November 3, 2019

Exodus 20:16: You Shall Not Bear False Witness

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: The Ten Commandments Scripture: Exodus 20:16

Exodus 20:16: You Shall Not Bear False Witness

For the past couple of months, we’ve been going through the Ten Commandments one by one. And this morning, we come to the ninth commandment, found in Exodus 20:16, which states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” But before we dive into that, let’s pray. [Prayer]

George O’Leary was the head coach of the University of Central Florida’s football team from 2004-2015 and guided the team to one of the best turnarounds in college football history. However, before he coached at UCF, he had a rather painful experience at the University of Notre Dame. In 2001, O’Leary was offered the very prestigious head coaching position at Notre Dame—a position that he eagerly accepted. It was the pinnacle of his career. And so, a newspaper called The Manchester Union Leader decided to do a feature story on O’Leary, tracing the rise of George O’Leary from his humble beginnings to the coveted position he now held. However, when the newspaper reporter contacted the college where O’Leary said he had played college football and earned three letters, the college informed the reporter that O’Leary hadn’t even played in a single game. When this came to light, Notre Dame was under a lot of pressure to fire O’Leary but instead decided to let him keep his job for the time being. However, Notre Dame’s athletic director then asked O’Leary if perhaps there were any other inaccuracies on his resume. At this point, O’Leary admitted that he had also lied about his master’s degree. His resume stated that he had earned a master’s degree from “NYU-Stony Brook University.” Yet it turned out that that school didn’t even exist. O’Leary had actually made up the name of the school by using the names of two existing schools that were 50 miles apart. And when the athletic director heard that O’Leary had lied about this as well, he asked O’Leary for his resignation. The head coaching career of George O’Leary at Notre Dame thus came to a very dishonorable end after a grand total of just three days on the job.  

Now, you and I may have never endured public exposure for lying to the same degree that George O’Leary did, but I can almost guarantee that just about everyone in this room has failed to be a truth-teller not just once or twice in their life but numerous times—probably too many times to count. And that will become more and more apparent as we dig in to the ninth commandment this morning. So this commandment of not bearing false witness is definitely something we need to consider. And I’d like to do so under five headings. Number one, the foundation for truth. Number two, the assault against truth by Satan. Number three, the lack of truth in our lives. Number four, our need for the truth of the gospel. And number five, God’s command for us to be truth-tellers. If you didn’t get time to write all of those down, that’s okay. You can get them down as we go through them. 

The Foundation for Truth

So first, the foundation for truth. The foundation for us avoiding false witness and being truth-tellers is none other than God himself. We should speak the truth without fail because God himself speaks the truth without fail. Titus 1:2 describes God as one who “never lies.” Also, Hebrews 6:18 states that “it is impossible for God to lie.” And Proverbs 30:5 teaches that “every word of God proves true.” So we can be confident that every claim God makes, every assurance he gives, and every promise he offers—every statement that comes out of his mouth—is 100% true all the time. Not only that, but Jesus says to the father in John 17:17, “your word is truth.” Notice that’s different from saying “your word is true.” That would also be an accurate statement, but Jesus claims something much bigger than that. He says, “your word is truth,” meaning that God’s words are truth itself—the very standard by which all other truth claims are judged. So the foundation for truth is the character and the person of God. 

The Assault against Truth by Satan

However, the Bible also teaches that there’s an entity set in opposition to God called the devil or Satan. And throughout the Bible, we see Satan seeking to undermine and sabotage God’s purposes here on earth. And one of the key ways Satan does that is by launching an all-out assault against truth. So having first looked at the foundation for truth, let’s now look secondly at the assault against truth by Satan. Satan’s assault against truth is so vigorous that Jesus even refers to him as not just a liar but the father of lies. In John 8:44, Jesus says that “[The devil] 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.

And this goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3, Satan takes on the form of a serpent and uses deception to lure Eve into disobeying God’s instructions. You see, back in Genesis 2, God had told Adam and Eve that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except the fruit of a certain tree, called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree was off limits. But in Genesis 3, Satan comes in and asks Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” So there already we see Satan taking God’s instructions of not eating the fruit of a particular tree and twisting them and acting as though God had told them not to eat the fruit of any tree. Already, Satan’s trying to subtly plant the idea in Eve’s mind that God’s selfish and harsh and overly demanding. Eve then corrects him and says, 2 “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” In response to this, Satan decides that it’s time to be more direct in his assault and pretty much calls God a liar. He says to Eve, “You will not surely die.” In other words, “God told you wrong. You can’t trust God. He lied to you.” Then he continues spewing out his lies by explaining to Eve why God would supposedly lie to her. He says, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So basically, according to Satan, God lied for his own benefit. He doesn’t care about anyone except himself. The only reason he issued his command not to eat the fruit of that tree is because he wants to keep you from enjoying something amazing and ultimately becoming like him. And unfortunately, Eve listened to that lie and believed the words of Satan over the words of God. She then ate the fruit and gave some to her husband Adam and thereby plunged this world into sin and darkness and dysfunction and brokenness. We call it “the fall”—the fall of humanity into sin. And because of this fall, everyone is alienated from God from the moment of birth and suffers through all kinds of painful experiences that come from this fallen world around us. And Satan is the one who brought that fall about. 

