Good morning Raintree Church! Children Preschool-2nd Grade can be dismissed out this door to your right for Children’s Church. I want to give a HUGE thank you to those of you who volunteered at Vacation Bible School this last week. Being my first VBS here at Raintree, I must say that because of Karen Krahn’s organizational skills, and all of you who volunteered so willingly and excitedly, it was an AWESOME week. It was a lot of fun, and I also think it was impactful for the kids who came. So, again, thank you so much for volunteering your time!
Today we are continuing in our series in Sermon on the Mount, which is, I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet or not, some of the most practical and hard-hitting teaching in all of the Bible. Today we are looking at what Jesus had to say about oaths and what it means to be people of truth, people that don’t lie or manipulate with our words. We all at one point or another have struggled with being people of truth. In fact, it may be something that we struggle with right now even more than we know. That’s because God’s standard for being people of truth is higher than what you might think.
When I was in first grade, I remember opening a book at school with some other kids around me, seeing a picture of the Eifel Tower, and trying to convince the other kids that this picture was of my home. I lied. When they didn’t believe me, I said, “No, I promise, this is my house.” When I was in fourth grade, I remember having a flat tire on my bike. And when my parents asked me if I knew how it happened, I told them there was this long line of 100 nails standing up in the alley, and there was no other way for me to get across than just to ride my bike right through them. When they asked if I was telling the truth, I said, “That’s what happened, I promise!” I used promises pretty flippantly. In fact, by making promises to my little brother, I even manipulated him into pulling down his pants in the front yard when cars drove by. I should mention, we were very young. Hopefully that goes without saying.
But, a major part of living in a fallen world that is corrupt because of the sin of man, is that truth is rare. Non-manipulated, untwisted, unexaggerated truth in the news, social media, even just in conversations with people, seems not only to be hard to come by—it seems like it’s nowhere to be found! Things that we should be able to trust, we often have to question: going to the doctor, what kids are being taught in school, politicians who supposedly lead us, even pastors and other mentors, we have to question. We make promises we don’t keep. We present things in certain ways only as to fit our agenda, whether personal, political, or for business purposes. We downplay things because we’re negative, OR we exaggerate things because we want to experience hype and excitement.
Dishonesty has become such a part of our way of life that we even convince ourselves of things that just aren’t true. Perhaps we think more highly of ourselves than we ought, or maybe we think too lowly of ourselves. It seems like a rare thing for anyone to have an accurate view of themselves, because we’ve become people of perception too worried about what other people think, as opposed to people of truth. Jesus has some strong things to say to the Pharisees he’s addressing in today’s text, but also to you and me, followers of Christ living in a world where truth, even when it is valued, is only valued as a means to an end, and not as the end in and of itself. Let’s look at what Jesus had to say about being people of truth. Matt. 5:33-37:
“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.”
So Jesus once again gives us this statement reflecting Jewish traditional teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’” This is the fourth time, out of six, that he says “You’ve heard this, but I say this.” And this time, he’s not directly quoting the Old Testament, like he did last week in talking about divorce and remarriage. He’s summarizing several passages on oaths and vows in the Old Testament.
The Bible does show us the usefulness of oaths. In fact, a perfect example of this is Hebrews 6:16- “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.” When you take an oath before God, you are basically inviting God to see the truthfulness of what is being said, or you’re inviting God to judge, even avenge, because you’re lying after having made an oath in His name. That’s what this is talking about when it says “swearing.” This is not swearing, as in using curse words. It’s swearing as in taking an oath.
So you may wonder, why did God allow oaths at all? Because not only did he allow it, he sometimes even commanded it in the Old Testament. Even God Himself swore oaths on rare occasions: To Abraham, in Genesis 22, he said “By myself, I have sworn, that because you obeyed me, I will indeed greatly bless you.” Why did God give an oath in his own name? Because there’s no higher name to invoke, right? In fact, also in Hebrews 6:16, the writer makes that exact point by saying that “God could swear by no one greater, so he swore by himself.”
So again, the question is, why have oaths at all? I mean, God has commanded all people not to lie. So isn’t that enough? You may remember that’s one of the 10 Commandments—Exodus 20:16. So why did God allow oaths in the first place? Once again, we see God accommodating for a world that is so drastically affected by man’s sin. Human beings are liars. So how in the world can society function in any orderly way without any sort of guarantee of truth? Honestly, it can’t. People can’t trust each other, so there needed to be some way for people to be able to trust each other in really important matters. That’s where oaths come in.
So with so much lying and manipulating, and distrust among people, God allowed in more serious circumstances, like going to court, an oath in order to motivate people even more to actually tell the truth or actually fulfill what they were promising to do. The wedding vow is the most common example. A wedding vow is a more solemn and important vow to be kept, though that definitely doesn’t mean we’re off the hook with other things. Nor do oaths in a court of law negate the fact that we’re to tell the truth in all circumstances. It goes without saying that an oath does not guarantee that truth will be told anyway, but it hopefully helps to motivate the person giving the oath to actually tell the truth.
