Let me tell you a story and ask the question, ‘what would you do in this situation?’ When I was a student, one of my housemates received a phone call from her mum every single week at exactly the same time. And this particular week, I cannot remember the reason why, but she did not want to speak to her mum. So as the phone went, she ran to the bathroom jumped into the bathroom and said, ‘tell her I am in the bath!’ What would you do?
Our title today is 'telling the truth' in our series looking at the Ten Commandments, so please turn with me to Exodus chapter 20. Today we look at the ninth commandment in v16... which says this:
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
The context of the Ten Commandments shows us that they were never designed to be a list of ways to earn acceptance with God. It was never meant to say something like 'if you keep these ten commandments, then God will be really pleased with you and as a reward you will belong to Him.’
Look a bit further up the page to chapter 20, verse 2. It says this,
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
The commandments then begin at verse 3. Notice God first saves them and brings them into a relationship with himself. Then second he tells them how he expects them to live once they are in a relationship with him. It's important we do not reverse that order.
What does that mean? It means the worst thing I could do this morning to take the 9th commandment (or any of the commandments for that matter!) and speak about it in a way that would encourage you to seek forgiveness and acceptance from God by obeying him. The technical Christian term for that is “legalism”. It says “if I obey these commands, then I will earn God's approval and forgiveness”.
Can I say right now, as clearly as I can manage: you will never ever earn God's acceptance by obeying the law. Let me say that again: in case you missed it. You will never ever earn God's acceptance by obeying the law.
So what I do not want you to hear me say today is this:
1) We should tell the truth.
2) We do not tell the truth and that is wrong.
3) Start telling the truth so God will be pleased with you and accept you.
Instead, it seems to me that what the Bible tells us is this:
1) We should tell the truth.
2) We do not tell the truth because we are evil.
3) Only Jesus can make us good.
4) Only then can we speak the truth.
And those are my four headings this morning...
1) We should tell the truth (Longest point!)
Look again at the 9th commandment in Exodus 20:16. It says,
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
The language that is used here refers us to the situation in a court of law where you are involved as a witness. The commandment is clear – you should speak the truth. You are not to lie. It is simple - and does not give any exceptions or reasons why we would ever be right to speak falsely in such a legal situation.
The direct application of this passage is very straightforward. When we are involved in the legal system as a witness we are required to speak the truth.
However the reason we are to tell the truth in court is not just because the court system requires it. We should tell the truth in court because God is himself a God of truth. God cannot lie. Titus 1:2 says '...God, who does not lie...'. We are to speak the truth because God himself speaks the truth. Just one chapter back in 19:2 God says 'be Holy, because I am Holy'. That is a principle that is not restricted to the courtroom alone.
So, indirectly, but also very clearly it is a command to always tell the truth. There is no place, no person, no situation where this is not the case. We should tell the truth.
We must not miss the fact that this command has a strong corporate element. We are not to “give false testimony against your neighbour”. Our human relationships are to be based on honesty and truth and it shows that when we lie it results in very serious consequences for others. In the direct example of a courtroom, it could even result in the maximum possible punishment allowed – the death sentence. But again, this is a principle that is not restricted to the courtroom alone. We are a) not to lie b) against our neighbour.
Those two essential elements to this command show that what is in view here is saying something untrue against someone else with the intention of damaging that person's reputation. It is what we (or at least a lawyer) would generally call defamation (and more specifically called slander).
The command is very, very clear. We must not say something untrue against someone else with the intention of damaging that person's reputation.
How do you measure up against that? Do you keep the 9th commandment. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well would you say you do?
There is a real temptation when we hear a command of God like this to reduce what it has to say to us. We know there is no way we can ever keep it and so we try to 'lower the bar', and make the standard easier to reach by minimising what it is about.
So we read Ex 20:16 and we try to tell ourselves – “oh this command not to tell a lie only applies to the law courts”. Well it does apply there. But it also applies to every single word we speak. We might seek to minimise the scope of this commandment but Colossians 3:8 says this:
But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Rid yourselves of all these things means they should have no place in our life. These things included slander – speaking untruths against others.
Another way we might try and wriggle out of what this command is saying to us is to ask “Who is my neighbour?” True, it does say 'do not give false testimony against your neighbour'. Jesus addressed this question when he taught the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) and, in case you cannot remember it, his point was that everyone was our neighbour.
We should apply this to every relationship we are in. We should not run others down, or say and do anything that is designed to talk someone down so in comparison I can lift myself up.
However it is perfectly possible to do that without giving false testimony. Then we might try and excuse our behaviour by holding onto the fact that it is “only telling the truth”. I'm not giving false testimony. Maybe not, but it could still be gossip – which is essentially using the truth against someone. That is different to slander – which is using lies against someone. But even if you are telling the truth you may still not have keep this commandment.
We do have rather Christian ways of doing this. Maybe it is when we share something 'in confidence...', by which we sometimes mean “I'm going to share this juicy piece of information with just one person at a time”. It may be the truth, but it can easily be used to pull the other person down. Or we might 'share something for prayer', when our aim is to pass on some destructive gossip.
We need to look for the maximum applications to the commandments mainly because that is the approach Jesus took in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5. We may be tempted to reduce this command in an effort to make it easier to keep. But we are told to “rid yourselves of all such things as these”.
