A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on March 1, 2020.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
Here’s a Bible trivia question for you: On the night of Jesus’ betrayal how many times was the ninth commandment broken? In walking through the Gospels, I counted at least 10 times. There were the two false witnesses who testified before the council, although Matthew records that there were many others who came forward (Matt. 26:59-60). There was the high priest’s charge of blasphemy (Matt. 26:65). There were Peter’s three lies denying Jesus (Matt. 26:69-75). There were the accusations to Pilate against Jesus of misleading the nation, forbidding tribute to Caesar, claiming to be the king, and causing civil unrest among the people throughout Judea and Galilee (Luke 23:1-5). Actually, the number is impossible to count because of the number of times where the Gospels refer to collective false witness, but the point is that the ninth commandment was consistently broken by the leaders of Israel in the false conviction and subsequent murder of Jesus.
The way in which the ninth commandment is stated implies a legal trial in which false testimony is given to malign one’s neighbor: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Yet, if each of the Ten Commandments state the extreme form of the sin (e.g. Murder is the most extreme form of hatred; adultery is the most extreme form of lust, etc.), then bearing false witness against the innocent is the most extreme form of lying. Israel’s case law, in fact, broadened the scope of the commandment to include spreading a false report, assisting someone else as a false witness, showing partiality in court (Ex. 23:1-3), slander (Lev. 19:16), knowing the truth but not speaking up (Lev. 5:1), or simply lying. Truth is integral to the health of any society, but Jesus teaches us that it is also a way in which we love our neighbor (Matt. 22:39). Telling the truth, whether as a witness or simply in our day-to-day conversation, is an expression of love for God and others. This is a point often forgotten, bringing new meaning to “telling the truth in love.”
On the night of Jesus’ betrayal, it was ironically the pagan governor, Pilate, who told the truth, responding to the Jewish leaders’ accusations, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:14–16). Pilate’s words stand out as truth amidst an onslaught of falsehood! Reading the accounts of the Gospels, it is hard not to consider Pilate’s predicament sympathetically. Seeking to govern justly he was met with a barrage of lies. And yet, it is Pilate’s sardonic question that we often remember: “What is truth?” (John 16:38).
In a society moving progressively farther from the standard of God’s Moral Law, we should not be surprised to find truth in short supply. I heard someone say the other day that lying is now considered a defensive maneuver or political strategy. What does it say about us when trespassing the law of our holy God is termed a “strategy”? (If lying is a strategy, it’s a demonic one.) I wonder: Have we relativized obedience to the ninth commandment? Have the so-called “strategies” of our age desensitized us to falsehood. Like the frog in the proverbial warming pot, have we accepted lying as the norm? Bearing false witness as acceptable. I fear that many in the American church today have grown so accustomed to falsehood that we too wonder: What is truth?
What is truth?
We need not relegate Pilate’s quandary to the philosophies of his age. The question is timeless, as is the answer. The irony of Pilate’s question (“What is truth?”) is that truth stood right in front of him. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He is truth personified. Truth is ultimately not relative nor situational nor cultural but is eternal, revealed to us in the Son of God.
It is the incarnate Word of God who directs us to the inscripturated Word as truth revealed, as Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples then and now: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Let us pay careful attention to what Jesus prays (“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth”). He is praying that God the Father would grow the disciples of Christ in godliness through truth, and the Word of God is that truth. Note that Jesus did not say, “your word is true,” although that would be true. The Greek word translated “truth” (alethia) is a noun not an adjective. Jesus said, “your word is truth.” Consider the magnitude of this statement: How do we know the truth about God? He has revealed the truth in his Word. How do we know the truth about ourselves? He has revealed the truth in his Word. How do we know the truth about the world in which we live? He has revealed the truth in his Word. God’s Word is the standard of truth. And, it is to the standard of God’s Word that everything else must be benchmarked. If our culture says something is true but God’s Word says it is false, then it is false. If God’s Word says something is true but the culture says it is false, it is true. God’s Word is the standard of truth.
Because God’s Word is the standard of truth and has been given to us as special revelation from God, we need not wonder what truth is. Of course, knowing the truth and telling the truth are two different things, aren’t they? How easily committed are the sins of the tongue; how quickly we bend the truth to our benefit. We should not be surprised that the Apostle Paul distinguishes between spiritual childishness and spiritual maturity with the characteristic of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). In other words, not only are we commanded to the tell the truth, but telling the truth reveals Christ-like maturity.