So the next question that we must ask is, “What, then, is Jesus getting at here?” At first, the plain reading of what he said seems pretty clear: we are never to make oaths or vows at any time whatsoever. But that can’t really be what he’s saying, because he just finished saying that he came NOT to destroy even the smallest part of the Law, meaning the Old Testament, and even if you look at how Jesus responded to being put on oath himself in Matthew 26, it seems obvious that this isn’t meant to be a complete prohibition of all oaths. What Jesus is addressing here is a much deeper heart issue. And this is where I think this might be one of the most pertinent things we can look at as Christians in 2016. I’ll explain as we get into this a bit more. But, so you know where we’re going, I want to organize what we can learn from Jesus here into 3 Principles for People of Truth:
- Take oaths only before God (33).
Verse 33 is a summary of what God did actually command about oaths. So, Jesus isn’t saying the problem is God’s teaching from the Old Testament. It’s that Jewish tradition had completely corrupted the meaning of God’s teaching. What they’d do is take this true command of God that says, “Do not swear falsely, and perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” They took that and said, “Well, that’s talking about oaths before God. It doesn’t say anything about swearing by other things, like heaven or Jerusalem.” So what’d they do? They’d make oaths by appealing to heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, and those oaths, because they weren’t oaths before God, were not actually binding. They held that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned, they didn’t actually have to fulfill their oath.
These other things were important things they were appealing to, but not near as important as God, so they could break these oaths. Once again, they took something that God had commanded, and changed it; they added to, embellished and really just straight up missed the point of it altogether! The point was that God wanted his people to be people of truth, but they missed that completely.
In Matthew 23 we see Jesus addressing the ridiculousness of all these distinctions between oaths that the Jews had come up with. He says, starting in vs. 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.’ 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.’ You blind fools!’”
It had gotten to the point that these oaths were not only completely useless when it came to determining the truth, but they were even being used to deceive! Oaths were used for the exact opposite purpose for which they were established! They were used to convince people of things that weren’t true! “I swear by my head, no no, Jerusalem, you know what, I swear by heaven itself!” It was just a big show! That’s why Jesus condemns this practice later in Matt. 23, starting in verse 21: “Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.”
His basic point there being, swearing is swearing, and lying is lying. There’s no such thing as taking an oath appealing to Jerusalem that is not also an oath appealing to God Himself. It reminds me one time when me and my brother were junior high age, and we were at church in the youth group, and someone asked me if I had scored any points in my last basketball game. I said, yes, “I scored 6 points,” and I was lying; I had only scored 2 points. That was wrong of me to exaggerate, of course, but the interesting was what my brother said: My brother heard me, and yelled, “That’s a lie! (GASP)….You lied in church!” IN the church. Sometimes we think there are certain places or certain times when sinning against God is worse than in other places or at other times. Another example: I remember feeling really bad about letting a cuss word slip while on a youth trip in high school. I felt bad because I was on a youth trip, with the church.
It’s easy to categorize our lives into the sacred and the secular, or the church part of my life and the normal part of my life. But the truth is that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. God sees and hears all things. God owns all things. God desires all of our lives, not just certain parts of it. And that was true for the Jews also. There was no such thing as making a legitimate oath that was not an oath before God Himself. So, Jesus makes clear here: Only make oaths before God. That’s how he established oaths. There’s no such thing as a legitimate oath that isn’t before God anyway. The 2nd Principle for People of Truth that we learn from Jesus:
- Don’t take frivolous oaths (34-36).
Frivolous means flippant, or not serious. This principle goes right along with the first, but I want to mention it separately because Jesus so strongly addresses it with the Jews he was talking with. Look again at verses 34-36: “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.”
Not only was Jesus saying that oaths were only to be made before God, but he was also making clear that oaths were only for special occasions. But the Jews were using oaths for their own purposes; they would swear by all types of things, as we’ve mentioned. But according to Jesus, they’re missing the point of oaths. They’re not to swear just whenever they have any reason they want to convince someone of something. They’re not to be frivolous with oaths, especially in trying to appeal to things besides God Himself. Heaven is the throne of God; in other words, God owns it. The earth is God’s footstool; in other words, God owns it. Even the city of the Great King is God’s, and he owns it. And lastly, guess what? Even your head and life.
That was the most ridiculous thing to swear by: one’s own head. What that means is that the person taking the oath would give his head if he were not telling the truth!
Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds so compelling, at least from a human perspective. But from God’s perspective, he instituted oaths to be taken before Him! Appealing to the greatest being in the universe. And now some are taken vows by their own heads. His point is, who are you? You can’t even make one hair on your head black or white. One of my favorite writers put it this way, very simply: “Such an impotent being is not one by whom to swear oaths.”
So Jesus was telling them to stop taking frivolous oaths! He basically just reaffirmed the Old Testament standard that had been so warped by the Jews: his command: Don’t take frivolous oaths! Oaths are only for special occasions and only to be made before God, nothing nor no one else.