Two final comments though before we move on:-
* This command does not say that we should never say unpleasant truths to one another. We may at times have to say hard or difficult things to each other. This command is not about that – it is all about speaking untruths. Sometimes we need to say things that are difficult. For example we need to say to people who do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ that unless they turn and put their faith in him they face eternity without him. They face God’s judgement, they are still under his wrath. It is truth, and it is uncomfortable, but we need to say it.
* There are also certain circumstances where, unlike the courtroom situation, we are under no obligation to speak. In a courtroom, we are obliged to speak and when we do speak we MUST speak the truth. In other situations we do not have to speak, but if we do speak we must speak the truth. For example, a friend of mine became a Christian here, went back to China (his home country) and joined his family business. A week after getting home, he met the manager of the main competitor to their business. He asked him a lot of questions about what they were doing and things that were business secrets. He thought, ‘I cannot lie. I must speak the truth’. So he did and caused massive damage to the family business and actually damaged the witness of his faith to his family who were not Christians There are some situations where we do not have to speak. What is clear, is that when we do speak, we must speak the truth.
The purpose of the law is to act like a spotlight. It shines a light into our hearts and shows us this: we do not want to keep any of the commandments. And we most certainly do not keep this one.
Our question is, 'Why do we not tell the truth?'...
2) We do not tell the truth because we are evil
Why do we lie?
• Maybe it is because we want to look good
• or we're done something wrong so we lie to cover our tracks, but then we need to lie more and more to over it up
• to avoid conflict
• to get my own way
There are many reasons for why we do not tell the truth, but the root answer to that question is in the part of the Bible read to us from Matthew 12:33-37 which is on page 978. We heard that our words reveal what we are really like. V 34
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
Why do we not tell the truth? Because we are evil.
That evil that is in our hearts – and it is in every one of our hearts – is described by the Bible as rebellion. Rebellion against and rejection of God, who made us and so knows what is best for us. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden we question the commands that God has given us. We ask 'did God really say that we must not do this'? I can decide if something is right or wrong...
We question his goodness and we challenge his right to rule his creation. That is called sin. It is evil and it is in each one of our hearts.
That sin is a serious problem. God is perfectly holy and must respond with fierce opposition to sin. He must punish it. Matthew 12:36 says this
But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgement for every careless word they have spoken.
Why do we sin? We sin because we are evil and we face judgement from God. Only when we realise the bad news that we are deserving of that judgement can we appreciate the good news that... (and this is my 3rd point)...
3) Only Jesus can make us good
Once we have realised that we do not obey God's commandments and are in danger of judgement we desperately need to know that only Jesus can make us good.
Jesus, God's perfect, righteous son, died in our place for our sins. Jesus took all the punishment as he hung on the cross, so that we could be completely forgiven.
Remember you will never ever earn God's acceptance by obeying the law.
Jesus is the only person who has never ever told a lie. He always spoke the truth. We see in Jesus a man who has kept the commandments completely. He is God who came to earth and who kept the law for us. He then died on a cross to take the punishment for those who did not keep the law.
Romans 3:26 says that if you have faith in Jesus you are “justified”. When you put your faith in Jesus, God the judge, hands down the verdict that you are good rather than evil. How can that be? We've already seen that we are evil?
What happens is this: he transfers the perfect, sinless record of Jesus to us. This is amazing grace at its most amazing! In the moment you first believed, your past sin didn't cease to exist. You hadn't done any good work that could somehow make up for your disobedience.
Yet God completely and totally forgave you. He not only wiped the record of your sin away, he credited the ‘goodness’ of His Son to you.
We do not tell the truth because we are evil, but if we trust in Jesus and accept his offer to pay for our punishment and make us good, we can be forgiven and acceptable to God. We are saved and come into a relationship with him.
If you have never heard that before, then please look into the Christian faith more – pick up a copy of Why Jesus and a gospel and consider coming along to Christianity Explored.
It is all about the amazing news that only Jesus can make us good.
4) Only then can we speak the truth
However, that is not the end of the story. When we trust in Jesus and his death on the cross, God immediately begins the process of making us more like Jesus. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, through the power of his word and as we meet with other Christians, God begins to take away our desire to sin and he renews our minds and changes our lives.
This is the Christian life – a lifelong process of becoming more and more like Jesus, who kept the commandments completely. This process begins the moment you become a Christian and will not end until you meet Jesus face-to-face.
This process is not automatic, it involves work. As we are given power by the Holy Spirit, we fight against sin. Every time we face a situation where we are tempted to say something untrue, we can pray and ask him to help us to resist, to flee temptation to slander, to speak an untruth. We can ask for his help, which he has promised to give to help us run hard in pursuit of holiness and speaking the truth. And as we do this more and more, we become more and more like Jesus.
But once again we must not confuse the order of these things.
First we are saved by Jesus dying for us on the cross. From that moment on we are completely forgiven and accepted by God. Nothing we do can make us 'more saved' or 'more loved' by God.
Second we work, together with the Holy Spirit, to grow more and more like Christ. This only comes after we have been totally accepted and made right before God through faith in Jesus.
So let us not confuse the two.
Let us take seriously what we have seen this morning – we are to be people who do not 'give false testimony against your neighbour'. We are to be men and women of truthfulness.
But as we do that we must keep reminding ourselves that Jesus' death on the cross and not our hard work is why God will accept me and forgive me.