"The Great Value of Human Life"
(Delivered Sunday, October 12, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We're continuing our study of the ten commandments this morning. We'll be considering the sixth commandment; and I'd like to begin by looking at the first chapter of the Bible, and at what I believe is the biblical foundation for this commandment. It's a story most of us know very well; but it's worth our time to be reminded of it once again.
The Bible teaches us that, after God had made the heavens and the earth, the sun and moon and the stars; and then after creating all plant life, all marine life, all bird life, and all animal life; and after blessing all living things, and commanding them to multiply and fill the earth; and after looking upon it all and declaring that it was good - as the crowning act of His creative work - God made man. The Bible teaches us of the uniqueness of mankind above all other created things when it says,
Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen. 1:26-28).
The Bible tells us that humankind is the last of God's creative works. And it also teaches us that humankind is the most unique of all His creative works; because no other living thing was given the dignity that God gave man. Human beings are unique, in that they alone - out of all the rest of creation - were made in the image of God.
Now, what does it mean that human beings were made in the image of God? There have been different attempts to explain that phrase. One school of thought is that - in a way and to a degree than is true of no other created being - humankind is 'similar' to God. God is Spirit; but He displays the essential qualities of Personhood: that is the capacity for intelligence, emotion and volition. And humankind, though composed of both body and spirit, has the capacity to share and enter into God's own experience of Personhood. Human beings can think God's revealed thoughts after Him, feel God's emotions with Him, and make moral choices in accordance with God's own word. What a marvel humankind is, then! People are the only created beings that God has given the capacity to share the full experience of Personhood that God Himself experiences. This may be what it means that we are made "in the image of God."
Another school of thought is that humankind shares "the image of God" in that men and women share with God the dominion over His creation. God alone is the Creator; and He alone holds exclusive "Creator-rights" to all that He has made because of who He is. But He has chosen to share His dominion with the last and best of His creation. After He made the first man and the first woman, He blessed them and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and have dominion over every other living thing He created. No other created being has been given the unique honor of serving as "co-regent" with God over the rest of creation. And this may be what it means that we are made "in the image of God".
Another possibility - one that has always appealed to me as an artist - is that humankind stands above all other created things as God's "signature creation" upon this earth. Whenever an artist completes a painting or a drawing, he or she "signs" it. That signature serves as the artist's own self-identifying "image"; and depending on who the artist is, the presence of that "signature" makes the work itself to be of great value. (There are stories of how when Picasso would go to a restaurant, he sometimes wasn't required to pay for his dinner with cash. The famous artist's signature on a piece of paper alone was considered valuable enough to be worth many dinners.) Well; when God had completed His great work of art - the created universe - His crowning act was to place humankind on it to serve as God's own self-identifying "signature". This also may be involved in the idea mankind being made "in the image of God".
Perhaps the most thrilling of possible meanings is that only redeemed human beings - out of all God's creation - are welcomed to enter into the depth of love shared by the triune Godhead, and are permitted to share in the divine nature by grace. Just before going to the cross, Jesus prayed for His disciples and spoke these breathtaking words from John 17:
"I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:20-24).
No other created being is destined to share in the glory that the Father gave the Son. No other created being is so loved by the Father as to be loved with the same love as that with which He loves the Son. No other created being is given the privilege of being with the Son in such a way as to forever behold His glory. No other created being is invited to enter into so deep an intimacy with the Godhead as to have the Son in them, with the Father in the Son, and thus made perfect in one for all eternity.
No other created thing shares such an intimate relationship with God the Creator! Not even the angels in heaven have been given such honor and dignity! And I believe all these things must be considered a part of what it means to be made "in the image of God". Mankind's role on this earth as God's "image-bearer" speaks of each individual human being's incomparable dignity above all other created things - a dignity that finds its expression in man's nature, his authority, his immeasurable value, and his eternal destiny. What a marvelous work humankind is!! And how much God loves what He has so marvelously made!!
