This post is part of the Living the Sermon on the Mount series.
Less sugar than half a grapefruit, gives you energy, and keeps you from wanting to eat things that pack on the pounds. Wow! This 1961 commercial is just one of many advertising campaigns Coca-Cola has promoted over the years which has received a great deal of criticism. People contest that though there may be less calories, there isn’t less sugar. The health benefits are thought to be overpromising, and under-delivering.
Why would a company ever make promises they may not be able to keep? I think you and I both know the answer… a company has an agenda to sell something. To sell something you need to have credibility. And the only way to manufacture credibility is through promises.
It’s not only companies that do this though, is it? All of us in this room at one time or another wanted something, needed credibility to get it, and used promises to finish the job. Just like a used car salesman wants to make a sale, needs you to trust him or her, and promises to “go to bat for you” behind the scenes. Perhaps you’ve desired to impress the people at church. You need them to see you as a good Christian, and so you promise to attend a Small Group, volunteer, pray, or bake something. Since we want our kids to love us, we need them to think we are cool, and so we promise them a toy, a game, an electronic, a trip, or permission to do something. Can you relate?
Other times we make our promises by swearing. “I swear to God it’s true.” “I swear, if you do this I’ll never ask for anything again.” “I swear on my mother’s grave it will work this time.”
As we continue our series Living the Sermon on the Mount, we turn our attention to Jesus’ teaching on promises. Let’s dig in.
Remember the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is contrasting the New Kingdom He is bringing with the Old Established Kingdom. He’s moving us from being guided by the letter-of-the-Law to being guided by the Spirit. He’s moving us from judging only our outer actions and having us consider even our inner thoughts and inclinations. Each of the declarations Jesus shares in the Sermon on the Mount are combatting and defeating manmade misunderstandings of God’s Word and traditions built around those misunderstandings.
Let’s check out the passage together:
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.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37 ESV)
So first I will explain the misunderstanding Jesus’ contemporaries had of God’s Word as it relates to oaths, second I will explain the tradition which was built up around this misunderstanding, third I will explain how Jesus defeats these manmade traditions, and finally I will share why and how Jesus desires this all to play out in our lives.
The verses most scholars agree Jesus is referring to is Deuteronomy 6:13 and Numbers 30:2.
“It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.” (Deuteronomy 6:13 ESV)
“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.” (Numbers 30:2 ESV)
And that is likely the case. However, most agree that Jesus is also seeking to correct another issue than oaths alone. Like many of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, this teaching is directly related to one of the Ten Commandments. In this case, commandment three:
“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.” (Exodus 20:7 ESV cf. Leviticus 19:12).
As you shall see, oaths and God’s name are highly connected and so I agree that Jesus is addressing misunderstandings of these verses. Let’s look at them more closely.
The phrase “in vain” can also be translated as “frivolously”, “lightly”, or “profanely” Essentially, using a reference to God for any purpose other than in a serious, considerate, and worshipful manner was sin. But one of the ways it was good to refer to God or His name was when making a solemn oath. A.W. Pink says that for the Jew, using the name of God in a vow was to “most solemnly acknowledge Him as Witness, Judge, and Revenger of falsehood.” There could be no more observant witness, no fairer judge, and no more perfect revenger than God Himself.
So, taking an oath was not sinful—oaths were taken by Abraham, by Jacob, by David, and others. In fact, even God Himself took oaths, such as in Ezekiel 16:8 where God refers to his vow to take Israel as His own people. But these oaths were never in vain. Never frivolous. Always thoughtful.
To illustrate the intensity in which oaths were to be taken I will tell you a lesser known truth you may wish you didn’t know. When asking his servant to go find a wife for his son, Abraham had his servant place his hand under his thigh. But here’s the thing, the Hebrew word we translate in English as thigh is yarek which one Hebrew dictionary describes as “the seat of procreative power” [pause] Scholars believe the idea possibly being “I am swearing upon all of my descendants, heritage, and my eternal legacy.” Making a vow was a big deal. But taking that oath, even in God’s name was not sinful. It was supposed to be special.
