"Protecting Our Neighbor's Name"
(Delivered Sunday, January 4, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
We continue our study of the Ten Commandments this morning; and specifically, we look at the commandment that concerns the first sin ever committed in the history of planet earth.
I'd bet that if we asked most people what they thought the first sin ever committed in all of world history was, they'd say it was the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden - where they disobeyed God's command, and ate of the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden to them. And of course, they'd be right to point to that as the first sin ever committed by anyone in the human race-a sin that, from then on, brought the curse of death upon all of Adam and Eve's offspring (Romans 5:12). But as dreadful as it was, that sin was actually a sinful response to what was actually the first sin ever committed on planet earth.
The Bible tells us that, as she was alone in the garden, Eve was spoken to by the devil in the form of a serpent. He asked her, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?" And she said, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'" And it was true; God did tell her husband, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:16-17).
But then came the first sin ever committed on planet earth. The serpent hissed these words to the woman: "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:4-5). As a result of what the serpent said, the woman and her husband ate; and their sinful response to this first sin brought the curse of death upon all of us.
The first sin ever committed on planet earth, you see, was that of the telling of a lie. And look at the different aspects of this sin of the devil. First, he tempted the woman by telling her that she would not surely die; which was the affirmation of something diametrically opposed to the truth - stated with the bold intention of misleading the woman from God's good way for her. Then, devil dared to lie again by bearing false testimony about God Himself; questioning His motives and character, slandering Him, and suggesting to Eve that He was somehow holding out on her. And then, he sought to flatter Eve through yet another lie; telling her that, by eating, she could be like God through knowing good and evil.
You've no doubt heard the saying, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive"? Well, just think of what a tangled web it is that has been woven from this very first sin of deception! All mankind has been brought under the curse of death, and an immeasurable amount of destruction and pain has been brought into the world because of it. This first sin is, I believe, why Jesus once described the devil by saying that "He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it" (John 8:44). We play the part of the devil's children whenever we ourselves lie. As the Puritan preacher Thomas Watson has written, "He that raises a slander, carries the devil in his tongue; and he that receives it, carries the devil in his ear."1
I once heard of a good Christian father who promised his children that he will punish them faithfully and justly whenever they disobey him. But he then warned them that he loved them enough to punish them ten times as much for any time that they disobeyed and then lied to him about it. He told that that this was because, if they learn to lie, they would then open the floodgates to every other kind of sin in their lives. Just as the devil is the father of lies, lying is the father of all sins; because if you learn to 'cover your steps', then you will cease to care where you put your feet.
If we give sober consideration to the first of all sins ever committed on planet earth, then we'll have a better appreciation for the importance of God's ninth commandment: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16; also Deuteronomy 5:20). It was the violation of this commandment-in principle-that has brought about the ruin of the human race, and that has made it necessary for the Son of God Himself to come to this earth and redeem us with His own blood. And every time we violate the spirit of this commandment ourselves, we add more and more to that ruin. Just a moment's painful reflection is enough to remind each one of us how much damage we've already brought about in our own lives - and the lives of others - through our practice of breaking of this one commandment!
Oh how much, then, we need to hear - and heed - this very important commandment from God!
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Let's begin by considering . . .
1. WHO THIS COMMANDMENT PROTECTS.
Specifically, the commandment says, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The Hebrew word used in this commandment (ră'a) is very wide in meaning. It is often translated "friend" in the Scriptures; but it can also mean "associate" or "fellow-citizen" or "neighbor" in the broader sense. It doesn't necessarily refer to someone with whom you have a deep friendship, or who lives next door to you, but can simply refer to someone with whom you have some kind of everyday contact in life.
It might help to understand the idea of "neighbor" by looking at the same word as it's used in the tenth commandment. There, we read,
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's (v. 17).
