Home > Biblical Studies, Brian's Blogs > A God-Pleasing Trespassing of the Commandments?

A God-Pleasing Trespassing of the Commandments?

Have you ever wondered, is there any time when it pleases God for us to break one of his commandments?

When I think about this question I’m reminded of that dreaded scenario of the Holocaust: if you were hiding a Jewish family during the Holocaust and the Nazi’s came to your door, would you lie to them to protect the Jewish family, even though this is a violation of the ninth commandment?

Part of me has always wanted to say “absolutely I’d lie!!”  But, the other part of me has always wanted to say “I can’t violate God’s law, because that is sin, so I’ll tell the truth and trust God with the result.”

I’m currently preparing for an upcoming sermon on Matthew 12:1-14.  This section, which technically includes Matthew 12:1-21, includes two Sabbath controversies.  Specifically, the Pharisees are upset with Jesus for apparently breaking the Sabbath by gathering food (Matt. 12:1-8) and healing a person’s hand (Matt. 12:9-14).  Although the presenting issue is the Sabbath, I think the real issue is hermeneutics.  As David Turner says, “the Pharisees do not interpret the Bible as Jesus does” (BECNT, 310).

What is the difference in Bible interpretation?  The Pharisees focus on the letter of the law.  The Bible says to rest on the Sabbath, so the Pharisees are going to rest on the Sabbath no matter what.  Jesus, on the other hand, seems to focus more on the spirit of the law.  Yes, the Bible says to rest on the Sabbath, but the Bible also seems to make exceptions when the welfare of others is at stake.  Jesus makes this point by appealing to two other biblical stories: David eating temple bread (1 Sam. 21:1-6) and the priests working on the Sabbath (ex. Lev. 24:8).  Jesus is also willing to heal a person on the Sabbath because common decency says this is the right thing to do (even the Pharisees would help an animal on the Sabbath!).  To put it bluntly, Jesus is saying that when the welfare of another human being is at stake, work on the Sabbath!

Jesus supports his interpretation in two ways.  First, he appeals to more Scripture.  He quotes Hosea 6:6 which says “I want mercy and not sacrifice.”  Second, he appeals to himself.  He is the Lord of the Sabbath and, therefore, has authority over the Sabbath.

What Jesus is doing here is getting to the heart of the law.  The intent of the law is to help us love God and love others (Matt. 22:37-40).  When the law is abused and keeps us from loving God and loving others, then we have missed its ultimate purpose and must reevaluate how we are using the law.  This leads F. D. Bruner to say, “At certain times there is, in fact, a God-pleasing trespassing of the commandment” (548).  Turner agrees when he says “doing good on the Sabbath is equivalent to prioritizing compassion over sacrifice (12:7).  This is an instance of Jesus not annulling the law but fulfilling it (5:17) by loving a neighbor (7:12)” (313).  D. Hagner rounds out the whole issue with this great quote: “law without love (mercy) may result in the violation of God’s will” (334).

So let’s relate Jesus’ teaching to the Holocaust scenario.  It seems that, based on Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus would proudly lie to the Nazi soldiers.  But is that right?  I absolutely hate slippery slope arguments, but this sure feels like a slippery slope to consequentialism in general and situational ethics in particular.  I agree with Dr. Grier that Christian liberty is very often consequentialist (because most decisions in our life don’t have a direct command by God so we must determine what things we ought to do), but what about when we have a direct command such as not bearing false witness?  How do we know when it is acceptable to violate a command out of love for others?

I’d love to hear some exegetical and ethical thoughts on this one to help me prepare for my sermon.  Please chime in!

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  1. jlemke
    January 5, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    I would lie. The commandment seems (exegetically speaking) to refer to upholding one’s relationships with neighbors and upholding the Israelite legal system.

    In order to save the life of another, I do not think I would be breaking that particular commandment. To lie to a Nazi soldier would be to protect one’s neighbor, and is thus in the spirit of the commandment.

    I don’t think, however, that I would lie to save myself. But I’m not sure. Hope I never need to find out.

  2. mikewittmer
    January 6, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Brian:

    Isn’t the command to not bear false witness more specific than “don’t lie.” God has in mind here lying against your neighbor to do them harm in a court of law, not necessarily any lie in particular. If the latter was true, then we’d have a big problem with the Egyptian midwives and Rahab, who are honored for their lies (which in Rahab’s case demonstrated her faith), and even God, who in 1 Samuel 16 tells Samuel to lie to avoid being captured by Saul.

    I think the issue here is not deception per se, but when a deception becomes culpable. What is the criteria which makes a lie wrong?

  3. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 6, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    All right fellas here goes. Isn’t there a difference in the two commandments in regards to specificity? One commandment is do not bear false witness. Whether interpreted as in court or simply “do not lie” is still more specific than “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it Holy”.

