The purpose and meaning of the Sixth Commandment
Who possesses the authority to take human life? Who has the right to make that decision? The emphasis in the Sixth Commandment is on the word “you.” You shall not murder! You are not to deliberately kill premeditatedly or in the anger of the moment.
“You shall not kill.” Exodus 20:13
What makes human life precious? Consider it from God's point of view. He made us in His own image for the purpose of creating in us His own character. For that reason He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9. Compare 1 Timothy 2:4 As Jesus Christ explained, “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:17
In our world however, human life is so often treated with indifference. We settle our differences with war, killing hundreds of thousands of other people in the process. Criminals steal not only possessions but their victims' lives. So many people view an unwanted pregnancy as simply an inconvenience or an unexpected consequence of their sexual activity that millions of unborn babies are aborted every year.
What a sad contrast to our Creator who promises us the greatest gift possible, the opportunity to share eternal life with Him. The murder of the day is commonly the first topic featured on television news program, especially in larger cities. Many such slayings are committed by family members or formerly close associates or friends. Random killings from gang and street violence add to the climate of fear in many communities. Homicides linked to other crimes and drugs are all too common. Untold thousands around the world fall victim to mass murder in the name of politics and ideology. Murder touches the life of almost everyone on earth.
In supposedly advanced societies, television and motion pictures barrage citizens with murders and carnage. Violence is so inextricably woven into the fabric of society that we glamorize it in our literature and entertainment. It's ironic that in spite of our fascination with murder, we follow the example of most societies throughout history in passing strict laws against it. Few people indeed have ever needed to be convinced that murder within their own community was wrong. However, other challenges concerning the value and sanctity of human life tend to generate controversy, particularly the execution of criminals by the state. Is capital punishment the same as murder? And what does God say about war? Why did God allow ancient Israel to take human life in battles with other nations? Was that a violation of the Sixth Commandment?
The real issue
At the heart of these questions is this issue: Who possesses the authority to take human life? Who has the right to make that decision? The emphasis in the Sixth Commandment is on the word you. You shall not murder! You are not to deliberately kill premeditatedly or in the anger of the moment. We must control our tempers. Taking another person's life is not our right to decide. That judgment is reserved for God alone. That is the thrust of this Commandment. God does not allow us to choose to wilfully, deliberately take another person's life. The Sixth Commandment reminds us that God is the giver of life, and He alone has the authority to take it or to grant humans permission to take it.
The Sixth Commandment does not specifically apply to manslaughter, deaths caused accidentally through carelessness or other unintentional actions. Such deaths although serious occurrences are not considered by the laws of God or man to fall into the same category as premeditated murder.
Justice versus mercy
God's preference is for us to be merciful. He is especially merciful to anyone who repents. “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” Ezekiel 33:11. That is how God thinks. That is the way He wants us to think. When her accusers brought a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus, what was His reaction? Her accusers would have gladly stoned her to death had Jesus agreed to that punishment. Such was the penalty allowed by law for such an offence. But although He in no way condoned her sin, neither did He condemn her to death. Instead He commanded her to “go and sin no more.” John 8:11. He showed mercy and gave her the opportunity to reconsider how she was living and change her ways to avoid the judgment to come. Eventually we must all give account of ourselves before God. James warns us, “So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” James 2:12. God will eventually administer justice to all who refuse to repent.
God's mercy, His forgiveness remains available to sinners including murderers. God wants to extend forgiveness to us. But He also wants us to repent and to wholeheartedly forsake breaking His Commandments and turn to Him in sorrow and humility. We are then to ask for forgiveness and submit to the ordinance of baptism. Baptism serves as an act of confirmation that we consider the old self as dead and buried in a watery grave with Christ (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:4).
The calling and conversion of the apostle Paul is a wonderful illustration of God's mercy and forgiveness. Paul had personally cast his vote for the execution of Christians before his conversion (Acts 26:10). Yet God forgave him, making him an example from that time forward of His great mercy. Paul tells us about himself: “…I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. 14 And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. 15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. 16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” 1 Timothy 1:13-16
What about capital punishment?
For certain offences, God's law permits constituted government authorities to impose capital punishment. When the state abides by God's principles, this action does not violate the Sixth Commandment. By giving us His laws, God has revealed His judgment on this matter. He has revealed in advance, which offences deserve the sentence of death and He has established strict parameters for such decisions. For example, a felon's guilt must be undeniably corroborated with solid evidence and or witnesses before he should be sentenced.
The apostle Paul reaffirms the state's authority to inflict capital punishment. “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Will you then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and you shall have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Romans 13:3-4
Rather than abolishing the law, Jesus Christ showed its spiritual intent and application. He expanded the requirements of the law making them significantly more demanding. The Commandment against murder is an example. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, You shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, You fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Matthew 5:21-22
Christ amplified the meaning of murder to include bitter animosity, contempt or hateful hostility toward others. Merely harbouring malicious attitudes toward others violates the intent of the Sixth Commandment. Why? Because this is mental and emotional warfare, the desire to see a fellow human being suffer. Using words and speech to emotionally injure other people is equally wrong. With our tongues and pens we attack them verbally. We assault their feelings. We annihilate their respectability. We damage their reputations. At times we can be consumed with destructive intentions. Our motives can be diametrically the opposite of love. The spirit of murder can live in our hearts and Jesus tells us the consequences for such thoughts and actions could be our own death in the lake of fire. Yet we should not retaliate against those who resent or verbally attack us. Paul tells us: “Recompense to no man evil for evil… 18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Romans 12:17-19. Even in times of war a Christian is expected to live by a higher standard than the world around him.
Overcoming evil with good
Paul instructs us on the proper approach to thoughts of retaliation, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21. This should be the approach of every believer in Jesus Christ. It is the way of love that fulfils the intent of the law of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus tells us, “for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9. How can we put this principle into practice? “You have heard that it has been said, You shall love your neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 45 That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven…” Matthew 5:43-45
God wants us to go far beyond avoiding murder. He requires that we not maliciously harm another human being in word or deed. He desires that we treat even those who choose to hate us as respectfully as possible and do all within our power to live in peace and harmony with them. He wants us to be builders, not destroyers of good relationships. To accomplish this we must respect this wonderful gift of the precious possession of human life.