You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Exodus 20:16 ESV
In our study of the Ten Commandments, we come now to the penultimate mandate: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, the Ninth Commandment. Unlike the prohibitions against murder, adultery, or theft, we might be tempted to these final two commandments deal with less severe sins. The reality, however, is that the Ninth (and Tenth) Commandment is just as endemic and deadly as the ones we have studied so far.
DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS
When listing off a few of the Ten Commandments, this one often gets summarized down to not lying. Although forbidding falsehood in general is foundational to a proper understanding of the Ninth Commandment, we would also do well to begin by paying careful attention to the exact language used. The commandment is explicitly against being a false witness, that is presenting untruthful information in a situation where your testimony is needed. The most apparent of these situations being legal. Kevin DeYoung makes a helpful observation here (I will also loosely mirror DeYoung’s pattern of exploring the forms of breaking the Ninth Commandment as described in the Heidelberg Catechism):
What we see throughout the Ten Commandments is that each commandment often gives us the worst example of sinning in some way. For instance, murder is the worst way of breaking the sixth commandment, but Jesus tells us that it’s not the only way. You can also be angry. Adultery is the worst way of violating the seventh commandment, but Jesus tells us that if you lust after someone, you have also sinned. So, with the ninth commandment, the worst thing you can do is bear false witness in a court of law, where someone’s life could be snuffed out because of your deceit.p. 145
In Deuteronomy 19:15-21, we find a testament to this seriousness. If a witness was discovered to be false, he then received the very punishment that he meant to bring upon the accused. Thus, if you intended to have your brother executed via your own false testimony, you were then to be executed instead. The passage ends with the famous words: “It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (v.21), which was meant to be an act of warning to the rest of Israel regarding the deadly effects of sin. Indeed, when King Ahab and his wife Jezebel executed Naboth through the accounts of false witnesses in order to take possession of his land, God personally promised to repay him by eliminating his entirely household.
Although few of us will ever be such a circumstance, the impact of our witness is no less significant, especially given the advent of social media. Through these platforms, which move at “electric speed,” Twitter mobs and the like are now able to spring up around the world within hours. An example of this was seen in 2013 when a woman tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS before her flight to Africa. By the time she reached the continent, her tweet had gone viral, and she was fired from her public relations position with her employer. I do not cite this story in order to discuss whether the world’s reaction was in proportion to her statement; instead, I use it to emphasize the speed at which messages now travel.
Although the woman discussed above suffered consequences for her own words, we have seen in recent years many accusations against individuals that were in turn met with similar social media mobs. Inevitably, some prove to be true and others false. The latter are obviously false witnesses, yet we would be wise to see the inherent dangers of mob outrage coupled with little-to-no concern for the rule of due process. Such outpourings of hostility often do not so much reflect a pursuit of justice as they do a pack of sharks who have caught the scent of blood. As Proverbs 18:17 rightly warns: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” As a people who wish to uphold the Ninth Commandment, we should be wary of the possibilities of false witnesses and always refrain from rashly joining in the condemnation of others. In fact, Paul warned Titus that such people who love divisions, dissensions, controversies, and quarrels are “warped and sinful” (3:10-11).
Along these lines, we could also add that gossip is a violation of this commandment. Gossip, the act of disseminating often untrue information about others without their knowing or approval, almost always becomes at least mildly slanderous. In fact, we might say that gossip is the passive-aggressive version of slander. Take note of the company that Paul places gossips and slanderers among in Romans 1:29-30, “They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, heartless, ruthless.” It’s not exactly the kind of crowd that you’d want to be associated with.
Kevin DeYoung further clarifies that “Gossip is passing along a report or rumor that cannot be substantiated. But gossip is more than that. We also gossip when we pass along a true report unnecessarily” (147). Too often we can excuse gossip with the badge that it is true. However, if it ruins the reputation and name of our neighbor in another person’s eyes, then we are guilty of slander. We should be careful to always speak the truth in love, which also entails speaking the truth wisely or, better yet, knowing when not to speak at all.
Before continuing onward, allow me to make one final point regarding gossip: why would we ever believe that gossiping about celebrities is any less sinful? Fame certainly places people in the spotlight, where their lives are nearly on full display for all to see, yet they have not ceased to be people, fellow image-bearers of God and our neighbors. Celebrity gossip, therefore, is no different than “regular” gossip. Both are sin.
The Heidelberg Catechism argues that in order to comply with this commandment we must “wrest no one’s words.” Or as we would say today, we must not twist anyone’s words. When considered, it is easy to see that twisting or distorting another person’s words is bring a false witness against them with their own words acting as the false witness.
Finally, at its most basic, the Ninth Commandment forbids all lying and deceit. Whenever we say something false, we bear a false witness against our neighbor. The context is rarely ever as life-or-death as a courtroom, but each time we speak we are giving witness and testimony to something or someone. All lies, therefore, are a breaking of this law.
THE GOD WHO IS TRUTH
But why is falsehood sin? Why are all lies sin, even when the vast majority will never condemn an innocent person to execution? As we’ve noted with each of the commandments, the Ninth Commandment is rooted in the character of God. Bearing a false witness is sin because God is both true and the truth. Like all sin, falsehood goes against the very essence of the Holy One.
Again, we do not need to go any further than first two chapters of Genesis in order to see the truthfulness of God. Within the account of creation, we are told that God spoke matter into existence. For instance, God said, “Let there be light,” and light appears. He then does the same with the sky, the land, the sea, and all the plants and animals. This is speaking truth at an unparalleled level. This is the Creator God calling “into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).
