“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4).
One of the more hotly debated topics in our country pertains to the death penalty. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 1,499 criminals have been put to death as of May 31, 2019. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the actual pro and con arguments advanced by diﬀering political groups. The purpose is, however, to consider what the Bible says about capital punishment. Both the Old and the New Testament has much to say about this subject. We will examine the instances of the death penalty in the Old Testament and then consider one primary verse in the New Testament to establish the validity of capital punishment.
In the Mosaic law, the death penalty was inﬂicted for murder (Numbers 35:16-21, 30-33; Deuteronomy 17:6), adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:24), incest (Leviticus 20:11-14), bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16), sodomy (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), promiscuity (Deuteronomy 22:21-24), rape of an engaged virgin (Deuteronomy 22:25), perjury (Zechariah 5:4), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7), a priest’s daughter who became a prostitute (Leviticus 21:9), witchcraft (Exodus 22:18), oﬀering human sacriﬁce (Leviticus 20:2-5), striking or cursing father or mother (Exodus 21:15-17; Leviticus 20:9), disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), theft (Zechariah 5:3-4), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:11-16, 23), Sabbath desecration (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36), prophesying falsely or propagating false doctrines (Deuteronomy 13:1-10), sacriﬁcing to false gods (Exodus 22:20), refusing to abide by the decision of a court (Deuteronomy 17:12), treason (1 Kings 2:25; Esther 2:23), and sedition (Acts 5:36-37). Leviticus 20:2 states that strangers were not exempted from the administration of the death penalty.
In the Old Testament, the death penalty was applied by burning (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 20:14), hanging (Numbers 25:4; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29), slaying with the sword (1 Samuel 15:33), and stoning (Leviticus 24:14; Deuteronomy 13:10). In the New Testament, the death penalty was applied by beheading (Matthew 14:10; Mark 6:16, 27-28) and cruciﬁxion (Matthew 27:35, 38; Mark 15:24, 27; Luke 23:33).
The key passage in the New Testament in consideration of the death penalty is Romans 13:4. An examination of the Greek Interlinear reveals that the word for “sword” is machaira and the word for “he bears” is pharei. It is also interesting to note that the word order of the phrase is subject-verb. The word for “sword” appears in the clause before the word for “he bears.” This could represent that Paul wanted to emphasize “sword,” perhaps to show the extreme power of governing authorities.
The Analytical Greek Lexicon identiﬁed the verb pharei as a present-active-indicative. This verb tense represents contemporaneous action in the present. The ministers of
God, in this case, representatives of governments, continually or repeatedly bear the “sword.” Vine deﬁnes pharei as the “civil authority in bearing the sword as symbolic of execution” (p. 103). Vine also mentions that pharei is not the simple act of bearing, but a continuous or habitual condition. Young’s Concordance indicates that the word occurs only one more time in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:49: “And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.” The vividness of the word can easily be seen in the fact that humans bear the likeness of the earthly man and in the resurrection, man will bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
Vine deﬁnes machaira as a “short sword or dagger” (p. 1123). He goes on to say that it represents the “instrument of a magistrate or judge” (p. 1123). This word occurs twenty-seven times in the New Testament, and for the most part, it is used to represent a literal sword. However, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus uses the word to state that He came to the earth to bring dissension, which is the opposite of peace. In Ephesians 6:17, “sword” is used to represent the word of God and in Hebrews 4:12, the word of God is described as a “sword.”
Paul also uses the same word again in Romans 8:35 when he discusses the sword of rulers which may try to separate Christians from the love of Christ. In the context of Romans 13:4, “sword” refers to rulers who have power by means of the death penalty. This comparison shows that Paul consistently uses “sword” as an earthly power which Christians must yield to, but also as a power which can try to pull us away from God.
Concerning the deﬁnition of machaira, Rienecker adds, “The sword is the symbol of the executive and criminal jurisdiction of a magistrate and is therefore used of the power of punishing inherent in the government” (p. 378).
Thayer states that machaira is “used of him to whom the sword has been committed, viz. to use when a malefactor is to be punished; hence to have the power of life and death” (p. 393). Its related words include mache, which means a ﬁght, combat, battle, strike, contention, or quarrel and machomai, which is the verb form, means to ﬁght, quarrel, wrangle, or dispute.
Although most scholars agree that the meaning of “bear the sword for nothing” refers to the ability of a government to exercise capital punishment, the International Critical Commentary suggests another alternative. It says, “At ﬁrst sight, the context (vv. 3-4) seems to support the assumption that the reference must be to the power of capital punishment. But a reminder that the government is possessed of military power and so is in a position to quell resistance would surely be equally important” (p. 667). The ICC further states that the expression ten machaira phorei is an idiomatic phrase which “should be understood either as a quite general statement concerning the authority’s possession of military power (‘wears the sword,’ i.e. is armed, is able to employ force) or else — less probably — as a speciﬁc reference to the dagger worn by the Emperor.”
But this comment does not fully explain the need for “military power.” What need would there be absent of punishment? And if it were merely for punishment without death, why use the term for “sword”? The term “sword” is used because of the powerful civil government’s yield: the power to punish by death. God told Noah long ago, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:6). This decree of God has always had to be carried out in a legal way; otherwise, it would be murder. No person should ever take vengeance with their own hands (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). The purpose of civil government is to punish (sometimes by death) those who do evil. Solomon added, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).