Sermon for Sunday, October 17th, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Exo 21:1-32 ESV] 1 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever. 7 “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money. 12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. 15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. 16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. 17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. 18 “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist and the man does not die but takes to his bed, 19 then if the man rises again and walks outdoors with his staff, he who struck him shall be clear; only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall have him thoroughly healed. 20 “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money. 22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 26 “When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. 27 If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth. 28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. 31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
New Testament reading:
[1Ti 1:8-11 ESV] 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
[Mat 26:47-56 ESV] 47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.
God has given the 10 commandments, but these are not the only laws of the Bible. You may have heard me say before that there are 613 laws in the Old Testament. In today’s sermon text, from Exodus 21, we come to some of those additional laws.
And when we come to those laws it likely brings up more questions in your mind than it answers. Questions like:
1. What are we do do with these laws today?
2. Does the Bible support slavery?
3. Does the Bible support capital punishment?
I. General Equity
There has long been questions about how we are to understand the applicability of Old Testament laws today. All Reformed Christians believe that the 10 commandments are valid today and for all times. We also say that the ceremonial laws of the temple are no longer in force. But in between the moral law of the 10 commandments and the ceremonial laws of the temple is what we call civil law. These are the laws God gave, as in this Exodus passage, relating to the government of the land.
One error is to get rid of the law entirely. We know, for example, that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So it would be a grave error if we abolished the laws.
On the other hand, the error of the so-called Theonomists, is to say that all of the civil laws of Israel must be in place today in the same form in which they were in place in Old Testament Israel.
Our times are much changed from the days of the Old Testament. Our political leaders are not typically guided by the word of God. And our culture has changed as well. We, praise the Lord, in most place no longer have slavery.
So then what are we to think of these civil laws like those in our reading today?
First, we must understand that these are case laws. Where the 10 commandments are the general rules, the case laws are the specific application of those general rules.
The specific applications help us to understand what the 10 commandments mean. For example, seeing that the case law includes capital punishment, we come to understand that the command “thou shall not kill” is not a universal command, but that there is an exception to the rule in that those guilty of certain crimes deserve death. And, the case laws explain, that when an intruder breaks into your house at night and you defend yourself and kill him, you are not guilty of murder. So from these case laws we better understand the meaning of the commandment not to kill.
But in many instances the case laws are applications that fit the time and culture of the Hebrews, but do not well match our times and culture today.
So we are not to force these case laws into our context.
Rather, the best way to understand how we should handle the civil laws of the Old Testament is explained in the Westminster Confession of Faith when it uses the term “General Equity.” [REPEAT: General Equity.]
It is valuable at this point to read the relevant section of the confession. There is chapter, number 19, of the confession that speaks “Of the Law of God.”
Chapter 19 – Of the Law of God.
1. God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
2. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
3. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly, holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated, under the new testament.
4. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.
The civil laws, exemplified in the case laws have “expired together with the State of that people” Israel, “not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”
G. I. Williamson explains: “Historically it has been the Reformed conception that every one of these case laws of the Old Testament contains within itself an abiding principle which is relevant to God’s people throughout all ages for every culture without any exception whatsoever.”
So the specifics may change, but the principle remains.
So the Christian does not believe that today’s government should form a law code identical to that of the Old Testament case laws, but we do believe that the government should base its laws on the general principles of the Old Testament laws.
We are not to be guided by our own whims on the law, but are to be guided by the word of God.
This understanding then of “general equity” where the general principles remain though the specific laws pass away, then helps us to understand how to think about two issues mentioned in our text: slavery and capital punishment.
II. Slavery and the Bible
When we come to our passage and what it says about slavery we must understand that it is not thereby making normative or approving slavery, but rather it is giving case laws which apply the moral law to the specific circumstances of the time.
The fact is that there was slavery in the ancient world. Almost in all places was slavery practiced.
And there are plenty of Scriptural reasons for us to oppose to slavery.
But in this passage God doesn’t say “thou shall not have slaves.” Instead he gives case laws which in many ways minimized the worst parts of the slavery that was known at the time.
Here in the Biblical text we have a slavery that still recognized the rights of individuals and their status as humans made in the image of God.
For example, the slavery for Hebrews was limited in duration. “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing,” Only if the slave agreed would he be permanently a slave. “if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
Now, who in their right mind would want to be a slave forever?
It is important that we understand how slavery came about in the ancient world.
You were not allowed to “steal a person.” Our text says “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
But, buying a slave was allowed. Verse 2 says “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing.”
So how did one become a slave at all if it was illegal to “steal a man and sell him?”
Sometimes in the ancient world a person become a slave as a captive from war. And in that case slavery was a merciful institution in that it it kept the captive from a worse fate; death.
