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The 9th Commandment: Speak Truth When It Matters Most

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Sermons

(We had some technical issues Sunday with our sermon on Deuteronomy 5:20, so we decided to put the sermon notes into a blog post)

Introduction

If I say the name “Lance Armstrong,” what comes to mind? If I had said his name 15 years ago (2005), what would have come to mind?

Lance Armstrong a professional cyclist in the 90s and 2000s. What set him apart was that he won cycling’s most important race, the Tour-de-France, a grueling 21-day event run every July. And he won it 7 times in a row from 1999 to 2005.

But he did it by being one of sport’s greatest cheaters. He created a massive international network of cyclists, doctors, scientists, trainers, and even the governing body of cycling itself, all to become one of the world’s greatest cheaters in sports history.

For years journalists and sport enthusiasts were certain he has using PEDs. Hints, rumors. Some made public accusations.

When they did that he was ruthless. Sued a Brittish newspaper for “libel”—which is a “published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation”[1]—and won $400k. When someone publicly accused him, he was quick to slander.

But he offended one too many cyclists one too many times. Eventually one told the whole story. Lance said he lacked all “credibility,” was just bitter. But it started the avalanche. The FDA did its own investigation. Finally the US Anti-Doping Agency released a 250-pg report detailing the whole thing. A dozen cyclists testified under oath about the doping in cycling in those years.

The story illustrates the two key parts of the 9th Commandment, “You shall not bear false witness” (Deut 5:20). The 9th commandment includes two large domains:

  • Formal—in a legal setting. Lying in a courtroom setting.
  • Informal—in a relational setting. Character assassination, gossip, slander

The formal has judicial consequences. Innocent declared guilty; guilty declared innocent. The informal has relational consequences. When you “bear false witness” in a conversation it harms the good name of someone. It hurts people and relationships.

An excellent summary of what the 9th Commandment concerns is in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q: What does the ninth commandment require? 
That I bear false witness against no one, twist no one’s words, be no backbiter or slanderer, join in condemning no one unheard or rashly; but that on pain of God’s heavy wrath, I avoid all lying and deceit as the very works of the devil; and that in matters of judgment and justice and in all other affairs, I love, speak honestly, and confess the truth; and also, insofar as I can, defend and promote my neighbor’s good name.
The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 112[2]

Our sermon series: God: The Center of It All. The 9th commandment reminds us that God must be at the center of our understanding “justice.” “Justice” is essential in a group of people of any size. At the core of “justice” is a basic sense of telling the truth. Without that, there can be no justice.

The 9th commandment calls us to speak truth (1) for the sake of justice, (2) for the sake of the good name of others, (3) and for the sake of our Christian witness.

Let's pray.

I. Speak Truth for the Sake of Justice

Let’s look at the words of the commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (ESV). More literally the Hebrew would be something like, “You shall not testify against your neighbor/companion/friend by offering witness/testimony of emptiness/falsehood/vanity.”

Let's start with the formal side, the legal aspect of this commandment. 

Truth-telling is one of the foundations of justice. Why is it that a witness must swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”? Because achieving justice is virtually impossible if people don’t tell the truth.

When a person says, “I saw Johnny steal the baseball bat out of your garage,” and they are telling the truth, Johnny should return the bat or pay for it. Justice demands that the thief make restitution for the wrong he did.

But if the person says, “I saw Johnny steal the baseball bat out of your garage,” and he’s lying because he hates Johnny, Johnny will have a hard time finding justice in this situation. Someone has "borne false witness" against him and injustice is a likely outcome here. 

The primary application of the 9th commandment has to do with judicial settings. This is truth-telling when it matters most, someone’s life on the line.

OT courtrooms were simple, not rooms at all but a place outside the city or village where the elders would gather and hear cases. Jochem Douma says:

There were no lawyers, fingerprints were not used as evidence, nor were there detectives like Sherlock Holmes….Everything could depend on what the witnesses said….So witnesses could hold decisive sway over life and death. At the testimony of two or three (unanimous) witnesses, a defendant could be sentenced to death (Deut 17:6; 19:15).
Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments[3]

Witnesses in these ancient settings were a big deal. One reason we know is that witness accusing of capital crime threw the first stone (Deut 17:7). And someone who proved to be a “malicious witness” would receive the same punishment he was wanting for the defendant (Deut 19:17). There was to be “no mercy” here in order to “purge” the evil from the midst of Israel (19:19).

