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The Ninth Commandment in Exodus 20:16 says,
16 You shall not bear false witness [ayd] against your neighbor.
The Hebrew word ayd means “to reiterate, affirm, testify.” The root word is ood, which means “to return, repeat, duplicate, do again.” Hence, a witness is one who repeats what he has heard or reconstructs that which he has seen.
A witness can also be inanimate, such as a monument or a “heap” of stones, serving as a record of a past event or agreement. We see this in the covenant between Laban and Jacob to ensure that Jacob would not mistreat Laban’s daughters (i.e., Jacob’s wives). Genesis 31:48-50 says,
48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore it was named Galeed [“heap-witness”] … 50 If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see God is witness [ayd] between you and me.”
In Deuteronomy 4:26, Moses called heaven and earth to bear witness against the Israelites if they were to break their covenant with God. Abraham himself paid for a well with seven ewe lambs, which he designated as witnesses (Genesis 21:30). Although these lambs could not speak, their very presence bore witness to the fact that Abraham owned the well.
A witness is corroborating evidence of something. It does not have to be an eyewitness or an ear witness, but it must provide evidence in some way.
True and False Witnesses
The Ninth Commandment forbids us from bearing false witness. Exodus 23:1 says we are not to assist “a malicious witness.” Deuteronomy 19:16-19 says,
16 If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days. 18 The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
So if a man falsely accuses his brother of stealing a sheep in order to force him to restore double (Exodus 22:4), then the false witness is to pay his brother two sheep—as if he had stolen from him. If a man falsely accuses his brother of premeditated murder, then, of course, the judge is duty-bound to sentence him to death, because that is what he intended for his brother. At that point, only the false accuser’s victim would have the right to forgive his accuser and to spare his life.
In Deuteronomy 4:26, we see how God (through Moses) called heaven and earth to bear witness against the Israelites if they broke their covenant. The people were supposed to be God’s witnesses to the rest of the world, testifying of the goodness of God and His plan to save the world. They were to serve as practical examples of what it meant to fulfill their purpose for creation and to exhibit the blessings of the Kingdom of God.
Yet Moses knew that they would not be true witnesses but that they would serve other gods. Deuteronomy 31:28, 29 says,
28 Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them. 29 For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.
In other words, Israel was to fail to be God’s true witness to the world and would thus be treated as a false witness. Heaven and earth testified against Israel, and the nation was destroyed, the people exiled, and they were sentenced to worship false gods (Deuteronomy 28:64) until the time of restoration.
Isaiah foretold this time of restoration in the second half of his book, beginning in in Isaiah 40. It speaks of the New Covenant. So we read in Isaiah 43:8-10,
8 Bring out the people who are blind, even though they have eyes, and the deaf, even though they have ears. 9 All the nations have gathered together so that the peoples may be assembled. Who among them can declare this and proclaim to us the former things? Let them present their witnesses that they may be justified. 10 “You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me.”
The Israelites under the Old Covenant were both blind and deaf, as even Moses testified in Deuteronomy 29:4,
4 Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.
This blindness was due to the veil over their eyes, as Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 3:14, 15,
14 But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the Old Covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. 15 But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart.
How can blind people bear witness to what they have seen? How can deaf people bear witness to what they have heard? Trying to testify of God’s glory through Moses is not possible, because of the veil that he put over his face when he came off the mount. To testify of the glory of God, one must see His glory “with unveiled face” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is impossible apart from the New Covenant, which is fulfilled only through its Mediator, Jesus Christ.
Jesus went up Mount Herman, where He was transfigured (Matthew 17:1, 2). John was one of the three witnesses of His glory, testifying in John 1:14,
14 And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Peter, too, was an eyewitness of His glory, telling us in 2 Peter 1:17, 18,
17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”—18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
The other witness, James the brother of John, was executed by Herod (Acts 12:2) and left us no writings. Our Epistle of James was written by James the brother of Jesus who, at the time of Jesus’ transfiguration, was not yet a believer but was yet one whose face was veiled.
Though only three were able to bear witness to Christ’s glory on the mount, there were many others who were witnesses of His resurrection. In Peter’s Pentecostal sermon, he testified in Acts 2:32,
32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:6,
6 After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.
We can bear witness only to what we have seen, heard, and experienced personally, for such are the requirements of witnesses. Only three could bear witness of Christ’s transfiguration, but many more could bear witness of His resurrection. None of us today were there, of course, yet we believe the testimony of these witnesses, having experienced in our own way the reality of the living Christ.
To hear and believe witnesses is what a judge does, even if the judge personally neither saw nor heard what happened. A judge is called to discern. To discern is to judge, separating truth from falsehood. In the same manner, we too are called as judges with the spirit of discernment through the Holy Spirit. Some, like Paul himself, have even had personal encounters with Christ, as the apostle testified in 1 Corinthians 15:8,
8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
Shortly after Christ’s appearance to Paul on the Damascus road, Ananias came to him and told him in Acts 22:15,
15 For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.
Years later, Paul told King Agrippa what Jesus had told him. Acts 26:15-17 says,
15 And I said, “Who are You, Lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness not only to the things which you have seen, but also to the things in which I will appear to you, 17 rescuing you from the Jewish people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you.”
Paul’s witness included “the things in which I will appear to you.” What things? This includes all of the revelation that Paul was given, first at Mount Sinai in Arabia (Galatians 1:17), then during his developmental years at Tarsus (Acts 11:25), and finally during his missionary journeys.
We are all witnesses on some level. Whatever our own experiences are, that is the level in which we are witnesses of Jesus Christ.
When Called to Testify as a Witness
If anyone is a witness to a crime, he or she must testify. This includes the one who has sinned against his neighbor, for even he is to repent and confess his sin. If someone brings a case to the judge, the judge must investigate the case, and in a biblical court, a public notice is published, asking for witnesses to testify. If they have relevant information that they have witnessed, and if they do not come forth, it is a sin to them.
Leviticus 5:1 says,
1 Now if a person sins after he hears a public adjuration to testify when he is a witness, whether he has seen or otherwise known, if he does not tell it, then he will bear his guilt.
This was the law invoked by Caiaphas at the trial of Jesus. Matthew 26:62-65 says,
62 The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” 63 But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless, I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy.”
Jesus did not have to confess His sin, so He remained silent until adjured by the high priest. Then He was obligated to testify that He was the Messiah, the Son of God. When adjured by the high priest, it would have been a sin to remain silent. In fact, Jesus was obligated to testify all that He knew in regard to the question. So He even quoted Daniel 7:13, 14 to identify Himself as the “Son of Man,”
13 I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him, 14 and to Him was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom…
He testified the whole truth and nothing but the truth, although the high priest, who was an unbeliever, claimed that He had blasphemed.
After the day of Pentecost, when Peter and John were testifying of Jesus’ resurrection, the chief priests arrested them and brought them before the Council. Acts 4:18-20 says,
18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
The same law (Leviticus 5:1) that mandated Jesus’ testimony also demanded that the disciples testify of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus had made it clear that they were “witnesses” (Luke 24:48). It would have been a sin for Peter and John to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus.
It is the same for all of us, if we are indeed genuine witnesses.