Did Jesus Abolish the Death Penalty in the Sermon on the Mount?

I’ve looked at the Biblical support for capital punishment in The Death Penalty — a Biblical Command, and the question of whether or not Jesus abolished the death penalty in John 8 (the story of the woman taken in adultery).

Another question that is often raised has to do with the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically one section of Matthew 5.

Matthew 5:38-44

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy 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;

In verse 38, Jesus quotes the following passage from Exodus:

Exodus 21:23-24

23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

This is the retributive principle of the Law.  Justice sets a penalty equal to the harm done, and this is a major underpinning of capital punishment.  By saying, “But I say to you,” Jesus could appear to be overthrowing the retributive principle of justice, and thus doing away with capital punishment.  But Jesus had just said (verse 17) He had come to fulfill, not destroy, the Law, so we should be slow to assume He is contradicting the Law.  In fact, there is no contradiction.

Breaking the “Rights” Mentality

The penal instructions in the Old Testament Law told a nation how to carry out justice in protecting innocent victims of violence.  The instructions of the Sermon on the Mount were not a penal code, but telling individual followers of Jesus Christ that they are not to be seekers of vengeance.

In verse 40, Jesus says if someone takes you to court to take your coat, if he is trying to also take your cloke let him have it.  In verse 41, He spoke of the law that Roman soldiers could force a civilian to carry something for a mile.  Jesus told His disciples to carry it two miles.

In verse 42, He commands to give when nothing is due, to loan without expecting repayment.  In verses 43-44, He says to give love to those who do not deserve it.

I may give up my legal rights.  In fact, as a follower of Christ, I often should be prepared to do so — thus the Sermon on the Mount.  We are not to be controlled by our rights.  This is the point of the passage — it is not talking about a judicial system, or how government should behave.

Turning Someone Else’s Other Cheek

If someone hits people on the cheek, the police shouldn’t say, “Turn the other cheek, we’re not doing anything.” We’re not told to turn other people’s cheeks, but our own.  If government neglects its responsibility to restrain evildoers, it turns the cheek of the victim to the smiter.  Does anyone really think that is what Jesus is teaching?

Evildoers will always oppress those who are weaker if government does nothing.  If someone is unjustly trying to take both a coat and a cloke from someone else, government should certainly not say, “Oh, go ahead.”

If government does not protect against evildoers, it is a party to oppression, to violence, to the next smiting.  Nothing Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount permits that.  Matthew 5 is not about government and penal codes.  That isn’t in the picture at all.  Matthew 5 has nothing to do with the way human government should punish crimes like murder and rape.  It talks about being willing to let injustice happen to us again.  No one thinks murder and rape should be permitted again.  The passage has nothing to do with the death penalty for those crimes.

Next:  The Death Penalty — God Requires it to be Just

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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6 Responses to Did Jesus Abolish the Death Penalty in the Sermon on the Mount?

  1. James Coffey says:

    Some folks still doesn’t get it. The nation that forgets God will perish. America began it’s perishing
    process in 1963 when it knelt down and kissed the boots of mrs. murray O’Hare and caved into her
    demand to kick God out of it’s program. The 6th of the 10 commandment reads like this “Thou shall not kill”
    even a third grade student knows that to take a person’s life is to kill that person, be that person a minister, a convenient store clerk, a member of congress, or one that sits on death row. God wrote the 10 commandment law, and being an eternal God, His law became eternal. This set of laws is the only laws Christ brought from the old testament into the new testament. It will not the Mosaic
    law book that will judge at the great blazing white throne of God, it will be the ten
    Commandments. There are 35,000 plus laws in the law books of America and the 10
    commandments would have taken care of them all.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, James. I’m based in Scotland, not America. 🙂

      “Thou shalt not kill” refers to murder, not the death penalty. God didn’t contradict Himself.

      In Exodus 20, He said, “Thou shalt not kill.” In Exodus 21:12, He said, “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” Those who murdered were to be put to death after a trial (requiring two or three witnesses, with other safeguards as I’ve written elsewhere).

  2. David Hillary says:

    Why not entertain the idea that Jesus was discussing social order and civil and criminal law?

    The death penalty is probably the best case to test this approach. The teachers of the law had already de facto abolished the death penalty by requiring the two witnesses to be unrelated to the parties, have directly witnessed the event, be males in good religious standing, call out a warning to the person, the person had to hear the warning and respond that they heard it, and proceed to do the deed anyway. Why did the teachers adopt such a position? It appears they were of the view that the law should be merciful and were gravely concerned with the gravity of legally sanctioned killing.

    Jesus would therefore appeared to have agreed with their concerns, and instead of de facto abolishing it, he abolished it de jure by abolishing the principle upon which it is based.

    Entertaining the idea that Jesus is teaching about civil and criminal law and social order is much more interesting than the idea he is not. Sure it requires a radical change to civil and criminal law, and a vision for a society that does not resort to violence even when recognised wrongs are in play.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Hello, David, thank you for the comment. I apologise for not clearing it through moderation sooner — very busy days for me right now.

      To view this event as focused on “social order and civil and criminal law” does, I believe, violence to the whole context of the Gospel of John. Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world. This comes not long after all but the twelve had forsaken Him (end of chapter six). He was not trying to rework social order, He was reworking hearts.

      These men did not even have legal authority to do what they proposed. Their intent was to embroil Him with the Roman authorities, who reserved the power of life and death to themselves. If Jesus had wanted to address the death penalty, He surely would have addressed Himself to those who had the power to carry it out. But He did not, He addressed Himself to those who were before Him and wanting Him to authorise a lynch mob.