These Scriptures seem so straightforward, how can you mess it up? Well, as someone said in the Sermon Discussion group last Wednesday Night “When you live by the letter-of-the-Law, you will always be tempted to go right up to the edge of the boundary.” And that is what began to happen. Instead of saving vows for the most significant of occasions, the Jewish leaders felt that as long as they didn’t use God’s name they could make as many vows as they wanted. Let’s take a look at where this laxness toward their commitments led.
Tradition of Oaths
Over time, the Jewish leaders created a great number of intricate ways of making vows, oaths, and promises without exactly inciting the name of God. They had some oaths which were binding, and others which were not. There were casual oaths used in the streets and special oaths used in worship. Depending on what you made your oath on—your head, the sky, Jerusalem, your gift on the altar—changed just how binding this oath would be. There even began a question of whether “yes” and “no” were oaths or not. It was eventually agreed upon in the Jewish Talmud, which is a commentary on Jewish Law and Life, that if you repeat your “yes” or “no” twice then they were oaths (Talmud Sanhed 36). One scholar put it like this “The Pharisees were notorious for their oaths, which were made on the least provocation. Yet they made allowances for mental reservations within their oaths.” (L.A. Barbieri, Jr The Bible Knowledge Commentary) Basically saying, the Jews Jesus was talking to made all kinds of promises, on all kinds of things, but always kept a way out.
Jesus’ Argument against the Traditions
So how did Jesus respond?
He argues against their traditions in three ways. First, Jesus explains that we ought not take any oaths at all, second that just because you aren’t using God’s name doesn’t mean you aren’t dishonoring Him, and third, the reason they are using oaths in the first place is for evil.
Here’s what I mean. Jesus says we ought not to take any oaths at all. This is getting back to the Spirit of oaths in the first place. The Hebrew word for oath is shebuah. There are two important things to note about it. First, it is only used in the passive context. Meaning one should only take an oath when the occasion necessitates it. When you are called to do so. Secondly, shebuah comes from the root shabuah which is translated as seven. It is likely this signified the need for seven witnesses, and is also the number of completeness which some expositors believe came to be because taking an oath was the “complete end to differences” (A. W. Pink). Are you getting the picture? Oaths are a big deal and Jesus is saying “just stop!”
He then goes on to denounce all the little laws and practices of the religious leaders concerning oaths. Jesus exposes the truth that you cannot escape the repercussions and expectations of an oath. I like how one writer put it “Though they may omit mentioning the fearful name of God, let them know that His is the name of Creator and Owner of all things, and therefore it is invoked in all the works of His hands.” (ibid.) Just in case they miss the point, Jesus zeroes in on the popular phrases of the time: swearing by the earth, by Jerusalem, and by one’s head. They have no power over those things anyway.
Which leads to Jesus’ third leg of the argument—their intentions. Why would they want to make so many oaths in the first place? Well, why do any of us say “I swear to God it’s true…”? It’s because we are trying to manipulate a person into believing us. Isn’t it? This person has a seed of disbelief in your story, in your facts, or in your integrity, and so you are attempting to bulk up your claims by calling God as Witness, Judge, and Revenger if you be wrong. Jesus denounced the religious leaders again and again throughout His ministry because they were false. Because they overpromised and under-delivered. They sought to manipulate. Which leads to why Jesus’ way is better.
Why Jesus’ Way is better
If you think about it, why do we need to swear by anything? W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, Jr suggest it’s because
“…the presupposition behind the taking of oaths is that there are two types of statements, one of which demands commitment (the oath), one of which does not (the statement unaccompanied by an oath), Jesus enjoins commitment to every statement, that is, invariable honesty and integrity.”
