Sermon Notes – 3 March 2019, Matthew 5:33-37: Sacred Swearing

Morning.On we go in our study of Matthew. Matthew 5:33 is where we will be.

Does anyone remember the hit medical show “House?” In it, Hugh Laurie played a cranky genius chief of diagnostic medicine who was addicted to Vicadin. If you really want to see the genius of Hug Laurie, you should watch Black Adder, where he plays period piece comedy characters with Rowan Atkinson. But, I digress, House had a couple of repeat famous lines.

  • It’s never lupus.
  • And…

“Everybody lies.” – Dr. House

The text today is going to talk to us today about lying and what it means to tell the truth. This should seem like an obvious Christian ethic that doesn’t really require addressing and yet it is an extremely difficult thing to live out judging by how prone we are to lying and deceit.

We are not exactly in a culture and moment defined by truth-telling are we? And, before we get all high and mighty about it and let our minds wander to how celebrities and politicians struggle in this space, some self-examination would probably be helpful. Well, it has been for me at least.

I really identified with the quote by the famous old Scottish preacher, writer and poet, George Macdonald.

“I always try—I think I do—to be truthful. All the same I tell a great many lies.”[1]

 This was an ongoing wrestle for me as a kid. I would tell stories that weren’t true and I would pretend to have experienced things that I hadn’t, all in an attempt to fit in. I can clearly remember the trauma of getting back to school on a Monday and hearing all the kids talking about the new movie that they had seen that I hadn’t. But, instead of just being at peace with that, I would lie and pretend I had seen it, which led to some fairly hilarious and tragic deceit “on the fly” as my friends relived their favorite parts and I tried to play along.

It is still an ongoing wrestle for me in some seemingly small and some really obviously big ways.

  • I don’t like making people repeat themselves ad nauseum and so will (for some insane reason) just pretend that I heard them and try to pick an appropriate response. A smile? A laugh? A thumbs up? It’s risky for sure, but I keep doing it.
  • There is the temptation from stage to be hyperbolic and make stories more profound and my family more interesting than they really are. It’s a wrestle.
  • There is the social media temptation to look like you are doing better than you are.
  • There’s the continual temptation to blame traffic for lateness, when the real reason is that I left late because I prioritized something over this meeting.
  • There’s the temptation to make my past achievements greater than they were. To portray a form of glory days that never actually existed.
  • There’s the temptation to make myself seem more heroic and noble in my stories and recounting than I am, and the flipside temptation to vilify and undermine other people and how they are interacting with me.

What if anything did Jesus say in this text about this? Let me read what he said…

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. [2]

Now on this first read, this seems pretty simple to obey. I haven’t sworn on the city of Jerusalem in quite some time – by God’s grace – and it isn’t actually a current temptation for me, so I am all good right? Well, as he has been doing all along, Jesus is actually teaching us a deeper truth than our little legalistic hearts can easily hold, but we will need to do a bit of work to understand it.

So, three things we will talk about from the text today.

  1. The standard of truth telling that Jesus was addressing.
  2. The standard of truth telling that Jesus proposed.
  3. The practical implications of truth telling for followers of Jesus.

Firstly, the standard of truth telling that Jesus was addressing…

We will need to do a bit of contextual work today in order for us to get to the heart of the context and Jesus’ instruction. We are in the section where Jesus is giving specific examples of how we are to be people to actually uphold the law by surpassing the righteousness of the Pharisees. He told us we had to do that in Matthew 5:19. He then went on to explain how the Pharisees would view keeping the law in terms of murder, forgiveness, lust, marriage and divorce. So, what is doing here is doing the exact same thing with truth telling. He says,

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’

So, a couple of things to consider here to help us to righty understand Jesus. First, vows were encouraged! Look at what Deuteronomy 10:20says,

“You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.”

 There are quite a few examples of this in the OT. In fact, In Jeremiah 12, God says swearing oaths by his name will actually be a way that he will persuade foreign Baal worshippers that they are the true people of God. So, swearing an oath wasn’t the actual issue. Swearing an oath and not keeping it was clearly a massive issue. Look at Leviticus 19:12…

 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.[3]

Or how about Numbers 30:2…

If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. [4]

 So, vows were assumed, and in some cases, even encouraged, but breaking them was never allowed. Once it was made, it had to be kept. The problem, of course, is that people don’t keep vows well. We are very good at making promises, and often they are well intentioned, but we really don’t know how to keep them. That is the entire reason that a vow is necessary, because we know people struggle to tell the truth.

  • This is why we have to remind people when they are under oath.
  • Eg. Me on the couch yesterday and Daniel made me pinky promise that I would play battle ships with him. He needed a promise because he knows my track record with the couch on a Saturday afternoon.

But, people can’t even keep vows. People lie under oath all the time, that’s why you still have a jury. And so, the teachers of the law had an issue on their hands and so a school of interpretation came into play that said that vows that didn’t include or imply God’s name weren’t actually binding under the law. The Mishna, which is the first part of the Talmud, a series of Jewish commentaries on the law and how to obey it, devotes an entire section called Shebuothto this.

Look at what R. Kent Hughes says about this. It is very helpful.