      He addressed their hypocrisy, not their Law. They claimed to come before Him appealing to the Law of Moses, and He directly pointed them to how they were in violation of that Law. He didn’t address their current practice, or the Romans, or anything really to do with social order and criminal law. He drew attention to religious hypocrisy.

      And that is much more in keeping with His actions as recorded in John, and throughout the Gospels. When hearts are changed, society begins to change, but that is a side benefit to the real purpose of our Lord. His real purpose is to change hearts, to reconcile man to God, to cleanse and forgive and make us fit for Heaven where we will serve Him forever. Social change and more appropriate laws will flow out of that, when the hearts of those with authority are changed, for those who are fit for Heaven will hunger for truth and justice here as well.

      But throughout most of history, God’s people have had very little influence on laws and social order. To see this passage as an attempt to rework those things is to view it through the limited lens of a modern, loosely-Christianized (or post-Christian) Western society, rather than view it as taking place in a society ruled by pagan dictators, and addressing, not sincere believers who were trying to figure out what was the right thing to do, but a bunch of malicious hypocrites who were trying to entrap Him.

      • David Hillary says:

        Dear Jon,

        Thanks for your kind consideration of the proposal. Let me clarify what I am suggesting you do: I am suggesting entertain the approach that Jesus is is primarily concerned, in the Sermon on the Mount, with “social order and civil and criminal law.” (I never suggested this was the focus of the incident of the woman caught in adultery, although I do think it still is relevant to the issue.) I am not asking you to critique this idea or to oppose it, rather to, for the sake of argument, consider that this is the proper focus and meaning, and see where it leads. Suspend judgement on the approach for a while, while your digest it and grapple with it.

        I submit that this approach is far more interesting than the common approach that Jesus is solely teaching for matters of the heart and for personal choices to forgo legal rights that remain available and valid.

        I suggest you contact me here: (redacted) so I can send you a draft paper that does explore exactly this approach — this is something very new for me and still very much at the exploratory stage but, as I said, I find it particularly interesting, especially compared to the common approach. I think you would find it interesting even if you still could not accept it at the end.

        Let me give you a little example of how this approach can make much more sense than the alternative: ‘But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’ (Mat 5:32, NIV — more literal translation is that he ‘makes her commit adultery’). Let’s look at this case from the point of view of the wife. She is innocent of sexual immorality, yet she suffers the wrong of her husband divorcing her. She then, as a result, takes another man, and Jesus says she is no longer innocent, she is now, by taking another man, committing adultery. The rhetorical point is that the man who divorced his wife turned an innocent woman into a guilty one, and so he has substantial moral responsibility for her adultery even though she is also responsible for her own subsequent choices after being sent our of his house with some legal paperwork. (Although not mentioned in Mat 5, by taking another woman he is also committing adultery, that point is made in other places.) The legal point is that the divorce is invalid and that she is not free to re-marry, notwithstanding her husband’s wrong in divorcing her without adequate cause. Jesus is teaching that two wrongs don’t make a right. But how does he teach it? By abolishing the legal validity of divorce, and by judging and ruling that the new ‘marriage’ is illegal, as a species of adultery. This teaching makes no sense as a teaching of having a good heart, or of being kind and generous to others when they wrong you (such acts being supererogatory, while the entitlement to the legal remedy of divorce and the legal entitlement to re-marry after a divorce remain valid.) The nature of the teaching and of the language is legal, abolishing entitlements and rights and remedies, rather than simply calling for a new attitude or spirit under the same legal institutions.

        The context and nature of the trap in John 8 and the response to the trap is a very interesting question. May I suggest an alternative to the approach you took in your comment: The hostile parties to Jesus were the teachers of the law who were familiar with his teaching and believed that he taught against capital punishment in principle — and they were right. This was a point-scoring exercise among teachers of the law. They were also, in a very practical sense, opposed to capital punishment, but, as teachers of the law had no choice but to acknowledge that the law of Moses upheld it in principle and regulated and limited it in practice with rules of evidence. They therefore applied and developed the rules of evidence to such an extent to make capital punishment practically impossible. But this was their chance to highlight that Jesus was against the law of Moses and expose and embarrass him with a mob motivated to carry our an illegal honour killing. Jesus’ response highlighted the illegality of the honour killing under the law of Moses with the requirement that the two or three witnesses be the first to carry out the sentence, but it added a twist: instead of referring to those first to throw the stones as the witnesses, he changes it to the one without sin. ‘without sin’ then has two possible meanings: the one who followed the procedural and evidence requirements of the law of Moses is, in a sense, without sin, in throwing the first stone — he is acting lawfully even though he is killing someone. However, there is a second possible meaning: throwing stones at someone to kill them is itself sin, and the guilt of the target and the legal formalities followed cannot change it. Jesus is applying the principle of his law: two wrongs don’t make a right, and no amount of evidence or legal formalities can make a wrong right. We no longer have the legal right to do wrongs to others through the mechanisms of litigation, courts, judgments and executions.

        Again I suggest you contact me here: (redacted) so I can send you a draft paper that does explore exactly this approach.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        David, I’ve written you, but redacted out your contact info so you don’t get unwelcome attention / spam.

        What you are saying does not ring true to me nor, I think, fit well with the context and the oft-stated redemptive purpose of Jesus’ work here on earth. And I’m not sure any of us do really very well at “suspending judgement” :). But I will certainly try to give your paper a fair reading once I’ve received it.

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