READ : Exodus 20:13
Human life is unspeakably precious, and must be guarded and enhanced because we are made in God’s image.
Welcome to Session 6 of our Ten Commandments series! Remember always the background of grace behind them, God’s beforehand love. The first four have to do with our relationship with God. In the fifth, we show honor to God in honoring parents. Now in the final five of the commandments we are shown how to treat our fellow human beings. Thousands of years old, these still have abiding relevance. This one has to do with cherishing life, both in ourselves and others.
Think of a Michelangelo working on a block of marble. We watch his deftness and precision. We admire his genius as he produces a majestic David, a masterpiece for the centuries. Marvelous!
But just suppose now he could do a far greater wonder. He could make that statue breathe, move and speak. Suppose it would suddenly come alive! A greater wonder by far. That, friends, is what God did. He fashioned this creature, this human being from the dust of the ground, fearfully and wonderfully made, and then breathed life into it. These human beings he formed can walk, talk, think, till the soil, study the stars, harness the power of nature, build skyscrapers, and smash the atom. They can love; they can know God. Without life, all the ingredients of a human body are worth only a few dollars. But with life as God’s gift, we walk with dignity and dominion in the image of our maker.
Now visit the Louvre or other famous art galleries. See the treasures of painting and sculpture. We look at them with delight. We study. We admire. But we mustn’t damage them. Usually we’re not even allowed to touch them. We can only look at them through thick panes of glass. The world rightly has nothing but contempt for those who deface or destroy them.
The Sacredness of Human Life
What does God say about those who damage or destroy his supreme creation? Those made in his own image, temples of living souls? He says, “You shall not kill. You shall not murder.” Life may be cheap to us, but it is precious to God.
Sadly, we read in the early chapters of Genesis, in the first human family, of fratricide, the murder of a brother. What were the motives there? Both Cain and Abel made an offering to God. Cain was arrogant. His life didn’t match his offering. Then came jealousy, deliberate killing, sin crouching at the door. Cain ignored God’s warning. And it’s been a murderous world ever since, hasn’t it? Read in those early chapters of Genesis how all the killing grieved God’s heart and brought destruction to the earth (Gen. 6:5-6; 11-13).
There were religions that featured child sacrifice (Lev. 20:1-3), people offering up their tiny children in a horrific offering to some imagined god. God railed against that practice through his prophets. It always grieved his heart because children are dear to God. The reason for this high valuing of human life is that we are made in the image of God. In Genesis 9:6, “whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed, for in his own image God made humankind.” God will require a reckoning for human life.
Now what’s the meaning of this commandment? How absolute is the command against killing? Some people say, “No exceptions.” But doesn’t that mean then that no animal should ever be killed or even an insect? There’s a situation in India, as many of you know, where the life of some animals is esteemed more highly than that of human beings.
Neither does the command forbid all warfare. Sometimes humans must fight and kill in self-defense or to defend loved ones. At the same time, war is always tragic. As someone has said, there are three armies after a war: an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves. Most wars are unmixed evils to take the land and property of others, to avenge real or imagined insults, to hold on to power, to express hate. But the command doesn’t forbid all war. Neither does it ban all capital punishment. It’s directed against a crime condemned in almost all human cultures: deliberate, malicious murder.
In Moses’ day: the nearest male relative of someone who had been murdered was to pursue the killer and take his life. Now that seems barbaric to us but we need to remember that in ancient Israel there was no public tribunal, no police, no judges, no executioners. There were cities of refuge for those who killed someone unintentionally, but not for murder. Even the altar of God offers no protection for murderers.
Present-day Issues: Capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia
Now let’s think about the command as it relates to present-day issues. What about capital punishment? There’s no biblical basis for saying that capital punishment must be banned, as we’ve seen. At the same time it’s helpful to remember that in these ancient times life imprisonment was not even an option. It was not possible in the sense it is today. To put people in primitive, filthy jails was in effect to kill them, was in effect a death penalty. We need to ask about this issue, “What most affirms the value of human life?” Evil has to be restrained. Society has to be protected. But what does killing the killer do? Does one destruction of human life require another in all cases? In our culture, as many point out, human error and even racial prejudice have often led to terrible injustice. Protracted death row appeals underline the fact that this issue is very difficult.
