Covenant People and Discipline in the Old Testament

It is common to hear in conversation among Reformed people that our God is a covenant God. By that is meant, of course, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in an eternal union with each other. The essence of the covenant relation is one of communion and friendship. Thus, when God decided to enter into covenant with mankind, it was in the form of a fellowship arrangement. God initiated the arrangement by what we call divine election, that is, He chose from the entire human race those with whom He would enter into a special relationship. That this was a friendly arrangement is seen from the fact that the Scripture says clearly God visited with Adam and Eve “in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). However, when our parents sinned by disobeying God’s command to not eat of the tree “in the midst of the garden,” this covenant relationship was fractured. In His rich and abundant grace God gave the promise of another covenant to redeem mankind. By embracing God’s promise of a coming Redeemer, mankind could have hope of being restored again to God’s fellowship (Gen. 3:15).

In the process of time, God chose to establish a formal covenant relationship with Abraham which we know as the covenant of grace. God determined through Abraham and his descendants to ultimately bring forth the promised “seed of the woman” who would triumph over the serpent and save the human race. We know that God finally fulfilled His promised Word in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Again time moved on and Abraham’s family grew large and through his grandson Jacob’s twelve sons developed into a nation. As God led Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, He also entered into covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai at which time God also gave Israel the Ten Commandments, the Book of the Covenant. God further confirmed this covenant with Israel by inviting “Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” to come up the mountain and “worship at a distance” (Exod. 24:1–2). The covenant arrangement was also affirmed by Israel when “Moses told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, and they responded with one voice ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” (Exod. 24:3). The Ten Commandments were later stored in the Ark of the Covenant, which was kept in the Holy of Holies. Thus, the nation itself was in a covenant relationship with the eternal God and was called to live according to His holy law.

That God takes the covenant relationship seriously is evident from His concern for His people when they were being oppressed in Egypt. When God called Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt’s harsh oppression, He said to him: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:7–8). That the Lord takes the covenant relationship seriously is also seen from the fact that He blesses His people who are faithful to the terms of the covenant relationship. Thus, the prophet Jeremiah commends the descendants of Jonadab son of Recab because they obeyed his command never to plant vineyards or to drink wine. But the prophet denounces Israel because “I [God] spoke to them, but they did not listen; I called to them, but they did not answer” (Jer. 35:17). God’s people cannot disobey Him without invoking His wrath, because disobedience disrupts our relationship with God. Further, that God takes the covenant relationship seriously is clear from the fact that He promises to do good to those who obey His laws. Therefore, God promised at Marah, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod. 15:26). Clearly, then, disobedience brings the threat of punishment and obedience holds out the promise of blessing and life. Of particular interest is the fact that at the formal establishment of the covenant of grace with Abraham, God made it crystal clear that the relationship included more than just Abraham. God said: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen. 17:7). The sign of the covenant—circumcision—was to be observed faithfully; and failure to observe the covenant sign invoked God’s wrath, causing that offender to be “cut off from his people; he has broken my [God’s] covenant” (Gen. 17:14). In this way, God administered His discipline against covenant breakers. That which held true for individual offenders would also be applied to the nation itself. In His second appearance to Solomon—after the temple had been dedicated—God warned Solomon: “But if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name” (1 Kings 9:6).

Observe here that the phrase “cut off” was used in reference both to individual breakers of the law and to the royal family if its rulers should lead the nation astray. Our concern in this article is to consider the meaning of being “cut off” as used in the Old Testament. In other words, how was being “cut off” understood by God’s Old Testament people? And how was it a form of covenant discipline in Old Testament Israel? Besides these questions we must see if it can shed any light on the practice of discipline in the New Testament church.