There was an ongoing epidemic of frivolous swearing, and oaths were continually mingled with everyday speech: “By your life,” “by my beard,” “may I never see the comfort of Israel if …” There was an inevitable trivialization of everyday language and integrity. It became common practice to convince another that you were telling the truth (while lying) by bringing some person or eminent object into reference. The deception was very subtle. For instance, one rabbi taught that if one swore by Jerusalem one was not bound, but if one swore toward Jerusalem, it was binding—evidently because that in some way implied the Divine Name. All of this produced in its adherents a profound spiritual schizophrenia: “I’m not telling the truth, but I’m really not lying.” Their use of oaths was like children saying, “I have my fingers crossed, so I don’t have to tell the truth.”[5]

 It is into this context that Jesus was speaking strongly! He is saying, Why are we okay with a culture of deceit? Why do we need an entire system of rules to determine when someone is bound to truth?” Look again at what Jesus says.

 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. [6]

 Jesus is proposing a new standard of truth telling…

Well actually, he is reminding them (and us) what the standard of truth telling has always been. He is essentially smashing down the secular and sacred divide that we continually want to put up to ensure that the divine doesn’t invade all areas of our lives. That is what the teachers of the law were doing. “If you mention God, then God cares, but if you don’t then he doesn’t”.

Jesus addresses this exact thing later in Matthew, in chapter 23. Look quickly, I know we are limited for time, but this is exactly what he is addressing and so it helps.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. [7]

 Okay, now there is a temptation here that we need to avoid. The temptation is to sit back in our chairs and shake our heads at the stupid Pharisees and then close in prayer thanking God that we aren’t like that. But stop. Jesus’ call is so radical that the people of God should just be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and be believed and trusted because their lives are so radically true that it is obvious that you should take them at their words.

Are we there? I’m not, sadly. Now, I am growing in this area and experiencing victory, by God’s grace and through His wonderful Spirit. But I am not there yet.

As Christians we tolerate a lot of this in ourselves and in each other, but Jesus says that the benchmark for truth in us much higher.

Yes must equal yes. No must equal no.

So, what are we to do now? What are…

The Practical Implications of Christian Truth Telling…?

Firstly, it is not just about not making vows.

Some in church history have said that Jesus here forbids any Christians from taking vows and oaths. The Anabaptists, Moravians and Quakers all insisted on this, and for many of them this was a very costly but obvious stance. George Fox was famously imprisoned for refusing to swear on a bible. He argued that he wouldn’t swear on the very thing that forbade him from making such a promise. I admire his tenacity and fervor a great deal, but I am not sure (as we have already seen) that that is the actual takeaway of this text.

We know from OT instruction, from Jesus himself and from the writing and teachings of Paul (2 Cor 1:23; Rom 1:9) that oath taking isn’t forbidden for a Christian. What Jesus teaches us is that it shouldn’t be necessary.

It is also worth noting that the oaths that Jesus was rebuking weren’t ones taken in formal or legal environments but in everyday conversation. George would promise you something, but you know that George that was liberal with the truth and so you would press him and he would take a vow that would stop short of being anything that would bind him to God.

Okay, how do live lives of radically righteous truth. I have a few practical implications today before I am done.

First, acknowledge the comprehensive nature of God’s ownership of our lives.

  • If God owns all and sees all then there isn’t a realm of our lives that oughtn’t be submitted to him.
  • Tell truth online and in person.
  • To people’s faces and behind their backs.
  • In church and at work.
  • With family and with strangers.
  • In big things and in little details.
  • God cares about all of it. Let’s not be little Pharisees trying to draw arbitrary lines of where it matters and where it doesn’t.

Second, recognize where you lie

  • If there is a pattern of deceit, where is it?
  • Mine, as I have said, is in a group context where I feel I might get left out. That is really helpful to know. I can guard against it and work with the Spirit to put it to death.

Third, understand why you lie

  • We have been lying from the beginning, but in order for us to tell a lie we first had to believe a lie.
  • All lie telling starts in lie believing.
    • If I say this I will be accepted.
    • If I say this I will be respected.
    • I need people to believe this about me.
    • I can get away with it and not get caught out.
    • Another lie will cover this first lie and it will stop there. Coz guys, there is no such thing as a single lie, they always lead to more, and eventually, some people don’t even know what is true anymore. It may be easy to tell one lie, but it is not easy to tell just one lie.

Commit to truth telling

  • What a simple takeaway from a sermon, but I think it is Jesus’ main point.
  • In our context, one of the ways that we can most radically obey Jesus is by being people who commit to telling the truth. It’s actually revolutionary.
  • Let’s ask the Spirit to help us, and to give us fragile consciences on this.

Turn to truth believing

  • If we are to live like that then we are going to need to believe some truths about who God is and who are as a result.
  • How about these ones for a start?
    • God sees everything in our lives and cares about our truth telling in big and small things.
    • God made us and knows us and loves us in His Son and doesn’t need for us to be anyone other than who we are for that love to be secure.
    • Let’s finish with this one…2 Cor 1:19

19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.

Conclusion:

God never lies. In fact, the Scripture tells us again and again that He cannot lie. He is truth, and part of what the freedom of the gospel invites us into is that we would be people of truth.

We will be people who know the truth of the love and mercy of God revealed in Jesus and that truth would set us free as Jesus himself promised.

Friends, every promise that God has made is yes…true…in Jesus Christ. That is hope for promise breakers like you and me. Let’s ask God for greater freedom in this area.

[1]R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 124.

[2]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:33–37.

[3]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Le 19:12.

[4]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 30:2.

[5]R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 125–126.

[6]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:33–37.

[7]The Holy Bible: English Standard Version(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 23:16–22.

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