This past week, I was given a copy of an apocryphal memo from a superintendent of schools regarding Halley’s Comet. It demonstrates how communication often fails:
MEMO to Assistant Superintendent from Superintendent:
Next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Halley’s Comet will appear over this area. This is an event which occurs only once every 75 years. Call the principals and have them assemble their teachers and classes on the athletic fields and explain this phenomenon to them. If it rains, then cancel the day’s observation and have the classes meet in the auditorium to see a film about the Comet.
MEMO to Principals from Assistant Superintendent:
By order of the Superintendent of Schools next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. Halley’s Comet will appear over your athletic field. If it rains, then cancel the day’s classes and report to the auditorium with your teachers and students where you will show films—a phenomenal event which occurs every 75 years.
MEMO to Teachers from Principal:
By order of the phenomenal Superintendent of Schools, at 10:30 a.m. next Thursday Halley’s Comet will appear in the auditorium. In case of rain over the athletic fields the superintendent will give another order—something which occurs only every 75 years.
MEMO to Students from Teachers:
Next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. the Superintendent of Schools will appear in our school auditorium with Halley’s Comet—something which occurs every 75 years. If it rains the Superintendent will cancel the comet and order us all out to our phenomenal athletic field.
MEMO to Parents from Students:
When it rains next Thursday at 10:30 a.m. over the school athletic field, the phenomenal 75 year old Superintendent of Schools will cancel all classes and appear before the whole school in the auditorium accompanied by Bill Halley and the Comets.45
If we have learned anything about communication over the centuries it is that even when we strive to convey a given truth, it often comes out somewhat distorted. The well-known party game of “gossip” is but another evidence of the same phenomenon. When we add to this the fact of the fall of man and the sinful inclinations of our hearts, it is apparent that our speech will be corrupted and distorted. Thus, we read: “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13-14).
In this message we are studying the Ninth Commandment, which states: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20). Technically, this is not a prohibition of lying in general, but of that “false testimony” which is given in a court of Law, by which another is either convicted or found innocent. The implications of this commandment go much farther, as we shall soon see.
The approach of this study will be similar to that in dealing with the other commandments. We will begin with a study of false witness in the Old Testament. We will then consider the subject of false witness in the New Testament. Finally, we will seek to isolate the underlying principle of this precept, along with the guiding principles for bearing witness. We will then attempt to explore some of the ways in which this commandment intercepts our everyday life.
When God created Adam and Eve He gave them the gift of speech, which was one of the ways He distinguished them from the rest of His creatures. The gift of speech was distorted and corrupted at the fall. It was not long after the fall that falsehood raised its ugly head in the Scriptures. It is appropriate that the first falsehood in the Bible should be spoken by Satan, the “father of lies” (8:44). He assured Eve that partaking of the forbidden fruit would not result in death, as God had said (Gen. 3:4). Cain lied to God, insisting that he did not know where his brother was (Gen. 4:9). Abraham lied about his wife, passing her off as his sister (Gen. 12:11-13). Jacob was a master of deceit (e.g. Gen. 27). Joseph’s brothers deceived Jacob, their father, into thinking he had been killed by a wild animal (Gen. 37:20, 32-33). The midwives were not completely truthful with Pharaoh, when he asked why the Hebrew boy babies were not put to death (Exod. 1:18-19). Moses was not forthright with his father-in-law about his reasons for returning to Egypt (Exod. 4:18).
The falsehood which is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment, however, is much more specific: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16; Deut. 5:20).46 The false testimony which is forbidden here is that which is given in the context of a trial, by which a person will be found innocent or guilty of an offense against God or man.
Before we consider this commandment in greater detail, let us briefly consider the cultural context, which makes this commandment necessary. We live in a world that is quite different from that of the ancient Near East. Our laws are made by men, not given by God. Our laws are carried out by Law-enforcement professionals. When we speed, a radar-equipped policeman may pull us over and give us a ticket. When our house or car is broken into, or when we are robbed, we very often do not know the criminal. The automobile has given the criminal great mobility, and consequently anonymity.
In ancient Israel, there were no policemen. Society was not very mobile. Courts were much less formal. If a man was robbed, it was frequently by a neighbor, someone the victim knew and associated with day after day. One did not call the police if one was victimized illegally; it was that person’s obligation to press charges. These charges were most often presented to the group of the elders or leaders of the town or city in which the victim (or the villain) lived. The accused and the alleged victim both produced their witnesses and the leaders passed judgment. The sentence was frequently imposed immediately, initiated by the one who had pressed charges (cf. Deut. 17:6-7).