Have you ever considered how unique humanity is just in terms of the way God made the first man? When it came to creating all other things, it was sufficient for God to simply say, "Let there be ..."; and it was! He said, "Let there be light;" and there was light. He said, "Let the earth bring forth;" and it brought forth. But as for His last creative act, God did not simply say, "Let there be a man." Instead, the Bible tells us, "And the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). No other created thing was so personally formed by God as man was. No other created being was given life by the very breath of God Himself as was man.
And have you ever considered how God did not then reach down and form a woman from the dust of the ground and similarly breath life into her - as if to perform a separate and distinct act of creation? Instead, we're told,
And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man' (Gen. 2:21-23).
This means that the first woman shared the same dignity that God gave to the first man. She was not beneath him, nor above him; but was taken from out of him - specifically, from out of his side. And this means that all their offspring - every individual in all of humanity - shares in the dignity God gave our first parents. We sometimes speak of our different "races" because of the color of our skin; but the truth is that there aren't a plural of "races". All human beings on the earth are of one race - one common parentage. All humanity is of a piece; and all individuals in it are made in the image of God. You will never find a single human being on the face of this earth - no matter what color, size or shape, no matter how rich or how poor, no matter how civilized or how savage, no matter how educated or how simple - that does not intrinsically possess immeasurably great value as a being made "in the image of God."
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But the first man and the first woman sinned; and as a result, they brought the curse of sin and death upon the whole of the human race. The dignity of humankind as the image-bearer of God remains; but the original righteousness that was a part of that image was lost. What a marvel man was at his creation; but what a tragedy man became through the fall - clothed with dignity; yet ruined by sin!
And isn't it interesting that the very first recorded sin, following the fall of our first parents, was that of murder - when one man made in the image of God rose up, filled with hate, and struck down the image of God in another? The Bible tells us, "Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him" (Gen. 4:8). The very first institution of human government that God gave to Noah, and to the remnant of humanity that came out of the Ark, was this: "Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man" (Gen. 9:5-6).
All this, I hope, helps us to appreciate the significance of the commandment we're looking at this morning. It's the second commandment in the second table of the law - those laws that regulate our relationship with other people. It speaks with the strongest Hebrew negative possible; and it very simply says, "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13, also Deuteronomy 5:17). And from what we've seen so far, we can say that the basis of this commandment is twofold: that (1) each individual human being is created in the image of God and is therefore intrinsically and immeasurably valuable, and that (2) all other human beings are joined to ourselves, through a common parentage, as those into whom God Himself has breathed the breath of life. When one man murders another, he is doing what Cain did - slaying the image of God in one who is his brother; stealing life from one into whom God has breathed it.
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This commandment may be few in words; but it's hard to think of a commandment that is more frequently misunderstood or misapplied. Let's begin, then, by clearly understanding ...
1. WHAT THE COMMANDMENT FORBIDS.
If you were to read this verse in the King James Version, you would find that it says, "Thou shalt not kill." And so, many people - taking their cue from the broad meaning of the word "kill" - believe that this is a prohibition against killing of any kind. On the basis of that translation, they oppose all forms of war, or oppose capital punishment, or even of taking a life in self-defense. Some take it to even prohibit the killing of animals for sport, or clothing, or for food. Based on the translation "kill", this verse would seem to prohibit the killing of not only any human being, but also of any other living thing.
Now, if that's the case, then the Bible obviously contradicts itself; because there are many cases in which it presents God as commanding actions that involve "killing". Just before the people of Israel entered the promised land, for example, God commanded that the Israelites go to war against the people groups of that land. He said,
But of the cities of these peoples which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the LORD your God has commanded you, lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the LORD your God (Deut. 20:16-18).
At the rebellious incident of the golden calf, Moses gathered the Levites together at the foot of Mount Sinai and said, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel: 'Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man kill his companion, and every man kill his neighbor.' So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day" (Exodus 32:27-28).