And all throughout the Bible and down through history right down to the present day, Satan has been continuing his assault against truth, reinforcing false ideas about God in our minds, planting doubts about God in our hearts, and doing whatever he can to undermine what’s good and true. He is the “father of lies.”

The Lack of Truth in Our Lives 

And unfortunately, you and I often end up following in his footsteps. Even if we’re not carrying out a deliberate assault against truth the way Satan is, there’s still often a lack of truth in our lives. And that’s what the ninth commandment addresses. Specifically, this commandment prohibits giving false testimony in a court of law. Back in ancient times, they didn’t have things like video recordings, DNA testing, or other such things to determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence. They relied heavily on eyewitnesses. So it was especially important for those who took the witness stand to tell the truth and not to say that a person did something if, in fact, they didn’t. Bearing false witness in that way could very easily mean the difference between life and death for the accused person. 

However, as you might suspect from the way we’ve handled previous commandments, this commandment not to bear false witness also applies to a wide variety of other situations as well. It applies not just in the courtroom but in our everyday lives. For example, how often do we have a tendency to be deceptive when it we think it will be to our advantage? How often do we lie to our boss at work so that we don’t get in trouble for something we did or failed to do? How often do we exaggerate when we’re telling a story to our friends in order to make ourselves look good?  How often do we put on a mask or a false front when we’re around others thinking that, by doing so, people will like us more or think more highly of us? How often do we fail to maintain absolute integrity in our financial dealings? By the way, that would also be a violation of the eighth commandment not to steal. And how often do we lie to a loved one in order to make our lives easier or in order to do something we know they’d disapprove of us doing? All of these things are violations of the ninth commandment not to bear false witness. And all of them grieve the heart of God.

But there’s one type of violation I haven’t mentioned yet because I think we need to spend some time on this one. Because even though any instance of us bearing false witness has some kind of destructive effect on us and those around us, I believe this example of bearing false witness that I’m about to mention is especially destructive. We bear false witness when…we spread rumors or gossip about someone else. It’s almost impossible to overstate the amount of damage gossip can do. Most of you have never heard of Jeff Noblit before, but he’s the pastor of our sending church—the church that Becky and I came from that helped start this church. And Jeff told me one time about a very nasty rumor that had made its rounds about him. It all started when a woman with a baby showed up at his house one evening out of the blue. Jeff has a house that’s in a wooded area, and this woman just showed up with a baby in her arms having apparently been wandering around in the woods for a good while—like days. And I forget all of the details, but this woman and her baby were absolutely filthy and it was obvious that they needed medical attention. So Jeff took them to the hospital where they could get medical attention. But one of the nurses at the hospital recognized him—because the church he pastors is pretty large and he’s kind of a known figure in the community—and so this nurse saw him bringing in a beaten up woman into the hospital and just assumed the woman was his wife. The key word there, of course, is “assumed.” And so, you can probably guess where things went from there. This nurse told others and they told others, and pretty soon it was all over the community that Pastor Jeff beats his wife and had to take her to the hospital. Even many people who attended Jeff’s church—our sending church—heard this rumor and bought into it. Now, this all happened over a decade ago, and so by now pretty much everyone in the church knows it’s not true, but there are still people out in the community who, to this day, believe that Pastor Jeff beats his wife. That’s how damaging a single rumor can be. And once it’s out, there’s no getting it back in. Even if the nurse who started that rumor had a change of heart and wanted to correct it, there’s no way she ever could no matter how hard she tried. Once it’s out, it’s out—and the damage is almost always incalculable. 

That’s why it’s so important for us to avoid bearing false witness about others by passing along unsubstantiated reports about them. And we have to be very vigilant to guard against that because, as I’m sure you know, it’s incredibly easy for us to pass those kinds of things along often without even thinking about it very much. Many times, we start talking about another person and drift into gossip almost before we even know what we’re doing. But the ninth commandment requires us to guard against that. 