There was also voluntary slavery, when a person sells themselves into slavery perhaps because of a debt they are unable to pay.
So the reason a person might chose to remain a slave was also for financial reasons. They may have a debt they cannot pay, or they may not have the skills to make it on their own. So they chose to remain a slave.
So we must understand that the slavery in the Old Testament was not like that chattel slavery once practiced in the United States (both North and South). Slaves had rights. You were not allowed to kill them.
And for the Hebrew’s themselves they were not to enslave their “brothers;” other Hebrews:
Leviticus 25:39-40 – “[Lev 25:39-40 ESV] 39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee.”
These case laws are not requiring that there be slavery, but are merely dealing with the situation at hand where there already was slavery. It is much like divorce. God hates divorces, it isn’t the way things should be, but because of sin God allows for the provision of divorce. Ideally, we’d have a society with no divorce and with no slavery. But being not an ideal world, God gives laws for the situation that exists. Or, we can say, he provides case laws applying the ten commandments to the world of Moses’ time.
When it comes to our world, we are not obligated to make our society just like that which Israel had, but we are obligated to apply the principles of the commandments by the principle of General Equity.
Let us then look at a second part of our text; the comments on capital punishment.
III. Capital Punishment
The text lists a number of crimes which deserved death for Israelites:
12 “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. 13 But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. 15 “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death. 16 “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death. 17 “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.
We see then that the breaking of the commandment not to murder deserved death. So also did the breaking of the commandment to honor your father and mother!
Therefore we cannot say that capital punishment is always and everywhere wrong.
In fact, we see in our New Testament reading that Jesus argued for its continuing relevance:
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
While there may be some disagreement among Reformed thinkers, it is my understanding that we are not required to push for the exact same sanctions today. It would be just if our government did punish murderers with the death penalty. But note also that it would be just for our government to punish with the death penalty those who strike their parents or even those who curse their parents! At the same time, I believe it is not REQUIRED that we have those same sanctions.
The case laws and their sanctions or penalties may seem strange to us today. But they have continued relevance for us as we apply the principles behind them.
IV. Applying General Equity
Now, for us individually. None of us are lawmakers in the state or national legislature. So we are not actively employing the idea of general equity. But it does influence the way we vote, as we should approve policies that are in accord with the Word of God. And we do make formal or informal laws in our own houses and in how we interact in the world. In these places we are to be guided by the law of God. So we must take the 10 commandments and apply them to our lives, seeking to obey the commands of God.
Non-Christians will be upset when Christians based our law principles on the Bible. But we should not be ashamed of that. God’s truth is superior to the various opinions of man.
Ultimately, we are called to live Christian lives regardless of what social structure we find ourselves.
Fortunately we do not have slavery in our nation.
The Israelites did.
They in fact had been slaves in Egypt. Now, coming into the promised land, they are given a law code that does away with that harsh slavery they experienced had in Egypt. Now, in their law code, God provides protection for the vulnerable, even the slaves. There are laws against murder, even the murder of slaves. Even slaves have rights.
The Israelites now they find themselves “on top” of society. They are to rule their own nation. But it is not therefore time to oppress others! They have been redeemed of their slavery and are called to pursue righteousness.
And we have been redeemed from the slavery of sin and so called also to pursue righteousness. When we find ourselves in positions of power or control we are not to oppress others, but to recognize their nature as made in the image of God. Human life is to have dignity and is to be protected.
We also, redeemed by Jesus Christ, are not to use our position as Christians to look down on others as terrible sinners, for we know that it is only by the grace of God that we have been saved from our sins. And as God has forgiven us, so we are called to forgive others.
James 2:13 tells us: For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
This is a bit hard to understand. So I found this translation from another Bible version which is perhaps clearer:
[Jas 2:13 NLT] 13 There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.
We are called to be merciful,
And we are called to protect the vulnerable
because we have a God who has saved us, who protects us, who has been merciful to us.
In God’s mercy the death sentences required in the Old Testament law are no longer required. Jesus did not push for the death sentence for the women caught in adultery in John chapter 8. In Matthew 19 Jesus allowed for divorce where adultery had taken place. But in the Old Testament adultery would have necessitated death.
So we find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ an expansion of God’s mercy. Morality has not changed, but the sanctions, the punishments, for crimes are not as severe. Neither in Christ’s time nor in our own time.
Is this not then a call for us to be more merciful? To forgive quickly and not to harshly penalize others when they have wronged us? We have a merciful God. And we are called to be merciful.
Let us then thank the Lord for his law and the abiding principles which guide us as we seek to follow His ways. May the Lord preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.