If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you. Deuteronomy 13:6–11
Now if your brother becomes a Hindu and suggests that you too could benefit from worshiping Vishnu, you shouldn’t stone him. But outside the fact that it seems absurd – why not exactly? And if we dont apply the death penalty to idolators, what meaning do these verses have for us?
Some people assume that commandments like this cannot be reconciled with a good and loving God, and so by one rationalism or another, they simply dismiss it. I do not believe that this is an option for the followers of Jesus. He consistently affirmed that the law was good and was given by God.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. Matthew 5:17
His view was the same as David’s in Psalm 19
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
And although Paul was quite clear about the fact that Christians are not under the law but under grace, he never said that we should stop reading the law or that’s its usefulness was past. Rather he said,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Rather than dismissing the Law, we need to understand its role for New Covenant believers. It is proper to recognize that this role has changed with the coming of Jesus and his perfect fulfillment of the Law. The Law was given to govern a specific people in a specific place and time. Laws about the division of the land of Canaan are clearly not directly applicable to gentile Christians living in Africa. Laws concerning Levites and priests and sacrifices are not observed by those who have already had their sins atoned for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. Paul explains that the Law as law was given as a temporary measure to prepare the way for Christ.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. Galatians 3:24-26
From the Law we learn about God’s holiness and about our complete inability to meet his righteous requirements. The Law humbles us and shows us our need for grace. And by types and images, the Law gave us a glimpse of the one who would come to purchase that grace.
The Law did all of this, and continues to do all this, because it’s not just a bunch of made-up rules that the Israelites had to follow but that we’re done with now. The Law is a reflection of the righteous character of the God who gave it, and that righteous character has not changed in all of the centuries that have passed since Moses. Because the Law was given to a specific people, we see in it God’s moral judgements applied to a specific historical situation, and while the specific applications found in the Law are not always universally applicable, the moral foundation for those laws is.
For an example let’s look at Deuteronomy 22:8
When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.
Back when this was written, people actually spent a fair amount of time on the roof of their house, and even slept up there, so the danger of falling was very real. Practices have changed, and so the parapet has become a bit obsolete, however there is a principle to this law that still stands. The principle is that human life is precious, and it is our responsibility, a moral obligation, to take basic precautions to safeguard it. This principle is enduring and universal because it reflects the heart of God.
So coming back to our original passage, we recognize that the penalty of stoning for those who encourage idolatry is a historical application of a universal principle. Israel was a theocratic state covenanted to the God who had chosen them to be a particular people for himself, and her rulers were charged by God to enforce his laws about worship. That is not the case for us today. But the enduring principle that we learn from this law, first of all, is that idolatry is a very serious sin. God still judges people who reject him and worship images, just not by stoning anymore. The second principle is that allegiance to God comes before every other relationship. God is our creator and our Savior, our greatest good and only hope. Nothing and no one must be allowed to come between us and him. Whether is costs us family or friends, husband, wife or parents, we must be faithful to Jesus.
By seeking the moral principle behind the specific laws listed in the Pentateuch, we affirm that the Law is good, and we allow ourselves to continue to be corrected and challenged by God’s word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. Psalm 119:18