Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, Matthew 26:59NKJV
We continue our study of Question 145 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What are the sins forbidden in the ninth commandment?” The second part of the answer states, “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are… giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, out-facing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence.” Last time we looked at the sin of prejudicing the truth. Today we consider the evil of undermining just courts.
You may be wondering why a Christian catechism, designed to teach Christians how to live out their faith, is concerned to address the proper exercise of public judicature? Yet its consideration is most appropriate both in principle and as relates to our current cultural context. Principally, since justice is perhaps the most fundamental of all virtues and because God has ordained all authority structures with the responsibility of establishing justice, its intentional subversion strikes at the very heart of human civilization. Second, as American citizens, we may be required to take part in the juridical process through the jury system, or we may be called to bear witness at a trial. Thus, Christians should be interested in the official administration of justice in church and state courts.
Giving false evidence was made famous by the police officer at the O. J. Simpson murder trial, who eventually admitted to planting a bloody glove at the scene of the crime in order to make it easier to get a conviction. O. J. may well have been guilty, but planting evidence was still wrong. Suborning false witnesses is seen in the Scripture at the head of this article. The chief priests tried to find people to speak false accusations by which they could condemn Jesus. Conversely, false witnesses can be used to provide a made-up alibi to allow a guilty person to escape the consequences of his crime. For example, to get my best friend off the hook I lie and say, “John could not have stolen that car because he was with me in Seattle the night it was taken.” Often, suborning has the meaning of using a bribe to persuade someone to testify to a falsehood, like when the chief priests bribed the Roman soldiers to declare Jesus’ disciples stole away his body while they slept (Matt. 28:12-15).
In the previous example even as the priests were guilty of suborning false witnesses, in that they bribed them to bear witness to a falsehood, the soldiers who agreed to this deal were guilty of wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause. They wittingly, that is to say, with their wits, or as we would say today they knowingly testified to what was untrue. So, if I or my client is guilty of the charges, I should not try to establish my or their innocence. If there are extenuating circumstances or reasons why the court should show mercy, or why the law is unjust or should not apply in this instance, I can argue for that, but I cannot in good conscience argue for what I know is false. That would be wittingly pleading for an evil cause.
Out-facing and overbearing the truth refers to a persistent, stubborn attempt to oppose what is true. The New Testament shows this sin repeatedly whenever we see the Jewish leaders witness the divine credentials of Jesus and yet still oppose Him. Consider their reaction to Jesus’ ministry of casting demons out of people: “But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons,” (Luke 11:15). Now this conclusion was absurd, which Jesus went on to show when He pointed out “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? … And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges,” (Luke 11:18a, 19). The logic of Jesus’ argument is irrefutable. He could not be using the power of Satan to overcome Satan. The Jewish leaders did not want to accept the truth and so they acted to out-face and overbear the truth. In the end they sinned by passing an unjust sentence against Jesus and condemned Him to death though He had committed no wrong. May God grant that we never give in to subtle temptations to bear false witness in any of these ways, that we would not be promoting injustice among us.