly observe the frenzy of activity from her seat, as defense lawyers and prosecution grill countless witnesses testifying either for or against her.
High profile cases like these have us contemplating the significance of a life lost, and a life that must pay, and has me wrestling with the following questions:
Should the state really be given power to choose who deserves to live and die?
Who decides which Old Testament laws are relevant and which ones are not?
And most of all, What happened to the New Testament age of grace?
I desperately wanted to find the answers, and in doing so, I actually refuted my original thoughts. If you never previously formed an opinion about the death penalty, or have an opinion, but are unsure how to support your thoughts, take some time to prayerfully contemplate the ideas and passages of Scripture mentioned here. I have done my best to present clear, unadulterated truth, but I also know my limitations and encourage you to “get in tune” with your inner Berean as you follow along.
Old Testament Beginnings
Capital punishment in the Old Testament emerged when treason was committed against God and specific Jewish laws. OT law was taken very seriously, as the rules set God’s chosen people apart from their surrounding cultures. Death by stoning, burning, or sword were the three main methods of execution commonly practiced when particular laws were broken.
- Exodus 32:27 – God’s people were punished by sword for worshiping the golden calf.
- Leviticus 20:14 – The consequence for sexual immorality was burning to death.
- Deuteronomy 13:6-11 – God’s people were stoned for serving other gods.
- Joshua 7:25 – Achan and his family were burned and stoned for disobeying God and taking spoils from Jericho.
These passages are only a handful of the extensive regulations found in the Old Testament. Oh, how I would have hated to live during this time period!
An Authority Shift
In the New Testament, government, rather than OT law, decided who was punishable by death. Romans 13:4 affirms this by bestowing the title of God’s servant on governing authorities and allowing them to “bear the sword”.
- Matthew 14:10-11 - Herod beheaded John the Baptist because of a seductress’ request.
- Luke 23:32 – Two robbers were put to death by crucifixion, alongside Jesus, whom Pilate thought did not deserve the death penalty. (Luke 23:22)
- John 8:3-11 – The Pharisees wanted to stone an adulterous woman.
- Acts 7:54-60 – Stephen was stoned on accounts of blasphemy.
There is only one New Testament passage that comes to mind where God Himself induced the death penalty. Acts 5:1-11 recounts the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to the apostle Peter about the sale price of their property and died immediately after their fabricated story.
In one of his sermons, John MacArthur had this to say about the government’s role in initiating the death penalty,
“This institution of government, this ruler, this one who wields the authority of the government is the minister of God and he is avenging by bringing wrath on the one who practices evil. Capital punishment is the will of God and the executioner is the servant of God.”
Divine justice unfolds on earth through God-appointed governing authorities. To rebel against them, is essentially the same as rebellion towards God. He instituted government because He is a God of decency and order. Lets be honest, if there were no set local, state, and federal rules of decorum, our story might eerily imitate Golding’s, Lord of the Flies.
This does not mean the government IS God and every decision handed out by a government official is the “Word of God.” As Proverbs says “The heart of a ruler is in the hand of the Lord”. However, we still live in a fallen world where evil constantly fights for the upper hand.
Tune into Part 2 next Friday, as we examine why God chose death to be the punishment of choice, and finally answer that nagging question about grace!
How do we compensate for a corrupt government and legal system?
Coleman, William. Today’s Handbook of Bible Times and Customs. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1984.
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