The Ninth Commandment

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor (Exodus 20:16).

It is something we have all done as children– “passing the buck.”

We have done something, and the parental authorities have learned about it. When we are confronted about it, we try to find someone else to blame.

If we have siblings, the brother or sister did it.

If we do not have siblings, but have pets, then the pet did it.

If we do not have siblings or pets, then no one did it. It must have happened on its own!

Thus begins a challenge that humans will face their entire lives– the dilemma regarding whether we will speak the truth when confronted with difficult circumstances. Will we stand up and say what is right, or will we say a lie in order to shift blame or to gain some other advantage? Will we speak what is really truth, or will we seek to distort truth for our own purposes?

This challenge is not new, and it was one that was going to beset Israel. Therefore, when it came to interpersonal relationships, God dictated the ninth commandment to Israel: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

God is not really worried about those circumstances under which telling the truth is to your advantage, or in circumstances under which telling the truth is to the advantage of both you and your neighbor. At those times most everyone will tell the truth. But what happens if the truth is to your neighbor’s advantage but not your own?

We can think of a lot of circumstances where that might be the case. Perhaps it is a situation akin to Ahab and Naboth, where Ahab was able to gain Naboth’s vineyard because people were induced to testify falsely against Naboth (cf. 1 Kings 21:1-16). Or perhaps, like Potiphar’s wife with Joseph, you have been caught in a compromising position, and it was easier to blame the other person than confess the truth (cf. Genesis 39:6-20). We could think of many other circumstances.

All such examples and circumstances have a similar theme: it seems more “cost-effective” to lie or stretch the truth than to actually tell the truth, and therefore, even though it may cause great harm to our neighbor, we tell the lie in order to gain or keep our advantage. In such circumstances we are guilty of bearing false witness against our neighbor.

“Bearing false witness” sounds like legal terminology, and the commandment certainly applies to that type of setting. Nevertheless, there is more to the commandment than just what happens in the legal system. We testify about others far more in the “courts” of our family, friend group, work, school, and church than we ever do in a court of law. The commandment continues to apply!

When it comes to our neighbor, Israel was to tell the truth– and so are we (Ephesians 4:25)! In order to do so we must put away slander, malicious talk, lying, distortions, and all such things (cf. Ephesians 4:31-32). We are to tell the truth to our fellow man and about our fellow man, even if it means that we must take the blame for our own failures and even if it works to our disadvantage.

The command to not bear false witness is rightly understood in terms of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:8-9). As Paul says, love does no wrong to a neighbor, and lies and slander certainly accomplish wrong and evil! Furthermore, we can truly understand why it is so important to not bear false witness when we consider that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When you were a child, were you ever blamed for doing something that you really did not do? Did you have a situation when your brother, sister, friend, or enemy bore false witness against you and you had to suffer the consequences? I am sure that such felt quite wrong, unfair, and inappropriate. And, indeed, it was wrong, unfair, and inappropriate!

If we understood as children that it felt wrong to be blamed for something we did not do, then we can understand as adults that just as we are wronged, hurt, and suffer pain when others bear false witness against us, thus we do to others if we are doing the same. Would we want others bearing false witness against us? Of course not! Therefore, why would we do that to others? Bearing false witness is entirely contrary to God’s purposes by which we are to show love, mercy, and compassion toward one another (Romans 13:8-9, Ephesians 4:31-32)!

A word should be added about distortion of the truth. We live in a time when many people are more than willing to promote a particular way of looking at things in order to gain some advantage, be it political, economic, or otherwise. When this happens, the truth is distorted, altered and adapted in order to fit the narrative that is being peddled.

Distorting truth is no better than lying; to intentionally distort the facts, or to promote material that distorts the truth, is a way of bearing false witness, particularly when it is done in order to lead to disadvantages to a particular person or group of people. While it may be true that we are entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own version of truth. We are to speak truth even when the truth may not fit the way we want to see things. We are to speak truth even if it is not to the advantage of our particular political or economic philosophies. And, above all, we must always speak truth when we speak about God in Christ, never distorting the pure Gospel message in order to obtain some worldly advantage (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 6:3-10)! Woe to us if we are found to have borne false witness against God Most High!

It is a lesson we are taught from a young age, and while it might seem to be optional in many aspects of life, it should not be: we must always tell the truth, even if it gets us into trouble. Lying, shifting blame, or distorting the truth so that we may gain advantage and cause others to be disadvantaged is entirely contrary to the character of God– He, after all, suffered great disadvantage for our benefit by giving of His Son for our reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11). Therefore, let us rather be wronged than to wrong, and to seek to speak truth to one another, about one another, and concerning all men!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Profit of the Many

Give no occasions of stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the church of God: even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

To say that we live in a self-aggrandizing world would be an understatement. It certainly seems as if most people are out for “#1,” and “#1” is not God or family. According to worldly standards, we must work toward our own best interest, advancing our own agenda, because if we do not stick up for ourselves or try to get a bigger piece of the pie, then others will come in and take what could be ours. Television is now dominated by oversized personalities, and while they may have certain ideologies or causes, much of what they are attempting to do boils down to self-promotion. The more coverage– positive or negative– the greater the “media personality,” and the greater the benefit.

The world of first century Corinth was probably not much less based upon self-aggrandizement, and therefore Paul’s message to the Corinthians must have sounded as shocking and radical then as it does now. Paul does not call believers to self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, or even concern for one’s own agenda. Instead, Paul calls believers to not cause offense or stumbling to others. They are to be like he is, not seeking his own profit, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Our goal should not be to please ourselves, but to please others.

