Please open your Bibles to Exodus chapter 20. If you’re using a church Bible, you’ll find it on page 61. In a few moments we will read together the words of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. We’ve come this morning to the ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Of all the commandments, I’m not sure there’s one of them more frequently broken with less thought or fear of consequence than this one. A columnist for The New York Times put it like this, “The injunction against bearing false witness, branded in stone and brought down by Moses from the mountaintop, has always provoked ambivalent, conflicting emotions. On the one hand, nearly everyone condemns lying. On the other hand, nearly everyone does it every day.” On the one hand, everyone condemns lying; on the other, nearly everyone does it every day. And yet our lack of concern for the ninth commandment notwithstanding, as you read through the summary of God’s moral law provided here in Exodus 20, it’s clear that verbal integrity receives significant emphasis.
Look at the commandments as a whole with me, for a moment, before we read them together. The sin dealt with in the ninth commandment is actually addressed in slightly different ways in both tables of the law. I wonder if you saw that! It speaks to the issue of truth-telling and verbal integrity and the godly use of our words. But the third commandment also addresses sins of speech, remember. Sins of speech this time pertaining to the name of God – honoring His name and prohibiting the misuse of His name. And so twice over, once in the first table of the law, commandments one to four dealing with love to God, and once in the second table of the law, commandments five to ten dealing with love to neighbor, God addresses the way we use our tongues. The tongue, we are to be reminded, is the instrument of relationship, of interpersonal connection, whether that is relationship and connection with God or with one another. And the fact that God devotes two of ten commandments to addressing our speech ought to check our general indifference and generate in us some awareness of the gravity and the weight our God attaches to what we say and the way that we say it.
And so with a sense, perhaps only the beginning of a sense of the importance of the matters addressed in the ninth commandment pressing in upon us, would you bow your heads with me as we turn to God in prayer before we read His holy Word. Let us pray!
Abba Father, we pray now for the ministry of the faithful and true witness, the Lord Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, wield the Word which is truth, in all our hearts and lives, that Jesus may have the glory, that the kingdom of Satan may be toppled, and Christ alone reign as Lord in all our hearts, for we ask it in His name. Amen.
Exodus 20 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“And God spoke all these words, saying,
‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.
The Duke Reporters’ Lab out of Duke University recently conducted a census and found that international fact-finding websites - you know those things that fact check the politicians’ answers – that globally, fact-checking websites have multiplied by fifty percent in the last year. Ninety-six fact-checking services operate in thirty-six countries worldwide. Mark Stencel, the director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, explained that increase in terms of the increasing culture in public political discourse of being what can, euphemistically be called, “economical with the truth.” “The high volume of political truth-twisting is driving demand for political fact-checkers around the world,” he said. Many of these sites use a sliding scale to measure the degree of truth or falsehood in a politicians’ words. Politi-Fact’s Truth-O-Meter is the best known among them and it uses a scale ranging from “True” at one extreme through, “Mostly True,” all the way down to, “Pants on Fire” at the far end!
All Are Guilty of Lying
Now, no doubt it’s a good thing that reporters and news outlets are fact-checking and holding politicians’ feet to the fire on the claims that they make, but the fact is, we enjoy the “Gotcha!” spectacle of a politician being caught in a lie much more than we’re really concerned about their integrity, at least if the way that we intend to vote is anything to go by. We like the fact-checker’s business, I suspect, as much for the sheer voyeurism in the sense of schadenfreude that we feel at someone else being caught in a lie than for anything else, not because we are particularly valiant for the truth. In fact, most of us find deceptive speech comes all too naturally to our lips. Isn’t that so? We obfuscate and we evade, we tell half-truths and we give an impression contrary to the facts, and then we comfort ourselves that we did not tell a lie. Or when we do lie, we find creative ways to let ourselves off the hook. Listen to Cornelius Plantinga’s description of the way that we lie, even to ourselves. See if this lands with you! “Self-deception,” says Plantinga, “is a shadowy phenomenon by which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn, and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified version. Thus a liar might transform, ‘I tell a lot of lies to shore up my pride’ to, ‘Occasionally I finesse the truth to spare other people’s feelings.’ We become our own dupes playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite.” No, we are a mass of evasion and self-deception, so when God calls us to be truth-tellers, people of the truth, here in the ninth commandment, very often we hardly know where to begin.
