"True to Our Word"
(Delivered Sunday, October 31, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
We've been looking together, over the past few weeks, at Jesus' comments in the Sermon on The Mount concerning God's law. We've discovered that His followers are to be characterized by a righteousness according to God's law that exceeds even the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus gives us six examples of this in His sermon. In each case, He shows what the scribes and Pharisees had taught concerning obedience to specific commandments of God; and then, He exercises His authority as the Son of God and teaches His followers what the true intention of God was in those commandments. And the thing that He is showing us in each case is the difference between the superficial obedience to the mere letter of the law that characterized the teachers of the day, and the genuine obedience to the true spirit of the law that He desires to see exhibited in us.
It's been amazing to me to see how the things Jesus says in this passage touch on every area of life. He deals with our church life (vv. 21-26), our thought life (vv. 27-30), our married life (vv. 31-32), our business life (vv. 33-37), our personal rights and possessions (vv. 38-42), and even our relationship toward our enemies (vv. 43-48). Being a follower of Jesus Christ means being a follower of Him in very possible area. All aspects of our lives are to be brought into conformity to God's good law through the grace of our wonderful Savior Jesus Christ.
And I hope that you've come to appreciate in a personal way - as I have - that our Savior isn't interested in a superficial, outwardly-religious conformity to God's law. Instead, He desires that, from the heart, we understand the true 'spirit' of what God wants from us in His commandments; and that, having grasped that true spirit, we then seek to obey His commandments with all our inner being. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ doesn't mean outward conformity to the letter of the law. It means an inward delight and obedience to the true spirit of God's commandments all the time, and in all spheres of life.
This morning, we continue our study of Jesus' instruction on the commandments of God by looking at verses 33-37. There, Jesus spoke to His disciples and said,
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' But I say to you, do not swear at all; neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33-37).
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Have you ever uttered an oath? Have you ever verbally bound yourself, in a solemn and official way, to do a thing or fulfill a promise - calling upon God to bear witness to your words, and calling upon other people to bear witness to your pledge before God? If you're married, then you certainly have; because you were asked if you will pledge yourself for life to your husband or wife before God and witnesses, and were called upon to respond verbally by saying, "I do." (It's interesting that Jesus' words on taking oaths follows right after His words about not putting away one's husband or wife!) I have vowed myself to my wife by uttering such an oath. Some of us have been called upon to make a vow to tell the truth in a court of law. It's obviously not something to do lightly. It's only something to be done with the greatest seriousness and care; because in it, we're calling upon God Himself to witness our words and bind us to what we say.
A "vow" is a solemn promise or pledge before God or before men; and an "oath" is the solemn, verbal appeal used toward God to bear witness that the vow will be kept or that the truth will be spoken. The Westminster Confession says this about oaths: "A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth; and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth." And it says this about vows: "A vow is of the like nature with a promisary oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness."1
At the heart of the whole idea of such things is the conviction that God truly is, and that He truly bears witness to what is said by us. It's the idea that God truly is in heaven, that He takes very seriously the things we say, and that He is able to act to either enable us to keep our word or to take us to task for failing to do so.
And I suggest to you that what Jesus is dealing with in this morning's passage is the sinful belief that that's not really true. Whenever someone falsely utters an oath or insincerely takes a vow, they are behaving as if God were not really there or does not really bear witness to what is said. Whenever we pledge ourselves to something or promise to do something or claim to be speaking the truth, but don't really mean what we say, we are actually expressing the belief that we're not ultimately accountable to God for our words.
Jesus taught us that "for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37). But to utter an oath that we don't really mean, or to vow ourselves to something we don't really intend to do, is to deny what Jesus said about our words. To utter an oath falsely is to behave as if there is no God! What a serious thing that is to do!!
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As His followers, Jesus is calling us to be people of the truth - people who say what we mean and mean what we say. This is because we are to be like God our Father; and God our Father is Himself that way. The Bible presents God to us as a God of absolute, unfailing truth. He speaks of things as they really are. He keeps every promise He makes, and fulfills every word He utters.
I have often wondered (and I say this with reverent caution) what it would be like if God kept His promises the way we do. I have wondered what would happen if God had said He would do something, and then did not do it. What would happen to us? What hope could we possibly have if that were the case? How could we ever be assured of our salvation? What a chaotic place this universe would be if God were not an absolute keeper of His own word! But the fact is that He is a 100% perfect keeper of His own word. He does exactly what He says He will do; and He never, ever slacks on a single one of His promises.