Think about this a bit more.
We know that we are speaking truthfully whenever our speech conforms to reality. Whenever our words do not match reality, they are false. God’s words, however, are not true because they conform to reality; they are true because they form reality. We speak, and our words may or may not reflect reality. But God speaks, and reality is born. We use the word earth to communicate with one another something about this large, solar-orbiting rock that we call home. God speaks earth, and it is, complete with perfectly calibrated gravitation pull to keep our feet squarely upon it. We are, therefore, steeped in the truthfulness of God. We cannot escape it. Truth itself cannot be defined apart from Him because as the Creator, God is truth.
As we’ve noted previously, the account of creation continues with God forming the first humans, Adam and Eve. Together, the man and woman were made to be God’s image, to display His likeness. God, therefore, gave them dominion over all the creatures of the earth, and He placed them within a garden of His own design to be its caretakers. Within this paradise of joy and blessing, God made a single prohibition: they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He further warned that eating its fruit would lead to their death. Given God’s marvelous provision for them, Adam and Eve had no reason to question God’s truthfulness.
Yet in Genesis 3, Eve meets a crafty serpent with some interesting words for her: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Eve replies by repeating God’s command, but notably she adds to His words, claiming that God did not permit them even to touch the tree’s fruit. “You will not surely die,” the serpent said, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Eve believed the serpent’s words, so she ate, as did Adam. The serpent lied. He held a half-truth before their eyes, and they took the bait. They bought the lie that God had deceived them. Adam and Eve did indeed discover the knowledge of good and evil, but such knowledge came at the cost of actually committing evil.
God’s words, however, proved true. Adam lived for 930 years, but death still came. It also claimed his son, Seth, and grandson, Enosh. In fact, the whole human race has been caught in death’s snare since that day. Some have lived many years, and some never even left their mother’s womb. “It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath” (Ecclesiastes 9:2). We who were meant to govern the garden of God now labor against the cursed ground until our bodies return to dust that formed us.
Yet even bleaker than this physical death is the spiritual death that our belief in the serpent’s falsehood cost us. Adam and Eve’s sin, their willful rejection of God’s truth in favor of a lie, severed their communion with God. As we continue to follow in their footsteps, we continue to call God a liar with each sin that we commit. We bear false witness against Him by refusing to believe the penalties and consequences of our sin. The Creator has warned that sin must end in death, yet we continue to sin in open defiance to Him. By our actions, we declare God to be a liar. Damnation is the just penalty for such rebellion.
Yet God did not leave us in our condemnation. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word and Son of God, became a part of His own creation in order to save us. Since death is sin’s penalty, He willingly gave His own life in our place, and as the sinless and divine second person of the triune God, His death was entirely sufficient for redeeming all who receive His forgiveness. As the way, the truth, and the life, Christ alone reunites us to God as our Father and gives us the Spirit to live in Him all of our days. The God who is truth has rescued us from the falsehood of sin and restored us to Himself.
YOU WILL BE MY WITNESSES
Finally, we must now address the positive implications of the Ninth Commandment. Since we are forbidden from bearing false witness against our neighbor, what are commanded to do instead?
Most generally, we must speak the truth. As followers of the one true God, our “yes” should mean yes and our “no” should mean no (James 5:12). Twice in Ephesians 4, Paul commands us to speak the truth. First, in verse 15, he urges us to speak “the truth in love” and mature evermore in Christ, which he presents as the antidote to being unstable children who are constantly swayed by “deceitful schemes” and cunning, man-made doctrines. Second, in verse 25, he tells us to “put away falsehood” and “speak the truth” to our neighbors. Thus, we should first have not only a commitment to the truth of Christ, but we should speak the doctrines (or teachings) of Christ in love. Maturing in the faith requires building one another up by repeating again and again the eternal truths upon which we hope. Then, since we are called to be a body of redeemed children of God who are edifying one another in the truth, it is only natural that we should also be marked by a truthful disposition in every realm of our lives.
Second, we must guard the honor and reputation of our neighbor. If a false witness destroys the name (or even life) of another person, we should instead be a people who refuse to be silent participants of the slandering of others. Watson points out that Jonathan did this very thing for David before his father, Saul, in 1 Samuel 19:4-5, “And Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, ‘Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you. For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the LORD worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?’” Like Jonathan, let us speak on behalf of those against whom a false witness is brought.
Third, we must be true witnesses of Christ. Prior to His ascension, Jesus told 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 ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are now Christ’s body upon the earth. We, His disciples, are called to continue His earthly ministry as His representatives. Indeed, just as Christ came to reconcile us to God, so Paul states that we are now “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As Christians, each of our words and actions bears a witness to Christ because we carry His name as His ambassadors. We must, therefore, determine whether we bear a true or false witness of Him. All sin, for Christ’s followers, is a breaking of this Ninth Commandment because it lies about the character of Jesus. Instead, we should strive in every way to imitate our Lord. We must, in both speech and conduct, bear a true witness of Christ before others, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Since the God who never lies is our Father, may be lovers of the truth. May we shun the very thought of bearing a false witness against our neighbors; instead, let us speak the truth to one another in love and for our continued maturing in the faith. May we also grow a deeper hatred for our sin, knowing that by it we bear false witness against our Lord and Savior. Rather, may we delight in walking in the truth as we both speak and live the marvelous realities of Jesus Christ for all people to see.
 This is Marshal McLuhan’s quite prophetic term from the 80s.