It is prudent in 2020 to study what the Bible says about government and the Christian’s relationship with it. Accordingly, many of the editorials this year will examine biblical principles which relate to government. This issue focuses on government as God’s avenger, corporal punishment, incarceration, and restitution.
Our Lord through Paul inspired the saints in Rome to bless their persecutors and repay no one evil for evil; they were commanded to live peaceably with all as much as depended on them and not avenge themselves when wrong was done to them (Rom. 12:14, 17-21). Yet Satan can still easily tempt us to seek personal vengeance against those who harm us rather than waiting on God’s vengeance when He returns in glory (2 Thess. 1:7-9). It is likely for this reason that God then immediately mentioned government as His instrument to execute wrath upon the evildoer (Rom. 13:1-7). Christians promised, “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) can therefore look to the governmental authorities of their countries as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).
It is for this reason that the government “does not bear the sword in vain” against the evildoer (Rom. 13:4). Swords are weapons, and weapons are used to hurt people. By saying governmental authorities do not bear these weapons “in vain” within the context of being an avenger of God to execute wrath upon those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4), God shows that governmental authorities have the right to hurt those who are wicked without it being held against them as sin, since sin is ultimately the most vain and meaningless act in which one can involve themselves (Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8). The sword and other weapons of violence could also be used by governmental authorities to take away the freedom of their people through forced imprisonment or the taking of finances and property as restitution for wrongdoing
Accordingly, the Law of Moses prescribed corporal punishment (Deut. 25:1-3). There are also examples in Scripture of governmental authorities incarcerating people both justly and unjustly (Gen. 39:7-20; 42; Judg. 16; 1 Kings 22:26-27; 2 Kings 17:1-4; Matt. 18:21-35; Acts 12, 21-28). Moses required a thief to repay full restitution or else be sold for his theft (Ex. 22:1-3; cf. Prov. 6:30-31); if the animals he stole were found alive in his possession, he would “restore double” (Ex. 22:4). He ordered restitution for other situations too (Ex. 22:5-6). The Torah reveals similar laws concerning fines and restitutions.
Granted, governmental rulers can misuse their right to exercise punishment; for example, corporal punishment was used unjustly to try to silence the gospel (John 19:1-5; Acts 5:40-42; 16:22-34; 22:23-29; 2 Cor. 11:24-25). Reports exist today of those who have been treated brutally without just cause by tyrannical governments. Yet these misuses of power do not change the fact that God authorized in His Word governmental authorities to exercise these punishments as a way to avenge wrongs done by evildoers (Rom. 13:4).
God willing, capital punishment will be examined next issue.