How do we explain the stricter punishments of the nation of Israel?

If we are honest with ourselves, some of the punishments that took place in the nation of Israel give us pause. Not only were people regularly called out for their sin, often times death was the punishment. When we look at the church today, we don’t see folks being killed by the congregation for their sins. So why the change? How do we explain the stricter punishments in the nation of Israel?

Adultery Then and Now

For instance, in Deuteronomy 22 we read,

“Then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Dt 22:21–22)

The punishment for adultery in Old Testament Israel was stoning, but in the New Testament the punishment is different. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:1-2

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (1 Co 5:1–2)

While the sin was the same, the punishment was different. Instead of death, they were excommunicated. The differences, however, don’t stop there. Not only were their lives spared, but it was hoped that they would repent and enter back into the community.

Why the Change?

I believe the change can be explained in several ways.

(1) We no longer live in a Theocracy

We have to remember that Old Testament Israel lived with God as their ruler. He set the laws for the nation. God acting as the governing authority of a nation is generally referred to as a Theocracy. 

Now we live as the church in many different countries ruled by Kings, Governments, Dictators, etc. The rules of each country dictate how we are to live and what the punishment for certain sins will be, or if they will be punished.

(2) Our camp no longer has to be purged of evil

When the nation of Israel began, God tabernacled among the people. His presence was in the Holy of Holies, which is the innermost part of the Tabernacle. In order for God, who is holy, to live in the same camp with an unholy people, sacrifices had to be performed daily and yearly. As well as the evil unrighteous person had to be removed from the camp. One way they were removed was through death.

Death not only removed the unrighteous sinner from the camp, it also reminded the people that a holy God lived in their midst, and that He required them to be holy in order to continue to have a relationship with them.

In the church age, however, God no longer tabernacles in the holy of holies. His presence isn’t present in our churches like it was in the Tabernacle. Instead, God tabernacles among us, as He lives in our hearts. Each and every believer is indwelt with the Holy Spirit. We are, then, the Temple of God.

God is able to dwell in us because of Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus died on the cross the Temple and the sacrificial system associated with it, was made obsolete. His death served as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. His blood now covers us making us righteous and holy, which allows us to have a relationship with a holy God.

Since we are the Temple and the ultimate sacrifice for our sins has been paid, we no longer have to purge the evil from us in order for God to remain in our lives. The evil has already been purged during Jesus’ death on the cross.

(3) Jesus has taken the punishment for sin

The punishment for willful sin in the Old Testament was death. In the New Testament, however, the punishment for sin, specifically unrepentant sin is excommunication from the church with the ability to repent and return to be a part of the community.

While our punishment for sin has changed, the ultimate punishment for sin has not changed. It is still death. Jesus has taken that punishment for us when He died on the cross.

So while there has been a change in practice – we are no longer killed for sin in the church age – the severity of sin is still the same. Sin equals death.

Return to the Question

To return to our question: How do we explain the stricter punishments of the nations of Israel? We explain it by saying that

  • The punishment wasn’t necessarily stricter. It was the same. Sin has always and will always equal death. We don’t experience that death now because Jesus has taken the punishment of sin for us.
  • As well as we don’t live in a Theocracy. We are governed by the state, who sets the laws and punishments.
  • Furthermore, God no longer tabernacles in the holy of holies in the midst of a camp, but in the hearts of individual believers, who have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus.

Question for Reflection

  1. Do you agree with the argument above? I would love your feedback.

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