By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The opposite of a lie is the truth.
We worship the God of truth. From the burning bush, God tells Moses that his name is: “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exod 3:14) Moses believed in God; Pharaoh refused to. When God presented the truth of his own existence, the nation of Israel was born. It is, accordingly, not surprising that the God of truth commands his people not to lie!
Bearing false witness is, however, more than an un-truth; it is a deliberate deception with a specific objective. The exposition in Exodus 23:1–3 outline three specific issues: spreading a false report, perverting justice in court, and giving biased testimony. Spreading a false report could be simple gossip or it could be committing libel. Perverting justice can, of course, be done in many ways. Being biased out can be motivated by poverty or various affinities (family ties, race, language, social class, national origin, creed, or even locality).
These prejudices and injustices are so common that we are more often surprised by integrity than by bias. The recent debate over the death penalty, for example, hangs less on a dispute over the penalty than on the disbelief that justice will occur. Is it any wonder that Pilate, a corrupt official himself, would ask Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
The story of the woman caught in adultery is probably the most celebrated capital judgment case in scripture. The woman’s guilt is not in question; the only question was the penalty. The Pharisees asked Jesus: “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5)
Notice that under Jewish law both parties in adultery face the same penalty of death (Lev 20:10). Because the Pharisee covered up the man’s identity, they broke the Ninth Commandment in presenting this case. In other words, they offered biased testimony and did not seek true justice.
Jesus points to the Pharisee’ bias when he says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) The law required that witnesses to the crime throw the first stone (Deut 17:7). If anyone picks up a stone, then that person is liable for prosecution under the law because they have not revealed the identity of the man who participated in the adultery. And, the penalty for perjury was the same penalty as for the alleged crime (Deut 19:18–19). The Pharisees understand their dilemma and they leave.
Jesus’ words to the woman are important. He says: “’Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:10–11) Jesus offers both truth and grace. Truth or grace, by themselves, is not the Gospel. Truth alone is too harsh to be heard; grace alone ignores the law. Jesus seeks our transformation, not our conviction under law (Rom 12:2).