The 14th Sunday after Pentecost August 30, 2015
133, 395(1-3), 770 [TLH alternative: 395(4-6)], 49
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in endless supply from God our heavenly Father and from our Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear Fellow Christians:
You hear it every once in a while—someone acts irresponsibly and, though unintentional, injures or kills another human being. The law refers to such actions as “reckless endangerment,” and the penalties are significant. In some ways it doesn’t seem quite fair when two men are given virtually the same sentence—one for intentionally and willfully harming or killing another human being, and the other for accidentally doing the same thing while, for example, driving impaired. After all, one meant to do what he did, the other did not.
It doesn’t seem quite fair until you see the grieving loved ones. For them there is little comfort in knowing that their loved one was injured or killed accidentally rather than willfully. Both the result and the sorrow are the same.
Today, we examine more closely the 8th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” As with all the Commandments, we will be reminded that there is both a negative and positive—a “don’t do this” and a “do this.” What we will also find is that there is no real distinction in the results of breaking this commandment willfully or breaking it accidentally. It will matter little to unbelieving souls on the Day of Judgment whether they were led astray by willful deceit or by reckless and unintended falsehood. Both result in eternal condemnation. As is always the case when we take a closer look at God’s commandments, there is much more here than first meets the eye.
The text that will guide our study today is found recorded by God the Holy Spirit in the 23rd chapter of the Book of Jeremiah:
Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord has gone forth in fury—A violent whirlwind!
It will fall violently on the head of the wicked.
The anger of the Lord will not turn back
Until He has executed and performed the thoughts of His heart.
In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.
“I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran.
I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in My counsel,
And had caused My people to hear My words,
Then they would have turned them from their evil way
And from the evil of their doings.
“Am I a God near at hand,” says the Lord,
“And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
So I shall not see him?” says the Lord;
“Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord.
“I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal.
“The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream;
And he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully.
What is the chaff to the wheat?” says the Lord.
“Is not My word like a fire?” says the Lord,
“And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?
“Therefore behold, I am against the prophets,” says the Lord, “who steal My words every one from his neighbor. Behold, I am against the prophets,” says the Lord, “who use their tongues and say, ‘He says.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” says the Lord, “and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness. Yet I did not send them or command them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all,” says the Lord.
So far the inspired words of our holy God. Trusting God’s promise that He would meet with us and bless us through the study of His holy words, so we pray: “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Several things in our text ought to jump out at us. The first is the repetition of the phrase “says the Lord.” That phrase is repeated by divine inspiration ten times in our text. The logical question we should ask is, “Why?” Why did the Holy Spirit verbally inspire Jeremiah to repeat that same phrase over and over again? In fact, if you look through the entire Book of Jeremiah you will find that he repeated the essence of this phrase 178 times. Why?
While it would be both foolish and arrogant for any mortal human being to claim to fully comprehend all of God’s intents or purposes, God Himself gives us some answers here. Jeremiah was dealing with the aftermath of the work of the false prophets in Israel. As we heard in our text, part of God’s message to the people of Israel was His opposition to those prophets who had been passing off their own personal message as that which came from God Himself: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied…Behold, I am against the prophets,” says the Lord, “who use their tongues and say, ‘He says.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” says the Lord, “and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness…” [vv. 21, 31-32a]
In sharp contrast to the false prophets, Jeremiah repeatedly hammers home to the Jews this critical fact: “These are not my thoughts and words, they are God’s.” Nor did he use the generic word for “God.” He used God’s own personal title by which He identified Himself to the Children of Israel and by which He distinguished Himself from all other gods. That personal title is identified in most Bible translations by the word “Lord,” all in capital letters. Over and over—178 times in this book alone—the Holy Spirit repeated the phrase through His prophets: “…says the Lord.”
Why was this so important? Why did God the Holy Spirit find it necessary to hammer this fact home to the Jews over and over again? Because Heaven or Hell hung in the balance. The words of the false prophets led to Hell, the words of the Lord led to Heaven. Again from our text: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.” [vv. 21-22 ESV] “Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.” [v. 32 ESV]
Don’t miss the divine love in God’s message through Jeremiah. The words of the false prophets led to unbelief and eternal damnation. God’s purpose and desire for every single human being was and is eternal life through faith in the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Note also the sharp contrast with our society’s idea that truth and salvation come to us today through a variety of different religions and religious leaders. That notion isn’t from God. It’s from man. In fact, that’s a perfect example of the very thing God is condemning in our text —human beings passing off their own ideas as though they came from God. The whole point of God’s message through Jeremiah was that not only is He Himself the only source of truth, all other non-sanctioned messages lead to eternal destruction .
