Exodus 20:16

what-are-ten-commandments_472_314_80Exodus 20

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Lying is a very enjoyable activity in the moment. In the moment that you tell a lie, you are able to craft reality in the way that you want it to be or in the way that you think it should be. You know that you are lying, of course, unless you have become so proficient in it that you actually start believing it yourself. But believing your own lie no more makes it true than others believing your lie. Regardless, it is enjoyable in the moment and, if done effectively, you can derive some fun benefits from it…before the world of lies you have built comes crashing down on you, destroying you in the process, that is.

In Catch-22, Joseph Heller records the thrill that Major Major felt after he lied.

Major Major had lied, and it was good. He was not really surprised that it was good, for he had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie.[1]

What is more, a well-placed strategically-timed lie can get you out of hot water in the moment. Adlai E. Stevenson put it like this, “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, and a very present help in trouble.”[2] That is likely how many Christians view lying: a bad thing but a practical necessity at times.

I keep using the phrase “in the moment” because the pleasure of lying is as temporal as the pleasure afforded by all sin. It does not last. Lying ends in ruin, despair, and spiritual despondency. It is very difficult to keep a lie going and, if you succeed in doing so, you are left living in a fictitious world.

The ninth commandment forbids a particular kind of lying: lying about your neighbor.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

That is, you shall not say things about your neighbor that simply are not true. Do not lie about your neighbor.

Our posture toward our neighbor should be one of love…and our neighbor is everyone.

Throughout the scriptures we find God calling His people to love their neighbors. For instance, in Leviticus 19.

9 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

That concluding, “I am the Lord,” is significant. God puts a divine exclamation point on the commandment. “Love you neighbor…I am the Lord!” To violate this commandment is to violate a truth that comes from God and is very dear to God. Jesus positively repeats the commandment in Matthew 5.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

Following that, Jesus goes on to call for loving our enemies as well. In so doing, He effectively extended the definition of the word “neighbor” to include everybody. Jesus’ clearest affirmation of the divine command to love our neighbor is found in His contest against the Pharisees in Matthew 22.

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love God. Love your neighbor. “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Loving our neighbor is therefore a summation of the final six of the ten commandments. There is a comprehensive quality about the idea of loving our neighbor. We see this in the way that Paul and James speak of it. For instance, Paul speaks of the summary character of loving our neighbor in Romans 13.

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

We “owe” each other love. When we love we have “fulfilled the law.” Furthermore, Paul tells us, the commandments against adultery, murder, theft, coveting “and another other commandment” are “summed up” in this one commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

We need to stop and feel the full weight of that! Loving your neighbor is how we fulfill all the other commandments concerning our neighbor. Paul says the same in Galatians 5.

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Loving your neighbor fulfills the law! James puts it in a particularly powerful way in James 2.

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

“The royal law.”


Here is the foundation upon which we understand the commandment against bearing false witness against our neighbor: loving our neighbor is a commandment from God that encompasses within itself all the commandments concerning our neighbor. It is the royal law. We dare not violate this commandment!

Lying about our neighbor is not an act of love.

We must love our neighbor. However, lying about our neighbor is not an act of love. In fact, it is an act of wanton cruelty. Perhaps we wish to deny this truth. Perhaps we wish to say that it is possible to lie and to love. We might even tell ourselves that our lies are not only not harmful, they may even be helpful to the person we are lying about. Ralph Keyes puts it like this;

Even though there have always been liars, lies have usually been told with hesitation, a dash of anxiety, a bit of guilt, a little shame, at least some sheepishness…Now, clever people that we are, we have come up with rationales for tampering with truth so we can dissemble guilt-free.[3]

But we should indeed feel guilt about bearing false witness. The words of David from Psalm 109 show David crying out to God for mercy and salvation and vindication because others are lying about him.

1 Be not silent, O God of my praise! 2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. 3 They encircle me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. 4 In return for my love they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer. 5 So they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

To lie about your neighbor, to bear false witness about your neighbor, is to act wickedly and deceitfully toward your neighbor, to encircle your neighbor with hatred, and to attack your neighbor. This pulls back the veil we put over our lies when we wish to tell ourselves that our false witness is not that big of a deal. Of course it is! It is a vicious attack upon our neighbor, even and especially when they are unaware of it (for who, after all, lies about their neighbor in such a way that they will know about it).

David makes the same cry for deliverance in Psalm 120.

2 Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.

