Exodus 20:16 - False or Faithful

September 7, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:16–20:16

[Exodus 20:16 - "False or Faithful"]

We know the lies we tell others – lies spoken out of jealousy; anger; fear; self-protection; the desire to be liked. But what we don’t usually know are the lies we tell ourselves. Because we don’t believe they’re lies at all.

[Pray - Lord God, we thank you for the gift of your written Word. May your Spirit speak to our hearts now through the reading and preaching of that Word, and in our celebration of the sacrament. We ask through your Spirit that we may be given the grace to see Jesus Christ our only hope of salvation. Amen.]

[Read Exodus 20:1-16 for context]

There are few things as infuriating as injustice, especially intentional injustice. When liars speak in a court of law the innocent are condemned. When a witness gives false testimony justice is perverted. And one victim - turns into three. That's what came to light in Lumberton this week. Two brothers were convicted of an awful crime thirty years ago against a young girl. A witness who didn't like the brothers lied, pointed the authorities in their direction. And based on the witness' testimony, the investigators (it seems) pressed the men into confessing - even though no physical evidence linked them to the bloody crime. Because of one witness' false testimony, one victim turned into three. The little girl who suffered and died was joined by two brothers whose lives were stolen away by injustice. [1]

That's the kind of situation this command was given to prevent. Because God hates that kind of injustice. In Israelite society - where there was no DNA testing to prove one's guilt or innocence - in Israelite society, the words of witnesses was all there was. And if the witnesses were false instead of faithful, then injustice could kill the innocent. But in this Story of Redemption, we hear that God is not only concerned with truth in the courtroom. He hates all lies that twist the truth; he hates the lies that twist those who speak them and those who believe them. Because he is the God of truth.

In the beginning, God spoke. The God of truth communicated truthful words to his people, words of grace and words of instruction. He spoke of our true purpose and his faithful care for us. (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:16-17) Later, to Abraham this God spoke promises - promises God could be trusted to keep; true promises that would surely come about because he who promised is faithful and true. God promised to rescue childless Abraham's innumerable children from slavery, promising to execute judgment on their captors and send Israel into freedom with great possessions. (Genesis 15) And now - wearing the wealth of Egypt around their necks and in their ears - the children of Abraham stood as numerous as the stars of heaven at the foot of Mount Sinai. Their God had proved his words and promises true; God had proved himself to be true.

The truthfulness of God - his truth-telling character; his faithfulness to his words and promises - the truthfulness of God is the foundation for the command, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." (Exodus 20:16) We see his truthfulness in the Exodus; God did what he said he'd do. And his truthfulness is meant to lead Israel into being truth-tellers themselves - not just in court but in all of life. His faithfulness in the Exodus is leading them away from falsehood to becoming faithful with their words - faithful to others, faithful to themselves, and faithful to God.

But the redemption God accomplished in the Exodus was pointing us toward the fuller redemption God promised to achieve. Because the God of truth saw a lie enter his creation in Eden. The lie said God's word couldn't be trusted. The lie said God was keeping something good from Adam and Eve. The lie said men could be like God, knowing the truth of good and evil apart from him. (Genesis 3:1-4) And when our first parents believed the lie instead of the truthful God everything was twisted. So, we, too, have been led into lies of all kinds - believing lies against others, believing lies against ourselves, and believing lies against God himself.

But right from the beginning - even from eternity past - God promised to fix this lie-twisted world (Genesis 3:14-15; Ephesians 1:4,10). He promised to undo the lie. He would do it with the truth (Ephesians 1:13) by sending into the world the One who is the "way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6)

"...(T)he way, the truth, and the life" is what Jesus called himself. When God the Son put on flesh and dwelt among us, Jesus came "full of grace and truth" as John writes (John 1:14,17). He came speaking the truth about us, calling us sinners, sick people who needed a physician. (Mark 2:17) And that infuriated those who disagreed then and now. Jesus came speaking the truth about himself, that by trusting in him we find forgiveness and new life (Luke 7:47-50). And Jesus came speaking the truth about God, that God can be trusted (Hebrews 2:13) at all times; that he isn't holding back but rather means to give us everything truly good both now and forever in his kingdom (John 14:27).

This Jesus came as the true fulfillment of all the promises of God. He is the truth of God that undoes the lie that twists this world. In Christ we see again the truthfulness of God, his faithfulness to his words and promises. And nowhere do we see that as clearly as Jesus on the cross. The cross shows us the truth of what Christ said - that "...God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) So, to hear Christ and believe him, to listen to him and trust that his word is true - that he himself is true - to believe in Jesus is to leave the lie and enter the truth. To trust Christ is to leave behind slavery to the lie and to follow Christ in our new, better Exodus. And like Israel at Sinai, the God of truth means to make us faithful people of the truth - leading us more and more to be faithful in our words - toward others, toward ourselves, and toward God himself.

