“It isn’t fair!” How many times have we heard that, and not just from children? This world is full of lawsuits. Everyone is suing everyone else over all sorts of matters, some of which are quite trivial. Several years ago, a woman sued McDonalds because she spilled hot coffee on herself for millions of dollars. Although she initially won that case, it was thankfully reversed on appeals because the alleged damage far exceeded her loss. Common sense also dictates that one handle a cup of hot coffee with care. We all can cite many cases where we feel that the guilty went free because they could afford a good lawyer and we hear of the release of death row inmates who didn’t’ and whose innocence was proven later by DNA evidence. We are all increasingly concerned about the corruption of judges and justice.
The trouble is that the problems of society also find their way into churches. Disputes break out between Christians. Churches split over the most trivial differences. What does God think about this? Is this any way to reflect the goodness of God? Does the Bible shed light on this? I think it does indeed. We can see God’s concern for justice in the Book of Deuteronomy. Turn your Bibles to Deuteronomy 19. We will read verses 15 to 21.
Exposition of the Text
A. The Historical Setting
Deuteronomy was written a long time ago, well over three thousand years ago when the Children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land. Moses had spent forty years with them getting them ready in the wilderness where they were separated by the LORD from the corrupting influences of Egypt. They were getting ready to enter the Promised Land which at that time was extremely corrupt. God had ordered the complete removal of the inhabitants lest the leaven of the Canaanites corrupt Israel and cause them to stumble and fall.
B. The Contextual Setting
Deuteronomy is a complex legal document. It is more than stating laws. It is also a commentary on the laws. In other words, there is a spirit of the law behind the law. The regulations have a “why” aspect about them which is more than simply “Do this because I told you to.” The motivation to obey was based upon the LORD’s gracious redemption of Israel from Egypt. The Ten Commandments which are restated for Israel in Deuteronomy 4 start with: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The proper response to God’s loving act of redemption was that of love. We should have heard these words of Deuteronomy before in chapter six: Hear O Israel, the LORD your God is one LORD. And you shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and all of your might.” Everything which is stipulated in Deuteronomy is based upon these two pillars.
C. The Meaning of the Text
This morning’s text is about halfway through the book and deals with the establishment of justice. Justice is an important aspect of living in a free society. Without justice, there is no freedom. This Promised Land was not going to be heaven where there will no longer be disputes. There would be no need for law where everyone is fair and just. The LORD knew that there would be disputes and took meticulous care to see that they were fairly resolved. In particular, this passage deals with the truthfulness of accusations when a complaint was lodged against a brother. Safeguards were put in place to make sure that the innocent was not wrongly condemned.
The first of these was that it took more than one witness to establish the matter, and their testimony had to agree. If the testimony did not agree, the priests and judges had to determine the truth of the matter. By implication this means that priests and judges who stood in the place of the LORD had to be blameless in their conduct as well as thoroughly competent of judge a matter. If the courts could not be trusted, then everyone would take matters of justice into their own hands and anarchy would result. The Book of Judges serves as an all to horrible example of what happens when everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
As a deterrent and to uphold the validity of the court, a false witness was to be severely punished. He or she would have to suffer the punishment that would have been inflicted upon the accused. This would act as a strong deterrent against frivolous as well as vengeful lawsuits. The LORD insisted that this kind of evil be purged from the land or else it would corrupt the entire society leading to its bondage and then destruction.
Application of the Text
A. Example 1: The Trial of Jesus
The Bible itself illustrates this text in both a positive and negative way. The most glaring example of this occurred at the trial of Jesus. Unjust priests and judges held a trial at night. They paid witnesses to offer false testimony in the attempts to convict an innocent man, Jesus. The false witnesses did not agree. Was any inquiry made and these false witnesses punished as this text stipulated?--not by these judges. Finally they broke the law by trying to compel testimony from the accused. Jesus answered truthfully concerning Himself and was condemned. We can see how bad an example of this text occurred.
We must also realize that the LORD is judge of all. The actions did not go unpunished. They tried to destroy the Temple of God, but God raised up Jesus from the dead on the third day as vindication of Jesus’ innocence. He would later send the Romans to destroy their Temple which is the punishment for false witness. By this, the evil was purged from the land. The Lord who is the only judge who is both perfectly just as well as all discerning is the only one who can be the judge of all.
B. The Example of Corinth
In the Corinthian church, there were a lot of frivolous lawsuits between Christians which were being heard before Pagan judges. The Christian testimony was being compromised by their conduct. They were acting as false witnesses to Christ. Paul reminded the Corinthians that they would one day judge angels. Were they not able to judge these matters from within the church? Paul told them that there were indeed those in the church who would come to the truth of the matter. Even if there weren’t, it was better to suffer loss rather than to present a false witness to Christ to the world. Will the LORD let such trouble blow up in the church without coming in judgment? When we see what happened when Israel bore false witness to the nations what happened.
C. The Example in 1 Peter
Peter talks about our witness to the world. Many Christians were being imprisoned for their faith. But Peter who advocates respect of the government even in light of this tells the churches that while it is commendable to suffer evil from the authorities for doing good, they must not think there was any merit to suffering when one was in prison for evildoing. Innocent suffering is like that of Jesus. God is judge and sees accordingly. But he also sees when we are false.
What do we learn from this passage? The first thing we learn is that this 3,400 year old passage speaks just as loudly to us as it did then. We live in the wilderness between the ages. We have left Egypt, but have not entered the glory of the New Jerusalem where no more laws will be needed. We still have the dust of Egypt clinging to us. There should not be any disputes between church members, but alas, there are. These have to be done fairly from within the discipline of the church body rather than to make a spectacle for the world to laugh at. This should be the court of first resort.
We have also learned that our witness to the world as the children of God must reflect His character. We cannot control a corrupt society, especially as Christians lose influence in this country. It is even possible that we might someday be imprisoned for our faith. But we must act in such a way that only false witnesses can testify against us. Many Christians have innocently suffered like their Lord. This is true in many parts of the world today.
Finally, we must encourage one another along the journey with our true hope. The Lord the righteous judge is coming. We can suffer the loss of all earthly things because we have a possession no one can take away from us that is reserved for us, an incorruptible hope. We can rejoice that the innocent suffering of Christ on the cross has redeemed us. Let us respond in love for the LORD who has bought us by his grace and be thankful. Let this love guide our conduct that we might glorify God in all we do.