In American Law, Law cases are usually divided into two categories: criminal and civil cases. In Israel, criminal, civil, and religious violations were considered by the same “court.” A man could not only be accused of murder or rape (a criminal case), but of damaging property (a civil case), or of idolatry or witchcraft (a religious violation, something which our courts would not consider). Some crimes, like theft, were dealt with more as civil cases, because restitution was the prescribed punishment. There were no prisons, and so one either made restitution in some way, or paid for his crime with his life, or the loss of some member of his body.
At first thought, the prohibition of perjury (which is really what the Ninth Commandment does) would seem to be rather unimportant—not important enough to make a part of the Ten Commandments, at least. Our culture would seem to agree, since perjury is an offense which merits little more than a “slap on the wrist,” at least in comparison with the penalties prescribed in the Old Testament (cf. Deut. 19:16-20). There are several reasons why perjury should be viewed as a serious offense, not only in Old Testament times, but in our own as well.
(1) Truthful testimony is essential for a just trial. “A rascally witness makes a mockery of justice, And the mouth of the wicked spreads iniquity” (Prov. 19:28). Essentially, there were three components in Israel’s judicial system, which are common to most judicial systems, including our own. First, there is a body of laws, which distinguish the evils which a society wishes to punish and to prevent. Second, there are the judges, who apply the Law to the specific facts of the particular case. Third, there are the witnesses, who by their testimony, make certain claims as to the facts of the case. (In our own judicial system, the duty of the jury is to determine what the facts of the case are, on which the judge will rule, applying the Law. The jury must determine which testimony is true and which is not, since testimony constitutes a large part of the evidence.)47
In Exodus God was giving Israel the Law, to serve as His perfect standard for men’s conduct. Since this Law was written by God, it was untainted by man’s sin. It was, as the psalmist wrote, perfect (Ps. 19:7). The “judges” varied. Sometimes judgment was rendered by the “elders” of the particular city in which the trial was held. Later, when Israel had a king, he could render judgment, especially on appeal (cf. 1 Ki. 3:16-28).48 Even though the Law was perfect, justice could be perverted by unjust judges, of which there were many. The Old Testament has much to say about rendering just judgment (as is the case in Proverbs, addressed to some degree to kings).
In the Ninth Commandment, attention is drawn to the witnesses in any given trial. If the testimony given in the course of a trial were false, a just verdict is threatened. The Ninth Commandment seeks to insure a just verdict by prohibiting the bearing of false, that is untrue, testimony, which may either wrongly incriminate or justify a person who is accused of wrongdoing.49
(2) Just trials are essential for righteousness to prevail in any nation. There is a very close relationship between justice and righteousness, so close that you cannot have one without the other. If a nation is to be righteous, as the nation Israel was called to be, then there must be justice rendered in its judicial decisions. This is worth reflecting upon for a moment.
The outcome of the judicial process has a direct bearing on our understanding and application of the Law. God’s Law is perfect; men are not. The way the perfect Law is applied to imperfect men affects both men and the Law. To uphold the Law vigorously motivates men to keep the Law zealously. To be lax in applying the Law causes men to take the Law less seriously.
Let me illustrate the impact of the judicial process on the Law by pointing to the role which the courts (and ultimately the Supreme Court) have on the laws of the land in the United States. It has been the decisions of the courts on cases related to racial segregation, abortion, and the teaching of evolution or the offering of prayers in public schools which have dramatically affected the laws of the land. Abortion, once unlawful, is now legal. Prayer and the teaching of creationism in public schools is now considered unlawful (or virtually so). The particular rulings of the courts have wide-ranging implications. Unjust rulings in court thus promote unrighteous living in the land.
In the case of the nation Israel, it was not enough for the people of God to have just laws. God’s purpose was for His people to be holy, sanctified, set apart, so that they could reveal His character to the surrounding nations, so that they could serve as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). The Law which God gave to define righteousness, also addressed itself to the process by which unrighteousness could be dealt with. Thus, God gave His Law, judges, and this Law prohibiting untrue testimony, on the basis of which decisions would be reached.
(3) False testimony is a barrier between man and God, which hinders his worship.