There is a word spoken of God in Numbers 23:19; and it not only condemns us for our own failings, but it also gives us a solid promise that we can take to the bank. It says, "God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?"
God has even proven that this is true of Him through practical experience. At the end of the long story of God's deliverance of the people of Israel from out of Egypt, after He had brought them to the land of promise and allowed them to enter in and claim what He had promised to give them; just before their leader Joshua died, and with all the people gathered around to hear his parting words, Joshua told them, "Behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth. And you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one thing has failed of all the good things which the LORD your God spoke concerning you; not one word of them has failed" (Josh. 23:14).
I must share with you a remarkable statement made about God in Psalm 138:1-2. It's an amazing thing to think about. King David wrote words of praise to God and said, "I will praise You with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing praises to You. I will worship toward Your holy temple, and praise Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth . . ." And why does he praise God so? David affirms, "For You have magnified Your word [that is "Your utterance; Your speech"] above all Your name."
Now, think of that! God's "name" refers to His revealed character and attributes - who He is and what He is like. And here, we're told that God has so esteemed His own utterances that they hold "a kind of sovereignty" over all His prerogatives and attributes.2 All that is true of Him - His wisdom, His power, His love, His justice, His mercy, His grace - and all the choices He makes in the exercise of those attributes - all of it will be brought together to fulfill what He promises to do with His own words. David could have absolute confidence that God will never do anything contrary to what He has said He would do; because He magnifies His word above His own name, and makes His own name back up His own word!
Did you know that God Himself has made vows? He made a great promise to Abraham; to give him a great land, to make him into a mighty nation, and to cause the whole world to be blessed through his Offspring - and that Offspring, of course, is our Savior Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:1-3). God Himself even ratified His promise by making a vow and confirming it with a sacrifice (Gen. 15:18). When God promises to do something, He bases that promise on Himself; because there is no one higher than Himself, and there is no one that is more true than He is - as the writer of Hebrews asserts: "For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them and end of all dispute. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us" (Heb. 6:16-18). Two things confirm our salvation to us: that God - who has magnified His word above His own name - (1) has pledged Himself with an oath, and (2) cannot ever lie.
And what is true for the Father is also true for the Son. The Bible tells us that "all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us" (2 Cor. 1:20).
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This, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is what God is like. And we are commanded to be like Him.
But stop and consider how far people are from being like God with respect to keeping their word. Stop and think how much suffering is caused in this world because people make promises in the sight of God, and yet lie, or do not remember them, and so fail keep them. If everyone were to suddenly keep the vows they make on their wedding day, what would happen to the divorce rate? How many acts of adultery would there then be? How many members of broken homes would suffer? Or if everyone were to keep their promises in business, how many companies would go bankrupt? How many corporate scandals would you read about? How many lawsuits would there be? And what would all the lawyers do?
It's hard to think of anything more relevant that what Jesus is teaching us in this morning's passage. Let's look at it closer, and consider first . . .
1. THE ERROR: THAT ONLY SOME OATHS ARE BINDING (v. 33).
Jesus began by saying, "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old . . ." And here, He's making reference to what the Jewish people had been taught concerning the law of Moses through the teachers of the centuries past.
They had taught the people the importance of God's commandments about speaking the truth. They were taught the third commandment: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain" (Ex. 20:7); and they were also taught the ninth: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (v. 16). And they were also taught to honor the vows that are made in God's name. Leviticus 19:11-12 says, "You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD." Numbers 30:2 says, "If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth."
And the common denominator in all of that is the name of God. A vow that was spoken in His name became binding - just as the law had commanded. That's still true, by the way. I hope you don't have the habit of saying things in a casual way like, "I'm swearin' to God that this is true . . ." or, "So help me God, I'm gonna . . ." That's to take God's name in vain. It's a vow made in His name; and He takes it very seriously.
The Jewish people took such things seriously too. But it eventually came to be that vows would also be taken that were not "in His name"; because they were vows that were not sincerely meant, or that the speaker had no real intention of keeping. There was what the Bible teacher William Barcley3 called "frivolous swearing"; that is, the taking of an oath when no oath was really needed or proper. They would say things like, "By the life of my head . . .", "May I be struck dead if . . ." And then, there was something even worse - something Barcley called "evasive swearing"; that is, swearing by an oath that was so worded as to avoid making God into a partner. If God was not involved, then the vow didn't have to be kept - or so they thought.
