Week 8: The Ninth Commandment
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Exodus 20:16, NRSV
Old Testament Background
This commandment is given as part of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, commandments given by the Lord to Moses and passed on to the people. The commandments are given as if speaking to one individual, but they are clearly for all of God’s people. The commandments are not just a set of laws for proper behavior by members of the community, they are absolute statements about how we are to think and behave to be in relationship with God. Theologian Walter Brueggemann says it this way, “These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.”[i]
So what is false witness?
The language of bearing false witness suggests testifying in a court situation. In fact, some translations of this commandment read, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” The commandment speaks to giving a false testimony in court, lying or twisting the truth when giving an account of what happened in a particular situation, or what was said in a particular conversation. It can also include neglecting to speak out truthfully on the side of justice, or withholding knowledge that could shed light on a situation.
A witness is someone who can speak about something based on first-hand knowledge, a person who saw and heard what happened and then recounts that. In ancient Israel, two witnesses were required to convict someone. Witnesses were more important in ancient times than in modern times, when we rely more on evidence, that is objects or things that can prove a person’s guilt or innocence. Bearing false witness can be twisting of the truth or manufacturing a complete lie to change the outcome or the judgement.
New Testament Explanation
Jesus expands the teaching of the commandments in the New Testament. He uses the form of saying the law, or commandment, then adding, “but I say to you.” And what follows is His teaching on that law and how we are to fulfill it as followers of Jesus, how we are to bear witness to Jesus. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus says, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” We are to speak the truth, bear witness to Jesus and not to swear oaths of our own making.
This is a challenge, as our desires and opinions can stand in the way, as well as our fears of how things may be perceived by others. It is hard to speak the truth and leave the outcome to God. Yet that is what Jesus calls us to do–trusting God as our audience, not the perspective or opinions of humankind. And Jesus promises us His Spirit to lead us, the One who will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
Questions for Reflection
- How does witness differ from evidence in a court case? And why might two witnesses be required in the Old Testament in order to find someone guilty?
- How were the apostles called to be witnesses for Jesus?
- How do we bear witness to Jesus, testify to His word, through more than our words, also through our actions?
- Why are some objects, such as the Ten Commandments, considered to be witness or testimony?
- Jesus said the Holy Spirit would be our advocate, to teach us everything and remind us of all that He said (John 14:26). How does the Holy Spirit support us in bearing witness to Jesus?
- In the current season of political division, when you hear many different voices witnessing about beliefs and events, reflect on how you work to not bear false witness against your neighbor. What is God saying to you?
A Prayer for the Week
Almighty God, You sent Your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Yourself: We praise and bless You for those whom You have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the Gospel to all nations, bearing witness to light of Christ. We thank You that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors. We give thanks and pray that all may know Your truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i] Walter Brueggemann, The Book of “Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).