O Lord, who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill? He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend; In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the Lord; He swears to his own hurt, and does not change; He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things will never be shaken (Psalm 15).
The question with which this psalm begins is, in essence, “Who can worship God and fellowship with Him?” The answer includes many aspects of personal righteousness, but most prominent here is the righteousness which has to do with one’s speech. The one who can approach God in worship is the man who is careful in choosing his words, and is careful to keep his word. In this psalm false testimony is surely one of those things which a godly man avoids.
(4) False testimony is a violation of the rights of the falsely accused, which can do great harm. “With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, But through knowledge the righteous will be delivered” (Prov. 11:9). “Like a club and a sword and a sharp arrow Is a man who bears false witness against his neighbor” (Prov. 25:18).
The second half of the Decalogue is concerned with one’s responsibility toward his fellow man. False testimony is surely an offense against one’s neighbor, just as true testimony is one’s duty. False testimony can not only ruin a man’s reputation, it may even cost him his life. Perhaps one of the most abominable acts of false witness is found in 1 Kings chapter 21, where Ahab and Jezebel obtain the property of Nabal by means of false testimony, which results in his execution (which is murder).
In our own day, we have recently seen the injury imposed upon Lenell Geter, a 26-year-old engineer, who was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison. This was based upon his identification from a driver’s license photo (who would ever want to be identified by or with those pictures?), and the inaccurate statement that he was known to have been involved in criminal activity. All of this in spite of the fact that he was proven to be at work at the time of the robbery. Cathleen Crowell Webb’s recent “recantation” of rape charges against Gary Dotson, still doubted by some, may be another example of the injustice imposed by false testimony.
As we look at the Law in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) as it relates to false witness, we find that it provides us with considerable clarification on the Ninth Commandment. We will briefly summarize some of the ways in which the Pentateuch explains and expands this commandment.
(1) The Law clarifies what false witness includes. The language of the commandment itself indicates that false witness, first and foremost is that testimony which is given in a trial, which could convict an individual of a charge or prove him innocent. False witness is broadened, however, to include one’s statements outside of the courtroom (in the case of Israel, outside of the city gates). Thus, slander (Lev. 19:16) and its closely-related evil of spreading rumors (Exod. 23:1) are prohibited. Both entail statements which falsely accuse another of a transgression. In some ways, slander and gossip are the more evil, for these are statements made which are unlikely to be scrutinized or challenged, as they would be in a legal trial. I would take it from Deuteronomy 5:20 that careless or sloppy testimony is also condemned. There, “vain” witness is forbidden, which I understand to be that which is “empty” or “without substance.” While some would willfully condemn another by deliberately false testimony, there are many others who would unknowingly convict another by testimony which is not precise, which goes beyond the facts and actual knowledge. Those in the legal professions (prosecutors or lawyers) can urge their witnesses to be more specific or more confident than what the facts will sustain.
Finally, the Law condemns that “false witness” which is the result of one’s silence. There are many instances in which a person does not want to give testimony. Leviticus 5:1 deals with such cases by teaching that when one who has personal knowledge of a matter before the court, but who does not wish to testify, that person will be placed under oath, and if they refuse to testify under oath, they are guilty of false witness. Thus, in Proverbs, the false witness becomes an accomplice in the crime, a partner to the thief: “He who is a partner with a thief hates his own life; He hears the oath but tells nothing” (Prov. 29:24). I understand this to be what took place in the trial of our Lord. He refused to answer the trumped up charges of His adversaries, until He was placed under oath, at which time He directly answered the question put to Him, but not to their satisfaction (cf. Matt. 26:62-66).
(2) The Law identifies evil causes of false witness. Witnesses are necessary because all men are sinful. The prohibition against false witness was necessary because all witnesses are sinful. There are certain pressures to which men are vulnerable, which will influence them to give witness which is false. The Law recognizes these influences, and cautions the witness to guard against them. One such factor is prejudice. For some, it will be prejudice for the poor (Exod. 23:3, 6; Lev. 19:15); for others prejudice for the rich or powerful (Lev. 19:15). Some may even favor the evil (Exod. 23:1).
Peer pressure is another strong influence, and so the witness is warned against testifying contrary to the facts and consistent with the desires of the majority (Exod. 23:2). Hatred and animosity can create such enmity that one will bear false witness in an attempt to have vengeance against an enemy (Lev. 19:18). Finally, bribery is not to change one’s testimony (Exod. 23:8).