They made vows that I like to call "one-step-removed" vows. They would make vows, calling upon the things of God; but not calling upon God directly - that is, "one-step-removed" from God - thinking that this made their vow less binding, and freed them from the obligation of keeping it if it became inconvenient to do so. They ended up with a distinction between "sacred" vows and "secular" vows, and believed that the "secular" ones - the "one-step-removed" ones - were not as binding as the "sacred" ones that called upon God directly.
Jesus spoke of such vows in Matthew 23:16-22. He showed them that God was involved in these "one-step-removed" vows, even if they didn't evoke His name directly. He spoke to the scribes and Pharisees and said,
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.' Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.' Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it" (Matthew 23:16-22).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; if God hears all our words, and sees our hearts, and knows what our intentions are; and if He has promised to hold us accountable for every idle word we speak, then there is no "sacred" and "secular" distinction in our words. There are not some oaths that are binding, and others that are not binding. All our promises are as binding as if they evoked the name of God, because they are always spoken in His hearing.
No wonder the apostle James says, "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No,'" - quoting the words of our Savior, but adding ". . . lest you fall into judgment" (James 5:12).
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This leads us to our second point from Jesus' words. After the error, Jesus shows us . . .
2. THE CORRECTION: DO NOT SWEAR AT ALL (vv. 34-36).
Now you need to know that there's a controversy at this point. Jesus says, "But I say to you, do not swear at all . . ." And some have taken Jesus' words to mean that, as His followers, we should never - under any circumstances - take an oath. Many traditions of Christendom have believed this; among them, for example, are the Quakers who will not even swear to an oath in a court of law. Many fine Bible teachers believed this - Charles Spurgeon being among them. He said, "Whether in court of law, or out of it, the rule is, 'Swear not at all'."4
Those who hold this argument often look to Jesus' own trial as an example. They say that He Himself was compelled to testify in a court of law; and yet, He seemed to refuse to speak under oath. The High Priest urged Him to answer the charges placed against Him, saying, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!"; and yet, Jesus answered, "It is as you said . . ." - which was almost like saying, "You have spoken the words yourself" (Matthew 26:63-64). Personally, I don't believe this was an example of Jesus refusing to take an oath. I believe He was simply recognizing that He was standing before a hostile court that was already predetermined to execute Him; and that it didn't matter what He said.
But on the other side of the argument, there are many occasions in which Paul himself very clearly made use of oaths. Some of them are quite bold! He said, "I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites . . ." (Rom. 9:1-4). He told the Galatians, "Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie" (Gal. 1:20). He said, "I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily" (1 Cor. 15:31). Or how about this one that he placed Timothy under: "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom; Preach the word!" (2 Tim. 4:1-2).
It seems to me that. while oaths are always to be taken very seriously - and never used frivolously or dishonestly - they are nevertheless allowed when appropriate. I agree with the words of the Westminster Confession on this; that "as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the New Testament, as well as under the Old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters ought to be taken."5
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So how do we understand Jesus' words - "But I say to you, do not swear at all" - in the context of the whole of Scripture, which seems elsewhere to allow swearing in God's name? I believe we should see Jesus as speaking against the scribes and Pharisees tendency to emphasize the "letter" of the law over the true "spirit" of the law. They were attempting to take oaths and swear by God 'one-step-removed'. They were swearing, for example, "by heaven", or "by earth" or "by Jerusalem", or even - as a popular phrase of that day had it - "by the life of their own head". They thought that such oaths were useful because they added credibility to an otherwise questionable claim to honesty. And they also had the added benefit of being less binding than those that directly evoked the name of God. But it was this "frivolous" and "evasive" use of oaths that the Lord was forbidding; and not the use of legal oaths altogether.
What's more, because the God of truth sees all things and knows all that we utter, such "one-step-removed" oaths didn't really prevent God Himself from being evoked at all. Jesus said that we are not to swear "by heaven, for it is God's throne". Nor are we to swear "by the earth, for it is God's footstool". Isaiah 66:1 says, "Thus says the LORD: 'Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool.'" So in a similar way to Jesus' words in Matthew 23; if we swear by the throne of God, we swear by the God who reigns upon it; and if we swear by His footstool, we swear by the God who places His feet upon it. Such "one-step-removed" oaths don't let us off the hook after all.