    It was the rabbinic traditions that specified what was and was not allowed. There for Jesus didn’t break the 10 commandments by healing the man, he broke the rabbinic traditions.

    Brian the specific command seems to be not to bear false witness in court. However Satan is described as the deceiver. In Mathew 12:14 Jesus is describes as a man of “Truth, integrity, or one who cannot lie. The word is alethes or not concealing.

    Finally it seems to me that whenever Jesus is confronted by an either or situation by the Pharisees He always seems to come up with a answer C. I wonder how much we underestimate the sheer brilliance of Jesus the man at times like this.

  4. mikewittmer
    January 6, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    I had a pastor once who used the “Jews hiding in your house from the Nazis” example as an illustration that we should always tell the truth. I told him afterwards that I hope that I never find myself hiding for my life in his house! Also note that in this example that it’s easier for the person hiding the Jews to tell the truth than for the Jews themselves who are hiding, as the hider has less skin in the game. And isn’t the very fact that the Jews are hiding and that he is hiding them constitute a non-verbal deception? So aren’t they already lying before the knock comes on the door?

  5. Brian McLaughlin
    January 6, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Mike, I think you are probably right, especially on the point that deception begins at the point of hiding. As I said in the post, I do believe that the ultimate purpose of the law (OT and NT) is to love God and love others, not strict adherence to ritual. This seems obvious from the prophets through Jesus/Paul. However, lets take a less dramatic example than the Holocaust. What if your son hides the truth or outright lies because the truth would genuinely hurt someone (emotionally or otherwise). Did your son do the right thing? Again, how far we go comes very close to Fletcher’s situation ethics or Geisler’s graded absolutism. I’ve never been completely comfortable with those systems…

  6. mikewittmer
    January 8, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Brian:

    I have to think about this more as well. I also emphasize that the point of the law is love, and fear that this could too easily slide into situation ethics. My oldest son is often too blunt with people, and we are working with him to be more considerate of other people’s feelings. So in a sense I guess we are leading him to conceal the painful truth, which though short of an outright lie, is a form of deception. When you think of it, we wouldn’t want to live in a world in which we don’t regularly deceive one another (e.g.,smile in passing and say we’re fine). Would we really want honest answers every time we say “Hi, how are you?” or would we really want to know what our students and parishioners are really thinking behind that smile and handshake?

  7. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 8, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Mike:
    Great point about our decieving culture. However is the question, “would we really want honest answers?” or is it “should we really want honest answers?” I would say it is much easier to not have someone confide their troubles in you, however I seeing as we started with Jesus, I doubt He ever asked that question with out genuinely caring for the true answer.

    As far as your son being blunt. I go back to speak the truth in love. Jesus at the well with the woman could not be any more straight forward with her, however he had already built up a relationship with her (short but still there), before he went there with her.

  8. January 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

    Doesn’t motive play into this discussion? There is a difference between lying for my gain and lying to protect others. It’s one thing to hide the Jews from the Nazi’s and another to falsely accuse your unlikeable neighbor of being a Jew.

    The Nazi question is easy an easy one for me, but what about if your wife committed a crime? Would you corroborate a false alibi in order to protect her?

  9. Brian McLaughlin
    January 8, 2009 at 11:54 am

    But, are we starting this conversation in the wrong place? In other words, we are starting with the situation and the potential outcome (consequentialism) rather than with God’s Word. It seems abundantly clear – even if the 9th word is a law court image – the totality of the word of God emphasizes truth over deception. God is a God of truth, Satan is the god of deception, and we are regularly encouraged to imitate God, along with frequent OT and NT exhortations to tell the truth. So shouldn’t we begin with the Bible and biblical ethics (which for me includes God’s character and loving God/others), and then proceed to apply this ethic in different situations.

    I believe that there is some consequentialism in the realm of Christian liberty (Romans 14-15), but the biblical word on truth seems too clear.

  10. January 8, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    An emphasis implies importance or significance, but it does not exclude the possibility of another action. How else do you reconcile the examples in the Bible, that the good Dr. has already cited, where deception is encouraged, celebrated and even ordered by God?

  11. January 8, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    It is a good question, Jeff, that people don’t have a very good answer to. The good Dr. John Murray – a great Reformed theologian who has written a major work on ethics, along with the good Dr. Grier – conclude that God doesn’t approve of their deception but their faith. It is possible, afterall, for God to approve of sinners (isn’t that grace?). It isn’t exegetically pleasing I admit. But, in your scenario, God can lie because he merely emphasizes the truth? Does that make you feel comfortable?

  12. January 9, 2009 at 2:42 am

    I am printing out this post with the comments. It’s a very helpful discussion.

  13. January 9, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I would probably be content with Dr. Grier exegesis except for I Samuel where God explicitly tells Samual to lie about his mission.

