“Suppose a man or woman is discovered among you, in one of your villages that the Lord your God is giving you, who sins before the Lord your God and breaks his covenant by serving other gods and worshiping them, the sun, moon, or any other heavenly bodies which I have not permitted you to worship. When it is reported to you and you hear about it, you must investigate carefully. If it is indeed true that such a disgraceful thing is being done in Israel, you must bring to your city gates that man or woman who has done this wicked thing, that very man or woman, and you must stone that person to death.” [Deuteronomy 17: 2-5 NET]
One good thing about preaching through whole books of the bible, a practice in my church, is that you are forced to wrestle with the whole counsel of God including the passages that you might normally avoid. I couldn’t avoid talking about apostasy and its prescribed punishment.
A quick response would be to say that the instructions found in Deuteronomy 17:2-5 was for the nation of Israel at a particular time in its history. It no longer applies to the church today. But on further reflection I came to the following train of thought.
1. Breaking covenant with the living God brings death is not a new idea. It was there in Genesis 1-3. Adam and Eve were warned that if they disobeyed God they would die. Physical death is the end result of spiritual death. Our forefathers were the original apostates. [Genesis 2:16,17]
2. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we too are all “apostates” and deserve death. [Romans 3:23.6:23]
3. In the supreme act of love, God Himself enters human history and takes that death on our behalf. [Mark 10:45]
4. He now offers us the great exchange — He takes our deserved death and He offers us His eternal life. We accept His offer by repenting and turning to Him in faith. [John 3:16]
5. When we do His Spirit indwells us, both to give us this new life and to give us the capacity to live the new life so we will not be apostate again. [Ezekiel 36:25-27]
Passages like Deuteronomy 17 now play a different role in God’s purposes. They bring home the full horror of capital punishment, especially with a method as visceral and hands on as stoning. One can imagine hurling the rock, the thud, the cry, the blood, the life seeping away. Passages on apostasy bring home the horror of our lostness apart from God.
It is in realizing the horror of death for choosing against God that we understand the desperate straits we were in when we were dead in our sin. And it is the horror of capital punishment that gives us some clue of the deep love of God that led Him to the Cross to die for us.
In realizing the hopelessness of our situation and the indescribable gift of God’s love, we respond with the appropriate gratitude, humbled by the grace of God, keen to show that same grace to others.
In attempting to preach a sermon on apostasy and capital punishment from the Old Testament I found myself led to the Cross and the heart of our faith.
I fully sympathize with the Jews in Jesus time, and Muslim and other groups in our time, who find this whole matter of God coming as man to die on sinful man’s behalf as something very hard to swallow. Among other things it seems unjust.Why should the innocent die for the guilty.
But my starting point is not my own logic and my own expectations of what God should or shouldn’t do. My starting point is God and what He has done.
If God is the aggrieved party when humans sin, then He has the right to write off the debt. But He then has to bear the loss. Which He does on the cross.
Jesus’s mission now, and our mission as His church, is not to stone people but to share with them the incredible news that God has come and died on their behalf. And we share from a position of humility and gratitude, constantly aware that we too we slated for death but saved by God.
Jesus shows the way in the account reported in John 7:53-8:11. Here a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. I wonder why didn’t they bring the man caught in the act with her. This should already give us a clue that all human agitations for justice are at best imperfect. In fact John tells us that the whole scenario was a set up to trap Jesus. (Presumably if Jesus agreed to her execution he would have contravened the Roman law of the day.)
By strict Jewish law, adultery was punishable by death. Jesus doesn’t dispute this point but asks that only those completely free of sin carry out the execution. If one is so quick to demand punishment for sin one had better be sure that he or she is free from sin. None are, and in the end no one stones the woman.
Of course there was one who was sinless and was qualified to stone the woman. Jesus Himself. But He chooses not to. Unfair? Well He would later “receive the stoning” on her behalf when He suffered and died on the cross. He had the authority and right to say :
Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you? ‘She replied, No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you either. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.’ [John 8:10-11 NET]
Fear and punishment cannot change the human heart. But grace can.
After I preached on Deuteronomy 17, someone came up to me and said that if Christ hadn’t come, we would not have been able to move beyond instructions like Deuteronomy 17:2-5. I smiled.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan