February 26, 2022 - 6th Commandment

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Today we’re going to talk about the 6th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” The Hebrew verb ratzach used in this command refers specifically to murder. Numbers 35 defines this word in a way that rules out accidental killing, and focuses on killing with a sinful motive such as hatred (we might add covering up a crime, in the case of King David). The verb ratzach is never used for killing in war, or killing animals.

Unlike other Near Eastern law codes in the time of Moses, the Law of Moses forbids payment of ransom for the life of a murderer. Murderers must be put to death. The only place where God’s law allows for unlimited ransom in place of the death penalty is in cases where an ox gores a human to death after the owner has been warned. And the guilty ox is always stoned to death and must not be eaten. Human life is super sacred in the law God gave to Moses.

Why does God say, “Thou shalt not kill?” The answer is because God is life. “Thou shalt not kill” is rooted in the very heart and character of God.

The command “Thou shalt not kill” is based on the incalculable value of human life, as opposed to other forms of life. God declares that out of all earthly life forms, we humans alone have been created in the likeness of God, and that therefore we must treat human life as sacred. Jesus says in Matthew 10:31 that a human life is worth far more than a pile of sparrows.

Animal rights, health care rationing, doctor-assisted suicide, and other hot potatoes are all tied together by the question, “What is the value of human life, and how far shall we go to protect it?” Either human life is sacred (across the board), or else it is of no more value than animal life, and may therefore be treated like cattle and culled from the herd for any practical reason. We discuss this subject in chapter 6 of my book What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?

The absolute value of human life must not be made relative to factors such as money, convenience, or our own human desires or prejudice. We cannot allow fickle human feelings to determine the value of another human life. If the value of human life depends on whether it is useful, meaningful, or wanted by us, then it becomes open season on all human life, whether it is in the killing fields of Cambodia, the famine-stricken plains of Africa, or the nursing homes of America, wherever we are tempted to put people out of their misery and relieve ourselves of a burden we don’t want to bear.

Human life is so sacred in God’s eyes that there are only 2 types of cases where taking that life is even a debatable option. One case is where life is threatened (cases such as war, law enforcement, or self-defense, where it becomes an issue of one life versus another). The other case is for the punishment of crime. Even these cases are debatable.

Take the issue of self-defense. Jesus says in Matthew 5:39, “Do not resist one who is evil.” One could argue that it is better to lose your own life than to take the life of another human as a selfish act of preserving your own skin. But Jesus is not saying, “Let evil have its way.” Jesus is saying, “Don’t perpetuate the cycle of violence.” Look at it this way. One could say that whoever tries to kill a fellow human is responsible for whatever is done to them in self-defense. It’s like the story of the Quaker who meets a robber with a musket and says, “Friend, I would not harm thee for the world, but thou art standing where I am about to shoot!”

What about war? The theory known as the “just war” theory states that war may be conducted only in self-defense. It may be waged only to secure peace, not gain or conquest or revenge. It shall be limited only to the force necessary to repel the aggression and stop future attacks, and it shall be directed only at the aggressors, not innocent civilians. The consistent pacifist would say it’s selfish to kill just to preserve our own comfort and freedom as a nation.

But what about extreme injustice as a reason for war? I believe that ultimately Hitler could have only been stopped by force. I do not believe the world did right to stand by while the Communists slaughtered 1/3 of the population of Cambodia in 1975, or did nothing about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. But how much tyranny justifies an armed revolution is a sticky question. It’s too easy to pick up a gun and fight for what you want.

The events of September 11 shook many pacifists to the core. Many asked, “How can we turn the other cheek, without letting the violent rule the world?” On 9/11, we saw savage disregard for human life. If it had been left unpunished, we’d be asking for more of the same. Some of the prisoners taken in the war on terror have proved that they will continue to kill until they are killed. God grieves that human lives must be taken to prevent further tragedy.

What about capital punishment? Genesis 9:6 presents the death penalty for murder as an apparently timeless, universal principle, based explicitly on murder being a crime against the image of God. But Jesus raises the question whether any of us is qualified to cast the first stone. One could argue that to forbid capital punishment when the murderer’s guilt is not in question is to make the criminal’s life more valuable than the victim’s.

Does capital punishment deprive the murderer of the chance to receive Christ? If I were condemned to die, I’d get right with God immediately if I were ever going to do so. Does capital punishment set the State up in the place of God? In Romans 13, we are told that God has given government the power of the sword to execute justice. Jesus says to Pilate about his power to crucify, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.” (John 19:11)

There are 4 ways we can look at this. One approach is to protect both the innocent and the guilty, an across the board sanctity of life approach that rules out even war and capital punishment. I find this to be one highly respectable, consistent position. Another approach is to protect the innocent but not necessarily the guilty, another respectable, consistent view. Position #3 is to protect neither the innocent nor the guilty, to allow for both capital punishment and for the taking of unwanted innocent life, a position that is consistent but not necessarily desirable. But the position I find to be neither consistent nor desirable is position #4: to protect the guilty but not the innocent.

When does human life begin? It’s clear that an individual human life comes into being at the moment of conception, although how long does it take before it has a feeling, thinking soul is debatable. But what do we do with prisoners on death row if we’re not sure they deserve to die? If we’re not sure, we usually let them live; we err on the side of safety. Should the hunter shoot without making absolutely sure that the target behind that bush is a deer and not a human life? It has been said that if human bodies had windows, the debate about what to do with life before birth would grind to a halt. And as soon as we develop the technology to transplant a 2-month-old unborn child into a woman who wants it, we’ll have no more excuse to continue that debate.

The Bible never spells out the answer to this question, although the early church clearly viewed the taking of unborn life as a sin by the end of the 1st century AD. (We find the evidence on a sin list in the DidachÄ“.) For me, it’s a question of: Where do we draw the line? If it is wrong to deprive someone of life because they are abused or unloved or we can’t afford to support them, why are we afraid to let a child be born because it might be handicapped or abused or unloved, or we can’t afford to support it?

Jesus says, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.” Jesus says that people and nations will be judged by how they have treated “the least of these.” Who are we to exclude any of our weakest neighbors? Barack Obama quoted this verse and applied it to issues of racism, sexism, and poverty. He failed to take the next step and apply it to the unborn child.

I recognize that there are people all around us for which this matter is painfully personal. I have no desire to add to that pain. My desire is to prevent further pain or tragedy in the future as others face this same decision. If you already know the painful truth of which I speak, what you need is the forgiveness that only Christ can give you (and wants to give you).

Unwanted life deserves the same protection, whether it’s an unborn child or a cocaine baby, whether it’s a street kid in Brazil being hunted with a shotgun as a pest, or a nursing home patient in a coma. My problem with doctor-assisted suicide is that it leads to unwanted family members being arm-twisted into suicide against their will. Faced with an alternative “worse than death” (the nursing home), how many patients will be talked into leaving this life a little bit early? The right to die quickly becomes the duty to die.

Suicide in itself is not the unforgivable sin. It is just as forgivable as any other sin. The issue of whether one can repent of it is irrelevant. What’s the problem with suicide? It’s a mistake to throw away the life God has given us, either through carelessness (not caring for our health or safety), or through frustration. To throw away the life that God has given us is like taking a sledgehammer to a new limousine, only far more serious.

Don’t get me wrong – I deeply sympathize with those who are driven to this desperate act by pain beyond what they can bear, whether physical or emotional. I cannot condemn them. I cannot be sure what I would do if I were in their shoes. BUT – neither can I endorse suicide, either legally or morally.

How do we put a dollar value on a human life? If a patient has 3 liver transplants and each one is rejected, is it right to give the patient one more liver when other patients are standing in line? One human life is as precious to God as the next. What scares me is the case of the Minnesota man who had to fight in court to keep officials from pulling the plug on his wife against his will. Look out for the day when life support becomes a utility, to be turned off against your will if you run out of money or political clout!

What do you do with the helpless guy I met at a state hospital in New England, struck down in the prime of his life by a brain tumor? Do you withhold food and water from such persons? Do you continue to feed them and prolong their misery? Or is it our own misery we worry about as we watch them lie there?

Yes, the needs we see around us are overwhelming. Unwanted children living in the sewers of Bogota and the landfills of Manila, famine victims far greater in number than our capacity to care for them, patients in institutions requiring care at a cost that staggers the mind – needs more than we can bear to comprehend or keep track of.

I confess, my old human nature cries, “Enough! Wash your hands of it all! Cut the Gordian knot! Get rid of this bothersome notion that human life is sacred, and make life easier on your mind!” But my conscience won’t let me do that. I confess, I am a lazy person, and I would like to believe that I can wash my hands of the needs of the world. The belief that human life is sacred is a challenge to my obedience. Not caring is one more way to be a killer. Jesus says, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me.”

“Thou shalt not kill” is a command that forbids us to deprive our fellow human of the sacred gift of life. It forbids individuals from playing God over the lives of others, making decisions that belong to the person whose life hangs in the balance. But we don’t have to go after anyone with a gun or a knife to be a killer. Jesus teaches us that wishing someone would die is also included in this command. It’s not just murder, but hatred (the root of murder).

In Matthew 5:22, Jesus expands on “Thou shalt not kill” by saying that “whoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; whoever shall say to his brother ‘RÄ“qa!’ (meaning “Emptyhead!”) shall be in danger of the Council, and whoever shall say ‘Thou fool!’ (literally moron) shall be in danger of hell fire.”

Almost all of us have people whom we’d love to see sent to their eternal reward. None of us can say we’d never had the urge to kill. And there are too many people out there for whom Jesus won’t let me call them what they are. They may truly be idiots or jerks, but Jesus won’t let me say so! These words of Jesus are a challenge to me. I never would have invented them.

Jesus demonstrates that the root of murder is hatred. Not all hatred is evil. God hates sin, and so should we. God hates evil, and so should we. But we must be careful not to define hatred too broadly. People say, “If you hate what I do, you hate me.” Not so! Hatred is a desire to destroy or cancel or eliminate someone from existence. Hating the evil that a person does is not the same as despising that person so badly that we wish they didn’t exist. Hatred is the opposite of love, which is to care about and desire the best for someone, like God does for us.

You can avoid the fruit of murder by not literally killing anyone, but that’s no reason to boast if you are still infected by that poisonous root of hatred. The apostle John spells that out in 1 John 3:15: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and we know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

So does that mean that a murderer cannot be saved? Can a murderer repent, if he/she cannot make restitution? One very famous man, whom many believe to be a prophet, taught that with sins like murder, “The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.” Jesus himself taught otherwise. Jesus taught that there was only one sin that cannot be forgiven, and it wasn’t murder.

If murder is an unforgiveable sin, the apostle Paul would be lost for condemning Christians to death (Paul himself says he was “unfit to be an apostle”). As we saw on a recent broadcast, Moses murdered a man. David covered up his sin with Uriah’s wife by engineering his death in battle. Yet Nathan the prophet says that God has put away David’s sin. You say that Moses and Paul thought they were obeying God? Good intentions do not excuse murder.

So what is that one sin that Jesus said cannot be forgiven (“blasphemy of the Holy Ghost”)? The Holy Ghost is the one who opens our eyes and hearts to place our faith in Christ. To trash the Holy Ghost so as to drive him out of our life would leave us powerless to believe. It has been said that if you are worried about whether you have committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t committed it; if you had, you wouldn’t be worried about it. To be concerned about our soul is evidence that the Holy Ghost hasn’t abandoned us. The unforgiveable sin is to permanently reject the saving death of Christ and never change our mind. If we reject Christ’s incredible act of mercy, nothing else can save us from our sin.

The Bible teaches that we are all killers at heart. If we were pushed hard enough by the right combination of pressures, our killer instinct would eventually rise to the surface. “Thou shalt not kill” is just one more command that helps us recognize our need for Christ.

We are not the righteous people we think we are. We cannot claim to be more holy than the killer behind bars. None of us can save ourselves by our own goodness. The 10 Commandments are designed to show us what pleases the heart of God, and how far we fall short of what pleases God. They are designed to convince us that we need a Savior, so that we may place our faith in him, and so that we may know the joy of knowing that our sins are forgiven. God is life. We need Christ to purge away the killer in our hearts, so that we may become more like God, the author of life.

On our next broadcast, we’re going to examine the command “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Is adultery the only sexual behavior that God forbids? What about other forms of sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman? Does God have one consistent sexual ethic that does not change with time? We’ll talk about the 7th Commandment next time on Biblical Words and World!