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Adam was exiled from Eden. Cain was driven from God’s presence. The flood purged the earth of man’s corruption. Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire. On the night of Passover, yeast was purged out of Hebrew homes. Nadab and Abihu were burned alive by divine fire for offering strange fire. Achan was stoned then burned for keeping consecrated items. Thirty-one kings were wiped out of the Promised Land. Israel was exiled into Assyria, while Judah was carried off captive into Babylon for their many idolatries. And lest we think this is just the mean God of the Old Testament, that same God struck down Ananias and Sapphira, Paul commanded the excommunication of unrepentant brothers, and of course the Bible ends with a marked warning that unbelievers “shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).” The lesson? God drives out sinners from His presence.
“And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee” (Deut. 13:5).
Summary of the Text
Moses recounts (Dt. 5) how Mt. Sinai burned with divine fire when the Law was given. Jehovah was a holy God. Though He was covenanting with Israel, He was still a God who would not endure sin. The Law not only restrained evil-doers and reflected back to man his sinfulness, but also graciously revealed the means for man to enjoy fellowship with God through the sacrifices.
Deuteronomy is basically Moses’ sermon series on the Ten Commandments. Throughout this book Moses clarifies which violations of the Law could be punished with death, and more importantly, why. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 covers the first through third commandments regarding false gods and idolatry. Deuteronomy 21:21 & 22:21 deals with the fifth commandment of dishonoring father & mother. Additionally, murder (Deut. 19:13, 21:9), adultery (Deut. 22:22-24), bearing false witness (Deut. 17:6-7 & 19:19), along with theft, slave-trading, and kidnapping (Deut. 24:7) are all to be punished––potentially––with execution. His customary concluding phrase “thus shall thou put away the evil from the midst of thee” gives the underlying reason for the execution.
Not Only the “What” but the “Why”
God is not merely giving a capricious dictates to His people. His dictates are accompanied by doctrine. He doesn’t give them the “what” without quickly adding the “why”. Another example of this is in Leviticus, where we find the frequently used summary phrase: “Ye shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy (Lev. 19:2).” Deuteronomy’s “why-phrase” means to burn up, consume away, to eat up as with fire, to destroy; which happened whenever a sin offering was made. The animal was consumed by the fire. However, in executing a convicted evil-doer the Israelite community became means whereby the fire of God’s wrath against such sin consumed away such a sinner. Executing––or exiling (1Ki. 22:46 & 2Ki. 23:24)––evil-doers is to be done in order to remove evil from God’s congregation.
Now For Some Particulars
Moses is quite measured in making it clear that the death penalty was not to be carried out through kangaroo courts, or through vigilante mobs. We should never lightly take a life; but there are instances where an evil-doer’s life was forfeit through gross disobedience to God’s Law. God alone has the prerogative to take a life. However, He has put the sword of justice into the civil magistrate’s hand, and He has stipulated what instances are permissible for the civil magistrate to execute wicked men. We must not slip into thinking that this is merely a “vestigial organ” of the Old Testament. This is one of the main points which Paul makes in Romans 13. The civil magistrate is God’s deacon (or servant/minister) of justice, executing God’s wrath upon criminals in order to preserve the peace and holiness of the entire community.
False teachers were sure to arise to entice God’s people from pure worship of the True God. Whether this false teacher was a scintillating prophet with signs and wonders, a near family member, or an entire city, the congregation must not pity false teachers. If anyone endeavored “to turn you away from the LORD your God (Deut. 13:5),” he was to be destroyed.
False witnesses who tried to indict someone on a phony charge, undermine the very foundation of true justice, and thus whatever they sought to have happen to the accused came upon them. Rebellious sons, and unchaste daughters were a danger to covenantal faithfulness and thus were to be executed for the sake of the purity of the whole congregation. Rapists, adulterers, slavers, and murderers were––if found guilty by the mouth of two or three witnesses––to be punished with death. Why? Because Israel was to be a holy nation in which God dwelt; as such, sins which threatened the stability and purity of the whole nation could not be tolerated.
Paul employs this Deuteronomical phrase when telling the Corinthians that they needed to excommunicate the man who had taken his father’s wife, “Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person (1Co. 5:13).” While Corinth was a sexually debauched city, Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for turning a blind eye to the fornication they could deal with. How could they ever think to conquer Corinth with the Gospel, if the Gospel hadn’t conquered them? They needed moxy to oust the wicked man, but instead had shown temerity. Faithful justice always requires courage.
Mortify Your Flesh
What God commanded to take place for corporate Israel is intended to take place in the individual life. Sinners must die for their sin. Jesus takes these laws, and rather than dialing back the intensity, He turns up the heat of conviction. “Ye have heard it said…but I say (Mt. 5:21-22).” Look at your heart. A murderer is there. A thief is there. An adulterer is there. A slave-trader is there. An idol is there which looks like the god known as You. You must die.
In comes the Gospel mandate: the flesh must be “purged out”. The old man must be crucified (Rom. 6:6). You must mortify your flesh (Rom. 8:13). You must put off uncleanness (Col. 3:5, 8). How? The only way to deal with yourself is by faith in the Lord Jesus. He was driven outside the camp, burned up, hung on a tree as a curse, in order that every lying, murderous, adulterous, conniving, scheming sinner might find their death in His death.