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Zaleucus: A Glimpse of Atonement

Zaleucus of Locri was a lawgiver in 7th-century B.C. ancient Greece. He was responsible for one of the first codes of law in Greece. Not only did he give laws to his people, but he also greatly valued and stringently enforced the laws of his land. History tells us Zaleucus held the law in such high esteem that after breaking one of his own laws, he promptly killed himself with his sword.

The most famous historical event of Zaleucus’ life involved his law against adultery and the punishment given for committing adultery. Adultery was rampant in Zaleucus’ jurisdiction, so he made a law that forbade it. The penalty for breaking this law was that the guilty person would have both eyes gouged out.

The law had a strong effect and stopped infidelity in the region for a time, until one day, a person guilty of adultery was brought before Zaleucus. Ironically, the guilty person was Zaleucus’ very own son.

This was a unique and difficult dilemma for Zaleucus. As the lawgiver, he was foremost responsible to secure the well-being of his community by enforcing the law. After all, the penalty for breaking this law did promote the good of the community by accomplishing the following:

-The penalty demonstrated that the marriage relationship is very valuable and adultery is destructive.

-The penalty secured public confidence in the character and ability of the lawgiver.

-The penalty deterred further lawbreaking by others in the community.

Zaleucus was the enforcer of the law, yet in this unique situation, he was also the father of the criminal and personally concerned for the life of his son. Zaleucus had the responsibility to carry out the penalty to have both of his son’s eyes removed, yet he deeply loved his son and would personally prefer to not inflict any penalty upon him at all, let alone a punishment that would blind his own son forever.

What could Zaleucus do? How could he be just to his law, yet show mercy to his son? Was there a way to secure the good that the penalty of the law would secure WITHOUT executing the exact penalty upon his son?

His love for his son drove Zaleucus to find a way to withhold the exact penalty of the law, yet remain a just lawgiver.

Publicly before the community, Zaleucus had only one of his son’s eyes removed. Then Zaleucus had one of his own eyes gouged out, leaving him and his son blind each in one eye. This public act of suffering by Zaleucus on behalf of his son allowed him to withhold the full penalty of the law and show mercy to his son.

But how did this substitutionary act by Zaleucus allow him to withhold exact justice yet still remain a just lawgiver Himself?

We must first ask the following question…

Did Zaleucus’ suffering secure the same good that the full penalty of the law was meant to secure? If the substitution for the penalty secured the same good that the actual penalty of the law would have secured, then the penalty could be justly withheld.

Zaleucus’ public act of removing one of his own eyes on behalf of his son did secure the same ends that the full penalty of removing both of his son’s eyes would have. We see this in the following ways:

First, the community would understand that marriage and the law protecting marriage was just and good if the lawgiver would endure such suffering to protect that law.

Secondly, the community would have reasons for confidence in Zaleucus’ merciful yet just character, his ability, and his willingness to uphold the law.

Finally, though not the exact penalty deserved, this substitutionary act would certainly deter other people from breaking the law just as effectively, if not more so. Zaleucus had only one more eye to spare, and if he inflicted such penalty upon his own son, surely he would not withhold the full penalty from another guilty person, especially after they had knowledge of such a great demonstration of justice and love by the lawgiver.

This alternative secured the same good that executing the penalty would have secured.

What can we learn from this?

This historical account is similar to the dilemma that God faced between justice and mercy regarding His relationship with sinful mankind.

The Bible tells us that God is a merciful God, that He is ready to pardon and forgive the guilty, and that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God’s personal disposition is to be merciful and withhold punishment. Luke 6:36, Psalm 86:5, Ezekiel 18:23, Jonah 4:2

The Bible also tells us that God is the most qualified and capable ruler for the universe. Regardless of His personal disposition to be merciful, He has a governmental responsibility to uphold the moral law and enforce justice when the law is broken. Deut. 32:4, Psalm 89:14, Hebrews 4;12, Revelation 19:6

Additionally, the Bible tells us what human history and our own experience confirms: Mankind is sinful and selfish. Man’s sin hurts his fellow man. Sin hurts the sinner himself. Sin breaks the heart of God and robs the universe of untold potential good. Every sinner deserves a just penalty for breaking the moral law. This penalty is more than just physical death, but it is also a state of eternal spiritual death apart from God. Genesis 6:5-7, Matthew 22:13, Revelation 14:11

Yet, being merciful, God prefers not to inflict the penalty of the law upon sinners. He would rather show mercy than inflict justice. However, He also has the governmental responsibility as King of His creation and He must remain just to His law, His character, and His Kingdom. After all, the moral law promotes the greatest well-being of God and all of creation. If He did not punish all sinners, but instead let a special few into His eternal Kingdom, He would be unjust to the law. If He withheld the penalty of the law, people and angelic beings in His kingdom would have reason not to trust His character or to believe that the moral law is worth obeying. And to not execute the penalty of the law upon lawbreakers would encourage further lawlessness by those throughout His kingdom.

So how can God show the mercy He personally desires and withhold the penalty of the law, yet still remain a just Ruler in every way?

God can withhold penalty if an atonement will secure the same good that the execution of the penalty would have secured.

The Atonement of Jesus Christ is God’s magnificently wise way of securing the good that the moral law promotes while allowing God to be just in showing mercy and forgiveness to sinners who deserve punishment. Romans 3:21-26

God has always been willing to forgive any sinner who will trust Him and forsake his or her sin and selfishness. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross is the substitution of penalty for any repentant sinner in that God can now forgive repentant sinners who deserve the full penalty of the law.

John 3:16, Titus 3:4, 1 John 4:19

Even though God does not now punish the repentant sinner who trusts in Him because of Christ’s Atonement:

-God’s character remains unblemished and just.

-God’s law retains its righteousness and authority.

-God’s Kingdom remains holy and undefiled by unrepentant sinners, since the Gospel of Christ’s Atonement actually transforms the sinner’s selfish heart into a holy heart of thankfulness and love towards God. Luke 10:27

The Son of God’s suffering on the cross secures the same good that punishing the sinner otherwise would have, yet it results in a gain for the universe! God’s suffering servant, Jesus Christ, endured that which He did not deserve so that repentant sinners can be saved from their deserved penalty for their sin.

How wonderful is it that God suffered, bled, and died on behalf of His rebellious creation so that the relationship between man and God can be reconciled, healed, and made whole again?! God can rightfully show sinners the mercy and favor He has personally always desired to bestow, yet He does no harm to His law, His character, or His Kingdom because of the Atonement of Christ.

Like Zaleucus and his son, God is not willing that any person should suffer the penalty of the law. God is abundantly willing to save all who will trust Him and obey Him with his or her whole heart. He will not only save the repentant sinner from eternal separation from Him, but He also restores the relationship through fellowship with Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit. 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 1 John 5:11-12

Yet God goes well beyond merely withholding the penalty we deserve. He will also cleanse your conscience and mind from past sin and guilt, and He will begin a total renovation of your thinking to become more and more like Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10:12, Romans 12:2

If you will trust Him and forsake your sin and selfishness, your relationship with Him can be reconciled to begin a new life of peace and friendship with God.

- Joel Park

(Images public domain/creative commons)

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