Why Does the Old Testament Law Have Such Stiff Penalties?

Why do the Old Testament laws have penalties like stoning people to death whereas we don’t do these things in the New Testament era?

Perhaps I can describe the old covenant laws in three phases. You have the law that points out God’s expectation for the community. When the people do not meet this holy expectation, the second phase is a penalty, usually severe. The third phase is a sacrifice in the sinner’s stead, and animal, produce, or an offering.

These three phases made it possible for God to live among his people. The law when followed made the person holy before a holy God. If the person was unable to follow the law, a penalty was put in place so that sin did not spread among the nation of Israel.

But because the penalties were so stiff, often death of some sort, people needed a way around the penalty. The sacrificial system gave people a way to have their sins forgiven by God but not pay with their own life.

The penalties were severe, often death penalties, to teach the people a theological lesson. Sin always leads to death. In the New Testament, this is very clear. But in the Old Testament, this was explained through the penalties for laws that were broken.

God often reminds the people through the laws that, “I am the Lord your God who led you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” We see this phrasing often throughout the first five books of the Bible, the Torah or Pentateuch.

Israel’s history plays directly into their law structure. They began as a group of slaves in Egypt. But when God set them free and brought them out of Egypt, he made a nation out of them. To make this nation, he gave them their laws, the promised land, a military, leaders, and a religious system.

But throughout the 40 years in the wilderness, the people refused to become the nation that God wanted them to be. It took the first generation dying in the wilderness, save two people, Joshua and Caleb. Only the second generation was permitted to enter the promised land because the first generation refused to trust God.

Sin was a very dangerous thing to allow into the nation of Israel. The laws that God gave were not about keeping society safe and running from everyone. They were about producing an environment where his physical presence in the glory cloud could exist among the people.

The presence of the Lord was severe enough. People could die just from him being in their midst while they were in sin. The laws protected the people while God’s presence was among them. Over two million people made up this new nation.

The average Israelite could not always make it to Jerusalem to be part of every feast and religious experience. Many of them were worried about providing for their families. They didn’t have money to go to Jerusalem or the ability to spend weeks at a time away from the farm.

However, the prophets and Levites did travel and live in different areas of Israel. In the New Testament, the Pharisees were traveling teachers and preachers. So it wasn’t like they didn’t have any experience in the religion of Israel. But they weren’t often able to visit the official feasts in Jerusalem, or they would have to choose one over others.

But the New Testament era is very different. Whereas the Holy Spirit came upon people for a time or for a task, he dwells in believers from the moment of salvation. And he fills people with his presence and empowers them to serve God.

Sin is still just as pervasive as it used to be. But a close relationship with Jesus makes sin more noticeable. We feel the difference when we sin against God. We can feel the separation from his presence.

Christians are still required to ask for forgiveness, repent and turn away from any momentary sin they commit, and walk the path with Jesus. They are called to obedience to Jesus’ teachings and commandments, just like the Israelites were in the Old Testament.

If Christians do not turn from any sin they may commit, there are further disciplinary measures in the church and in the Christian walk. It’s even more personal as the presence of God dwells in us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s not just that God’s presence was in the glory cloud physically.

This deeply personal and intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit calls Christians to even more obedience than the Old Testament laws demanded. It’s not just about outward behavior that is observable by everyone. Jesus internalized the Old Testament laws in our hearts. Part of the new covenant is the promise that we will not have God’s laws on stone tablets but written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross also changes everything. We may not have to offer an animal on an altar for our sin, but we are expected to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). God’s expectations for us are just as high as they were for the Israelites.

We must not be lax in our commitment to Christ just because he has forgiven our sins and taken our place and penalty. Instead, we must be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, obedient, and wanting to please and glorify God.

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay

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