What does it look like to be faithful in our words toward others, toward ourselves, and toward God himself? Well, the command begins with others - "not (bearing) false witness against (our) neighbor." How can we be faithful, then, in our words toward our neighbors?

The command is first applied in the context of the court. Although their process looked a little different than ours today, the basic idea is the same. Something happens. Witnesses tell the story of what they heard and saw. Evidence is presented. And a judgment is rendered. But if a witness isn't faithful, then justice is twisted. Now, the Lord also knows that his commands don't keep us from rejecting them, which is why a death penalty case had to have the testimony of two or three witnesses - not just one (Deuteronomy 19:15). And those who testified against the accused had to throw the first stones if he was convicted. (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). If a witness then or now would tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," then true justice could be done - as long as the judges didn't take a bribe.

That's another form of false witness - when those charged as deciders of justice are blinded by a bribe. It's another form of lying that does injustice and brings suffering and death. But there were - and still are - plenty of opportunities to bear false witness against a neighbor outside the courtroom. To paraphrase another - although the command is first applied in the court of law, it extends to any situation in which untrue words are used to harm another individual. [2]

That means misrepresenting someone else's words - twisting them to say what we want them to have said so that we can attack them - that, too, is bearing false witness. We lie when we rush to quick judgment of someone, deciding what is "true" about them before we know the whole story or ask the right questions. To speak poorly (even if truthfully) about someone in order to elevate ourselves - that Southern specialty called "gossip" - gossip is a form of false witness. Because although the words may be true, the intent to harm another's reputation is also true. Another writer noticed that "False witness may be (given) by leaving a false impression upon the minds of people by a mere hint or suggestion. “Have you heard about Mr.—?” “No.” “Ah! Well, (I shouldn't be the one to tell you).” Again, when one makes an unjust criticism or charge against another in the hearing of a third party, and that third party remains silent, his very silence is a breach of this ninth Commandment. The flattering of another, exaggerated eulogy, is a false witness. Rightly has it been said, “There is no word of (God’s Law) more often and more unconsciously broken than this ninth Commandment, and men need perpetually and persistently to pray ‘set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.’ ”" [3]

We can go on. Because false, unfaithful words comes in the form of lies to hide from true justice, like a kid with chocolate on his face denying eating the pre-supper cookie or a husband denying the nature of his relationship with another woman. There are lies to control the behavior of others with threats and manipulation. Unfaithful words sound like saying to others those words we don't want spoken to ourselves. All these and more break the Ninth Commandment. But the faithfulness of God leads his people away from these things, away from such unfaithful words. So, if these things are unfaithful, then what are faithful words to our neighbors?

When we love the truth and love our neighbors as ourselves, then our words will reflect that reality. As Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34). If I love truth then I will show it when I hear my neighbor accused, being quick to listen, quick to ask questions - and slow to speak judgment. I'll use my words to build up, not tear down. I'll use my words to bring evil to light and speak of the God who shows grace to evil-doers like me. And if I see my neighbor walking away from God's truth, then I will go to him first before I go to those who can help him. I'll use faithful words - faithful to God and to him - so that I might win him back from the lie to the truth. (Matthew 18) As James writes, wise and faithful words to our neighbors means those that are "peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere" so that a "harvest of righteousness" might be gathered in. (James 3:17-18)

Faithful words to our neighbors are typified by ", joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control...." (Galatians 5:22-23) That is the fruit of the Spirit born out in our words toward others. But if we talk about us, then what does it sound like to use faithful words about ourselves?

This may be one of the hardest things to do. In fact, it's impossible - unless the Spirit of truth is at work. Because we are so blind to ourselves – we’re deaf to how we lie about the real "me."

God told Israel the danger of what we say to ourselves. On the cusp of entering the Promised Land, Moses told the people, "Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.'" (Deuteronomy 8:11-17, emphasis mine. See also Deuteronomy 29:18-19.)

There are lies we can tell ourselves that are more deadly than anything we hear from anyone else. We speak lies about what we're capable of doing - of pleasing God on our own apart from Christ. We speak lies about our strength when we have none. We believe our own lies about self-righteousness when we have no righteousness apart from Christ. Jesus himself warned his people about believing what we say to ourselves. "For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Revelation 3:17) Some of us hear those words and believe the lie that says we can’t be forgiven, that we’ve done too much.

But words to ourselves that are faithful and true sound a lot like our worship service. God invites us to worship him and we draw near through Christ. But as we come we're confronted with the reality that we're wretched in our sin, pitiable apart from Christ, poor without Christ's riches, blind unless he gives us eyes, naked unless we're clothed with the righteousness of Christ. That's why we include a confession of sin in the service. We are hopeless wrecks apart from Christ and we need to say that out loud to ourselves. Even now, we would rebel against his goodness and love if he did not keep up by the power of his Spirit. Such truth keeps us humble. Such truth makes us feel hopelessly weak. And - in truth - we are. But Jesus isn't.