It was God Himself who spoke to Noah and his descendants when they left the ark, saying, "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. I have given you all things, even as the green herbs" (Gen. 9:3). He gave the instruction, through Moses, to slay bulls, goats, and sheep as sacrifices in His temple. And He even once gave the apostle Peter a command in a vision - showing him a variety of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things and birds; and telling him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat" (Acts 10:13).
So; how do we understand this? Is God contradicting Himself in giving the commandment against killing? Not at all. The Hebrew word that is used in this commandment is not the common, general word for "kill", but one that is better translated, "You shall not murder". This specific Hebrew word is related to the one that means "to shatter or break in pieces"; and it almost always refers to premeditated manslaughter or murder or assassination of a personal enemy in a vengeful or hateful way. It is not the word used, however, to describe the killing of animals for food (Gen. 9:3), or of killing in self-defense (Exodus 22:2), or of accidental killings (Deut. 19:5), or of the execution of murderers by the government (Gen. 9:6), or of the kind of killing that occurs in warfare.1
I was walking down one of the hallways at Heritage Christian School recently; and I saw that they had plaques that had the ten commandments written on them. I noticed the one that said, "You shall not kill"; and saw that the word "kill" had been crossed out, and the word "murder" written under it. That's the correct way to translate this word. The New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, the New Living Translation, the New English Bible, and the New King James Version all translate this word "murder".
I think an example of what this commandment is talking about is found in Exodus 21. There, after having given the ten commandments, God elaborates on the details; and He says, "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee" (21:12-13). God is here making a distinction between intentional killing and accidental killing; and He is here promising to provide a place for the innocent man to flee from the avenger. Elsewhere, God gave this example - "Whoever kills his neighbor unintentionally, not having hated him in time past - as when a man goes to the woods with his neighbor to cut timber, and his hand swings a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies -" (Deut. 19:4-5). Such a case would be accidental homicide; and the man is not to be considered guilty of murder in such a case.
But, Exodus 21 goes on to say, "But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him [and there, the common Hebrew word for 'kill' is being used, but is qualified by the word "premeditation"] by treachery [there describing the motive of that killing], you shall take him from My alter, that he may die" (v. 14). This would be premeditated murder - "killing by treachery". Killing in a heat of passion is also intended by this commandment; because Exodus 21:18-19 says, "If men contend with each other, and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but is confined to his bed, if he rises again and walks about outside with his staff, then he who struck him shall be acquitted [that is, not held guilty for murder], He shall only pay for the loss of his time, and shall provide for him to be thoroughly healed."
So; we need to be clear on what this commandment is prohibiting. It would be a misinterpretation and misapplication of this commandment to see it as a blanket prohibition against killing of all kind. It does not speak of the killing of an enemy in military combat; nor does it prohibit the state from executing murderers, nor does it prohibit the killing of animals for food - all of which are clearly permitted or commanded elsewhere in the Scriptures. Strictly speaking, this commandment prohibits the taking of the life of another in the way we would ordinarily understand "murder" - one individual taking the life of another out of the motive of revenge, or envy, or hatred, or bigotry, or jealousy, or rage, or malice, or criminal negligence, or convenience. It prohibits one man from arrogantly raising himself up against the image of God in another - for whatever personal reason - and striking down a fellow child of Adam with whom he shares God's precious gift of life.
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Next, I'd like us to notice ...
2. WHO THE COMMANDMENT ADDRESSES.
Perhaps you'll remember, from our look at some of the previous commandments, that this commandment - along with the others - is addressed to the second person singular. It's speaking not to a crowd of people amassed at the base of Mount Sinai, but to individuals - as if to you or me. God is concerned about the "murder" that is in the heart of individual men and women.
When I think of this, I think of King David's famous confessional psalm, Psalm 51. We often think of it as a confession of his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. And indeed, that sin was involved in his sense of remorse before God. But that's not the sin that David confessed. The sin he confesses in this psalm is that of murder: "Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed", he prayed (v. 14).