Nor will it help if we swear "by Jerusalem". There was an old rabbinical teaching that stated that it was binding to take an oath "TOWARD Jerusalem", but not binding to take an oath "BY Jerusalem". But kind of hair-splitting wont work either. As it says in Psalm 48:2, Jerusalem is "the city of the great King". It is the place on this earth in which our Savior died; and it's the place from which, we're promised, He will reign. "God is in her palaces; He is known as her refuge" (Psalm 48:3). If we swear by Jerusalem, we swear by the great King who reigns there. Again, such "one-step-removed" oaths are still binding.
Now I have heard some people use the casual oath, "By heaven . . ." I may have heard someone say, "By the earth . . .", but I don't remember for sure. I doubt I've ever heard anyone say, "By Jerusalem . . ." But I wonder if anyone has ever heard anyone say, "By my head . . ." "I promise you by my own head that I'll do thus and so." It sounds strange; doesn't it? But this actually was a popular saying in Jesus' day; and I believe it is given because it serves to typify all other "one-step-removed" oaths. Someone's head is, we might say, their most prized personal possession. And yet, even swearing by our head doesn't avoid evoking God; because He has more authority over our heads than we ourselves do. Think of it! You and I can't even turn one hair black or white. (And believe me! If I could have turned white hairs black, I would have done so a long time ago!) Only God has ultimate authority over all the things we possess - even over our own heads. And if we swear by the thing that only God has ultimate authority over, we do not avoid evoking Him in the oath!
And this helps underscore one more reason why such "one-step-removed" oaths are sinful. God commanded His people that, when they swear by an oath, they were to swear only by His name. "You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him, and to Him you shall hold fast, and take your oaths in His name" (Deut. 10:20). Taking oaths in things "one-step-removed" from His name was an act of disobedience designed to cover up dishonesty.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we should use oaths in the name of the Lord when it is lawful to do so. But we should never use "one-step-removed" oaths as a cover for our dishonesty. We should not say, "By heavens . . ." or "Cross my heart and hope to die . . ." or "I swear by the grave of my saintly ancestor . . ." or any other such thing. If we are at all compelled by law or by circumstances to take an oath in order to testify to our truthfulness, then - if we are truly being honest, and truly believe God hears our words and knows our hearts - we should either be unafraid to take it in His name in full confidence; or we should not take an oath at all. In such a case it would be far better to be honest before God and others; and simply confess, "I'm sorry. I was just about to bind myself to a promise that I don't have any real intention of keeping."
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Now the scribes and Pharisees were approaching this whole matter from the standpoint of the strict letter of the law. Their main concern was, "What is the bare minimum requirement with respect to oaths? Which oaths actually bind me to keep my promises; and which ones allow me some wiggle-room in case the promise becomes hard to keep?" But Jesus is calling us to be keepers of the true 'spirit' of God's commandment. He is concerned to call us to a life of honesty and promise-keeping.
That leads us to a last point . . .
3. THE STANDARD: LET YOUR WORD ALWAYS BE TRUE (v. 37).
Jesus got right to the heart of the matter, didn't He? He said "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'" . . . In other words, He calls us as His followers to say what we mean and mean what we say. He calls us to become people of our word - people who keep the promises we make and who stand faithfully by our own word. We are to be like the person described in Psalm 15: "LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart" (Psalm 15:1-2). And among the other things mentioned that is true of such a person is this: ". . . He swears to his own hurt and does not change . . ." (v. 4). We are to develop a reputation for being the kind of people whose "yes" truly means yes; and whose "no" truly means no.
Jesus closes by telling us, "For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." We may find ourselves buttressing our everyday statements with oaths because we have a reputation for failing to keep our word - which demonstrates a habit pattern of sin. Or we may find ourselves buttressing our statements that evoke the name of God sinfully - which is nothing less than lying, and in which case we're modeling ourselves after the evil one who is a liar from the beginning! In either case, we must repent!
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God our Father is a God of truth. He keeps all His promises. May we increasingly become like our Father in our everyday dealings. If we do so, there will be no need to reinforce ourselves with unnecessary and sinful oaths. Then, we will truly be people of our word to the glory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
1Westminster Confession, 22:1, 5.
2John Goodwin, cited in Charles Spurgeon, A Treasury of David, vol. 3, p. 252.
3William Barcley, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 159.
4Charles Spurgeon, Spurgeon's Popular Exposition of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervon Publishing House, 1962), p. 29.
5Westminster Confession, 22:2.
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