It is very common in our society to hear people use God’s name. Often it is used as a profanity or an exclamation – “O my God!” Sometimes it is in order to give weight to what they are saying, “I am telling you this is the honest-to-God truth!” or “By all that is holy!” Or they preface what they say with “Well, to be honest …!” ( You mean that what you have been saying so far is not honest?!
I realise that for many – maybe for most – it is probably just a habit! However the fact is tat we live in a society where truth telling is becoming an increasing rare activity!
When you hear Politicians and Spin-doctors do you take everything they say as being open and honest?
What is the underlying problem about the present crisis with Iraq? – Isn’t it that we can’t trust the word of Saddam Hussein – but then we heard Pres. Bush and PM Blair and other leaders and we wonder if what they are telling us is accurate – Is there a hidden agenda?
In the end it makes us sceptical – who do you believe to be telling the truth? The result is that in the end even if the truth is then told we tend not to believe it because of all the spin-doctoring that has been going on.
The situation in Jesus’ day was not dissimilar! Let’s look at it.
- 1. The original intention.
Remember that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus laid down Kingdom principles in the Beatitudes. He sets the standards very high – in fact at perfection level – “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect!” [5v48]
Jesus moves the focus of righteousness [right living] for outward compliance to a set of rules to inner attitude of heart and mind.
Thus it is no good priding myself on the fact that I haven’t murdered anyone if in fact I treat them with anger and contempt – or that I haven’t had sexual intercourse outside marriage if in fact my heart and mind are full of lust and immoral thoughts.
Having dealt with the Jewish leaders permissive attitude on divorce he now deals with their similar attitude towards oath taking / swearing.
Matthew 5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ (NIV)
This is not a direct quote from any one OT law but rather a summary of many times where oath taking is mentioned.
Exodus 20:7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Deuteronomy 23:21 If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. (NIV)
There are numerous other examples – the intent is clear – don’t make a vow and then break it – don’t swear-falsely – don’t commit perjury!
- 2. The convenient distortion.
How then were the Pharisees and Jewish Religious Leaders distorting this original injunction?
Human being are ingenious at squirming their way out of promises.
ILLUS.: As kids we would cross our fingers so that what we said was not binding.
The Pharisees were doing a similar thing – they shifted the attention away from the vow itself to the formula for making the vow!
The moved the focus from the vow to the Lord’s name.
In practice it meant the following:-
1) I promise by the hair on my head to pay you £100. Breaking this promise was not considered wrong because God’s name wasn’t used.
2) I promised, in the name of God, to pay you £100. Breaking such a promise was considered to be wrong because God’s name was invoked.
They concocted all kinds of elaborate formulae to make vows but could weasel out if the Lord’s name wasn’t used. Jesus shows contempt for their scheming in Matthew 23:16-22 where he calls the Pharisees ‘blind guides’, “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. (NIV)
What Jesus teaches here in the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5] is the same.
- 3. The truthful implication.
“Let what you say be simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’!”
Jesus is arguing that the formulae for making vows is completely irrelevant. Because whatever distinctions one tries to make the vow is still taken before God as all the world is his.
So if they vowed by ‘heaven’ it is God’s throne, if by ‘earth’ it is his footstool, if by the temple it is his too…
It is quite simple to follow Jesus logic here – if the precise wording of the vow-formula is irrelevant then there is absolutely no point to having special vows. As all vows are made before God, all should be solemnly kept.
If that is so then we should simply be people of our word and do what we say we will do! In other words…
Matthew 5:34 & 37 34 .. Do not swear at all: … 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’; …
Of course, not to keep one’s word is to lie! … thus Jesus adds ‘… this comes from evil!”
Either from the evil of our hearts. Matthew 15:18-19 18 But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (NIV)
- 4. The practical application.
1) If vowing / swearing is criticised by Jesus why does God himself do it?
When Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son. Isaac…
Genesis 22:16-17 16 [God] said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you and make …
13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no-one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself,
The purpose of a divine oath is not to increase God’s credibility … because God can’t lie Numbers 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie, rather it is to strengthen our faith and help our unbelief. God accommodates himself to our level.
2) If oath-taking is prohibited, is it an absolute rule?
So, for example, should we be sworn in in a Court of Law? “I swear by almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!”
There are certain groups like the Quakers [Society of Friends] who hold this view.
ILLUS.: In Matthew 26 Jesus didn’t refuse to reply to when the High Priest put him under oath …Matthew 26:63-64The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
64 “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. …)
Jesus didn’t say we should refuse to take an oath BUT he was correcting an abuse of oath-taking and emphasising that honest people don’t need to resort to oaths — simply be truthful all the time!
3) Why do people resort to oaths
“I swear to …”
“By God I tell you it’s true …”
WHY? It is a kind of manipulation – an effort to add weight to our words so as to put pressure on the other person. Instead of simply saying something and allowing the other party to make a sensible judgement those who habitually use oaths are trying to bypass the others understanding and judgement.
ILLUS.: My experience of some salesmen …
“Let me be honest here …” ‘You mean you have been lying so far!’
“I am telling you hand on my heart / hand on the Bible …”
If we hear this kind of talk too often / all the time it become meaningless – in fact we are less inclined to believe such a person.
So we must be careful not to be like that.
Jesus calls us to plain truthful speaking.
4) Plain speaking is no excuse for rudeness or unkindness! We are to speak the truth in love…[Eph.4v15]
Build each other up…[1 Thess.5v7]
“I was just being honest…” YES! And at the same time were unkind, hurtful and rude!
James in his letter has a lot to say about the use of the tongue – what we say can build up or destroy.
Sometimes we say too much.
Sometimes we say too little or nothing at all – a look can be just as destructive as a word.
The use of oaths / vows arises because too often people are lairs. And by an oath we try to assure / convince the other party we are telling the truth.
We need also to be careful to use words correctly – by which I mean if we constantly use exaggeration or hyperbole or superlatives we end up devaluing language and promises.
ILLUS.: A celebrity recently describe an intrusion into her wedding party as ‘being violated’ – NO! a woman who have been beaten and raped has been violated!
We resort to unnecessary exaggeration and swearing usually to try and portray ourselves in a better light and diminish someone else in order to gain maximum benefit for self!
Paul tells the Ephesian Christians… Ephesians 4:25… each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body. (NIV)
Paul tells the Corinthian Christians 1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (NIV)
Jesus is urging us as Christians / as members of His Kingdom to speak plainly – say what you mean and mean what you say – be honest, loving and kind!
Matthew 5v33-37 [23v16-22]
1. The original intention.
- Don’t make a vow and then break it
- Don’t swear falsely / commit perjury
2. The convenient distortion.
- Promises made without specifically using God’s name can be broken
- Arbitrary criteria for which oath formulae were binding and which weren’t
3. The truthful implication.
- Since God created / owns everything all oaths, irrespective of the formula used are made before him
4. The practical application.
- If vowing / swearing is criticised by Jesus why does God himself do it?
[Genesis 22v16-17; Hebrews 6v13]
God swears not to increase his
credibility but to strengthen our faith
and accommodate human unbelief.
- If oath-taking is discouraged, is it an absolute rule?
Jesus didn’t refuse to reply under
Jesus didn’t forbid oath taking but
was correcting its misuse
Jesus is stressing truth at all times
- Why do people generally resort to oaths?
To add weigh to their opinion
To pressurise / manipulate others
- Plain speaking is no excuse for rudeness or unkindness
Speak the truth in love …[Eph. 4v15]
Build each other up … [1 Thess. 5v7]
Jesus is urging Christians to ‘say what we mean and to mean what we say’ while being honest, loving and kind!