Tell the truth
It should not surprise us that one of the titles of the devil is “the father of lies.” Jesus said, “When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Does the devil know the truth? Indeed, but knowing the truth and telling the truth are two different things. For example, consider Satan’s first question to Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). Do you think Satan genuinely wanted to know the answer to that question? Or, do you think that it was a leading question, tempting Eve to doubt the Word of God? We need not wonder long, because Satan’s tactics were as subtle as a bomb. Listen to how he responds to Eve’s faithful response regarding obedience and the penalty of death, in which he directly contradicts God’s Word and lies: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).
The devil is a bold-faced liar; lying is a defining personality characteristic. It should not surprise us then that the light of truth is often covered in this present darkness. It should not surprise us that hatred is revealed in bearing false witness. It should not surprise us when children of the devil reveal their character as liars, employing the demonic strategy of lying. No, what should surprise us is when children of God who have been saved by incarnate truth, given inscripurated truth, and helped by the Spirit of truth don’t tell the truth.
How important is telling the truth? While lying is essentially a form of hatred, speaking the truth to and about our neighbor is a powerful testimony of Christian love. This is no more practical than in our everyday language, where our “yes” is “yes,” and our “no” is “no.” Anything other than the truth, Jesus said, is “of evil” (Matt. 5:37).
Not only is telling the truth a Christ-like expression of love, it also establishes credibility in other areas of life. If you consistently lie, know that others will not trust you when you are telling the truth. If you consistently slander, know that others will not believe you when you pay someone a compliment. If you consistently twist and contort what others say, don’t expect anything other than superficial conversation and distrust. If you wonder why so many people don’t trust you, it’s probably because you don’t tell the truth.
This is no more insidious than in the church. In fact, in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, he labels sins of the ninth commandment to be the cause of discord and dissensions in the church. To stop disunity in the church, typically you start by locating the liar. But telling the truth also impacts the gospel in which we rejoice and share in love with our neighbor. I like to think of sharing the gospel as the ultimate form of telling the truth. But, Christian, do not deceive yourself: If the world does not believe that you tell the truth, they will not believe you when you share the truth of the gospel.
Unfortunately, no one tells the truth all the time. As sinners by nature, thought, word, and deed, we are proven liars. And, just like the habitual liar who is entrapped by the reinforcing repetition of lies, we can consistently break the ninth commandment with seemingly blatant disregard. This of course reveals that we need the grace of the Holy Spirit to enable and sustain us in telling the truth. We may think of this in terms of the word “freedom,” freed to tell the truth.
In one of the more often misquoted verses in the Bible, we hear: “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), leaving the definition of truth to be of relative use. However, the verse can only be understood in context. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). The context is key. The Holy Spirit uses the means of God’s Word to enable and sustain us in the truth and in telling the truth. It is not merely that we know that the Word of God is truth, but that we read it, study it, meditate upon it, apply it, and live it. In other words, abide in it.
The truth will set you free
How does the truth of God’s Word set us free? Consider this: It is through God’s Word that we know the gospel of Jesus Christ. For example, God’s Word reveals the truth that we are sinners by nature and evidenced by thought, word, and deed (Rom. 3:23). God’s Word reveals the truth that the wages of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23a). God’s Word reveals the truth that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). God’s Word reveals the truth that if you believe in your heart and profess with your mouth faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved (Rom. 10:9-10). God’s Word reveals the truth that we have eternal peace with God by his grace through faith in Christ (Rom. 5:1-2). God’s Word reveals the truth that this is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9), even unto eternal life (Rom. 6:23b).
What does this freedom sound like? Here this truth loud and clear: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Through the truth of God’s Word we are freed from the condemnation of sin and the eternal judgment of death. We are freed from captivity of sin, justified as righteous, and adopted as God’s children assuredly and forever. We are freed to live in obedience to Christ, and, yes, we are freed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God!
It is only the Christian who may rejoice in the truth that the truth has set us free. As truth personified, our Lord Jesus Christ is the whole truth. In his perfectly sinless life, his sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, he defeated sin and the penalty of eternal death. Unlike that liar, Satan, who came only to steal, kill, and destroy as the father of lies, our Lord, living truth, came not bearing false witness but bearing the true witness of himself, bearing our sin upon himself, and bearing the wrath of almighty God that we may have true fellowship with God forever.
We look, therefore, today to the emblems of that truth in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In the sacrament we see the unleavened bread, symbolizing his sinless broken body for our sin. We see the fruit of the vine, symbolizing his atoning blood shed for our sin. In the sacrament, we enjoy true fellowship with our Lord and one another by his Spirit, and we are truly nourished in him. Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us look to the whole truth, our Lord Jesus Christ, Savior of sinners and Lord of liars, redeemed for the sake of glory. Amen.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).