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Comment – Witness, false and true

January 2008

Comment: Witness, false and true

There have been several high profile cases recently of people being unjustly accused of serious crimes when there was no genuine evidence against them. Madeleine McCann’s parents were accused of accidentally killing their daughter and fabricating her abduction. A bizarre example at the end of November was the accusation that an English primary school teacher in Sudan deliberately blasphemed the prophet Mohammed by allowing her class to name a teddy-bear after him! In both cases the accusations appear to have been made maliciously.

‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’ (Exodus 20:16) is one of the Ten Commandments. The New Testament exhorts believers: ‘Putting away lying, each one speak truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another’ (Ephesians 4:25). In a court of law, the task of a witness is to recount faithfully the facts under scrutiny. All the witness is required to do is ‘tell it as it is’.

True witnesses

Different witnesses to the same event may, of course, notice different things. The accounts of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give different (though not contradictory) details. In fact, their complementary accounts add to the feel of authenticity as one reads the Gospels, because the differences testify to the fact that the writers are independent witnesses and have not simply copied one another.

The Bible frequently appeals to witnesses to the truth. No fewer than four witnesses are cited by Jesus in John 5:31-47 to underline his claims – John the Baptist, the works (miracles) he did, the Scriptures, and the Father himself.

Sometimes a witness will in all sincerity give mistaken testimony, because of faulty perception or memory. Thankfully, Scripture has been preserved from such human failings because behind the human writers stands its ultimate author – the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).

As long as we proclaim the biblical message, therefore – recognising that the purpose of all Scripture is to testify of Christ, and being careful to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Luke 24:27; Acts 20:27) – we shall ourselves be faithful witnesses.

False witnesses

By contrast, dishonest witness is emphatically condemned by God’s Word. Such falsification can occur, not only by blatant lies but also by subtle insinuation or the deliberate omission of relevant facts.

How terribly can even one well-placed lie work its mischief! It can devastate a reputation, marriage, family, or community. It can lead to the death of its victim. This was true for Jezebel’s worst crime – a land-grab from Naboth the Jezreelite. To get hold of his vineyard, Jezebel arranged for a judicial lie to be told by ‘scoundrels’ – Naboth, they claimed, ‘has blasphemed God and the king’ (1 Kings 21).

This was a prophetic foretaste of the worst crime ever perpetrated – the murder of the Son of God. That too was facilitated by false witnesses. At Jesus’ trial, the authorities found ‘at last two false witnesses [who] came forward’. They managed to make stick a devious half-truth – ‘this fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days”’ (Matthew 26:59-61).

Three implications

Three things flow from this ethical teaching. First, it is vital for Christians to follow the example of truthfulness given by our Lord Jesus Christ. He is ‘the faithful witness’ (Revelation 1:5) – something for which we can be eternally grateful, since we rest our eternal future upon his words!

Second, it helps us understand what we are up against in reaching our generation with the gospel. For 150 years false witness has been seeping into our society from sections of the professing church. How else can we describe the ‘spiritual perjury’ committed by ministers (represented in all denominations) – who in their ordination solemnly swear to uphold historic church creeds and then proceed publicly to deny an infallible Bible in their ministry?

Third, if you are the target of lies because you follow the Lord Jesus Christ, take comfort. You are following in the steps of your Master and he knows intimately the road you are on. ‘Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Matthew 5:11).

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