Today we will be looking at the core Bible principle of the Kingdom of God, and how the establishment of the Kingdom is dependent on the truthfulness of its population. This was represented by the simplest of commands among the Ten Commandments that God spoke from Sinai.
Exodus 20:16 – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
As I have mentioned many times before, when God set the Hebrew people apart as a people for himself, he provided them a basic set of community rules, the Ten Commandments, to maintain order within their new society. I believe these rules were the baseline of God’s expectations for all humans that would become evident in the continual outworking of his Kingdom throughout all history for all time.
As such, this specific commandment about bearing false witness includes the restriction against telling an intentional falsehood for the purpose of causing a neighbor harm. To bear false witness against someone is to misrepresent the truth of a situation that one has personal knowledge of to the detriment of someone else. It is intentional deception for the purpose of vengeance or personal gain. Simply stated, falsehood is the simplest way to subvert any relationship or institution. Jealousy and selfish ambition lie at the root of deception. Recognizing this, and knowing the tendency of men to preserve themselves at all costs, God built in to the kingdom charter, the Ten Commandments, a specific command about the necessity of not bearing a false witness against another.
Not only did God provide the clear instruction against bearing false witness, but he also knew that this was an unfortunate reality that would have to be dealt with. So in his wisdom, God also provided a definitive way of handling offenders of this commandment once a falsehood was found out by judges who would be overseeing the civil life of the community. One of the corroborating safeguards against arriving at an incorrect conclusion in a matter of judgment was to ensure that there was always more that one witness to bear record of what had occurred.
Deuteronomy 19:15 – “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
This helped to overcome the potential for a single person to willfully or maliciously bring down someone else through false testimony. Unless there was some sort of collusion between all parties, the fact that there would have to have been multiple witnesses agreeing to the same course of events was in fact a type of safeguard for the rights of the accused, a practice still in place in our civil courts to this day.
This process is outlined further in the book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 19:16-21 – “If a malicious witness comes forward and accuses someone of a crime, then both the accuser and accused must appear before Yahweh by coming to the priests and judges in office at that time. The judges must investigate the case thoroughly. If the accuser has brought false charges against his fellow Israelite, you must impose on the accuser the sentence he intended for the other person. In this way, you will purge such evil from among you. Then the rest of the people will hear about it and be afraid to do such an evil thing. Do not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot.
This ancient principle of “eye for an eye” has been known in old Latin as the Lex Talionis, or the law of retaliation. So the punishment for the crime of falsifying a report (that is, bearing false witness) was to apply to the deceiver the same action he intended for the other, and to do so publicly. In this way, a deterrent to falsification would be established within the community.
In reviewing other ancient near Eastern cultures of the time, there are few surviving examples of legal codes of these early civilizations. However, there are a few of them which have been found in archeological digs, and they even pre-date the law of Moses. These ancient legal codes also speak about the necessity of truthful witnesses.
For example, the Code of Ur-Nammu of Mesopotamia, ca. 2100 BC:
- If a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver.
- If a man appears as a witness, but withdraws his oath, he must make payment, to the extent of the value in litigation of the case.
So, at least during the reign of Ur-Nammu, there was at a minimum a type of financial accountability for those who would provide false witnesses.
There was also the famous Code of Hammurabi of Babylon, ca. 1750 BC. Interestingly, this code begins with the necessity of having a truthful witness as its very first legal determination. However, the penalty under the reign of Hammurabi in most cases was much more severe than getting fined: his penalty was death for the false witness.
- If a man bring an accusation against a man, and charge him with a (capital) crime, but cannot prove it, he, the accuser, shall be put to death.
- If a man, in a case (pending judgment), bear false (threatening) witness, or does not establish the testimony that he has given, if that case be a case involving life, that man shall be put to death.
There are also several other laws in the code that relate to truthful witnesses in regard to transactions involving goods and property, not all of which end in death for the perjurer. However, from these few examples, it is clear that having truthful witnesses was a standard measure of determining civil legal issues in the ancient world.
While some Bible detractors might point to these ancient examples and say, “See, Moses didn’t bring anything new to the world. Civilizations always recognized the need for some sort of legal code.” I don’t disagree. However, to my way of thinking, what distinguishes the commandments of God from these other cultures is how simple and direct they are. Yes, the bulk of the Code of Moses is very similar to some of these ancient documents, but the Ten Commandments stand apart as the firmest of foundations for any type of societal structure.
We have to remember that while Ur-Nammu or Hammurabi crafted their codes through their leaders and officials, the Ten Commandments were not just made up by Moses and some hand-picked officials but were delivered directly from God to not only Moses, but to an entire assembled multitude at Sinai.
Exodus 19:17-18 – Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke because the LORD came down on it in fire. Its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently.
There was not just one witness, Moses, to God’s provision of these commands, but an entire nation of people saw the display of fire on the mountain and all of them personally heard the direct words of God himself. In fact, they became so fearful that they asked Moses to intercede for them, since they were so frightened to hear God himself speak to them.
- Deuteronomy 4:33, 35-36 – “Has a people heard God’s voice speaking from the fire as you have, and lived? … “You were shown these things so that you would know that Yahweh is God; there is no other besides him. “He let you hear his voice from heaven to instruct you. He showed you his great fire on earth, and you heard his words from the fire.