A “malicious witness” isn’t someone trying to speak truth and simply off on some details. It’s someone malicious and trying to hurt someone else, maybe even have them killed.

Breaking the 9th Commandment can be seen in a story involving Israel’s King Ahab. Ahab wanted to buy the vineyard of a man named Naboth his neighbor. Naboth wouldn’t do it because the property was part of his family’s ancient inheritance. Land had great importance to the peole of Israel. Jezebel heard about this and basically told Ahab, “I got this one.”

Jezebel wrote letters to men in the city in king’s name. Asked two to host a feast. At the feast accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king. Both capital crimes. They did it. As soon as it happened, Naboth was sentenced to death. They went out and stoned Naboth to death. This injustice was a direct violation of the 9th Commandment.

The story of Naboth doesn’t end there, however. And this is really important. There’s a good chance some of us have been the victim of people bearing false witness against us, maybe even in such a way that we experienced financial or legal troubles. Or at least relational ones.

What happened next to Ahab was that “the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite,” the great prophet in Israel (1 Kgs 21:17). He prophesied that “dogs shall lick the blood” of Ahab in the same spot where Naboth died. And “the dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel” (21:23). A few years later Ahab would die in battle and his blood would be found on the exact spot of Naboth’s death (22:37–40). And then Jezebel herself would be thrown over the walls of Jezreel and die from it. The dogs ate her blood on that very spot (2 Kgs 9:30–37).

The point of this is that no one gets away with intentional, malicious injustice. God is a heavenly judge who always does right. Part of doing right is judging the world with perfect “righteousness” and “equity” (Ps 98:9).

God’s sense of justice doesn’t always look like we want it to. But he never fails.

II. Speak Truth for the Sake of the Good Name of Others

Now we want to look at the less formal side of the 9th commandment. When we “bear false witness” but it’s not a courtroom.

It’s a conversation. A tweet. A FB post. Instagram. Email. The result is not a legal consequence. But it ruins the good name of someone else.

In 1948 Lyndon B. Johnson was fighting for a Texas US Senate seat against a very popular Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. Stevenson had an impeccable reputation. Part of his character was he felt it dishonorable to respond to personal attacks. LBJ saw his opening. He began character assassination. Accusing Stevenson of conspiring with labor bosses. It was a total lie and LBJ knew it the whole time. 

Because of that LBJ won the senate seat, went on to be Kennedy’s VP and then President.[4]

LBJ proved a “false witness.” Intentionally, maliciously, attacking the good name of another person.

Politics is the playground of character assassination. It’s easy to give in to it. But as Christians we still have to be careful. The world’s ways can’t be our ways.

Part of loving my neighbor is taking care of his name and reputation.

Our good name is one of our most valuable possessions:

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1)

A “good name” is valuable—“rather than great riches”!

And as Martin Luther said,

Honor and a good name are easily taken away, but not easily restored.
Martin Luther, Large Catechism

I can usually make more money; I can’t always rebuild my reputation. 

Bearing false witness is condemend throughout the Bible. Usually called something like “slander” or “gossip”:

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Cor 12:20)

Clearly this list is all negative. “Slander” and “gossip” are right there with other sins hurtful to others and the church—“quarreling, jealousy, anger…conceit.”

“Slander” and “gossip” are kinds of speech sins. Intending to hurt or careless about it.

Might be written or spoken.

Difference between them is the level of truth. Slander is what I know to be untrue—falsehoods I tell, the LBJ lie.

Gossip may or may not be true. Level of rumor. Key is that it’s being shared without any intention of building up. Just a juicy nugget I want to share.

In a day of social media like ours we have to keep these categories before us. It’s easy to see something negative about a person and pass it to others in a tenth of a second. Suddenly the damage done is multiplied exponentially.

Titus 3 adds another kind of evil speech: Speaking evil. Hear it’s the intent and not the truthfulness that is the issue.

Remind them…to speak evil of (lit., blaspheme) no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1, 2)

Here it’s to “speak evil” of someone. The things I’m saying might be true. But my intent in sharing the information is to hurt the person or at least hurt their good name.

Sometimes I have to TALK ABOUT THE EVIL of someone—Titus 3:10.

To TALK ABOUT the evil is one thing; another to “speak evil of someone else.