The same word for "neighbor" in the tenth commandment is being used in the ninth. And plainly, a "neighbor" isn't just a "friend" or someone who lives "next door". It refers to anyone with whom you have enough everyday contact in life that you could inwardly want his house, his wife, his servants, or his property, or any of the other things God has given to be his legitimate possession.
Jesus Himself revealed to us the breadth of the idea of "neighbor"-showing us that it's much broader that we might expect. A lawyer once asked Him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him, among other things, that he must love his neighbor as himself. But the man, wanting to justify himself, asked, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29).2 He was probably trying to do what a lot of us would do - trying to excuse himself from keeping that commandment, thinking that it was too hard to define what "neighbor" means.
Jesus gave him a definition through a story:
Then Jesus answered and said: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jerico, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.' So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" And he said, "He who showed mercy on him." Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:30-37).
If you take the meaning of the Greek word for "neighbor" literally, the lawyer was asking Jesus, "And who is my 'near-one'?" He thought that he was only obligated to someone who was in an established, "near-by" kind of relationship - a next door "neighbor". But Jesus must have surprised him, because the "neighbor" in His parable was a despised Samaritan - someone who most definitely did not live "next door" to a Jew; in fact, someone with whom a Jew would have avoided having any contact with at all! Those who were "neighbors" and who should have felt some sense of obligation-that is, the priest and the Levite-largely ignored the robbed man. But it was the Samaritan who proved himself to be the man's "neighbor" by showing mercy to him, meeting his immediate needs for care, and providing for his long-term needs from out of his own substance. The man's need for love and mercy - and the Samaritan's obligation to him because of that need-was the only thing that made one the "neighbor" of the other.
Now I say this because it's easy for us to try to excuse ourselves from this commandment by searching around for the specific "neighbor" to whom we're obligated to keep it. We might tend to think that we're keeping it so long as we don't trash-talk the person living next door to us, or lie to our friends. But I suggest that the breadth of this word, and the sort of example that Jesus used to define it, means that we're obligated to keep it toward anyone who can be affected by our words - anyone who can be affected by our life and who needs our love and mercy; and whose need thus obligates us to protect their reputation and preserve the truth with respect to them. It would include friends, next door neighbors, associates across town or in another city, workmates, family members, authority figures - and even someone whom we might ordinarily consider an enemy. It includes anyone whose life can be affected in some way by our words.
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Think with me for a moment of how this commandment relates to the other commandments around it. When we began to study the 'second table of the law'-those commandments that have to do with our relationship to one another-we noted how these commandments are given to us for our neighbor's protection. First, we noted that the sixth commandment against murder is intended to protect our neighbor's life. And then, we noted that the commandments that follow it are intended to protect that which makes our neighbor's life a blessing. We noted, for example, that the seventh commandment against adultery protects the relationships that make our neighbor's life a blessing - that is, his relationship with his wife and his children. Then, we noted that the eighth commandment against stealing protects the property and resources that God has given our neighbor in order to preserve his own life and provide for the lives of those of his household.
This ninth commandment is also intended to protect that which is a blessing to our neighbor's life - one of his most important possessions, in fact; that of his reputation and of his right to be able to operate within the context of truth. As Proverbs 22:1 tells us, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches"; and so, we are obligated to protect our neighbor's reputation as one of his most precious possessions.
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So, that's who this commandment is intended to protect. Let's next consider . . .
2. WHAT THIS COMMANDMENT FORBIDS.
Specifically, what the commandment forbids is the bearing of a false witness against our neighbor. In the Hebrew language, as it's presented to us in Exodus 20:16, the "witness" or "testimony" being described is a "false" one; and as it's presented to us in Deuteronomy 5:20, it's an "empty" or "vain" one. Both suggest a witness or testimony presented in an official setting-such as in a court of law or in a formal hearing; and both suggest a witness or testimony that is a lie designed to bring about the hurt of the one being witnessed against.