The Lie of Satan Himself
And of course false witness has been a problem from the start, hasn’t it? You will remember that a lie told by Satan to our first parents in the Garden was the occasion for the fall of the race into sin and misery. First, the devil questioned the truthfulness of God; “Did God really say, You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden?” and then he himself lied outright. “You will not surely die! You will be like God.” And our first parents fell for the lie, hook, line, and sinker. Didn’t they? And when God found them hiding for shame, having broken His law, what was Adam’s first instinct? What did he say? “The woman, whom you gave me, she gave me to eat and I ate.” What is he doing? “I’m the victim here!” That’s what he’s saying! “It’s her fault! It’s Your fault! I am not morally responsible!” At an effort of self-justification to get himself off the hook, he is bearing false witness. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? To get ourselves off the hook! Doesn’t bearing false witness come awfully easy?
And now, I wonder if you can see this – the man made in the image of God has come to bear the moral reflection of the one John 8:44 calls “a liar and the father of lies” – the serpent himself, Satan, who tempted him with a lie. And so in Romans chapter 3 verse 14, when the Apostle Paul describes human depravity and the pervasive effects of sin in our hearts and lives, he says of all people, “the venom of asps is under their lips.” That is, the poison of the serpent comes from our mouths now too. That’s why Deuteronomy 19:15, for example, tells us that an accused may only be condemned on the basis of not one, but at least two witnesses. Because this side of Eden, we cannot, we are not reliable truth-tellers anymore. We struggle to be people of the truth now. And it’s not just that we find the truth occasionally inconvenient and slip into deception from time to time. No, our inability to be people of the truth runs deep. Jesus gives us the full diagnosis in passage like Matthew 12:34 and following. Listen to this; “How can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good; the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Or Matthew 15:18-20, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and defiles a person. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
Metaphors Describing the Tongue
Those self-justifying, self-excusing evasions, those moments of gossip when you tear down a brother or a sister out of spite or for sheer titillation; the exaggerations of flattery that have the appearance of kindness but are really an attempt to win approval or evade scrutiny are breaches of the ninth commandment, are sins, Jesus says, not just of the tongue but of the heart. That is to say, our problem is not superficial or incidental after all; it is radical and pervasive. Our sins of speech, Jesus is teaching us, penetrate to the core of who we are. I wonder if you know the three startling metaphors that James, the brother of Jesus, uses in James chapter 3 beginning at verse 5 to describe the deleterious effects of our breaches of the ninth commandment, the habitual sins of the tongue and what they do to us? Three metaphors that he uses. He says the tongue is a forest fire, a wild animal, and a deadly poison.
- The Tongue is a Forest Fire
First of all, it is a forest fire. James 3:5, “The tongue is a small member yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire. And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” That single, careless word of gossip – you thought nothing about it. Like a still-lit cigarette butt thrown from the window of a passing car one hot, June evening. Unthinking! Discarded! That’s all it took for those dry leaves to begin to burn and then that gentle evening breeze to fan the flames, and soon acres and acres are ablaze. One careless word! One spiteful comment! The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness, setting on fire the whole course of life, and if the flames are not doused, will itself be set on fire by hell. The tongue is a forest fire.
- The Tongue is a Wild Animal
Second metaphor – the tongue is a wild animal. “Every kind of beast,” James says, “and bird and reptile, sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no human being can tame the tongue.” I was reading a news report last week of an Egyptian woman working in a circus as a lion tamer. She had performed the show hundreds of times before, and this evening everything was going as planned. The lions were obeying the commands. They each climbed up and sat meekly on a stool around the cage while she performed for the audience in the center. And then suddenly and without warning, one of the lions decided he’d had enough and sprang from the stool and pinned her down and while the crowd surged to their feet screaming and circus aides usher the lions into their cages, the lion that was pinning her down bit deeply into her shoulder and she managed somehow to scramble free with her life intact but by the slenderest of margins. It turns out you can’t really tame a lion; you only think you can. It turns out you can’t really tame your tongue either; you only think you can. You may consider yourself wise and measured, but then suddenly, given the right circumstances, you find yourself passing on that juicy tidbit you learned the other day, spreading the rumor, leaping to conclusions, passing unjust judgment, bearing false witness. The lion has sprung from the stool and has sunk its teeth in deeply as you break the ninth commandment.
