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Ask the Pastor: Stoning False Teachers

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  ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

      Question: "How would you explain passages in the Old Testament such as Deuteronomy 13 to a non-believer, where God commands that false prophets should be put to death? How is this different from the Koran, which condones the killing of infidels, those who don’t believe in the teachings of Islam?"

     Answer: When we consider the death penalty in God’s Law, we have to look at it from a different perspective than when we evaluate the laws of men. When we look at the laws of the Old Testament, particularly those that involve capital punishment, there are at least three main things to keep in mind (this is background stuff, foundational to a specific response to the questions):

1. These laws are given by God, not by man, and He has the right to impose the death penalty for any sin that He chooses, since those were the terms He set down in the beginning (as Ezekiel says, "the soul that sins shall die"). So we are all guilty before Him and none of us deserves, on our own merits, another breath in this world. He is just and has the right to call for our death at any time. That is how we understand the commands to the Israelites to destroy all the men, women, and children in Canaan during the conquest under Joshua - they were deserving, and God called upon Israel to carry out His judgment upon them in that unique period of history.

2. Even though every sin deserves the death penalty from God, in the laws He gave to Israel the Lord reserves that punishment for the most dangerous and offensive sins: murder, blasphemy, false teaching, some sexual perversions, hardened rebellion, etc. I would even argue that false teaching about God deserves the most severe penalty, since it causes others to come into sin, spiritual confusion, and destruction. Jesus said, "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin." (Luke 17:2). Peter says of false teachers, "These men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them." (2 Peter 2:17). 

3. However, these laws involving capital punishment were given to Israel as a theocracy (a government ruled directly by God through His appointed rulers). The purpose of Israel as an earthly theocracy was to be a shadow of the coming Kingdom of God, which is now represented by the Church. The parallel of a sinner being "cut off" (put to death) under Old Testament law in the New Covenant era would be the excommunication of an unrepentant sinner by the authorities in the church.

Basically, there are three types of Old Testament law, and it is important to recognize the distinctions between them if we are to understand their purpose:

a. Moral Law - summarized by the Ten Commandments; these apply to all men at all times, and are God's ongoing revelation of His standards for our thoughts, words, and deeds.

b. Ceremonial Law - these were the dietary laws, cleansing rituals, worship rituals, and sacrificial practices overseen by the Old Testament priesthood, all of which were types which foreshadowed the person and work of Jesus Christ in redeeming us at the cross. The purpose of these laws has been fulfilled and so they no longer apply.

c. Civil Law - these are the laws given specifically for the theocratic government in Israel. The Westminster Confession calls these "sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require." In other words, we wouldn't apply these laws directly to our situation today, but there are principles in them that reflect the moral law.

So, based on that overview of Biblical laws, we understand that the church is the successor to Old Testament Israel as the people of God, the visible representation of the Kingdom of God. But civil and ecclesiastical authorities are now separate, so the church is not given "the power of the sword," or the authority to use physical force as a punishment for or constraint upon evildoers. We are not to tolerate false teaching in the midst of the church, but we have no authority from God to impose any physical punishment on false teachers (or anyone else). Our only authority and power are spiritual, based in the proclamation of God's Word. Stonings or "jihads" are not part of the church's calling from God today.

The question this doesn't address is whether or not a hypothetical civil government that is submissive to God's authority and favorable towards the Church should ever apply the principles ("general equity" - WCF) of Old Testament civil laws for Israel in today's culture. In other words, if God poured out His Spirit and brought a major revival to America, to the point that our elected officials in the federal and state government had a desire to make the laws of our land conform to the will of God revealed in Scripture, would it be right to impose physical punishments, even capital punishment, for spiritual offenses (e.g., false teaching, blasphemy, etc.)? This has been debated for centuries and was a hot, relevant topic during the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of the American colonies, but no society is close to considering these kinds of things today. It doesn't appear to be God's intent to establish a theocracy today - His focus is upon the growth of His spiritual Kingdom through the spread of the Gospel and the Church within the many different types of civil governments around the world. 

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God's Gift of Rest

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     What would you think of someone who continually refused to accept a gift of a substantial sum of money, even though he lived in continual debt and never seemed to have enough funds to make ends meet? You would undoubtedly assume that he was either very foolish and/or very prideful. That must be God’s perspective when He looks at the constant refusal of so many Christians to accept His gift of a Sabbath’s day of rest every week. We constantly moan about being too stressed out and emotionally, spiritually, and physically spent, and never having enough time to spend in prayer, worship, Bible study, and fellowship with God’s people. Yet, while the Lord offers to freely supply that deepest need on the first day of every week, we stubbornly refuse to accept His gift. Surely it must appear both prideful and foolish to our loving Father in heaven.

     The word “sabbath” in Hebrew means to “pause.” After the Lord created the heavens and the earth, Scripture tells us that He “ceased” or “paused” from all His work, proclaiming it all “very good,” and celebrating the work of His hands. The Lord made that day of the week “holy,” which means it was to be set apart to Him from the other days of our week, different in focus and character from the other days of the week, a day of rest and celebration. In the Garden of Eden, while life was still perfect, untainted by sin, three essential elements of life were established: work, marriage, and the Sabbath. When the command to keep the Sabbath was included as one of the Ten Commandments summarizing God’s will in Exodus 20, this reason is given: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day and made it holy.” Both before and after the Fall, man was commanded to spend one day in seven resting and celebrating the Lord’s creation and provision.

     After man’s sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Sabbath continued to be an essential part of life in the fallen world, but now with an added importance and focus. When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, a new reason is added: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Now the Sabbath day was a weekly time to pause and celebrate both God’s works of creation and His works of redemption. We have a holy time to focus on our deliverance from bondage to sin and death. “Rest” in Scripture is a picture of salvation, and chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews show how the Sabbath is a picture of our eternal, spiritual rest in Christ. When Jesus came He didn’t abolish God’s commands to keep the Sabbath; instead, He taught His disciples the true meaning of the Sabbath as God intended it. Notice what He said in Luke 13:16 to his critics when He healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath, “…should not this woman…whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” The Lord’s Day is a day to focus upon and celebrate our freedom from bondage!

     The Sabbath is a gift to us from the Lord! Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man…” Our greatest need and deepest joy as Christians is fellowship with God and His people…i.e. “rest”. So if we are so desperately in need of physical, emotional, and spiritual rest, why do we consistently trample and ignore the beautiful gift of the Sabbath day given to us by God Himself? We fill the day with all the common activities that should belong to the other six days of the week – working at our vocation, working on our lawn or car, shopping, catching up on the bills, etc. And then we wonder why the Lord seems so distant and our hearts are so weary and heavy-laden. “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD's holy day honorable…then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob. The mouth of the LORD has spoken.” As with a beggar who would refuse a million dollars, our refusal to accept the Lord’s gift of rest begs the question – is it foolishness or is it pride?

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