You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16).
When Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish leaders for preaching the resurrection of Christ, they defended themselves by saying, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). In this simple statement we find the definition and duty of a witness. Christ had promised His disciples would be witnesses (Acts. 1:8). Against that background stands the command to not bear “false witness” against a neighbor.
To Witness Falsely
What does it mean to bear false witness? The Hebrew phrase (`anah sheqer `ed) literally means “to give false/deceptive/lying witness/testimony.” The original meaning is likely connected to the judicial process. The phrase “against [lit. in the case of] your neighbor” refers to a reciprocal relationship between two people. Jesus defined “neighbor” broadly, and it’s best to see a broad application of this term as well.
If a witness is to testify about what he has seen and heard, then it follows that giving false testimony is to say what is untrue (ex: “I saw John coming out of Joe’s house at 1pm,” when in fact it was actually 2:30pm). Of course, false testimony need not be that blatant. Most falsehoods are far more subtle.
The Wider Context
Being a witness is not limited to judicial proceedings, however. As we pointed out earlier, Jesus says that His disciples will be His witnesses (i.e., witnesses of Him and His work). We also act as witnesses when we speak of other people in everyday conversations. The commandment is meant to protect the reputations, and giving false witness, either intentionally or carelessly, has the effect of damaging reputations. If we are to honor this commandment, then its words should have a sobering effect on what and how we speak.
In the account of Job, we found an example of what it means to be a false witness regarding God. For some context, remember that Job’s three friends came to comfort him in his time of grief after the loss of all he had. After their conversation (and God’s conversation with Job), we read these words,
After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7-8).
This is a rather serious charge. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had spoken about God things that were untrue. The penalty under the law for testifying falsely was severe (though this event likely happened before the law was given). God tells the three that unless they make sacrifice and Job prays for them, He will deal with them “according to [their] folly.”
Paul gives another example of being a false witness in his discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. There he writes,
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either (1 Cor. 15:14-16).
Paul’s comments here are unmistakable. Anyone who says Christ was not raised from the dead is guilty of breaking the ninth commandment, since God has indeed raised Christ from the dead (this is the clear implication of his argument).
These examples should give us pause when we consider how we speak about God to others today. In the context of bearing false witness, how does that apply when speaking of God? Violations of this commandment might include portraying God as:
- judgmental apart from being compassionate
- simply overlooking our sin
- unconcerned with the needs of His people
- anything less than absolutely sovereign and holy
Of course much more could be added to the list. The thing to bear in mind is that our portrayal of God should be according to Scripture, not what we think God should be like.
One final note is in order here. As witnesses, we not only witness with our words but with our lives. If our lives don’t match our words, we still run the risk of being false witnesses. Therefore, we must endeavor to fulfill Paul’s command to the Ephesians:
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Eph. 4:15).