Here’s how a famous document known as the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes what the ninth commandment requires of us. It says, “I must not give false testimony against anyone, twist no one's words, not gossip or slander, nor condemn or join in condemning anyone rashly and unheard. Rather, I must avoid all lying and deceit as the devil's own works, under penalty of God's heavy wrath. In court and everywhere else, I must love the truth, speak and confess it honestly, and do what I can to defend and promote my neighbor’s honor and reputation.” Now that summary includes a lot of things, but notice how it focuses on the way we speak about others. We have a responsibility to honor, guard, and protect the reputation of other people, and any failure to do that is a sin against God. And by the way, that includes the comments we make and the articles we share on social media. Don’t think that your behavior on social media is exempt from this. 

Our Need for the Truth of the Gospel

However, there is good news. And the good news is that there’s hope for false witnesses like us. There’s hope for people like us who have sinned against God and transgressed his commands, and—as the Heidelberg Catechism stated—are “under [the] penalty of God’s heavy wrath.” And that hope is found in the gospel. That’s the fourth point this morning—our need for the truth of the gospel. 

You see, even though we’ve rebelled against God’s righteous commands again and again, he loves us with a love that’s beyond anything we can imagine. In fact, he loves us so much that 2,000 years ago, he sent his own Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Jesus made atonement for our sins, suffering God’s judgment in our place and thereby appeasing his wrath. He endured God’s wrath to we wouldn’t have to. He then resurrected from the dead and now offers us forgiveness and rescue if we’ll put our trust in him. That involves repenting of all the ways we’ve sinned against him and looking to him alone for rescue. And it’s through this gospel message that God changes our hearts and enables us to walk in obedience to the ninth commandment. Through the gospel, we experience an inward transformation from a liar and false witness into a truth-teller. 

For example, think about the kinds of things that often make us inclined to speak evil of others and spread rumors about them. I think one of the biggest things is that we desperately want to feel good about ourselves. Think about tabloids. Why are tabloids so popular? Why do you find them in just about every supermarket you go to? My theory is that when people read about the junk in other people’s lives—and especially in the lives of the rich and famous—it makes them feel better about their own lives. By reading about this affair and that divorce and this scandal over here and that exposed secret over there, it makes them feel better about all of their own failures and inadequacies. And in a similar way, when we speak evil about others and share things about them that they wouldn’t want us to share, it helps us feel better about ourselves. Deep down, we often say those things because want to reassure ourselves that we’re okay—that we’re basically good people. And, ironically, one of the ways we try to do that is by talking about the shortcomings and failures of others. When we talk about those kinds of things in the lives of others, it helps us feel better about ourselves. That’s the core of what makes gossip so irresistible, many times. We seek to build ourselves up by tearing others down. We try to convince ourselves that we’re good by saying things that destroy other people and supposedly show how we’re superior to them.

But the gospel reminds us that, if we’ve put our trust in Jesus to rescue us from our sins, we’re actually clothed with his perfect righteousness and are therefore deeply loved and 100% accepted in the eyes of God. We don’t have to try in vain to convince ourselves that we’re okay by speaking evil of others. Instead, we can be confident that we really are okay and that God really does love us and accept us—not because of anything we’ve done but because of the finished work of Jesus on the cross. It’s his blood that covers our inadequacies and the righteous status that we have in him that makes it entirely unnecessary for us to try to cover our nakedness with the fig leaves of gossip. We have no need or use for self-righteousness because we already have Christ-righteousness. So that’s the way in which the gospel transforms us and rescues us from our tendency to be gossips and false witnesses.

God’s Command for Us to Be Truth Tellers 

And then lastly, I do want to look at the responsibility the ninth commandment places on us not just to avoid being a false witness but to actually be the opposite of that—a truth teller. So our fifth and final point today is God’s command for us to be truth tellers. Colossians 3:9-10 says, 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Also, Ephesians 4:25 states, 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. So in every situation, we’re supposed to speak the truth to each other. That means we don’t exaggerate the truth. It also means we don’t make statements that are technically true but are designed to mislead people. Instead, we should simply speak what’s true. To borrow a phrase from the courtroom, God calls us to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

And of course the greatest truth is the truth of the gospel—the message of who Jesus is and what he’s done to save us. Jesus even calls himself “the truth.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” So Jesus himself is “the truth.” That means, if we’re going to be truth-tellers, a huge part of that is telling people about the truth of Jesus. He’s the truth. 

Not only that, but Jesus tells us in another place that we’re supposed to be his witnesses. In Acts 1:8, he says to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” So if you’re a Christian, Jesus says that you’re supposed to be a witness for him. Contrast that with what’s prohibited in the ninth commandment—being false witnesses. Instead of being false witnesses, we’re supposed to be true witnesses and faithful witnesses for Jesus. Hopefully you’re doing that in your day-to-day life. Hopefully you’re speaking about Jesus with boldness and wisdom to your friends and neighbors and coworkers and even family members. Their greatest need is a need for Jesus, and you’ve been commissioned to be a witness for Jesus to them. That’s why you’re still on this earth—to be a witness to the truth of the gospel. 

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