Jochem Douma:

Someone can chip away at the good name of his neighbor through backbiting and gossip. These need not be lies, because gossip can spread many things that are true. But it is still frivolous prattling behind a person’s back. Perhaps the one spreading gossip is not lying, but he or she is being untruthful: saying things that are true, but in the context of slander, is deceitful. The neighbor’s mistakes, faults, and shortcomings are discussed in minute detail. People realize this kind of chatter gets them an attentive audience. For it is a universal phenomenon that we would rather hear something bad about our neighbor than something good. And something dirty always sticks long after the conversation has died.
Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments[5]

Question: Right now you likely have some control over someone’s reputation. How does this commandment affect how you will handle it? Co-worker. Friend.

III. Speak Truth for the Sake of Our Christian Witness

Throughout the NT, the terms connected to the idea of giving a witness are used a lot (115x)—especially in John’s writing and the book of Acts.

This is a key part of what we have in our NT. And what we are called to be as Christians. The 12 apostles, those 12 disciples that Jesus set apart to be with him throughout his ministry, these 12 are specially called to be “witnesses” of his life and death and resurrection.

They were leaders in the early church. But their main role was to be witnessess about Christ—who he was, what he said, what he did. And they weren’t to bear a false witness about it, but a true one. A courageous one. In the face of suffering and death.

Before they were filled with the Spirit, their witness was unpredictable. Peter three times denied even knowing Jesus.

But after they were filled with the Spirit, their witness was unstoppable. If it meant suffering or prison or ultimately death, they weren’t going to stop.

Peter and John:

So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18–20)

And Paul:

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

And after Jesus heals the demon-possessed man in the Gerasenes:

And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mark 5:19–20)

That’s all evangelism is, isn’t it? It’s being a truthful witness about Jesus. This is who Jesus is. This is what he said and did. This is what he did for me and how he had mercy on me.

That’s why evangelism is so often called “witnessing.” In some ways, it’s a weird word to use in sharing the gospel. But in another sense it’s perfect.

You’re on the witness stand and it’s like a lawyer is asking you, “You say you believe in Jesus. Why? Tell the jury what you have seen and heard and what he did for you?”

We’re not making it up. God’s mercy has changed me, here’s how.

Speak truth for the sake of justice, for the sake of the good name of others, for the sake of our Christian witness.

Conclusion: Speaking Truth Requires Radical Conversion

All of this is easy to say, but to live it out requires radical conversion. This is one area where we are simply not like God. God doesn’t lie. He never bears false a witness. E.g., Numbers 23:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Num 23:19)

And 1 Samuel 15:

And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Sam 15:29)

Without a radical conversion—and speaking of Father’s Day—we are more like our father…the devil.

In John 8 Jesus tells us who we are...apart from this radical conversion. He's talking to the Pharisees, but it's true us as well: 

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

That’s the testimony of the Bible about us: “All mankind are liars” (Ps 116:11). The difference between Lance Armstrong, Lyndon B. Johnson, and you? They got caught.

Hamlet to Ophelia:

What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all. Believe none of us.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet[6]

As Jochem Douma says, “Lying lives deep” (323). “No cure for this ailment exists other than radical conversion” (ibid.).

It’s only “radical conversion” that gives us any hope. Radical conversion means believing the eyewitness testimony of the New Testament about Jesus. He is the perfect man who is also God. Who died on the cross for sinners.

He rose again. Ascended into heaven. At God’s right hand.

Jesus himself is the truth. John 14:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

So complete is Jesus’ connection to truth and the truth and truthfulness that he can say, “I AM the truth.” I don’t just know things that are true. “I AM truth.”

When you’re saved you’re joined to him. And Christ the TRUTH begins to change us from the inside-out. We go from “all mankind are liars” (Ps 116:11) to those who can speak the truth for the good of others and the glory of Christ!

Questions to Consider:

  1. How honest are you? Two ways we can lie. We can say things that simply aren’t true. Your boss asks, “Did you finish that report?” You say, “Yes,” knowing you didn’t. But you will right after your meeting! The other way we can lie is by holding back things that are true. You get together for accountability with someone. You bring up something that actually happened. But you don’t bring up the huge fight you had with your wife the day before that’s still going on.
  2. Do you routinely gossip and slander? If you do, is there anyone you need to go back to and make things right? Someone you really trashed to others and the person found out about it.
  3. Is there someone you know sinning in this way and you need to confront them on it?

Prayer: Change us from the inside out. From liars to truth-tellers.

Closing Song: Speak O Lord (Getty)

 

[1] Merriam-Webster.

[2] See end of this document for summary of the Heidelberg’s history.

[3] Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments, 314.

[4] Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 150–153; Wikipedia, “Lyndon Baines Johnson.”

[5] Douma, 316–317.

[6] Act 3, Scene 1.

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