With this understanding we realize that Jesus isn’t taking away from the Law by saying “you shouldn’t take any more oaths” but fulfilling the Law in saying “everything that comes from your mouth may as well be an oath” Remember how the Talmud agrees that if you say “yes, yes” it is an oath? Well the literal rendering of verse 37 is
“But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’, [or] ‘No, no’. And the thing beyond these is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37 DLNT)
It is absolutely clear that Jesus is going straight to our hearts once again and is saying “Hey, LINE UP YOUR HEART WITH YOUR MOUTH. Don’t manipulate people into trusting you, go and earn their trust. Don’t profane the name of God by trying to use Him to bolster your story.” W.W. Wiersbe said “…our conversation should be so honest, and our character so true, that we would not need ‘crutches’ to get people to believe us. Words depend on character, and oaths cannot compensate for a poor character.”
What Does this Look Like?
So how does this play out in life? I’ll make this quick.
1. Do not refer to God except in a way that is serious, considerate, and worshipful.
I’ll be frank if you’ve missed it thus far in the message, saying “I swear to God” is sin unless you are willing to have people there to witness the oath and you realize you are invoking God as Witness, Judge, and Revenger over the matter. Some of this comes down to your own personal convictions. The “Oh my God”s, the “Jeeesssussss CCChhhrrriissstttt”s, or perhaps since Scripture says only God is holy you are devaluing the truth by saying even crap is holy. Hey I’m wrestling with this too. I swear.
2. Do not seek to make an oath.
Remember, oaths are passive by nature. But God or the government may call you to take an oath. In which case…
3. Don’t resist oaths.
- Jesus did not resist responding to one (Matt. 26:63, 64) When Caiaphas urged Him by the name of the Living God, Jesus then responded in His trial.
- In the book of Revelation, an angel swore by “Him who lives for ever and ever…” that there will be no more delay. (Rev. 10:4–6)
- St. Augustine points out that Paul takes oaths before God—even twice in 2 Corinthians (1:23; 11:31)
- If you do take an oath, consider the words of John Calvin:
“I can find, therefore, no better rule than that we regulate our oaths in such a manner that they be not rash or inconsiderate, wanton or frivolous, but used in cases of real necessity”
4. Let everything you say be as if it were an oath.
In Heaven there will be no need for oaths as we will not lie. Jesus’ entire purpose in the Sermon on the Mount is to align you with the ways of Heaven—His Kingdom. That is what it means to live the Sermon on the Mount. So just start now. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no”.
If we come down to it, the reason we swear is because either we are simply being negligent of our speech, or it may be because we are deeply afraid people don’t trust us unless we convince them. Listen, let your life show your consistency. If people don’t trust you, don’t believe you, don’t listen to you… I truly believe Jesus is saying that while that hurts, you cannot use His holy name—or anything else to manipulate people into agreeing with you. You’re just going to have to live a good life, let your yes be yes, your no be no, and trust Him.
On that note, we are going to transition to the song “You Never Let Go” Band you can come up at this time. Church—Perhaps this a time where you can lay down your fear of needing to convince people to trust you through empty promises and swearing by God’s name. Or perhaps this is a time you can remember even if you’ve been dishonoring Him, He always welcomes you back with open arms if you repent. Either way, would you stand and sing, allowing God to work in your heart.
In your bulletin is again a take home exercise. It’s to live out what God shared through His Word today. For seven days seek to let all you say be as an oath.
I’d also like to remind you of our prayer team available if you have a need.
And on your way out you can drop of your Connection Card in the baskets at the door.
Charles Simeon, a pastor who was often mocked in the streets of 18th Century England because he wasn’t a great speaker wrote this regarding the use of your speech:
Let truth be in your inward parts, and let it be ever dear to your souls. Set a watch before the door of your lips; for “of every idle word you shall give account in the day of judgment;” yea, “by your words you shall be justified; and by your words you shall be condemned.”
He may not have been a great speaker, but he knew the value of choosing his words carefully.
And now as you go consider the words of St. Paul and St. John
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:6 ESV) and “…let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:18 ESV). Amen.
You are dismissed.