- Deuteronomy 5:22 – “Yahweh spoke these commands in a loud voice to your entire assembly from the fire, cloud, and total darkness on the mountain; he added nothing more. He wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.
To the Bible believer, this requires faith to believe that God himself delivered the Ten Commandments to his fledgling earthly Kingdom. But we can become more firmly established by recognizing that he did so by providing not just one, two, or three witnesses, but a multitude of thousands of witnesses to corroborate the story. This is why I believe that, since the ancient times of the legal codes of past civilizations, the words that Moses recorded have been spread wider and farther than those of Ur-Nammu or Hammurabi. There has always been an underlying reliability within the biblical records themselves that demonstrate the faithfulness of God in providing a firm foundation for his eternal kingdom.
So with this simple foundational principle against bearing false witness revealed for all at Sinai, God’s Kingdom could now begin its upward trajectory to encompassing the world. But before that could become a reality, it would need to transcend every earthly nation or community to do so. This, as we shall see, was to occur during the ministry of Yeshua and his disciples.
Now that we have looked at the ancient evidences for the necessity of truthful witnesses, how is all of this interpreted and put into practice within the context of the Kingdom during the time of Yeshua and his disciples?
In determining the truth of a matter between individuals, Yeshua taught to approach an offender on a personal basis, and seek to be reconciled. If that was ineffective, then one was to bring several others who also could corroborate the offense to confront the offender. These additional witnesses would be bearing the truth of the situation to bring additional weight of truth to the one who is unrelenting.
Matthew 18:15-16 – “If your brother sins [against you], go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.
This direction of having multiple witnesses to establish the truth of a matter is based squarely on the instruction of Moses.
Yeshua further teaches that lying is an indication of a larger issue that can affect all of one’s mode of life. In a confrontation with Jews who were conspiring to kill him, he responds to them by equating lying with that which is spawned of the devil, which is to equate lying with all that is adversarial to God in all things.
John 8:43-44 – “Why don’t you understand what I say? Because you cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks from his own nature, because he is a liar and the father of lies.
Yeshua taught that a liar, a falsifier who misrepresents, distorts facts, or misleads others (for that is what the word means) has an innate tendency to do so. They cannot be trusted in anything because the ability to lie and spread falsehood can be present in anything they say. He uses the representative word picture of being born of that which is adversarial to God, and it is therefore within their nature, just as the child has the representative traits of the parent. Once one is consigned to lies, misrepresentations and distortions come more easily as new situations arise, and unfortunately they then spiral into layers of falsehoods piled one on top of another.
As an example of this, in an attempt to protect his disciples from the false and hypocritical teaching of the religious leaders, Yeshua used an analogy of bread dough and the effects of yeast or leavening.
Matthew 16:6-7, 11-12 – Then Yeshua told them, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They were discussing among themselves, “We didn’t bring any bread.” … “Why is it you don’t understand that when I told you, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,’ it wasn’t about bread? ” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the leaven in bread, but of the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The apostle Paul also emphasizes that same principle in teaching the Galatians about their own confusion over some doctrinal issues.
Galatians 5:7-9 – You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough.
Paul here states that falsehoods, misrepresentation, and bad character are like a leavening agent. Once they become manifest in a person’s life, they continue to spread like yeast working its way through an entire batch of dough. This appears to have been a proverb that he quoted regularly:
1 Corinthians 5:6-8 – Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little leaven leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new unleavened batch, as indeed you are. For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old leaven or with the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Notice the opposite of leaven is expressed as the positive, “unleavened” principles of sincerity and truth. During this time while God’s Kingdom was moving from the natural to the spiritual, Yeshua and his disciples taught that it was even more critical that truthfulness be the bedrock within the community of believers. Rather than always having to rely on external judges to decide the truth of the matter, however, the emphasis was on the arbiter moving from the external judges’ seat to a place within the heart of every believer, as had been prophesied by Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
- Jeremiah 31:33 – “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” – Yahweh declares. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
- Ezekiel 36:26-27 – And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.
This is why James could speak so harshly to the remnant about the corrupting influences that could disrupt the community of God.
James 3:13-16 – If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.
James relates that selfish boasting and lying could be used to hide the truth, and had the potential result of causing “disorder and evil of every kind.” This was the end result of the leaven working its way through the entire batch of dough.
Paul used the analogous contrast of the “old man” and the “new man” of the heart. As believers’ hearts were renewed, it was as if there was a new person who could only do what was right, and who would stand in judgment of the practices of the old man.
Ephesians 4:22-25 – …that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, putting away lying, “[Let] each one [of you] speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another.
The encouragement to truthful dealings within the community was to be based on this newness of righteousness and holiness of heart. Because of this community in which all were “members of one another,” that is, parts of an integral body, they were to always provide a truthful and honest example in everything, with everyone, in all of their words and actions.
So, we can see that from the initial Sinai revelation against false witness, the necessity of truthfulness among the people of God is a quality that God desires his children to represent in this world. The simplicity of this aspiration is realized in the words of the commandment, but the effectiveness of God’s desire is realized when the heart has been renewed in the likeness of its Creator to always be truthful.
Today, all who consider themselves believers in Messiah, who was the embodiment of truth, should have this virtue imbedded deeply within their hearts. Instead of deception and falsehood should come forth righteousness and truth for the good of the entire community within the Kingdom of God.
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