The matter of capital punishment has been debated in America for more than 150 years and has been a serious matter of contention for more than half a century. The Supreme Court temporarily stopped all executions in the United States in the early 1970s, but the constitutionality of the practice was reaffirmed in 1976.
The practice of capital punishment may be opposed on a number of grounds: belief in the inherent value of all life, the inconsistency of practice due to societal or racial biases, the financial burden of legal defense and appeals leading to execution, etc. But there is one opposing argument that should never be made, namely that the Bible forbids it.
One of the most oft-cited Scriptures used against the practice of capital punishment is the Sixth Commandment in the Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill.” The use of this commandment reveals a gross ignorance of the text and makes the Scripture contradict itself in this matter.
The word so translated “kill” in Exodus 20:13 means to murder, and is translated as such in the NJKV, ESV, NIV, and NASB. It specifically speaks to the taking of innocent life.
There is a second word in the Hebrew text rendered “kill” in passages like Exodus 22:24. It refers to the execution of the wicked, whether by God’s hand or man’s.
Finally, in texts like Exodus 31:14-15 we find two more phrases commanding the death penalty, translated as “put to death” and “cut off from among his people.”
Capital punishment was commanded in Genesis 9:6 following the Flood, wherein God commanded, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.”
In the New Testament, Paul spoke of the right of the civil government to practice capital punishment against evil doers, saying, “he does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4).
Finally, in today’s reading, Paul affirms the right of the Roman government to execute him if he “committed anything deserving of death” (v 11). It is inconceivable that Paul would say such a thing, and that Luke would record it by inspiration, if the practice were forbidden by the law of Christ.