“Do not murder.” Exodus 20:13
Murder goes deeper than the death of a human being by the hand of another human being. Murder is the crime of unlawfully killing a person—especially with malice or forethought. Murder, therefore, is distinguished from killing by the issue of motive. Jesus identified that motive behind murder as anger in Matthew 5:21-22. In Matthew, Christ goes to the root of the behavior and sees the anger behind the action. The act of murder is still subject to the punishment we see in Genesis 9:6.
In the sixth commandment, God forbids murder and thereby emphasizes the value of human life. Because we are made in the image of God, murder is a sin. How should we account for situations in which killing does not fall under the category of murder? These will be viewed through the lens of Scripture, and you may notice that all three lack the primary motive that Christ would cite behind murder in Matthew 5—anger. What are situations in which killing does not cross into the category of murder?
We see in Scripture that a person is allowed to defend him or herself from an attacker (Neh. 4:11-14). Exodus 22:2-3 reads, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.” So even after the Ten Commandments are given in Exodus 20, we can see that God permits the taking of a life if one’s own life is in potential danger.
If a thief broke into a house at night, he would have to fear the homeowner, who would not be able to determine an intruder’s intentions, whether theft of property or harm to the occupants. The homeowner would not be at fault for killing the thief by beating him to death. Notice, however, that even the thief’s life was valued. If a thief broke in during the daytime (when his intentions would be clear) and were killed by the owner, then the owner would be guilty of murder. While reasonable self-defense is recognized in Scripture, value for human life is the rule.
Genesis 9:6 not only shows that we are to value human life because of creation, it points out that if a man killed another man, his life should also be taken. Even before the law was given to Israel—before the commandment not to murder—God established capital punishment. This punishment speaks to the severity of the crime. The taking of a life warrants a punishment in kind—a death for a death.
The command is not given for vengeance but for justice, and the role of justice is carried out by one specific office. Romans 13 breaks down the importance of the government’s role in keeping the peace. Romans 13:4 says, “for [a ruler] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Prior to this passage, Paul gave the principles of living at peace with all men and not taking vengeance into our own hands (Rom. 12:18-21). The sword belongs to the governing authorities to wield and to deliver justice to those who commit evil.
Today, Christians are divided regarding the issue of capital punishment. Some appeal to Genesis 9 in support of capital punishment. Because this passage precedes the Mosaic law and reaffirms humanity’s image-bearing status, many believe capital punishment should still be applied today. Other Christians have reservations about capital punishment or reject it due to the way it can be unfairly implemented. Both sides rightfully appeal to the image of God in humanity to make their case.
In Scripture, God at times commanded battles between nations. Such battles and wars were God’s hand of justice against the wicked. Examples of God sanctioning war can be found throughout the historical books of the Old Testament. Although men and women are killed in battle, there must be a difference between the act of murder and a death in battle.
In the New Testament, God works primarily through the church. The church is not a nation that goes to war. The government is the carrier of the sword and acts through its military. The church does no such thing for the kingdom of God. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Christ does not ask that his followers stand and fight for physical territory or possessions. However, there is an understanding that kingdoms of the world have servants who go out and fight, and Christians are not necessarily exempt from participating in military actions.
As with capital punishment, Christians are divided on the issue of just war and whether Christians can serve in a nation’s military. Wrestling with these issues requires acknowledging God’s Word as the foundation, value for human life as the rule, and the need for a Spirit-sensitive conscience. In his book Issues Facing Christians Today, John Stott sums up the seven conditions of a just war (formal declaration, last resort, just cause, right intention, proportionate means, non-combatant immunity and reasonable expectation) in three main points:
Firstly, its cause must be righteous. It must be defensive, not aggressive. Its objectives must be to secure justice or remedy injustice, to protect the innocent of champion human rights…
Secondly, its means must be controlled. There must be no wanton or unnecessary violence. In fact, two key words are used to describe the legitimate use of violence in a just cause. One is ‘proportionate’ and the other ‘discriminate.’ ‘Proportionate’ signifies that the war is perceived as the lesser of two evils, that the violence inflicted is proportionately less than that which it is intended to remedy, and that the ultimate gains will outweigh the losses. ‘Discriminate’ means that the war is directed against enemy combatants and military targets, and that civilians are immune.
Thirdly, its outcome must be predictable…There must be a calculated prospect of victory, and so of achieving the just cause for which the war was begun.
Ultimately, we must come to grips with what the Bible teaches, that God’s sovereignty and power extend even over death. Deuteronomy 32:39 says, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”