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OK, the skeptic says: You Christians who want to follow God’s guidelines and “reclaim America” and all that—you Christians who say homosexuality is a sin based on a few verses in Leviticus—what about those other verses in Leviticus? Do you want laws against mixed fibers or mixed marriages, or (this is the kicker) are you for stoning rebellious children?
To them that settles it: The Word of God is a creaky artifact that didn’t even work in its own day. But as Matthew Henry said, “The divine law cannot be reproached unless it is first misrepresented.” The Word of God is living and active, sharp and shrewd. It is animated by God’s own breath, and when a man or woman is likewise animated (or born from above), that breath blows through every saved soul. And if all of it is instructive, we don’t blow off tough passages like Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
Because rebellion is serious. Rebellious kids drive youth culture, and some of them, like Frank Schaeffer and Bart Campolo, make headlines. A rebellious child stands as the greatest reproach to Christian parents, and often to Christians in general. Our culture rewards them with press releases and interviews on NPR, as proof that the Christian life doesn’t work—at least not for everybody. In an earlier age, among “God’s people” (say the skeptics) they would have been stoned.
Or would they? The law from Mount Sinai says that if a stubborn son refuses to obey his parents after repeated warnings, they are to bring him before the elders and make a formal charge. If the charge proves true, the son is to be stoned by all the men of the city, and thus “you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:21). Purging the evil is the purpose behind other capital crimes: false prophecy (Deuteronomy 13:5), rank idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:7), premeditated murder (Deuteronomy 19:13), and malicious false testimony (Deuteronomy 19:19). These are deadly crimes, because they lead to the destruction of untold others.
The Word of God is living and active, sharp and shrewd. And if all of it is instructive, we don’t blow off tough passages like Deuteronomy 21:18-21.
But how often did these stonings actually occur? The record shows only two: Achan, who hid the Lord’s dedicated spoils in his tent (Joshua 7), and the man who gathered firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). But the sons of Eli, Samuel, and David were allowed to pursue their destructive ways until God Himself—rather than a hail of rocks from their own countrymen—struck them down. The history of Israel might have been different if those executions had occurred earlier, but that may be the lesson of the law: We’re not very good at purging the evil from our midst. We quail at drastic measures because we don’t quite believe the drastic charge: Rebellious children undermine social order and lead others astray while destroying themselves.
Of course, throughout history pious Jewish parents as well as righteous Christian parents have hurled their contrary children out of the house, following up with a verbal boulder: “You are dead to me!” It’s the equivalent of stoning, perhaps, but the evil that must be purged remains in the heart of the parent as well as the child.
For every puzzling Old Testament law we should ask ourselves, “How does Christ fulfill this?” That’s what He came to do: not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Every part of it. Put Him in the place of the stubborn son who won’t be corrected. Drag Him before the city elders (or Sanhedrin), formally charge Him (“He has made himself equal with God!”), pelt Him with verbal stones (“Crucify!”), put Him to death. The stunning revelation of 2 Corinthians 5:21: Christ became the rebellious son, and the evil was purged.
What the law was powerless to do, God did. Rebellious children today are just as guilty and dangerous as they were in Moses’ time. The death penalty remains if they don’t repent. But God holds the stone, even while pleading with them to accept the righteousness of His obedient Son. His is the gospel of second, fifth, seventy-seventh chances.