“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the twenty-sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which reads as follows: “Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.”’” Dear friends in Christ, the courtroom is the home of the Eighth Commandment. There, among judges and juries, defendants and prosecutors, it rules. It is the task of those in authority to provide justice, to make sure that the truth wins out, that the guilty are punished, and the innocent freed. Only the truth should be told in court. No lies—not even little ones! No slander, no falsehood, no tall tales of any kind. A judge must be fearless; he must be consumed by the search for truth. And the witnesses must be the same; they must be upright and trustworthy, for the reputation of their neighbor is in their hands. That’s why, if you are a witness, you are required to swear a solemn oath; you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. Serious stuff, especially if you happen to believe in the almighty God who gave the Eighth Commandment. The court wants to hear and determine the truth, nothing but the truth.
Surely, that is what the Sanhedrin wants to hear, right? They want to hear the truth about Jesus, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, correct? For the Eighth Commandment, though it rules our entire lives, especially governs the courtroom. These men have been charged with justice, and they will certainly make it their task to ensure that Jesus receives a fair hearing, right? Wrong! “Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony about Jesus that they might put Him to death.” Did you hear that? The Council is seeking out false witnesses! They want the liars, they want those who will willingly break the Eighth Commandment. Jesus will only receive the pretense of justice; He will be tried, but in the middle of the night, and with a crowd of false witnesses testifying against Him. The ones who know the Law subvert it; they want nothing to do with the truth. They lust for liars so that they can put Him to death.
It’s hard to believe that upstanding, ‘good religious people,’ those who pride themselves on their keeping of the Law, could subvert justice in this way. The authorities, those charged with administering justice, would do that—even to an innocent man? Sure, they would, without a second thought, for their hatred blinded them. And so would you. And so do you. Martin Luther teaches us the meaning of the Eighth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” The courtroom is the Eighth Commandment’s natural home, but the thing is, this world is a courtroom, everyone is on trial.
And you are an expert in giving false witness. You bear false witness by lying about your friend, saying things you know aren’t true, intending to exalt yourself by bringing her down. You bear false witness by revealing secrets, betraying the trust of another by making what was private public. You bear false witness when you take someone’s sin not to him, but to the entire world. You bear false witness when you explain your neighbor’s action in the worst possible way. You destroy someone’s reputation from a safe distance with your I-Pad or Smartphone, seemingly isolated from the consequences. You don’t give them a fair hearing in the courtroom of this world; your goal is not the good of your neighbor, but his destruction. You see, the Eighth Commandment doesn’t only deal with telling lies, but also with how you use the truth. Even if what you say is true, if it hurts your neighbor’s reputation, you are called to silence. “Defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Public sin should be reproved publically; the Eighth Commandment is not a shield for those living a publically sinful life or preaching false doctrine. But the private sins of your neighbor are to be taken to her privately, seeking repentance, not trumpeted before the world.
For you see, false witness is dangerous. It takes a lifetime to build up a good reputation; only moments are necessary to destroy it. Words can wound, words can destroy; false witness can lead to the violation of numerous other commandments. We saw this last week when poor Naboth was falsely accused on the orders of the king and put to death. And tonight, it happens to Jesus. The false witnesses come against Him, one after the other, but something is wrong. They can’t agree. Even though no one defends His reputation or speaks well of Him, Jesus appears to be winning! But then two last witnesses come forward, and they decide to quote Jesus. They declare, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” This clinches it. They have quoted one of Jesus’ most provocative and confrontational sermons, the one where He appears not only to be not only a nut, but a dangerous nut, a terrorist, one who threatens buildings, and the most important building of all—the temple.
Despite this accusation, Jesus doesn’t protest. Why? He did preach this sermon! The false witnesses, desperately sought by the court, have actually spoken the truth! They preach Christ despite themselves, declaring before the whole court who Jesus is and what He has come to do. For Jesus isn’t speaking of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem; He is, as we are told in John chapter two, speaking about the temple of His body. His body is the new temple, the greater temple, the temple to replace Herod’s temple forever—this man, standing before them, is also true God, Immanuel, God with us. “In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and so it is His body, His own flesh and blood that is God’s new temple; Jesus points not to brick and mortar, but to Himself.
And Jesus is no terrorist; His opponents have twisted His words, for He didn’t threaten to destroy anything when He first spoke these words. Instead, amidst the ruin of His wrath against the money-changers, Jesus calls on His opponents to “destroy this temple,” and He knows that they will. In fact, when these words are repeated in the darkness between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Sanhedrin will set this prophecy in motion. They will destroy the temple of His body; now that they have their conviction, gained by twisting His words, they send Him to Pilate for sentencing, and more false witness will be borne. Then, upon the cross, the temple of His body will be destroyed, thrown down; the false witness of many will end up in murder. The ruined temple will be laid in a tomb. But the false witnesses have spoken more truly than they know; three days later the temple will be rebuilt, Christ will rise, victorious over the false witness of His opponents, victorious even over death.
What the Sanhedrin meant for evil Jesus turned into good; they fulfilled His prophecy despite themselves. He went to the cross as the sacrifice for sin, bearing every violation of the Eighth Commandment, even the ones which sent Him there to die, and He rose in victory over their evil. Now Jesus speaks the truth about you: you, yes you, sinner, are forgiven. The courtroom is a place for truth, a place where the Eighth Commandment is to rule. In the courtroom of God’s justice, there is no way to put a good construction upon it; you are guilty, condemned for your callous and evil disregard for the reputations of others, along with all of your other sins. That is the truth. But there is another truth that is greater. God doesn’t count your sin against you anymore for the sake of His Son. That is the truth, and it is greater than any word of condemnation.
Now Jesus has only good things to say about you; He declares to the entire world: ‘Do you see these people? Yes, they are sinners, through and through. But they are my sinners—I died for them! I’ve forgiven them. I’ve put my name upon them when I washed them at the font. They are my holy ones!’ Jesus speaks well of you in the heavenly courtroom, freeing you to speak well of your neighbor in the courtroom of this world, to use your words to edify your neighbors, to build up your friends, to stand up for others and explain everything in the kindest way. And you are now free to tell the truth about Jesus, to confess that He is Lord, that His death and resurrection have brought you deliverance. You confess to yourself and to others that this Jesus is ‘for you’ for the forgiveness of your sins. That is His reputation, declared by the Church to the world: He is the Savior of sinners—even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.