You Shall Not Bear False Witness

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What is truth?” Pilate’s question reflected a jaded skepticism toward the very idea of truth rather than a serious philosophical inquiry. How tragic that a man entrusted with matters of life and death should express such a cynical attitude. And how very different should be the attitude of Christians, whom Jesus described as those who are “of the truth” (John 18:37).

The supreme value of truth is evidenced by the presence of the ninth commandment in the Decalogue: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). The commandment is most immediately concerned with truthfulness in a judicial context. Deuteronomy 19:15–21 gives instructions about witnesses in criminal cases. A single witness is insufficient to establish a charge; there must be two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; see also Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If there is any question about the integrity of a witness, the judges must “inquire diligently,” and if the witness is found to be a “false witness” (Heb. eid-shek-er—the same term used in Ex. 20:16), he must receive the very penalty that would have been applied to the accused. Thus, perjury carried a maximum penalty of death under the Mosaic law.

One of the rationales for the prohibition of false witness is that justice requires truth. If justice is to be upheld in a court of law, all the relevant facts of the case must be made known, which requires witnesses to speak “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Justice means that the accused is owed the truth, regardless of his guilt or innocence. The eighth and ninth commandments are closely connected: bearing false witness is a form of theft; it is withholding from someone what is his rightful due. A similar principle applies to defamation: to harm someone’s good name is to steal a precious possession (Prov. 22:1; Eccl. 7:1).

Of course, the ninth commandment is not restricted to law courts. As the rest of Scripture makes abundantly clear, truth-telling is a fundamental moral duty and honesty is a basic moral virtue. The righteous are characterized by truthfulness—indeed, they “love truth” (Zech. 8:19)—whereas the wicked have “lying lips” (Pss. 31:18; 120:2; Prov. 10:18; 12:22; see also Ps. 101:7; Prov. 12:17; Jer. 9:5; Hos. 4:1–2). One of the ways in which we love our neighbor is by speaking truth to him (Eph. 4:15, 25).

Why is truth-telling so important? As always in Christian ethics, the answer is fundamentally theological. God is “the God of truth” (Isa. 65:16). Truthfulness is an essential attribute of God and His Word (John 4:23–24; 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 17:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; Titus 1:2; 1 John 4:6; 5:6). In contrast, telling lies reflects the character of Satan and those who follow him (John 8:44; 1 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 2:22; Rev. 21:8). Since we are created in the image of God, designed to reflect His character, we should speak the truth just as God speaks the truth. The ninth commandment, no less than the sixth commandment, hangs on the doctrine of the imago Dei.

Although most of the Ten Commandments are stated in a negative form (“You shall not … “), each has a positive as well as a negative application; each entails a “do” as well as a “don’t.” Keeping the ninth commandment is not merely a matter of avoiding false statements. As Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 77 recognizes, the commandment also requires us to actively pursue and promote the truth in all our dealings with others.

Promoting the truth involves much more than just making true statements. It’s quite possible to mislead without stating a single falsehood. If I were to write a report on someone that emphasized their flaws and failings while ignoring any points of value or virtue, every statement in the report might well be true, but taken as a whole it would not promote truth. Promoting the truth means giving an overall fair and accurate depiction of the way things really are—even when that goes against our own interests. Likewise, we should speak the truth with an appropriate degree of exactitude, never relying on vagueness, ambiguity, or equivocation to obscure the truth for self-interested motives or to avoid accountability for our words. In sum, promoting truth means loving truth—not merely for its own sake but out of a sincere love for God and neighbor.

In a day when trust in public figures is at an all-time low, when media outlets blur the line between news and propaganda, when the term spin has become common parlance, and when postmodernism has eroded the very concept of truth, it’s imperative for Christians to be set apart from the surrounding culture as people marked by honesty, integrity, and fidelity. We must be people of our word, precisely because we are people of God’s Word.

What is truth?” is an important philosophical question, Pilate’s cynicism notwithstanding. But an even more important question may be asked: “Who is truth?” The man who stood before Pilate had already given His answer (John 14:6). If we claim the name of Christ, our dealings with both believers and unbelievers must corroborate our confession. Only if we are known for bearing true witness can we faithfully bear witness to the Truth.

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