I hate going to court. There are many things that I love about being a pastor, but going to court to testify on behalf of a church member is not one of them. I have done it many times, and I’m sure I will do it many more. When you’re subpoenaed, you have no choice. Now, I’ve never been called as a witness to a crime, but I have been required to go to court as a character witness, either in custody cases or in cases where a defendant is hoping to have their pastor speak positively about their character. When you take the stand, you’re supposed to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” You used to have to place your left hand on a Bible, to remind you of divine authority over you, but you don’t have to do that anymore. You do still have to raise your right hand. Ever wonder where that practice comes from?
According to NW Sidebar: The Voice of Washington’s Lawyers and Legal Community, the practice comes from seventeenth-century London. Convicts were branded with a mark on the thumb of their right hand. Since the brand fit the crime (“M” for murder, “T” for theft, etc.), the poor soul bore a permanent criminal record on his body. Raising the right hand in court was a way of making the judge aware of any prior convictions. NW Sidebar says, “This indelible ‘criminal record’ was thus a sort of pre-cursor to the ‘character evidence’ of today.” [i]
Of course in an ideal world, people shouldn’t have to prove their authenticity by a show of hands. However, the truth is that the truth is hard to come by. According to a recent Barna report, “One-third of all adults (34%) believe that moral truth is absolute and unaffected by the circumstances. Slightly less than half of the born again adults (46%) believe in absolute moral truth.[ii] With that few people actually believing in real truth, one must wonder why the rest of the population would think it important to tell the truth at all. And, of the rest who still believe that there is such a thing as Truth with a capital T, how many actually stick to it, when they are pressed?
In the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, we read about Peter and John on trial. They’ve been arrested for the crime of healing a lame man in Jesus’ name.[iii] The event created such a stir that a crowd gathered, providing the perfect preaching opportunity for Peter.[iv] It also provided the perfect excuse for the Sadducees, who did not believe in the afterlife at all, to lay hands on the apostles. They spent the night in jail before they could have their trial before the high priest. This gave Peter another opportunity to share his faith, saying to the high priestly family, “He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”[v]
What would you do, if you were brought on trial for your faith? You’ve heard it asked before—if you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I wonder, would you put up a defense? Like Peter had on the night of Jesus’ arrest, would you say you never knew Him?[vi] Standing up for the truth is hard, especially when there are negative consequences if you do so. Yet this time, determined never to deny Jesus again, Peter used the opportunity. He never backed down from the truth, and presented the Gospel to people who never might have heard it, had he not been arrested. In fact, two thousand people came to Christ because of the testimonies Peter gives in these chapters. This brings the total Christian population up to five thousand.
Finally, the rulers decided to threaten Peter and John, and let them go—but they command them to stop speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus. Yet, the apostles remained steady, saying, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”[vii]
Sometimes the truth gets put on trial in your life. Like Peter and John, you might get backed into a corner where it seems like lying your way out is the best and easiest solution. Will you stand up for the truth, even in times like that?
There’s a story about a drunk husband who went up the stairs quietly so he wouldn’t wake his sleeping wife.
He looked in the bathroom mirror and bandaged the bumps and bruises he'd received in a fight earlier that night. He then proceeded to climb into bed, smiling at the thought that he'd pulled one over on his wife.
When morning came, he opened his eyes and there stood his wife. "You were drunk last night weren't you!"
"Well, if you weren't, then who put all the band-aids on the bathroom mirror?" [viii]
The truth is that the truth is always the best way—because your lies will find you out. Once you start a lie, it takes more and more lies to cover up the earlier ones. Telling the truth is much easier, and it’s much more pleasing to God. Yet, we don’t lie simply to get ourselves out of trouble, or to keep from losing. Another reason why we lie is to gain something—whether that’s money, prestige, position, or whatever.