(3) The Law prescribes safeguards against false witness. The Law goes beyond warning against false witness, to prescribing preventative measures, which promote a truthful testimony. No one may be executed on the basis of the testimony of one person (Deut. 17:6-7), thus requiring a conspiracy to convict one of a capital offense. The requirement of at least two or three witnesses assumes that the testimony of any witness is going to be incomplete and possibly distorted. When there is only one witness to a particular (non-capital) offense, an oath must be taken and the testimony of both parties (the witness and the one accused) must be carefully scrutinized (Deut. 19:16-20). In a capital case, the witness must initiate the execution (Deut. 13:1-5; 17:6-7), thus making the false witness a murderer, which will stop some short, who would be willing to kill another with their words, but not with their own hands. Finally, the false witness must be punished for the same crime about which their testimony bore witness (Deut. 19:16-20).
(4) The Law holds the individual Israelite responsible for leading and initiating charges against a Law-breaker (Deut. 13:1-5). When any Israelite gained knowledge of a violation of the Law, it was that person’s duty to initiate the corrective process. In fact, from what we have already learned, the knowledgeable witness must commence the process and consummate it, by casting the first stone if required. There were no police officers, no sheriffs. The individual was to take action.
(5) Thorough investigation is required to assure that charges are legitimate (Deut. 13:12-18; 19:16-20).
(6) The testimony which is to be carefully scrutinized and investigated must include “prophetic revelations” (i.e. the “testimony of God,” Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). False prophets falsely testify for God, and thus all prophetic testimony must be carefully scrutinized.
Bearing false witness is a prominent theme in the Old Testament prophets. When Israel sinned, God bore witness50 against the sinners. The Law itself was a witness against the Israelites if and when they disregarded and disobeyed it:51
“Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore” (Deut. 31:21).
God spoke to the Israelites, bearing testimony against them through the prophets. When the prophets spoke they spoke for God; when they spoke, it was God speaking, bearing witness against His people:
Yet He sent prophets to them to bring them back to the LORD: though they testified against them, they would not listen (2 Chron. 24:19).
“Because they have acted foolishly in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and have spoken words in My name falsely, which I did not command them; and I am He who knows, and am a witness,” declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:23).
The language of the prophets often refers to God’s dispute in legal terms, just as though God were pressing charges against His people. The sins for which God indicted the nation included perjury and false witness:
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the Lord of hosts (Mal. 3:5).
“And they bend their tongue like their bow; Lies and not truth prevail in the land; For they proceed from evil to evil, And they do not know Me,” declares the Lord. “Let every one be on guard against his neighbor, And do not trust any brother; Because every brother deals craftily, And every neighbor goes about as a slanderer. And everyone deceives his neighbor, And does not speak the truth, They have taught their tongue to speak lies; They weary themselves committing iniquity; Your dwelling is in the midst of deceit; Through deceit they refuse to know Me,” declares the Lord (Jer. 9:3-6).
“For thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Just as I purposed to do harm to you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘and I have not relented, so I have again purposed in these days to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear! These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another; judge with truth and judgment for peace in your gates. Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate,’ declares the LORD” (Zech. 8:14-17; cf. Jer. 2:9; 5:1-9).
God’s people did not listen to His rebuke. Instead, they rejected His accusations and maintained their innocence. This necessitated the discipline of God in the form of their exile from the land. “Yet you said, ‘I am innocent; Surely His anger is turned away from me.’ Behold, I will enter into judgment with you Because you say, ‘I have not sinned’” (Jer. 2:35).52 Not only did the Israelites refuse to repent when confronted with God’s charges against them; they chose to listen to false prophets, who told them what they wanted to hear:
But it came about, as soon as Jeremiah whom the Lord their God had sent, had finished telling all the people all the words of the Lord their God—that is, all these words—that Azariah the son of Hoshaiah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You are not to enter Egypt to reside there’” (Jer. 43:1-2).
“For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, Every one is greedy for gain, And from the prophet even to the priest Every one deals falsely. And they have healed the wound of My people slightly, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace” (Jer. 6:13-14; cf. 8:10-11; chap. 23).