The Bible gives us some examples of this. In the Old Testament, the evil king of Israel, Ahab, coveted the vineyard of one of his subjects named Naboth; but Naboth refused to sell it to the king because the land was a part of the inheritance God had given to his fathers. It was very sinful for Ahab to ask this; and when it was denied him, he went away pouting. But Ahab's wicked wife Jezebel heard about Naboth's refusal. So, she arranged a fake banquet in Naboth's honor; and during the banquet, she hired a couple of scoundrels to stand up and bear false witness against him that he had blasphemed God and the king in their presence. As a result, they immediately took Naboth outside the city and stoned him to death. Then - with little more guilt than if she had bought him a nice anniversary gift - Jezebel told her husband, "Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead" (1 Kings 21:15).
The New Testament martyr Stephen faced false witnesses as well. The leaders of Jerusalem were not able to silence his preaching, and were unable to answer his claims concerning Christ. And so, they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And once they stirred the people up against him, he was arrested and brought before the council. Then we're told, "They also set up false witnesses who said, "This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place an change the customs which Moses delivered to us" (Acts 6:11-14). The leaders stoned Stephen do death; even though his powerful sermon in chapter 7 proved that the charge against him was a lie..
Even our Savior Himself was the victim of the violation of this commandment. When He stood trial before the high priests, and the assembled chief priests and scribes, we're told,
Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree. Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, "We heard Him say, 'I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.'" But not even then did their testimony agree (Mark 14:55-59).
To be a false witness in a court of law, or in a formal hearing, is a very grievous sin. The courts are there to defend the innocent, and to protect a man's life or to preserve his property; and a judge is there to see that justice is done. But a false witness seeks to rob a man of both his life and his property - or to protect a murderer and a thief from justice! And the false witness seeks to do so by blinding the eyes of the court from the truth, and by testifying instead to lies as if they were true. A false witness is a blasphemer; because he or she swears before God to tell the truth, and then proceeds to mock God by lying before His face. A false witness, then, is the parent of a whole host of other terrible sins; and thus commits the sin that most conforms him to the devil.
And it's against that sin that this commandment speaks most specifically. We are told, in the strongest possible way, that we are neither to be a false witness against our neighbor, nor to bear a false witness that is given against our neighbor.
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But just as we have observed with many of the other commandments, this commandment also implies much more than it directly forbids. It particularly forbids one of the most grievous and wicked sins of its kind in order to show that all other sins of its kind are also forbidden. God Himself is a God who speaks truth. He is called the "God of truth" (Psalm 31:5); and Jesus Himself attested to His Father, "Your word is truth" (John 17:17). And so, everything that departs from communicating truth is forbidden in this commandment, because such a departure is a contradiction to God's very nature and is a sin against Him.
For example, this commandment also by implication forbids the speaking of lies in an informal setting - that is, outside the a court of law or an official hearing. The great Bible teacher Arthur Pink once gave a good description of a lie. He said that it consists of three elements: (1) speaking what is not true, (2) intentionally doing so, and (3) doing so with the intention of deceiving.3 A man may speak what is not true, and yet not intend to do so or mean to deceive; and this would not be a lie-just 'a mistake'. Likewise, a man may accidentally speak what is true, and yet think it was false and speak it with the intention of deceiving; and this really can't be called a lie either. But when someone intentionally speaks what is not true in order to deceive, they are either seeking to get someone into trouble who is innocent, or to get someone out of trouble who is guilty. And the Bible tells us that "Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who deal truthfully are His delight" (Proverbs 12:22). It warns us that "the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolater, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death" (Revelation 21:8).
This commandment would also forbid gossiping, and spreading things about them that cannot be confirmed, in such a way as to damage their reputation or diminish them in the eyes of others. It's a sin, unfortunately, that we love all too much. It's like the button I read once; "If you can't say anything nice about other people . . . then come and sit next to me." That may cause a laugh; but it's just another form of bearing a false witness. Proverbs 17:9 says, "He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends." And so, in the Book of Leviticus, God warned the people of Israel, "You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people . . ." (Leviticus 19:16).