I’ve been privileged myself in recent years to visit a number of prisoners in various facilities around Michigan. Two are known, confessed murderers. Both of these have deeply repented and are now devoted Christians. One of them has been an agent of wonderful renewal in the prison where he’s been. Would it have been better for society and for him if he had been executed, better for God’s kingdom?
Then what about abortion? When does human life begin? At the moment of conception? Then what they call a “morning after” pill would be killing a person. Does it begin when twins separate in the womb? Individuality? Does it begin with viability, when the fetus can survive outside of the mother’s body? Or is it the moment of birth? It’s a difficult question.
Is abortion ever justified? Some would say never. Many feel it is warranted only in extreme cases, to save a mother’s life or in cases of rape or incest. Others seem to say it’s always acceptable.
When should abortion not be considered? It seems to me that third-trimester abortions are unthinkable. When an unborn child could survive outside the mother’s body, abortion is clearly an instance of taking human life. And partial-birth abortions, for anyone who understands that practice, seem monstrously cruel.
What about euthanasia? That term literally means a “good dying.” At its root meaning, who would ever oppose that? Who wouldn’t want to die well? But the meaning of the term today is “the act of putting to death painlessly or allowing to die” a patient. It is called “physician-assisted suicide.” And then there’s what’s called “active euthanasia by physicians.” Here it is not a case of a patient requesting death. A doctor decides when the case is terminal, when cure is impossible, and that doctor himself or herself intervenes to bring about the death of the patient. That happens commonly in the Netherlands and is beginning to be done in some areas of our country.
These are concerns which many hard decisions have to be made. Who should decide about measures to be taken toward the end of life? Many of us have a living will where we indicate while we’re in health decisions that we want made toward the end of life. We may have appointed a medical power of attorney – a person or persons delegated to make end-of-life decisions. That avoids many problems but still leaves hard decisions to be made by loved ones.
What about feeding tubes? What about pain medication which may hasten death? I was talking to one person about that who said, “I’d like them to keep me from pain and then I’ll just starve myself if I’m terminal.” Another said, “Well, I’d like the pain controlled but I want to be kept alive as long as life is possible.” It’s good to leave these things in the care of trusted loved ones. Let there be all reasonable measures to sustain life, and nothing deliberately to hasten death. Leave that in God’s hands.
One danger for all of us is letting our political affiliation determine our view on such issues. If I call myself “pro-choice,” then I must always defend abortions. If I call myself “pro-life,” I must never listen to a mother’s feelings. This contributes to the bitter polarization all too common in our society.
Let’s guard also against assigning blame. Do you blame the mother? Do you blame the father? Do you blame the doctor? Do you blame the judge? We blame no one, it seems, in our culture except the people who try to disturb abortion clinics.
Other Ways to kill
What about Jesus and the sixth commandment? As he so often did, he penetrated beneath the surface to the heart. He teaches that when you speak with scorn, when you call a person a fool, when you dismiss someone, that’s one step on the road to killing. When we look at it that light we realize that none of us are in the clear. Every one of us needs the forgiveness of God and the transforming power of Jesus Christ because of the hate, the scorn, and the contempt that we sometimes express. Those are the seeds of murderous action.
Guilt and Forgiveness
And the wonder of it is that we are offered God’s pardon in Jesus Christ. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Then, as forgiven, cleansed persons, we need to pass on that forgiveness to others.
So, friends, let’s cherish life. Let’s concern ourselves with the safety and well-being of all. In the midst of a world where people blow themselves and others to bits in a vain bid for some imagined paradise, let us who know God’s wonderful love do all we can to protect, celebrate and enhance the lives of others. Jesus came, remember, that we might have life!