You see; David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his finest soldiers Uriah. And when she became pregnant with David's child, the king tried his best to cover the matter up. He called Uriah home from the battlefield and tried to encourage him to be with his wife, so the child would appear to be his own; but Uriah was a man of principle, who would not go home while his fellow soldiers still fought. Then David tried to get Uriah drunk; but he still would not go home. So after David had exhausted all other schemes, he ordered his general to place Uriah on the front lines in a very dangerous part of the battlefield specifically so he would be killed by the enemy - and then withdraw from him. And David's general, with full knowledge of David's intention, did as David ordered.
God confronted David severely for this sin - not only of adultery, but of bloodshed. And in confession, David penned this psalm. And it's very instructive to notice where David places the guilt for this sin. His general placed the man in the heat of battle; but David did not blame his general. It could legitimately be argued that the enemy killed Uriah; but David did not blame the enemy. Instead, David says,
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
However he may have arranged it, David acknowledged that he himself was a guilty murderer. He broke God's commandment against murder - a commandment that was directed, not at groups, but at individuals like you and me. We should not just examine groups or governments in the light of this commandment; we should examine ourselves against it, because that's who it's intended for.
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And I'd also like us to notice a very important fact: that this commandment doesn't specify who we are not to murder. I found one translation of the Bible (the New Life Version) that translates this verse, "Do not kill other people"; but the wording of this commandment in Hebrew does not specify. It simply says, "You shall not murder" - it doesn't say "who" we're not to murder; it simply says that we're not to murder, and forbids the act altogether without specifying "who".
And that fact speaks to our culture in two important ways. If this verse had said, "You shall not murder other people"; then many today could excuse themselves from murdering those whom they do not consider to really be "people". On that principle, an estimated forty-three million unborn human beings have been "legally" murdered in our country over the past thirty years. On that same principle, many today advocate the "mercy killings" of those whom they judge to have a low quality of life and who ought no longer be considered fully "persons". The fact that this verse does not specify who not to murder, but simply says, "You shall not murder", means that all human life - at any stage of development, or in any condition of viability - is to be considered intrinsically sacred and should never be taken on the basis of the will of another human being.
And another way that this fact speaks to our culture is with respect to suicide and the whole so-called "death with dignity" movement. Because this commandment does not specify who not to murder, it also stands as a prohibition against self-murder. To take one's life by one's own hand - or to do so through the aid of a doctor - is just as much to raise one's hand arrogantly against the image of God as it would be to have taken the life of someone else.
Now, I recognize that some of us have family members or friends who have sadly taken their own lives; and please understand that I am not saying these things with any desire to add more grief to an already tragic loss. But we still must affirm the sinfulness of such an act. We live today in a culture that - to some degree - celebrates suicide. A rock band in Tampa Bay was recently halted by a circuit judge from broadcasting a live suicide over the internet as a part of its act. It was feared that such a performance would inspire 'copy-cat' suicides. And so, because of this commandment, and because of the world we live in, we must affirm that all life is sacred and belongs to God - even our own; and we must affirm that life is not, in any case, ours to 'take'. To commit suicide is to commit a very grievous sin.
There are several "suicides" in the Bible; and all of them were by people who you would not want to consider 'roll-models': Samson (Judges 16:29-30); the disgraced King Saul and his armor-bearer (1 Sam. 31:4-6); the envious counselor Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23); the wicked King Zimri (1 Kings 16:18); and of course, Judas, the remorseful betrayer of our Savior (Matthew 27:5). In Acts 16, the Philippian jailer who held Paul and Silas as prisoners - when he saw that all the prison doors had been opened - attempted to thrust himself through with a sword; but Paul stopped him, calling out to him with a loud voice and saying, "Do yourself no harm, for we are all here" (v. 28). Suicide is never placed in a favorable light in the Bible. It is a form of murder - something that should not be done.
The commandment then is simply that "you shall not murder". It speaks directly to us. It doesn't qualify that prohibition by specifying 'who'. In other words, it forbids the murder of anyone - even of ourselves.