Another thing this commandment forbids the sin of slandering - which is to circulate a malicious and false report about someone in such a way as to force them to occupy their time in correcting the falsehood that was spread. (To be honest, it seems to be one of the main weapons politicians use against each other in an election year.) The Old Testament reformer Nehemiah was a victim of this. As he was seeking to build and restore the walls of the city of Jerusalem - with the full permission of the then ruler of the world empire - the enemies of Israel tried to stop him. Failing to do so by law, they resorted to slander. They sent a letter to Nehemiah; saying,
"It is reported among the nations, and Gershem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, 'There is a king in Judah!' Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together" (Nehemiah 6:6-7).
And Nehemiah responded by saying, "No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart" (v. 8).
The apostle Paul was even a victim of this; because many sought to undo his preaching by saying that he taught things he didn't teach. He sought to explain the wonderful grace of God in the gospel in the book of Romans; but spoke rhetorically and said, "And why not say, 'Let us do evil that good may come'?-as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just" (Rom. 3:8). Many people are practiced in using the weapon of slander; but God's word tells us, "You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice" (Exodus 23:1-2).
Another way we break this commandment is not so much when we openly lie, but when we are silent at a time when we should confess the truth. This is certainly true with respect to to the actions of others that require our witness. The Bible tells us, for example, "If a person sins in hearing the utterance of an oath, and is witness, whether he has seen or known of the matter-if he does not tell it, he bears guilt" (Leviticus 5:1). But it also tells us that it's true with respect to our own actions. The Bible says, "He who covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy (Proverbs 28:13). Do you remember the sin of Ananias and his wife Sapphira? They didn't openly "lie". Instead, they simply didn't report that they kept back some of the money that they had pledged; But Peter rebuked them, saying, ". . . Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit? and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself?" (Acts 5:3).
Hypocrisy is another way we can break this commandment-the sin of pretending to be holy before the eyes of others so as to make them believe we're something that we're not. It happens when we adopt a spiritual manner around others-strictly for effect. It's not so much a matter of lying about someone else as it is a matter of lying about one's own spiritual condition. And it's not so much a matter of uttering a lie with the lips as it is a matter of uttering a lie with the heart. Jesus spoke harshly about this kind of lying. He rebuked the false-religiosity of the scribes and Pharisees; saying, "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Matthew 15:7-9).
Similarly, we break this commandment when we flatter someone. Now, this isn't the same thing as giving someone a well-deserved compliment, of course. It may be "flattering" to be on the receiving end of such such words of encouragement and appreciation; but that's not the same thing as a negative kind of "flattery." The flattery I'm speaking of is a matter of painting someone out to be better than they truly are - either out of a desire to gratify their pride or ingratiate them to ourselves; or out of a desire to avoid treating them realistically, or out of a fear of confronting their sin in an honest way. We can flatter someone to their face, and thus enable them to hold a false view of themselves. Or we can flatter someone else before others with a testimony for which they are not worthy; bearing a false witness before others about that person. The Bible forbids us from engaging in such flattery. Proverbs says, "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD" (Proverbs 17:15).
Sinful flattery can also occur when we speak appreciative words about someone that we don't mean, in order to catch them off guard and gain an advantage over them. People tried to victimize Jesus in this way-but it didn't work. The Pharisees plotted how they might entangle Jesus in His talk; and so, having hatched a plan, they sent some men to Him who said, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men . . ." But Jesus saw through the buttering-up that He was receiving; and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?" (Matthew 22:15-18).
