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 did not send 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—to the point that millions of unborn babies are aborted every year.
God wants us to go far beyond avoiding murder. He requires that we not maliciously harm another human being in word or deed.
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 programs, 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—whether through terrorism or outright warfare. 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 willfully, 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 others permission to take it.
The Sixth Commandment does not explicitly 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 vs. mercy
God’s preference is for us to be merciful. He is especially merciful to anyone who repents. “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says 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.
Eventually we must give account of ourselves before God. James warns us, “So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (James 2:12). God will eventually administer justice to all who refuse to repent.
Yet 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—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—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 formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:13-16).
What about capital punishment?
For certain offenses, God’s law permits constituted governing 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 offenses 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 evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:3-4).
Rather than abolishing God’s 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 our forefathers were told, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to justice.’ But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice. Whoever calls his brother ‘good for nothing’ deserves the sentence of the court; whoever calls him ‘fool’ deserves hell-fire” (Matthew 5:21-22, Revised English Bible).
Christ amplified the meaning of “murder” to include bitter animosity, contempt or hateful hostility toward others. Merely harboring malicious attitudes toward others violates the intent of the Sixth Commandment. Why? Because this is mental and emotional abuse directed toward others and the desire to see a fellow human being suffer.
Using words and speech to deliberately or maliciously harm the name of others is equally wrong. With tongue or pen we can attack them verbally. We can assault their respectability by undermining or destroying their reputations.
We can be consumed with destructive intentions. Our motives can be the diametric opposite of love. The spirit of murder can live in our hearts. Jesus tells us that the consequences for such thoughts and actions will be our own death in the lake of fire if we don’t repent.
We are also instructed not to retaliate against those who resent or verbally attack us. Paul tells us: “Repay no one evil for evil . . . If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17-19). A Christian is always 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: “Do not be overcome by 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 fulfills 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 was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father 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, this precious possession—human life.