In context, Paul addresses how the believers in Corinth should handle a situation in which they have been informed by a well-meaning pagan that the food they are eating together was sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:14-33). Had the pagan said nothing, there would have been no difficulty– everything belongs to God, idols have no real substantive existence, and food is food (1 Corinthians 10:27). But if he does inform the believer that it is meat sacrificed to an idol, then the believer ought to abstain from eating, not because he would violate his own conscience, but on account of the conscience of the pagan (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). The believer should not be giving the impression that he is honoring any form of pagan idolatry!

But Paul knows that he is walking on a razor thin wire. Jews consider meat sacrificed to an idol abhorrent, no matter the circumstance; Greeks eat it without any concern whatsoever. The church of God at that time is made up of both groups, and 1 Corinthians 8 has already established how the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols has been contentious there! Therefore, Paul feels compelled to lay down these principles. Yes, his liberty should not be determined by another’s conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29). Since God has not condemned, in truth, Paul should not be denounced for eating meat sacrificed to an idol if he partook with thankfulness (1 Corinthians 10:30). Nevertheless, in all that believers do– eating and drinking, or whatever– all should be done for God’s glory and honor (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is why believers are to act without offense to any, seeking to please everyone in what is done, seeking the profit of many (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

A word must be given about the idea of “pleasing everyone.” Paul is not saying that we should sin against our own consciences or against God in an attempt to please others; this is not a call for compromising God’s standards at all (cf. Romans 14:23, Galatians 5:17-24, etc.). Instead, Paul is advocating a conciliatory approach toward other people, seeking, whenever possible, the path of least resistance and greatest acceptance, while remaining within the law of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:21).

In short, we should not be seeking to be ornery or difficult. We must not be obnoxiously asserting our liberties and “rights.” Instead, we must give thought to do whatever we can do seek the spiritual welfare of the many, and not ourselves. As Paul told the Philippians in Philippians 2:3-4, believers should count others more significant than themselves in humility, seeking not only his own good but also that of his neighbor. As Christians, our goal should be the same goal as God’s– that all men may come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). As Christ’s representatives, we reflect upon Him, for good or ill (Matthew 5:13-16). Therefore, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that all we need to worry about is ourselves and our own salvation. We are expressly charged to seek the profit of as many others as we possibly can.

This seems like a pretty restrictive fence– we must not provide occasions of stumbling for the Jews, the Greeks, or the church. We can understand this today in terms of those who tend to at least look like they are self-righteous and sanctimonious in their knowledge of right and wrong, those who are of the world and who think as the world, and those who are of God. It is very easy to start pointing fingers at any of these groups: the sanctimonious are easy targets because of their hypocrisy, the unbelievers are easy to frown upon because of their ungodliness and immorality, and it is easy to bear down upon God’s people because of our love and our desire for us all to better reflect Christ. Yet, in the end, we must not do so. We must seek the profit of the sanctimonious, the unbeliever, and the fellow believer, and to do so at the same time!

This is quite counter-intuitive and counter-cultural; it always has been, and as long as the earth continues to exist it most likely will be. America’s myths of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and the icon of the “self made man” do not make this any easier. Ultimately, however, our goals must not be the same as those of the world around us. Many will not understand why we would live thus, but we do it to please the God who redeemed us. We must remember, at all times, that Jesus came not to please Himself but to please others, that He did not seek His own profit, but the profit of us all, and that while His cross is reckoned as a stumbling-block, it is only thus for those who refuse to believe– in truth, the cross kills the hostility and allows the Jew and the Greek to be one in the church of God (cf. Matthew 20:28, Romans 15:2-3, 1 Peter 2:1-8, Ephesians 2:11-18).

It is hard work to please others and not ourselves. It is challenging to not provide occasions of stumbling. But let us remember that as God loved us and gave His Son for us when we were alienated and unlovable, so we must love our fellow man, even if he seems unlovable (Romans 5:6-11). Let us not seek our own interest, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Summing Up the Law

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, trying him: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
And he said unto him, “‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second like unto it is this, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).

We like short and sweet.  Lengthy explanations and excessive details are considered boring and tedious, even when we recognize that complexity exists.

Succinct explanations help when they keep the “big picture” in mind.  Especially in religious circles, many have missed the proverbial forest for the trees.  Jesus came face to face with many such people in His ministry: the Pharisees were condemned for focusing excessively on details while neglecting the weightier aspects of the Law (Matthew 23:23-24).

Jesus provides the “big picture” of the Law: love the LORD with all of our faculties, and love our neighbors as ourselves.  As summations go, there can be no better; in truth, not a detail is lost.  All of our missteps, difficulties, sins, and shortcomings come from a lack of love for God or neighbor.

Why love?  The virtues of love are exalted in 1 Corinthians 13; we may summarize Paul’s message by saying that love is seeking the best interest of the beloved (cf. Romans 13:10).  Love for God is seeking His will and not our own (Hebrews 11:6).  When we love God, it is no longer we who live, but God in us (cf. Galatians 2:20).  If we live lives of sacrifice, as we are charged to do in Romans 12:1, we easily avoid iniquity.

Loving our neighbor can be challenging; after all, our neighbor often wrongs us, cheats us, or perhaps is entirely indifferent toward us.  Yet the power of the “Golden Rule” of Luke 6:31 haunts us: if we view our neighbor in such stark and dismal terms, how does our neighbor look at us?

How would we want to be treated?  Such dictates how we should treat others.  The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us what it takes to be a good neighbor (Luke 10:25-37): sacrifice and humility, helping without expectation of commendation or reward.  After all, this is what we seek from God, is it not?

It seems so easy to talk about “loving God” and “loving our neighbor,” and yet so difficult to put into practice.  It is far easier to be as the Pharisees, so devoted to the trees of various doctrines and technicalities that we neglect the important things.  If we have not love, we face condemnation.  Let us lay aside our own interests and instead put God’s interests and the best interest of our neighbor ahead of ourselves!

Ethan R. Longhenry