- The Tongue is a Deadly Poison
A forest fire, a wild animal, and then finally James says it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” You’re out for a walk in the woods one autumn afternoon. The dry leaves are crunching underfoot, you’re humming a nameless tune, kicking a rock as you stroll aimlessly, breathing deeply the fresh autumn air. There’s just a hint of winter on the breeze and you begin to daydream about the snow when you step on the snake. And as it pumps poison into your veins and you struggle to breathe and the darkness envelopes you, the last thing you hear is the gentle rustle of autumn leaves as the serpent slithers into the bushes. Like poison from the serpent’s bite, bearing false witness has tracked through our veins, pervaded our system, penetrated our hearts, and unless the antidote can be found it will kill us in the end.
So our problem isn’t so superficial after all, is it? Telling a lie is not merely the minor peccadillo that we once thought it was. It is deadly, a poison that festers in our hearts, a fire that kills. So what can be done? Two things; First, we must flee to Jesus Christ! He is, Revelation 1:5, “the faithful and true witness.” John 14:6, He is, “the truth.” Yet you will remember in Mark 14 at His trial, false witness after false witness are ushered in to give testimony against Him. He never once replied in His own defense until He’s asked directly, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” And when He confirmed it, the high priest, with a note of exaltation declared, “What other need of witnesses have we? And Christ was condemned as a blasphemer, someone whose witness and testimony was rejected as utterly, utterly false. The faithful and true witness, the one who came from the Father, John 1:14, “full of grace and truth,” dying as a false witness, a breaker of the ninth commandment. The witnesses called against Him were bearing false witness, the high priest bore false witness, even Peter, His dear friend in the courtyard outside His trial, when asked if he was one of Christ’s disciples denied it with an oath. He bore false witness! The only one who was the truth and spoke the truth, who did not bear false witness, is the one condemned as a false witness! Here He is, the true one, bearing the wrath and curse of my falsehood. Here He is, the one who embodies the truth, who is the truth, paying the price of my insincerity.
Jesus is the Answer
So what do we do with the forest fire, with the wild animal, unpredictable, ready to pounce all unexpectedly, with the deadly poison of our insincerity? We must turn to the only one who has the remedy, who can douse the flames, who can tame the beast, who has the antidote to the poison, who can give us a whole heart, a clean heart, a clear conscience, and a new beginning. We must go to Jesus Christ. He will douse the flames; He will tame the beast; He holds the antidote for the poison. Jesus Christ is the answer, the answer of God to our wayward, false, and fickle hearts.
We Must Love the Church
And then secondly, and only after we have first gone to Jesus Christ, we must learn to love the church. Ephesians 4:25, “Having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.” Don’t be people of the lie; be people of the truth. Then, Paul gives us a motive – “for we are members of one another.” You see, when you come to Jesus Christ, He does more than pardon your sin and begin to renovate your life. He also makes you belong. He makes you belong one to another within the fellowship of His body, the church, so that we find ourselves loving and caring for one another, seeking mutual accountability and mutual encouragement. We are members of one another. And as that love begins to blossom within us as we come to know Jesus and He plants in our hearts a love for the people of God, we see ourselves beginning to be truth-tellers, speaking the truth in love, longing to be an agent of Gospel truth in the lives of those around us and seeking that same ministry for ourselves.
Brothers and sisters, we need to get close and stay close to Christ, and we need to stay close to one another. And as we do that, as we love and trust Him and as we learn to love and serve one another, the Scriptures promise us that our mouths will become instruments of Gospel good, the Word of Christ dwelling in us richly. We begin to “teach and admonish one another, singling psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, in all wisdom with thankfulness in our hearts to God.” Cling to Christ, love the people of God, and the moral likeness of the serpent, the liar and the father of lies who we all have inherited from our first parents, will be overthrown and the likeness of the true and faithful witness will begin to shine in our lives. We become people of the truth who speak the truth in love, agents of Gospel truth for the world, to which the ninth commandment calls us – not merely to tell the truth but to bear witness to the Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ, proclaiming Him the great antidote to the poison of sin in our hearts, the tamer of the wild beast, the one who can douse the flames not just for ourselves but for the whole world.
Would you pray with me please?
Our Father, we confess to You that instead of being truth-tellers and people of the truth, we often use words to evade and to deceive and to cover up. Yet Your Word exposes us as we really are and so here before You we bow down and we turn to Jesus and we pray that He would indeed douse the flames, extinguish the fire, tame the lion, and treat the poison, give us the antidote from His wounds, His atoning work, to forgive and cleanse and renovate and change us, please, so that we might be truth-tellers to one another to Your praise and glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
©2016 First Presbyterian Church.
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