The Bible story continues with the wild growth of the church. After such demonstrations of divine power, powerful preaching, and the stalwart examples of disciples who would not back down when the truth was on trial, church growth was explosive—so much so that the disciples wondered how they could financially afford to keep the new believers (who were Pentecost pilgrims) in Jerusalem for some training in the faith before sending them back home. So they shared whatever they had. People like Barnabas were selling property and other goods to raise the money to sustain such a large crowd.[ix]
Following Barnabas’ example, Ananias and Sapphira did the same thing, presenting the proceeds to the disciples. Yet, they had something to gain by their gift. They wanted notoriety for giving the full price of the land to the church, yet they wanted to keep some of it for themselves. Now, don’t get the wrong idea—the money was theirs to do with whatever they chose. God never demanded that they give any of it—yet, if they were going to give it, the Lord would rather they were honest about it. Pridefully and publicly they declared that they were giving the full amount of the sale to the church. With two separate lies they stuck to their story, and with two separate strikes of divine retribution they died for their crime.[x] It’s not every day that God strikes someone dead for lying, but it does give you pause, doesn’t it? Why did God do it? To set an example—one that I hope we’ll learn from. It’s not okay to lie, either to get out of trouble or to gain something. A story is told that:
At the county fair a distinctively dressed Quaker offered a horse for sale. A non-Quaker farmer asked its price, and since Quakers had a reputation for fair dealing, he bought the horse without hesitation. The farmer got the horse home, only to discover it was lazy and ill-tempered, so he took it back to the fair the next day. There he confronted the Quaker.
"Thou hast no complaint against me," said the Quaker. "Had thou asked me about the horse, I would have told thee truthfully the problems, but thou didst not ask."
"That's okay," replied the farmer. "I don't want you to take the horse back. I want to try to sell him to someone else. Can I borrow your coat and hat awhile?"[xi]
Sometimes people use deception to try to make themselves look better than they are, so that they can gain something—or, in this case, to regain something. Religious people are the worst at that. I remember buying a vehicle from a used car dealer who was also an ordained minister (now, there’s a combination for you!). He had a big Christian fish displayed on his sign as if to say, “Trust me!” But beware of snakes that smile too wide. Watch out for people who say, “Trust me,” because if they were really trustworthy they wouldn’t have to say it. We’ll just say that the car situation ended badly for all involved—mainly because of the dishonesty of a man who dressed like a Quaker so he could sell a bad horse.
Despite our efforts to be good, it’s easy for us to be tempted to do the same thing, isn’t it? What do you do when you want to sell a used car? Do you lie about its flaws so you can make the sale? What do you do when there’s a twelve-and-under discount for your child who just turned thirteen? What example do you set for them, when you take that discount? What do you do when truth is on trial? I pray you’ll be more like Peter and John than Ananias and Sapphira. I pray you’ll pass the test. The human temptation is to lie, either to get ourselves out of trouble, or to gain something for ourselves. It’s the way of the world—the bedrock upon which our society is built—remember, only a third Americans believe in absolute truth. Like Peter and John, let’s say, “We must obey God rather than men.” Let’s tell the truth at all times. Let’s remain faithful to the truth rather than giving in to the lie.
[i]Meredith, Michael. NW Sidebar: The Voice of Washington’s Lawyers and Legal Community . “Why Do We Raise Our Right Hands When Testifying Before the Court?” October 21, 2013. http://nwsidebar.wsba.org/2013/10/21/raise-right-hand-court/. April 25, 2015.
[ii] Barna Group: Knowledge to Navigate a Changing World. “Barna Studies the Research, Offers a Year-in-Review Perspective.” December 18, 2009.
[iii] Acts 3:1-8
[iv] Acts 3:11-26
[v] Acts 4:11-12
[vi] Matthew 26:74
[vii] Acts 4:19b-20
[viii] Original Source Unknown. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/t/truth.htm
[ix] Acts 4:32-37
[x] Acts 5:1-11
[xi] Original Source Unknown. http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/t/truth.htm