It became increasingly clear to the prophets that if righteousness were to come to the earth, Messiah would be the One to bring that righteous rule, and to execute judgment on the earth. The Messiah would be God’s witness to men:
“Hear, O peoples, all of you; Listen, O earth and all it contains, And let the Lord GOD be a witness against you, The Lord from His holy temple. For behold, the Lord is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him, And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place” (Mic. 1:2-4; cf. Ps. 85:8-13; Isa. 42:1-4).
“Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts (Mal. 3:1-5).
“Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk Without money and without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen that you may live; And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, According to the faithful mercies shown to David. Behold, I have made him a witness to the peoples, A leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you will call a nation you do not know, And a nation which knows you not will run to you, Because of the LORD your God, even the Holy One of Israel; For He has glorified you” (Isa. 55:1-5).
Let us briefly look at the way the false witness is taken up and developed in the New Testament.
(1) Our Lord was the faithful and true witness. In the Book of Revelation, our Lord is called, “the faithful and true witness” (Rev. 1:5; 3:14). The Book of Hebrews begins with the statement that God has finally and fully given testimony to men in the person of Christ: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb. 1:1-2).
Jesus was like the prophets of old in that He came to bear witness to the truth, but He was unlike them in that He was the truth (John 14:6). He was the “light” who had come to expose the sins of men: “Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life’” (John 8:12). The things which Jesus spoke were the things of the Father. He spoke for the Father:
“I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you, but He who sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these I speak to the world. … I speak the things which I have seen with My Father; therefore you also do the things which you heard from your father” (John 8:26, 38).
(2) Jesus taught that truthfulness should be habitual, and that oaths ought not be necessary for those who give testimony.
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:33-37).
In the Old Testament, a witness was sometimes put under oath, swearing to tell the truth. Our Lord taught that truthfulness should be a way of life, so that no oath taking is ever necessary. We should, as it were, always speak as though under oath.
(3) The Lord Jesus directly applied the Old Testament teachings on giving testimony to the maintenance of purity in the church. In my opinion, we cannot read our Lord’s instructions in Matthew 18 without seeing their relationship to the Old Testament teaching which we have been studying: “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matt. 18:16).
Just as the individual Old Testament Israelite was responsible to take the initiative in the execution of justice when a Law was broken by a fellow-Israelite, so the individual Christian is responsible to deal with sin in the church. As in the Old Testament, one witness is not sufficient, but 2 or 3 are required for so serious a matter as excommunication. Since the passing away of the old covenant, the state is not the instrument for dealing with spiritual sins, the church is, and thus the same principles which the Israelites were to apply are carried over (or largely so) into the church.
(4) Those who rejected the witness of our Lord, sought to do away with Him by their own false testimony. The witness of our Lord, like that of the Old Testament prophets, was rejected by sinful men: “The Pharisees therefore said to Him, ‘You are bearing witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true’” (John 8:13). Consequently, it was not too long before the scribes and Pharisees determined that they must be rid of Jesus and that they must put Him to death. After some time, they found the opportunity to use Judas to help arrest Jesus. Ironically, it was through false testimony that they were able to find Him worthy of death, so that they could crucify Him:
Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find it, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” (Matt. 26:59-62).
Here, we see Israel’s judicial system at its very worst, using it to condemn the One who authored it. The judges were corrupt and personally prejudiced; the witnesses were false; and the Law was ignored.
(5) The Lord’s final command to His disciples was to be His witnesses.
“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matt. 24:14).
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In some of His last words to His disciples our Lord promised them that He would provide them with all that they needed to be His witnesses. First and foremost, they were eyewitnesses of His death, burial, and resurrection. In John 14-17 there are several specific provisions for the witness of His disciples mentioned. Their obedience to His commandments and their love for one another would be a witness to the world. Then, He would leave them with His word, which they were to obey and to share with others. His Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, would bear witness to the Word of God and the word of their testimony. Finally, His high priestly prayer in chapter 17 was related to their role as His witnesses.
Jesus came as a witness, and when He departed from the earth, He left His church behind to be His witnesses. Thus, in the Book of Acts, the believers were frequently described as bearing witness to their faith and the fact of the resurrection. “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). It was this testimony which the Pharisees sought to silence by their persecution and intimidation (Acts 4:15-18), and yet the apostles could not cease to share what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20). In answer to their prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon these witnesses, giving them boldness to speak the word of God (Acts 4:27-31).
