Matthew 5:33-37 Bearing True Witness.
Jesus, it will be noted, does not strictly follow the sequence of the commandments related to human society in ‘the sermon on the mount’. Perhaps he sought simply to address some gross abuses. At Matthew 5:21-26 he expanded on the sixth commandment, and at 27-32 on the seventh. He skips the eighth on stealing, and instead moves on to the ninth, which even though he does not quote directly, it is clear that he is referring to it. Many assume that the command is equivalent to saying ‘You shall not lie’, but in fact this is not what it says. The command is, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Ex. 20:16; Dt. 5:20).
Later in the law code in Exodus, Moses elaborates on what this command really means. “You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in dispute” (23:1-3) To bear witness was to testify in a dispute, with the ultimate case being as a witness in a capital offence. In the second giving of the law, wherein the commandments are repeated as a second witness, we have the code law requiring two or three for capital offences at 17:6 and 19:15.
The writer to the Hebrews lends his witness in this regard (10:28). This is also what is no doubt behind Jesus’ instructions in resolving disputes at Matthew 18:16, and Paul’s warning not to accept a charge against an elder from only one witness at (I Tim. 5:19). However one understands I John 5:8, it seems clear that this principle is behind this statement also. Jesus even said that if he alone bore witness to himself, because it was only one person, it would not be true (Jn. 5:31). Jesus was indeed the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6), but when it came to bearing witness or testimony, it was necessary that he have at least one other, who in his case was the Father (Jn. 5:32, 37; 8:18).
It would not have been appropriate for Jesus to accept the testimony from men as adequate, even though many did (Jn. 5:34). He also had the testimony of the Spirit, as the One who inspired the biblical canonical writers, for Jesus also said that they testified to him (Jn. 5:39). Later in John Jesus would reiterate this principle. “And yet if I do judge, My judgement is true; for I am not alone, but I am with the Father who sent Me” (8:16). Then we have from Jesus another reiteration of the code law on witnesses. “It is also written in your law that the testimony of two men is true. I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me” (v. 17).
Jesus was God, and the truth himself as he said, so even if he alone bore witness to himself that witness per se would be true (Jn. 8:14). However, the fact is the triune God decided that in testifying to the truth there would be one or two witnesses, in this case divine. This is also an important biblical hermeneutic to bear in mind. God could indeed state something once and this would be enough, but the fact is whether it was in testing the prophets by the prophetic word already given, or referring to two or three biblical witnesses to prove a point, the biblical writers followed this principle.
As Paul stated when he quoted the code law at II Corinthians 13:1, “This will be the third time I am coming to you. ‘By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established’.” In returning to Matthew 5:33-37, we find Jesus elaborating on the issue of oath taking, because this was in fact what took place when one bore witness in matters of life and death. As noted already, Jesus did not refer to the commandment directly, but he did refer to the civil law code. In keeping with what has just been stated with regard to two or three witnesses, we find these references at Leviticus 19:12 and Deuteronomy 23:23.
These verses command us to keep and perform that which we have committed ourselves to with our testimony. We are not to cease to keep our word, nor are we to fail to perform it. What these references also demonstrate is that one should not be hard and fast in dividing the ten commands between what applies to God and what applies to one’s neighbour, for the point that Jesus is also making is that this is also an oath taken in God’s presence. Some hoped to add weight, so to speak, to their oath taking, by referring to the things which Jesus’ mentions. As John Murray pointed out in his ‘Principles Of Conduct’, this was disingenuous.
People would refer to the things mentioned by Jesus in what can only be described as the art of equivocal speech (v. 34-35). People knew that they meant to refer to God, but they hedged their bets by not wanting to possibly take the name of the LORD in vain. Here is where we have a conflating with the third commandment (Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). It is not even up to us to make one of our hairs black or white, such is the surety we cannot give ourselves in our oath taking (v. 36). For us, it is enough to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as our oath before God and others. It remains for us then to keep and perform our word (v. 37).