    I am comfortable with the idea that God could deceive for His purposes, just as I am comfortable with a God that directed the Children of Israel to slaughter entire tribes/kingdoms for His purposes, and just as I am comfortable with a God who will judge and condemn some to Hell for all eternity.

    The Bible lists many attributes of God that we would usually describe as negative: jealousy, anger, wrath. Couldn’t deceit be included in that list?

  14. jlemke
    January 9, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Dr. Murray’s answer does not seem to fit the biblical evidence for Rahab (for just one example). I find it hard to believe that the position of the narrator of Joshua is that Rahab’s faith was right but her deception was wrong. The deception seems supported by the author in every sense, and then supported by the author of Hebrews as well. IMHO.

    Brian, I’m with you – consequentialism is not a good starting place. I’m simply of the opinion (as stated back in the very first comment in this thread) that the commandment does not prohibit ALL deception.

  15. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 9, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I think I’ve changed my mind 2 or 3 times on this topic.

    First thought, In the case of the holocost victim, isn’t that an example of a government action directly in conflict with the Word of God, there fore allowing for not submitting to the government?

    Regarding Samual, I’m not convinced that that was blatant deceit. God tells him to go sacrifice and invite Jesse. The text leaves me to assume that he did actually do these things. Yes he was originially going to annoint David, however he wasn’t untruthful in saying that he was going to make a sacrifice.

    I still cannot seperate the totality of Scripture and God’s character from this argument which in my mind are overwhelmingly in support of complete honesty.

    Regarding Rahab, there is so much ground to honor her for legitimate reasons of her faith with out her deception, and it is so ambiguous in the text what is actually credited as faith, I have a hard time saying with confidence that God is ordaining her deception.

  16. Janelle
    January 11, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Here’s my thinking. If the “Jesus Creed” really boils down to “Love God, Love Others”, doesn’t “Love God, Love Others” trump the other commands? Therefore, any other commandments need to be viewed through the “Love God, Love Others” lens. As such, using the Nazi example, if telling the truth in that circumstance would cause us to break the “Love Others” principle, isn’t loving others the more important principle and therefore the one that should be followed? Essentially, that is why breaking the “Sabbath” laws in those instances were OK with Jesus, wasn’t it? Because he was loving others, and tat trumped the other commands.

  17. January 12, 2009 at 10:42 am

    Janelle,

    Yes…and no. This is the dilemma. I believe completely that the purpose of the law is love God and love others. However, it seems an insufficient basis for our ethics. Why? Because then it is up to us to determine what the most loving thing to do is. Furthermore, if loving others is the best then we have to determine what action has the most loving consequences for the most people. Is stealing a loaf of bread okay? It may be loving to the person you are feeding but what about to the small town store owner who makes a living selling bread – how do we determine the most loving action?

    This is why complete consequentialism cannot work – we are not omniscient. Rather, it seems that God has given us a guideline for things that “maximize love” in all cases – the 10 commandments/Sermon on the mount (at least). So is God saying that, in all cases, truth maximizes love?

    Tough one…what do you think?

  18. Janelle
    January 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Agreed that complete consequentialism does not work – we are fallen human beings, and therefore need more guidelines than just “love God, love others”. Under most circumstances, following the guidelines will cause you to love God and love others, so you’re good. My point is simply that, when the following the other guidelines would clearly cause you to break the “love God, love others” principle, love trumps law.

    I would argue that the stealing bread example is different from the Nazi example, because in the stealing bread example, you are choosing whom to love more – the person you’re feeding, or the person you’re stealing from – whereas, in the Nazi example, you’re choosing between loving and lying. If you have to choose whom to love, then we look to see if the other guidelines/commandments address the issue.

    Agreed that this is tough, and that it’s a slippery slope kind of argument. And any kind of slippery slope argument should always be entered into with some trepidation. I just think that I’d be able to lie to the Nazi with a clear conscience, and these are the reasons why. 🙂

  19. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 13, 2009 at 11:01 am

    Janelle,
    Abraham on the mount about to sacrifice Isaac, seems like the loving thing to do would be to disobey the command in order to love his son and save Him. We cannot exclude God’s sovereignty from the discussion. By choosing to lie (in the holocaust example) we may be robbing God of an opportunity to create a Peter escape from prison experience like in Acts 12.

    We have come up with many examples of where it appears okay to deceive for the benefit of another. How about in Gen 12 and 20 when Abraham lies about Sarah? Yes it was for his own personal protection as well. But twice he is deceptive for the benefit of his family and God is clearly not pleased.

    If we look at the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus handling of the ten commandments, “Love God Love Others” is much more difficult than the original ten commandments. Now our heart is at play. That being said it is pretty clear where God stands on integrity

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