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Now, I've made an interesting observation about this commandment. When I've shared my faith with some people, and talk to them about how God sent His Son to save us from our sins, folks often get a little defensive. They say, "Hey, look; I'm not some lousy sinner, you know. I keep the commandments!" And as proof, they often say, "After all, I haven't murdered anybody!" I have heard that several times - they pull that one commandment out to give evidence that they aren't sinners. (I'm usually quick to point out that there are nine others - and I have never yet heard anyone say, "I'm not a sinner, you know! I haven't lied!") Very few of us have actually murdered anyone; and so most of us feel we can safely say we haven't broken this commandment.
But like many of the commandments, the implications of this one commandment are much greater than the simple act of taking someone's life; and those implications do, in fact, make sinners out of us. This leads us, in closing, to consider ...
3. WHAT THE COMMANDMENT IMPLIES.
The commandment is concerned with more than simply the physical act of murder. It's concerned with the attitude of murder that can reside in our hearts. And this can show up in many ways.
Consider your words, for example. Did you know that, before God, you can actually be guilty of murder because of your words? This isn't my idea; Jesus Himself has taught us,
You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' [which basically means, "Empty head!!"] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:21-22).
I remember sharing this verse once with some children in a Sunday School class. One little girl, who had been glaring at her sister, sighed sadly and said, "Well; I guess this makes me a murderer!" But it actually makes murderers out of us all! Who among us hasn't turned to someone else in whom is the image of God, and laid a degrading insult on them in anger - chopping them down with a put-down or a demeaning name? Face it: many of us make murderers out of ourselves every day on the freeway!
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Another way that the Bible tells us about the implications of this commandment is when we show personal favoritism for some and are prejudiced against others. We know that this is wrong; but we never would have thought of it as "murder" unless the Scriptures had told us so.
The apostle James speaks of this in his New Testament letter. He wrote to the church and urged the believers to stop holding the faith of our Lord Jesus in a spirit of partiality. He said that, if a wealthy, well-dressed man came into the church, the believers were quick to give him the finest seat; but if a poor, shabbily-dressed man came in through the same church door, the believers were making him stand, or forcing him to sit on the floor. James said that they were showing partiality out of evil motives; and told them,
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:8-9).
And you might ask, "Well; how were they transgressing the law by showing partiality?" James explained; "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery [and we could imagine most of the Christians to whom James wrote would be quick to say they did not], but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law" (vv. 10-11).
Do you see it? He says that by showing partiality and exhibiting personal favoritism on the basis of external things - instead of treating all believers, in and of themselves, as being of equal value - we are breaking of the sixth commandment. We are taking something of someone's life away from them when we minimize them on the basis of such externals as the wealth they possess, or the status they have in this world's eyes, or even the color of their skin. This means that we should call all forms of prejudice, racism, and bigotry for what it is in the eyes of God - murder.
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The Bible also tells us that we break this commandment, and stand guilty before God as murderers, whenever we are envious and refuse to love someone else whom Jesus loves. The apostle John wrote,
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:11-15).
When someone else has placed their faith in Jesus and has experienced His love, and we then refuse to love them as Jesus has loved them, then as far as God is concerned, we are committing murder against them. And a persistent refusal to love those whom Jesus loves - a consistent clinging to hatred for our brother or sister in Christ - is, according to John, sufficient proof that one is a murderer at heart, and does not have eternal life abiding within.
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The murder of another life always has its starting place in the murder within the heart. Jesus said that "from within, out of the heart of men, proceed" among other things, "murders" (Mark 7:21). The little girl I told you about before confessed, "I guess this makes me a murderer!" After reading what God says about this commandment in all its implications, we all must say the same thing. You and I, too, stand as murderers before God.
But praise God - He pardons and forgives murderers like us when we confess our sin, and seek His forgiveness through Christ, and turn from our murderous ways. May God help us to do so. May God search our hearts and show us the murder that is in us. May God help us to so speak and so act, that we show that we truly value His image in all those with whom we share the common grace of His breath of life.
1See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1983), p. 90.
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