(6) The apostles taught that those who would give witness to their faith would suffer persecution for doing so. Our Lord had indicated that those who gave witness to their faith would be persecuted, just as the Old Testament prophets were: “Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12).
Peter also taught that men would bear false witness against those who were godly: “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).
At the time of Paul’s conversion, it was revealed that his calling was to bear witness of God’s salvation to the Gentiles, and that he would suffer much in carrying out his commission: “But the Lord said to him [Ananias], ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake’” (Acts 9:15-16).
Paul wrote of the suffering which he endured for the sake of his gospel witness (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:1-10). Thus, he also taught that those who would be faithful as witnesses would suffer as well (cf. 1 Thes. 2:1-2, 14-16; 2 Thes. 1:3-5; 2 Tim. 3). The Book of Revelation does not avoid the fact that there will be many martyrs for their faithful testimony. Paul knew that persecution or the fear of it would silence some, thus resulting in false witness.
In the midst of persecution, the believer was exhorted by the apostles to be ready to give testimony to their faith:
But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence, and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Pet. 3:14-16).
Just as sinful men did not want to hear God’s witness against them through the prophets, neither will many wish to hear God’s testimony today. Not only will these people refuse to hear our testimony and persecute us for speaking the truth, so they will also turn to those “false witnesses,” those teachers who speak the things that accommodate the sinner (cf. 2 Tim. 3:6-8; 4:1-4; 2 Pet. 2:1-3, 18-19).
(7) The apostle Paul warned that to proclaim as the gospel something which is not true is to be a false witness. “Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised” (1 Cor. 15:15). To bear witness to the resurrection of Christ, if this did not happen in history, would make one a false witness. To extend Paul’s point, to proclaim a doctrinally or factually inaccurate gospel is to become a false witness. Let us be sure that our message is biblical.
If we are to deal with some specific implications and applications of the Ninth Commandment, we must determine the principle underlying the commandment so that we can then pursue its practical ramifications. We know of course, that the tongue is a powerful tool, for good or evil. It can either bless or curse, do good or evil (cf. James 3:3-12; 4:11-12). With his tongue, Peter spoke words of the greatest significance (Matt. 16:15-19; Acts 2:14-42). With the same tongue, Peter spoke words that were Satan’s testimony, not God’s (Matt. 16:21-23). If we were to attempt to deal with the broad area of our speech and the use of our tongue, that would be study of great magnitude, and frankly, one that would go far beyond the specific intent of the Ninth Commandment. What, then, was the principle underlying this commandment, which we are to understand and apply? TRUE TESTIMONY IS ESSENTIAL FOR THE ADMINISTRATION AND EXECUTION OF JUSTICE AND JUSTICE IS THE OUTWORKING OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Israel was set apart from the other nations in order to manifest God to the nations as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). The Law was God’s definition of the righteousness which God required of Israel. The judicial system was established to interpret and enforce the Law. Testimony was necessary as a basis for righteous judgment. False testimony would undermine the justice and righteousness which God required of His people as a “holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests.”
Of course, God requires truthfulness of His people at all times and in every situation. But here truthfulness is required of those who would give testimony because of the dire consequences of falsehood. In establishing the requirement for truthfulness in testimony, God is also requiring that men be truthful in all speech, a point which our Lord emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37).
If we should learn anything from the Ninth Commandment, it is how seriously God takes the matter of justice, and of anything which perverts it. Justice and righteousness are two of the most important qualities in the heart and mind of God. Perhaps more than anything else, these two terms sum up the character of the kingdom which our Lord is going to establish on earth. Justice, righteousness, and mercy are three of the key concepts of the Old Testament prophets. It is not for her failure to follow all of the right ceremonies that God condemned Israel, but for her failure to preserve and promote righteousness, justice, and mercy.
There have, at various times in history, been men like William Wilberforce, who have championed a particular cause in the name of justice, but these have not been as numerous as they should have been. I must say, however, to our shame, that the evangelical church in America has not been known for her zeal to preserve and promote justice. The evangelicals were not leading the way for the prohibition of slavery, nor for the end of segregation. All too often, evangelicals were searching their Bibles for proof texts which justified the injustice of segregation. If we are to catch and put into action the spirit of the Law, then we must learn to love justice, and be zealous to preserve and promote it.
Having considered God’s love for justice, let us briefly survey some principles which bear upon the matters of false witness and the promotion of justice.