That's the final truth we have to speak - the faithful words we're supposed to speak about God. In our service, it's everything we say outside of our own sin. We're called to speak, to agree with the truth of God we first hear in his Word. We confess our rebellion and weakness, but also say the crucified and risen Christ is powerful and good and loving to those who confess their sin, turning to trust in him. And we say what he says, that by faith in him our sins are forgiven because he died. We say that we have become the children of God who can speak to him as our Father in prayer. We say that Christ who died is coming again, so we sing songs of praise that extend into eternity. We say all this because these are the words of life Peter heard from Jesus (John 6:68). And Jesus' words are as true as Jesus is.

Speaking that way is speaking the truth. We speak the truth in love for our neighbor. We speak honestly about ourselves as sinners in need of Christ. And we speak the hope of a faithful Savior who died so that grace could find us. But the lie is so convincing. Why is it so easy to believe and speak lies?

God's Word helps us understand - it's because we human beings don't want the truth to be true. The passage we read from Romans 3 is the culmination of Paul's indictment of all humanity as guilty before God. But the roots of our guilt he establishes in the first chapter.

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools..." (Romans 1:18-22)

Paul goes on,"...they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen." (v.25)

Our guilt and sin runs back to a trade, an exchange we made. In the Garden, our first parents exchanged the Word of the LORD for the words of the serpent. And every time we believe something more than God we make the same trade. Every time we trust a feeling or a philosophy more than Christ; every time we set our hope on a relationship with a human being other than the God-man; every time we think too much of ourselves or too much of our sin; every time we speak falsely of our neighbor or ourselves or our God we exchange the God of truth (and the truth of God) for a lie, worshipping things that can't save us. But no matter how earnestly we believe a lie, it remains a lie. Earnestness and sincerity do not make things true. And believing the lies - even the ones we tell ourselves - believing the lies always bring death. The lie only twists and distorts. We can’t see others clearly. We can’t see ourselves clearly. And we certainly can’t see God clearly through the lie.

But God remains true. Christ remains true. The Spirit of truth remains true. So, if we hear the truth of God and believe it, then our part every day - every hour - is to go back to what we believe. When we believe the lie we confess our sin once again and run to Christ, who remains faithful and true.

Because by faith in Christ, a second exchange is made – The Great Exchange as Luther called it. Once for all time Christ took our sins – our lies – upon himself on the cross and paid the debt in full. Death was the penalty for a false witness whose lies would kill another man. (Deuteronomy 19:19) But although we exchanged God for a lie, wishing that God were dead, Christ died in our place – the faithful Witness died for us false witnesses. And by faith in him, the Spirit credits as ours the very righteousness of Christ, completing the exchange. Our sin was put on him. His righteousness is put on us. So, now, we stand before God unafraid because he counts us as faithful – even in our words – for Christ’s sake.

That's reality for a Christian – for those who trust in Christ. And although we are always bombarded with the same lie as in the Garden - that God can't be trusted; that God is holding something back from us; that we can make our own life without God – the lie cannot compete with the truth we hear in the Good News of Jesus. And we run to it, seeing Christ in it and embracing him as the one who can be trusted, hearing and believing that what he says about us is truer than what we say about ourselves.

And he says by trusting in him we are his. We aren’t his because we always tell the truth, but because he did. We aren’t his because we always believe the truth, but because he is true. And if we are his – forgiven, adopted, secure – then how ought we live as people of the faithful and true Savior?

His calling on us is to return to God’s law, hearing in it his character and his purpose for his people. We’re called to speak the truth about others with love. We’re called to speak the truth about ourselves – including our weakness and need and sin. And we’re called to speak the truth about our God, bearing faithful witness to who he is and what he has done – and what he’s going to do.

[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]

In his Word we hear what God promises to do - “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”” (Revelation 21:1-5)

That is the testimony of Christ, whose faithfulness and trueness is on display in this meal. By his death and resurrection, Christ the truth of God is undoing the lie that twists us and this creation. He is making all things new. And here is the guarantee, his promise spoken in visible form. This is the truth that speaks louder than the lie. If you hear it, rest in it. Christ died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

[Pray – Father, let you be true though every human were a liar. You are true and all your words are true. And although we exchanged you for a lie, your faithfulness endured – you sent Christ to win us back from the lie and to keep us in the truth. For your Spirit who convinces us of the truth of ourselves and the truth of your grace, we give you humble thanks. For your Son who died in the place of liars, we lift up our hearts and our voices in worship, offered by imperfect lips and tongues but received by you in the perfection of Christ. Now lead us, we pray, back into the world, strengthened and nourished by Christ to be faithful witnesses to what we have heard from you. May we speak your truth in love for one another, for all our neighbors. And help us always to speak of our weakness while resting in the strength of Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.]

[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.


[1] Source:

[2] The New Bible Commentary, D.A. Carson, ed.

[3] A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, 164.

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