Consider when you are tempted to lie about your neighbor that people, when they are lied about, often feel that they must cry out to God for actual deliverance from the lie! It may be a small thing to you. It certainly is not to them. Furthermore, bearing false witness is an act of malicious hatred according to scripture. In Proverbs 10 we read:

18 The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.

That is telling. Our lying is an attempt to hide our hatred. Perhaps you might protest that the lies you tell about others are not hateful but harmless. But there is no such thing as a harmless lie. It certainly does not feel harmless to the one being lied about. Instead, it feels like hate, because it is hate. To lie about your neighbor is to hate your neighbor regardless of how you say you feel in the moment. This is stated even more bluntly in Proverbs 26.

28 A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.

Hatred and ruin. These are not the fruits of love, and we are commanded to love. Patrick Miller recounts an interesting story about boxer Floyd Patterson.

When former heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson died, the New York Times published a long obituary, noting what a sensitive person Patterson had been, easily embarrassed, quiet, not at all the blustering, bragging boxer that is our stereotypical, and usually accurate, image of a boxing champion. He was quoted as saying once: “You can hit me and I won’t think much of it, but you can say something to me and hurt me very much.”[4]

In truth, are we not all like that? Would we not all agree that the sting of words is much worse than any other wounds? The victims of lying do not need to be convinced that lying is not love. Only the one lying can sell himself that lie.

Lying about our neighbor also destroys us.

But there is even more happening here. Lying not only wounds the person lied about, it wounds the one lying. It does so in a number of ways. For instance, we read this in Proverbs 12:

19 Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.

One way that lying hurts us is by pulling us into an action that is necessarily temporal and that will have no place in the eternal Kingdom of God. “A lying tongue is but for a moment.” This does not mean “temporal but morally neutral.” It means “temporal and unsatisfying as all sin and wickedness necessarily is.”

Lying is exhausting. It requires constant tending. In William Fauklkner’s novel The Reivers, Lucius Priest makes the following commitment not to lie anymore:

I said, and I believed it…I will never lie again. It’s too much trouble. It’s too much like trying to prop a feather upright in a saucer of sand. There’s never any end to it. You never get any rest. You’re never finished. You never even use up the sand so that you can quit trying.[5]

The eternal things of God are things in which you can rest. They are rejuvenating and reviving. They bring life and peace. Not so, lying. You have to keep working to keep lying going. Three verses later we read:

22 Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.

This tells us that God finds lying abominable and that God does not delight in those who lie. Thus, lying brings the judgment of God upon us. Furthermore, lying is destructive and leads to death. We see this in Proverbs 21:

6 The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

Here again we see the temporal nature of lying and its supposed benefits: “the getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor.” But this last phrase is most arresting: “and a snare of death.” Lying does not lead to life. Lying leads to death. It is not of God. It is of the devil.

In John 8, Jesus said something absolutely devastating to the scribes and Pharisees after they appealed to Abraham as their father.

44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do 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 lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46 Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?

What is so chilling about this is that Jesus reveals the diabolical reality behind all lying. We call our lies “little white lies” but, biblically, it would be much more accurate to call them “huge Satanic lies,” for that is what they are. To lie is to traffic in the character of Satan. Jesus says that Satan’s character naturally gives birth to lies. It is who Satan is. He is a liar.

Most devastating of all, Satan is “the father of lies.” That means that all lies call Satan “daddy.” Our lies are his spawn. When we bear false witness against our neighbor, we are joining Satan in his attack against them. We are, in that moment, agents of vicious, hellish destruction.

What can overcome such a spirit of falsehood? Only the Spirit of the living God. The light of the gospel dispels all darkness. Thus, John 1:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Even the darkness of lying. The darkness of lying has not overcome the light of gospel truth.

Do you find it easy to lie? Give your life to Jesus and lies will begin to taste most bitter in your mouth, for light has no fellowship with darkness.

Have you lied about your neighbor? If so, I implore you, I plead with you: make it right. Repent before God and apologize to the victim of your crime. Work to undo the damage of your lie. This will be hard to do. It will likely be impossible to do in any complete way. But you can start to work to make things right, right now.

This will be awkward. This will be painful. This will hurt.

But this is the path of life: repentance and confession and working to make it right.

Jesus is the truth. He never told a lie. But Jesus is in the business of forgiving liars.

He will forgive you.

He will put a truthful tongue in your mouth.

This is what Jesus does.

The light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.


[1] Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York, NY: Everyman’s Library, 121.

[2] Adlai E. Stevenson, quoted in Ra McLaughlin, https://www.thirdmill.org/files/english/ new_testament/ 48762% 7E8 _26_2003_2-41 23_PM%7ENT.Mclaughlin.Lies.8.25.03.html #F17A)

[3] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues With Timeless Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2008), p.97.

[4] Miller, Patrick D. (2009-08-06). The Ten Commandments: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (p. 345). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[5] William Faulkner. The Reivers. (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), p.58.


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