(1) False testimony is a very strong temptation and a very pernicious evil in our society. Giving false testimony is a way for one person to do great harm to another, and yet seem innocent, even pious in doing so. In the nature of the case, there is great potential for sin in the process of giving testimony. We can distort the truth for any number of reasons. People are tried for overt acts, not thoughts or attitudes, and thus testimony tends to dwell on the outward appearance, not the heart of the matter. This understanding and application of the Law is what Jesus sought to correct in the Sermon on the Mount, which focused on the underlying attitudes, not just the outward actions of sin. The witness can give testimony for very impure reasons (social pressure, hatred, spite, even for a bribe), and yet seem to have righteous indignation at the sin of another. Think, for example, of how pious the scribes and Pharisees and high priests were acting as they tried the Lord and found Him worthy of death.
(2) There is the principle of the priority of witnessing. It is evident in the Ninth Commandment that false witness is forbidden, but beyond this we should see that truthful witness is imperative. As we have seen, to fail to testify for God against sin is to give false testimony. Thus, one of our highest obligations to our fellow man is to hold them accountable for sin. This holds true for fellow-Christians, but also for unbelievers. Our neighbor’s highest interest is best served by the exposure of their sin and the grace of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(3) The principle of plurality in witness. The requirement of two or three witnesses suggests that no one person can really know enough about a particular act of another to condemn them. The New Testament has much to say about the unity of the body of Christ (the church) and of the interdependence of Christians on one another. It is not uncommon to have one Christian try to “straighten out” another Christian, and yet be completely mistaken in his or her analysis of the problem. I would suggest that the principle of plurality applies here. Any sin which merits strong corrective action also requires plural participation. An accusation made against us by one person should not be shrugged off casually, but one confirmed by others must be taken most seriously.
The principle of plurality means that “no Christian is an island,” who does not need the encouragement and admonition of the church body. It means that one who justifies himself in the face of plural criticism may be foolish and sinful in doing so. It certainly means that we should seek godly counsel from others to learn more of our own wickedness. It means that for us to justify ourselves is to take our own testimony (the testimony of one) over that of others. Those who are strong-willed and headstrong need to beware of the tendency to trust one’s own assessment of matters, rather than to listen to the rebuke of others.
Conversely, there are some whose tendency is not to justify themselves, but to condemn themselves. I would suggest that since Satan is both the “father of lies” (John 8:44) and “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10), his accusations are nearly always false (in one way or another). Just as we should not justify ourselves in the face of the correction of others, neither should we condemn ourselves without seeking the evaluation of others. Whether we justify or condemn ourselves, we should always seek testimony other than our own.
(4) The principle of purity in our witness. Righteousness and justice cannot be preserved and promoted by deception and falsehood. One may wonder at why such a statement even needs to be made. The reason is that Christians sometimes fail at this very point. We tend to use the same deceptive advertising techniques to promote the gospel that others use to sell soap or toothpaste. I have seen evangelicals use “interviews” and “polls” as shabby excuses for giving their testimonies. Such practices pressed the ragged edge of honesty, in my opinion. More currently, I know of anti-abortion groups who attempt to lure pregnant women into a counseling session by deliberately misrepresenting themselves as a pro-abortion agency. God’s purposes must never be pursued through falsehood and deception.
For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God (2 Cor. 2:17).
Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor. 4:1-2).
Even one step beyond this, Paul even refused to use lofty and persuasive speech, but taught in simple terms:
For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:2-5).
(5) The love of justice is a purifying force. Throughout the Old and the New Testament, godly men and women have longed for the day when the Messiah would come to the earth and establish His righteous rule, when justice will finally and fully come to the earth. Until then, human justice will be fallible and imperfect. But knowing that He will come to judge the wicked is a motivation to live godly lives now (cf. 2 Pet. 3:8-13). When He comes again, the Lord Jesus will not be a “babe in a manger,” nor will He be one whose deity, majesty, and power are not recognized. He will be the One who is described in the Book of Revelation, the One in whose presence men will fall, as though dead. He will be an awesome judge. He will need no witnesses, for He knows all. He knows what men do, and why they have done it. No testimony will be needed then, for He will know all. Even in His first coming there were indications of this. Our Lord knew what men were doing, and what they were thinking. We will have no excuses when we stand before Him. Those who love justice will look for His coming. Those who love wickedness will dread His return and do everything they can to convince themselves that He will not return (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-7).