The Phrase “Cut Off” Represents a Form of Discipline

While searching for an answer to the meaning of “cut off” I ran across this interesting interpretative note at Leviticus 7:20–21 where the Scripture text reads: “All who are clean may eat flesh, but the person who eats of the flesh of the sacrifice of the Lord’s peace offerings while an uncleanness is on him, that person shall be cut off from his people. And if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether human uncleanness or an unclean beast or any unclean detestable creature, and then eats some flesh from the sacrifice of the Lord’s peace offerings, that person shall be cut off from his people.” The note on the text explains the phrase “be cut off.” This language is a general expression for coming under God’s curse, the exact meaning of which is determined by the context of Scripture. It may mean the penalty of execution (e.g., Exod. 31:14–15) or of death without children (18:14, 29; cf. 20:20). In any event, God put the offender to death, with or without human agency” (The Reformation Study Bible, ESV, p. 163). Thus, the phrase “cut off” may have various meanings as, for example, separation, exclusion, cutting one’s self, or even death. Nevertheless, when we read of one being “cut off” from God or His people, we may be inclined to think of it as the death penalty for the offender. Perhaps this is so because of the severe punishment inflicted on the Sabbath breaker recorded in Numbers 15:32–36. In fact, it was in response to Moses’ inquiry as to what should be done to this Sabbath breaker that the Lord Himself said to Moses: “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp” (v. 36). Therefore, the severest meaning of the phrase in this case was given not by Moses but by the Lord God, the supreme Judge of all mankind. Because this is a divine judgment determining the meaning of the phrase, we must pay careful attention to the context in which we find the term used. In addition to the particular context where we find the term, we must also keep in mind the general teaching of Scripture regarding God’s manner of correcting His covenant people.

As was noted above, we must be aware of the various uses of the phrase which can be discerned in Scripture. Thus, it can refer to a literal cutting off or demolition of an object. This is the case when Gideon’s townsmen demanded his death “because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it” (Judg. 6:30). Similarly it might refer to a literal cutting down, as in felling trees. So the king of Babylon will wreak revenge on Egypt when “they [his troops] will come against her with axes, like men who cut down trees. They will chop down her forest, declares the Lord, dense though it be” (Jer. 46:22b–23a).

However, the phrase “cut off” can be used figuratively to refer to separation or exclusion from the community of God’s people. This happened, for example, if one ate a sacrifice on the third day when the law demanded that “it must be consumed by fire” (Lev. 19:8). Such exclusion from the community of God’s people was a serious punishment because it also had ramifications for one’s social and business life among the community. One remembers that by Jesus’ time such exclusion was greatly feared and desperately avoided by God’s people. So we read that the parents of the blind man, to whom Jesus restored sight, declined to answer in depth the question of the Jews regarding their son. Rather, they deflected their interrogators’ inquiry by saying, “He is of age; he will speak for himself” (John 9:21). A very telling comment is then appended by John: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. That is why his parent said, ‘He is of age, ask him’” (John 9:22–23). Apparently the parents escaped the fate of their healed son. In further discussion with the Jews the healed blind man spoke too positively of Jesus, and so we read: “and they threw him out” (John 9:34b). Thus, he suffered what his parents feared: “expulsion from the community of Israel.”

What Was Its Intended Purpose?

There is no doubt that the intended purpose of covenant discipline was meant to be both remedial and restorative. This is the pattern one finds throughout Scripture in God’s dealings with His people. First of all, it is not difficult to discover that God’s dealings with Israel were remedial. That is evident already in God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt. He delivered His people in order to remedy the oppression they were suffering under the harshness of the reigning pharaoh. God later instituted the sacrificial system to remedy the problem of sin and provide for its required atonement. In addition to the sacrificial system to atone for sin, God established a holy priesthood to enhance Israel’s relation to their covenant-keeping God. By means of the priesthood God allowed the people to draw near to Him and to present their needs. Through the same priesthood God blessed His people and granted them His peace (Num. 6:26–27). All of these actions of God contributed to the remedy for Israel’s suffering and sin and were motivated by God’s mindfulness of the covenant between them (Exod. 3:15).

It can also be demonstrated that God’s dealings with Israel were also restorative. That is to say that God not only forgave Israel’s sin when they cried to Him and repented of their sin, but also He consistently restored them to their favorable relationship with Him. This pattern of God’s forgiving grace for His people and restoration to covenant fellowship becomes obvious as one reads the book of Judges. There we find that whenever Israel’s oppressors became overbearing against Israel, the people cried to the Lord and He “raised up for them a deliverer . . . who saved them” (Judg. 3:9). This happened time after time; always God was faithful to save and to restore His people to fellowship with Him.