That’s the first thing that should jump out at us in our text—God’s repeated use of the phrase “declares the LORD.” The second thing that should jump out at us in our text is God’s use of the word that forms the title for our study: Recklessness.
How or why is this such an important word? In part, because recklessness is one of our “wink-words.” What in the world is a wink-word? It’s one of those words or stories that rightly ought to bring shame to God’s children, but that we instead speak or retell with something of a wink and a nod—as though we are taking a certain amount of pride and satisfaction in what should provide us neither. Examples would include bragging about the “wild days” of our youth—how fast we used to drive, how much we used to party, or the times we broke the law and got away with it. It’s basically when we take pride in what our God sees as only sinful and which is, therefore, shameful .
“Reckless” and “recklessness” are often used in that way. We tend to look with a certain amount of admiration at those who are reckless and get away with it. Yet, how everything changes in an instant when the reckless person doesn’t “get away with it”—when that recklessness causes injury, death, and heartache. Make no mistake, God never regards recklessness as amusing or admirable. He makes that clear in our text when He condemns the false teachers for “[leading] my people astray by their lies and their recklessness.” [v.32 ESV]
These words drain all the “cute” and “admirable” out of the thing, don’t they? The words of the false teachers led souls to their eternal destruction. What makes this even more tragic is the fact that God says in our text that not only was the evil avoidable, but the opportunity to use their words to save souls was right there in front of them. From our text: “But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings.” [v.22]
Stop and let that sink-in for a minute. By their lies and by their reckless speech—their casual mixing of “I say” with “God says”—the false teachers not only led those entrusted to their care to eternal destruction, they threw away the opportunity to speak the words that would have brought them life. We can be certain it matters not one bit to the souls in Hell whether those who led them there did so intentionally or just recklessly. For them, the result is tragically and eternally the same.
Which brings us to the 8th Commandment and what that statement of God’s Holy Will means to you and me today. The commandment again: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Clearly, God hates lies. Satan’s lies destroyed God’s perfect creation. Lies condemned His Son. Lies destroy countless souls every single day. Lies ruin lives and reputations, and they destroy trust.
Yet the 8th Commandment is about much more than just lies. It is God’s holy prohibition against every reckless word, every statement that intentionally or unintentionally harms rather than helps—every word that tears down rather than builds up. “False witness” is more than just lying. It includes every word spoken from an unloving heart. That can include even telling the truth when that truth is told to harm rather than help. This is just the negative things—what God forbids in the 8th Commandment. We haven’t even touched on the positive things that God in the Commandment demands: “We should defend (our neighbor), speak well of him, and explain all his words and actions in the best possible way” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism).
All of this is obviously important, but all of this could amount to little more than moralizing or pietism to us if we fail to look at this statement of God’s will in the larger context of His absolute love for His fallen creation, including every single soul, individually. God hates both lies and reckless speech because He never loses sight of the fact that precious, blood-bought souls hang in the balance. His anger burns hot against every single false teacher because they are causing eternal damage to the eternal souls that He sent His Son to save. When you and I look at it from God’s perspective, we want absolutely no part in the destruction of even one human being. We ask God, therefore, to give us a renewed appreciation for the affect our words have on others. Our words too can tear down or build up, they can encourage the broad path to Hell, or they can point to the narrow path to Heaven.
God sent his precious Son to rescue fallen mankind. His Son, having lived a perfect, sinless life, then offered that life on the cross of Calvary as the once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of all mankind. When God now sees faith in Jesus Christ in our hearts, he sees us as sinless, holy, pure—the debt for every single one of our sins having been paid for by Jesus Christ. We don’t have to earn God’s love and forgiveness; we already have it through faith that his Son has already paid our sin debt in our place.
Every lie, every reckless word, in some way—great or small—detracts from that message, that saving truth of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why the 8th Commandment is such a big deal. Not because you and I need to keep it if we hope to be saved, and not because by keeping it our own personal reputation or honor will be enhanced. It is so important because God has chosen you and me to share with the world that one simple truth that can avert that most unthinkable, eternal disaster and instead guide souls to their Savior’s side in Heaven for all eternity. Who would dare to take risks with so important a responsibility? Who, in realizing just what we are talking about, would even consider treating that sacred trust with carelessness or recklessness? Let it not be so among us. Amen.
Bear no false witness nor defame
Your neighbor and destroy his name,
But view him in the kindest way;
Speak truth in all that you say.
Have Mercy Lord! (CW 285:9)
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