Do you know that we even break the spirit of this commandment when we use humor in a hurtful way? I'll never forget the time, when I was in Bible college, that a group of us discovered a particular passage in Proverbs for the first time. My joker-buddies and I all gathered around and had quite a chuckle over this passage; but to be honest, I think it was because it had convicted us so much. In Proverbs 26:18-19, it says, "Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, 'I was only joking!'" I have to confess that I had been quite a practical joker in the past, and that a lot of my clowning around - fooling people about this, or leading them astray about that - had spread far more hurt among other people than good cheer. I hope this passage hasn't diminished a godly sense of humor in me; but it has moved me to repent of the ungodly aspects of it.
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Obviously, then, this commandment has many more ramifications in our lives than may appear on the surface. This leads us, then, to the question of . . .
3. HOW THIS COMMANDMENT SHOULD BE KEPT.
One of the first things that comes to mind is the apostle Paul's instruction: "Therefore, putting away lying, 'Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,' for we are members of one another" (Ephesians 4:25). In other words, we don't just simply cease from lying; but we actively replace lying with truth-telling.
Paul is here quoting from a passage from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah; which says,
"'These are the things you shall do; speak each man the truth to his neighbor; give judgment in your gates for truth, justice, and peace; let none of you think evil in your heart against your neighbor; and do not love a false oath. For all these are things that I hate,' says the LORD" (Zechariah 8:16-17).
Obedience to this command is a matter of the transformation of the heart. And so, Paul is applying these words to believers; and is in effect saying, "Listen, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; you are now members together of the same Body-the Body of Christ. You are members of one another-transformed from the inside out. So, being deceitful and false with one another is as inappropriate as the parts of the same body being deceitful and false toward each other. That's not how you've learned to be in Christ together. Instead, because you are joined together in one Body, you can now be open and truthful with one another. Therefore, brothers and sisters, put on your new life in Christ with each other; lay aside your old lying ways and speak the truth to one another." In fact, Paul elsewhere calls us to now 'speak the truth in love' to one another; saying . . .
That's to be our new pattern toward one another: "speaking the truth in love". Do you know why people lie to other people? It's because they do not love them; and also because they love themselves more than they love others. But when we understand that we have been the recipients of unconditional love from the One who already knows the truth about us; and when we understand that we've been called to love one another as He has loved us; and when we understand that, in love, He has joined us to one another in His Body and made us members of one another; then we realize that we no longer have anything to hide from one another. We can now speak the truth to one another in love.
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Another way I believe we are to keep this commandment is by now learning to take our words seriously. The Bible teaches us that "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity." It tells us that the tongue "is so set in our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and is set on fire by hell" (James 3:6). The potential harm that can come from our tongues is staggering! And so we should guard what comes out of our mouths with the utmost care.
Someone once wrote that, "Every negative remark about someone is a prayer to the devil . . . and is fulfilled immediately."4 Someone else said that we should treat every word as seriously as if it were an oath before God; and that's not really to far off the mark, because Jesus Himself said that men must give an account on the day of judgment for every idle word they speak (Matthew 12:36). Knowing this ought to encourage us to take our words as seriously as God takes them; and this would help us to keep this commandment.
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Finally, I believe we are to keep the spirit of this commandment by seeking diligently to preserve and protect the reputation of others out of a Christ-like, self-sacrificial love for them. We should not spread falsehoods about others, nor should we hear matters about others that have not been confirmed.
Our Master has given us instruction on how to handle things that are reported to us. He said,
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).
Following Jesus' established pattern faithfully will ensure that we pursue the truth of the matter. It will prevent us from spreading a false report about one another. And most importantly, it will help us to preserve and protect the reputation of one another.
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May God help us to keep from repeating the first sin ever committed on planet earth-the great sin of the devil. May we keep from bearing false witness against our neighbor.
1Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), pp. 169-170).
2The Greek word that is translated "neighbor" in this passage (plăsion; adv., "near, close by") is the same word used to translate ră'a in Exodus 20:16 in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).
3Arthur Pink, "The Ten Commandments" in The Best of Arthur Pink (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 255-256.
4Walter Trobisch, I Married You (San Fransisco: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 113.
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