Leviticus 20:1, On capital crimes. This chapter contains a number of Torah laws that when violated carry capital punishment. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, several of the same crimes are mentioned (i.e., adultery, fornication, homosexuality, idolatry), but the violators were forgiven and received salvation (verse 11). Why were these sins punishable by death in ancient Israel, but not later on? The Leviticus 20 directives apply to Israelites or those from foreign nations who had attached themselves to Israel (verse 2) who are held to a higher accountability and thus should know better not to commit these sins in the first place. On the other hand, the believers in Corinth had practiced these sins before they came to a knowledge of the truth, and were thus held to a lower level of accountability because of their ignorance.
What about the Corinthian believer who was sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1–5)? In Leviticus, in the nation of Israel, this sin would have been punishable by death. In the first century, the Jews didn’t have their own nation, but were under Roman law and were thus not able to execute people for capital crimes. The next best thing to do apart from capital punishment was to put the sinning man out of the congregation, which is what Paul did. This was tantamount to spiritual death. These are the exact discipline protocols Yeshua advised be carried out within the body of believers (Matt 18:15–20). Such an individual was to be excommunicated and treated as a heathen and sinner (verse 17). And how are heathens and sinners to be treated? They are to be evangelized and brought to repentance, which is what happened to the sinner in Corinth (2 Cor 2:5–8).
Now David committed adultery and murder in his affair with Bathsheba, but was not sentenced to death. Why? Why was the Torah not carried out fully in David’s case? Surely he knew that he was sinning beforehand. For one thing, he repented bitterly (see Ps 51) and was forgiven. He never again committed these sins. In his case, mercy of Elohim rejoiced over or trumped his judgment (Jas 2:13 cp. Ps 85:10; Jer 9:24; Ezek 33:11; Mic 7:18; Exod 34:6–7).
Though Leviticus 20 records capital punishment for a variety of crimes, in Israel’s long history, the Jewish sages inform us that very few executions ever occurred for violating these laws. Mercy and grace seemed to be more the rule than the exception, and this modus operandi carried over into the era of the New Covenant as well.