Now we come to the most controversial commandment of all. Asked to name the Ten Commandments, most people would begin the list with "Thou shalt not kill," for it names the most obvious evil that God has prohibited. Obvious though the commandment's injunction may be to all cultures — biblical and otherwise — people today are not at all agreed on its scope and intention.
The Sixth Commandment is not a blanket interdiction against killing but, rather, a specific prohibition of murder, the intentional taking of a human life. Notice that I said human life. Animal Rights advocates go too far in applying this commandment to killing cows, chickens and pigs. Just as not all sex is adultery, so not all killing is murder. Old Testament history makes clear that the ancient Hebrews didn't understand this commandment as outlawing war or capital punishment but only personal blood vengeance. In this limited sense it is the least troublesome of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not murder" bothers most of us about as much as if God had commanded, "Thou shalt not spit on the moon." We have never murdered anyone and don't intend to. Adultery, stealing, lying… ah, they are different matters! But more about them later.
Many people, when asked if they approved of sex and violence, would answer, "Yes and no!" In spite of all the violence in our world, few people approve of it. Only one person in a thousand has actually broken the Sixth Commandment in its narrow sense of murder. And many murderers are psychopaths incapable of feeling normal guilt for their bad behavior. So for murderers and non-murderers alike, the Sixth Commandment is the least troublesome of the ten.
As long as we stick to the primary reference of the Sixth Commandment, we are on safe, non-controversial ground. But we don’t need to buy a book or look up a site on the internet to find out that God doesn't approve of killing people. We therefore leave the safe garrison of the obvious to explore the deep forests and dark caves that surround this commandment. Before we set forth on our journey, I warn you there are snipers lurking in the darkness along the way ready to attack if we trespass their codes of behavior. I will try to be a reliable guide, but I confess that other guides, whose wisdom and Christian commitment I highly respect, would take you a different route.
The primary reference of the Sixth commandment is murder, the taking of a human life, which is as sacred as the breath of God that gave it (Genesis 2:7). But there are other ways of terminating life besides "murder most foul." Let us consider some miscellaneous acts that violate the sanctity of life in different ways.
There are other ways of shortening life that may be less violent but are just as effective. For instance…
Drugs, Alcohol, Cigarettes, and Gluttony
So severe is the problem of alcoholism in our day that many Christians advocate total abstinence as the only responsible position. The Bible clearly commands temperance (1 Timothy 3:8; Titus 2:3) and condemns drunkenness (Proverbs 23:29-35; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Ephesians 5:18), but it does not insist on total abstinence. Jesus himself miraculously changed water into wine and was widely known as a wine drinker (John 2:1-11; Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Although total abstinence from all alcoholic beverages is not required behavior for Christians, it may be a necessary precaution for many whose environment or biology is conductive to drunkenness, a mortal sin.
Alcohol is not the only "nonviolent" killer. Cigarettes are a lethal substance, too. The U.S. Public Health Service estimates that one million children now in school will die of lung cancer before they reach the age of seventy. Smoking may not keep you out of heaven. In fact, it may get you there sooner! 390,000 Americans die each year from the toxic effects of tobacco. That's the same number of fatalities as if three 747 jumbo jets, fully loaded with passengers, crashed every day for an entire year.
If this journey into the territory of miscellaneous acts of murder hasn't made you nervous yet, hang on to your hat. Around the corner there's another killer that looks like an old friend. Food kills people in two ways: either they don't have enough of it, or they have too much of it. Some of God's children die of starvation while others "dig" their own graves with their forks. They shorten their own lives by overeating and other people's lives by refusing to share the surplus of food. Those who indulge in drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and gluttony commit suicide on the installment plan. It is a miscellaneous act of murder, a violation of the Sixth Commandment.
What does the Bible say about abortion? Not much. There is no direct statement in the New Testament and only one incidental reference to it in the Old Testament. Although the killing of an unborn child was not regarded as equivalent to murder by the Mosaic law, it was still considered a crime (Exodus 21:22-25). Christians today may differ in their political views concerning ways in which civil government should get involved in this issue, but all Christians should agree on the sanctity of life. Life is no accident. It is a divine gift. People dare not destroy what God has given.
The Sixth Commandment gets more and more controversial as we turn from the sanctity of embryonic life to the sanctity of criminal life. This brings us to an area where devout biblical scholars differ.
Yes, times have changed. Old Testament laws governed a primitive society. Those laws have changed through the years by a gradual reduction of the kinds of crimes for which capital punishment is decreed. Are there any crimes in our modern age for which the death penalty is the proper punishment? Some Christians would say yes, and some would say no. An unrepentant Tim McVey certainly deserved to die for murdering innocent men, women and children when he bombed the Federal building in Tulsa. Like divorce and slavery, however, capital punishment may be one of those infringements on the divine will that the Bible did not immediately eliminate.
Some things I know for sure and some things I don't. I don't know for sure whether society would be better off with or without capital punishment. I do know I would rather live in a country where it is rare than in one where it is common. And I know for sure that God loves all sinners, even murderers, and offers them salvation through the shed blood of his Son Jesus Christ. And this I know for sure should be our main message to a lost and dying world.
To focus the issue more sharply, here's a puzzle for you. Two men are in a basement. A strong smell of gas is in the air. One has fifteen matches. The other has twenty matches. The question to answer is which one wins the game or is ahead of the other? If you can answer that question, you can answer the question of who is ahead in the nuclear arms race.
The nuclear arms race could destroy the human race. It seems clearer now than ever before that the only hope for this world's survival in the twenty-first century is for nations to trust God instead of armaments (Psalm 44:3-8; Zechariah 4:6).
Although we may never actually have killed anyone, let us confess that sometimes we read the obituaries with pleasure. While the law of Moses restrains the end result of violence, the law of Jesus restrains the beginning cause of violence. He stops not only the hand that is about to strike but also the heart that is about to hate.
Nearly everyone has been guilty of some form of miscellaneous murder. That's bad news. But the good news is that God loves us and still has a wonderful plan for our lives. Moses, David, and Paul were all murderers whom God rescued and restored to great blessing and service. What God did for them, he can do for us.