From all this we learn that God’s goodness to His people and faithfulness to His covenant is always the ground of hope for them. The one refrain Israel has been able to sing throughout her history is “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1).

Therefore, it’s all because of God’s covenant faithfulness that His people never need despair. As God Himself says, “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed” (Mal. 3:6).


We conclude, therefore, that to be “cut off” was often understood spiritually rather than literally by God’s Old Testament people. They knew full well that God punished them when they sinned against Him; and they experienced His disciplining rod in chastisement for their sin. Yet the death penalty did not always follow as punishment for their sin. Thus, they realized that to be “cut off” sometimes meant exclusion from fellowship and favor with God. The book of Judges is the prime example of this truth.

Further, whenever Israel was “cut off” from God, the people were still able to seek His help. The faithfulness of God to His covenant always was their assurance that He would respond to their cries. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “If we are faithless, ‘he will remain faithful—for he cannot deny himself’” (2 Tim. 2:13, ESV). Let this be encouragement for us also to seek the Lord because He is always near to hear His people when they cry for help.

This Old Testament pattern of God’s method of correcting His people seems to conform to what Paul advises the Corinthians in dealing with the sexually immoral member. In 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, the apostle advises the congregation to “put out of your fellowship the man who did this [immoral sin].” That is the way to remedy sin among the members. Yet the apostle advises this action with a restorative purpose “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). When such a sinner repents of sin and forsakes it, the same apostle encourages the congregation to forgive the sinner and restore him to fellowship (2 Cor. 2:6–8). Thus, the same purpose is accomplished in the church by this discipline as in the Old Testament; it is both remedial and restorative.

It is safe to say that Jesus’ instruction about dealing with an offending brother in Matthew 18:15–17 encapsulates the entire process of the way God dealt with His Old Testament covenant people. First, God showed Israel her sins, sometimes personally, and often through His prophets. God Himself confronted Israel by the angel of the Lord at Bokim and pointed out how the nation broke the covenant with God by failing to destroy the pagan altars in Canaan (Judg. 2:1–3). More often God confronted His people about their sin through prophets He sent to them. The prime example is that of the prophet Nathan, whom God sent to David to convict him of his sin of murdering Uriah the Hittite and committing adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12). In addition, God made provision for the entire assembly to act against any offense requiring the death penalty. So, for example, if one were guilty of offering his children to Molech, he must be “stoned to death.” However, it is to be done by “the people of the community” (Lev. 20:2). The implication of this communal action is that charges have been made against the idolater and proven to be true. Therefore, the community must act in an effort to uphold God’s glory and His right to be worshiped as He alone prescribes. To guard against one being put to death by a false witness, the law required at least two or three witnesses against a sinner. “But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Num. 35:30).

Therefore, when Jesus prescribed the method of discipline for His disciples, He fulfilled the spirit of Old Testament disciplinary action. There is first of all the determination of truth and confrontation of the sinner by the individual who has been offended, and then the involvement of others—as witnesses—against the offender. Finally, the involvement of the community comes into play in “tell it to the church.” It is only when the sinner refuses to repent before the assembly of God’s people, “the church,” that he is excluded from the community of faithful believers and to be regarded “as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt. 18:15–17). Thus, we see how Jesus’ prescription for church discipline conforms to the pattern established by God in the Old Testament when dealing with the sins of His covenant people. Discipline, in general, always remains remedial of sin and restorative of the sinner’s relation to God.

In New Testament terms we know that God’s remedy for sin is the atoning blood of Jesus. As 1 John 1:7b clearly tells us, “the blood of Jesus his [God’s] Son purifies from all sin.” Further, when a sinner who is guilty of offending another repents, the realization of restoration to covenant fellowship with the body is achieved. And the Spirit’s work becomes evident in and through the restoration of fellowship in the body of Christ. Then also the church rejoices with the father in Jesus’ parable of the lost son who declared to the elder brother: “My son, . . . we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31–32).

Rev. Harry G. Arnold is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI. 

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