(6) The justice and righteousness which God requires of His people must be preserved and promoted by the practice of church discipline. Not only does Matthew chapter 18 apply the Old Testament principles of bearing witness to the preservation of the purity of the church, but a number of other texts as well. We are individually “our brother’s keeper.” We must initiate and carry through with the corrective process, giving testimony for God against the sin of a fellow-believer, even as our Lord taught.
(7) False witness includes many of the “little sins” which are so prevalent among Christians and in the church. My contention is that false witness is included among the Ten Commandments because of the seriousness of this sin. It is significant, I think, that many of the sins included in the general category of false witness are the most prevalent sins among Christians, and that they are not viewed as being very serious transgressions.
Tattling among children (often) and gossip among adults is one form of false witness, as identified in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:1), and which is also forbidden in the New (cf. Rom. 1:29; 2 Cor. 12:20; 2 Thes. 3:11; 1 Tim. 5:13; 1 Pet. 4:15). Very often, slanderous gossip is given in the name of a “prayer request” or information which enables one to “pray more intelligently.” The bottom line is that the reputation of many has been sacrificed on the altar of gossip. Such “testimony” is doubly evil, for it is not spoken in the hearing of the accused, or before impartial judges, nor is it open to challenge, as it would be in a public trial. Let us beware of sanctified sins.
Let me suggest several differences between the false witness of gossip and slander and the true witness of the Bible:
46 It is important to note that the wording in the two statements of the Ninth Commandment is not the same. Hyatt points out that Exodus 20:16 “… may be literally rendered, ‘You shall not answer against your neighbour as a lying witness [‘ed seker].’ The corresponding commandment in Dt. 5:20 has ‘as a witness of emptiness [‘ed saw].’ The Exodus form is the more original, since the phrase ‘lying witness’ occurs elsewhere in the OT (Ps. 27:12; Prov. 6:19; 12:17; 14:5; 19:5,9; 25:18), and the phrase ‘ed saw’ occurs only in Dt. 5:20. This commandment was originally directed against the giving of false testimony in a judicial trial, not against all forms of lying or untruthfulness. The language of the verse is that of the Law court. Hebrew ‘anah (‘answer’) was a technical term meaning to testify, give testimony in a court, as in Num. 35:30; Dt. 19:16, 18.” J. Philip Hyatt, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 215.
The Exodus commandment seems to zero in on that testimony which, by malicious intent, is false. The commandment in Deuteronomy seems to be more general, condemning any testimony which, whether deliberate or not, may prove to be false.
47 All of this is more profoundly impressed on the writer since I was selected to sit on a jury panel just last week, for three days! In His providence, God was helping to prepare me for this message.
48 The thought occurred to me that when Nathan confronted David he may have done so as though he were presenting a legal case for David to pronounce judgement on. Only after David had rendered his verdict did Nathan expose the villain—David himself. This would add some force to the indictment, I believe. It would also help to explain the way in which Nathan brought David’s sin home to him.
49 True testimony was also considered vital by other ancient peoples. Craigie writes, “The Code of Hammurabi begins with four laws specifying various types of false witness: (a) bringing an unproved charge of murder; (b) bringing an unproved charge of sorcery; (c) false witness in a capital case; (d) false witness in a civil case (ANET, p. 166).” Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 162, fn. 26.
50 There were many “witnesses” against sinners in the Old Testament. Included were: (a) The Law (Dt. 4:45; 6:17, 20; 1 Ki. 2:3; 1 Chron. 29:19; 2 Chron. 34:31, etc. (b) Our Sins—Isa. 59:12; Jer. 14:7. (c) The prophets—2 Chron. 24:19; Mal. 2:14; 3:5 [Note that both in Isaiah’s case (6) and Jeremiah’s (1:9), their lips were touched by God before they were sent forth to speak to men for God]. (d) God Himself—Deut. 8:19-20; Ps. 50:7; Mal. 3:1-6; Mic. 1:2.
51 One of the frequently employed synonyms for the Law was “testimony” or “testimonies” (cf. Deut. 4:45; 6:17, 20; 1 Ki. 2:3; 1 Chron. 29:19; 2 Chron. 34:31; Ps. 19:7; 119:2, etc.). Does this confirm the fact that the Law is the testimony which God has borne to men concerning sin? I have not followed through with this thesis, but it is a possibility.