Now, we may not struggle too much with swearing by heaven or our own heads. I don’t know the last time I heard that in everyday conversation, “I swear by my own head!” We may not use the language that was common in the Jewish world for oaths. But we do make promises and say other things to add assurance to people we’re talking with. An example: you tell your husband or wife you’ll be home by a certain time. They ask, “You’ll really be home by then? So I can make plans, you will be home by that time?” If we often have to reassure people that what we’re saying is true, that likely reveals something about our reliability.
Things come up; I’m not saying being 5 minutes later than planned means you’re a liar and a fraud. What I am saying, is that it’s worth examining ourselves and becoming people of truth. We shouldn’t have to make promises to people for them believe us, especially our families. They should believe us because we’ve shown ourselves to be reliable and trustworthy, and not because of any particular words we may use, but because we are people of Truth. This brings us to our last Principle:
- Let your yes be yes, and your no be no (37).
Verse 37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” James 5:12 words it in an even clearer way: “My brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.”
This is when Jesus steps back from the specific question of oaths and really gets to the heart of the matter. God does not just care about the nature of our oaths, or how and when we use them. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been taking us to way deeper issues than just external considerations. What does it mean for our yes to be yes and our no to be no? It means that Christians, like our great God, are to be absolutely reliable and trustworthy in every way. He desires absolute truthfulness in us.
Every word that comes out of our mouths is binding, meaning that we mean what we say and that people can know that we mean what we say! If our yes is yes and our no is no, then except in the most special of circumstances, there is no need to make promises or use any extra words to reinforce or buttress what we’re saying. Why? Because, like our God, we are people of truth, people who are reliable and trustworthy in all things.
Especially in the modern world that we live in, though, most of us are more interested in impressions than reality. We care more about what people think of us than who we truly are! In fact, honestly, it’s easy to even mix up what people think of us with who we really are, to actually think that what people think of us is the sum total of who we are.
You know who else is more interested in impressions than reality? The devil. The end of verse 37 says, “anything more than our yes and our no comes from evil.” That can also be translated “from the evil one.” Did you know that the very first recorded sin in the Bible was not from Adam and Eve, but from the serpent, when He lied. “He lied and said, “You will surely not die” from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. John 8:44 calls the devil the “father of lies.” Anything more than truth comes from the enemy. This includes many things that we often don’t think of when we think of telling the truth. Anything more or less than the truth is not the truth.
Half-truths. Half-truths maybe involve being technically true, but not truly true. You ask a child, “Did you clean your room like I asked?” The child answers, “Yes (and in his mind he’s thinking, three months ago). For the adult, “Were you honest on your taxes?” You answer, “Yes (in your mind you think, besides one or two really unreasonable things they said I had to pay for). Half-Truths are not truths.
Exaggeration. Presenting something better or worse than it really is. Very common. This is one that I really have to watch, because I’m a very optimistic person, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes I want to exaggerate things to make them seem better without even knowing it!
Manipulation. What is manipulation? Manipulation is when you paint something a certain way in order to get a particular response out of someone. You’re deceptively trying to change either the behavior or the perception of another person.
Ultimately, what are half-truths? What is exaggeration? What is manipulation or any other twist or embellishment of the truth? What is all of that? All of that is our attempt at gaining more control than we’re meant to have…
If there’s one thing you walk away with today, that’s it. Every twist of the truth, whether we’re trying to convince or manipulate someone else, or even if we’re just trying to convince ourselves of something—every twist of the truth is our attempt at gaining control that we’re not meant to have. We’re trying to control someone else’s perception. We’re trying to control what someone thinks. We’re trying to control how someone else acts. Ultimately, ANYTHING except the absolute truth from a child of God, is that child of God saying, “I don’t trust you. I need more control. You need my help, God!”
Just think about that for a moment. If God is God, and He is sovereign, and He is someone who fulfills His promises no matter what, which He is, then our desire to control even the smallest of situations through twisting the truth, is a sign of faithlessness. The definition of faith is trusting that God will fulfill what He has promised to us. That doesn’t mean presuming that He will do what we want Him to do, but trusting that what He has promised, He will fulfill. We don’t have a God who is YES (ish) when it comes to His Word, when it comes to His promises.
We have a God who says something and follows through no matter what, and one of the greatest opportunities we have to be living examples of Jesus to a world riddled with deception and lies is to reflect the truthfulness of our God. As children of God, as people of Truth, we will stick out like crazy if we simply trust that He is in control, and we don’t have to be. We don’t need to lie, or manipulate, or exaggerate. We can simply be people of Truth.
God is a God of Truth, and as His children, we’re to be people of truth. It should never be necessary that we give oaths, outside of special circumstances, or have to convince someone that we’re telling the Truth, because we’re pursuing Jesus. Our lives look more and more like His. And He never lied, nor twisted the truth in any way. The ultimate goal for the Pharisees was to APPEAR truthful, at least in the moment. God does not want us to be people who merely appear to be truthful. He wants us to be people who ARE truthful in every way! And that means every single word that comes out of our mouths every single day is to be a truthful word, unembellished and non-manipulative, a word that ultimately builds up the Body of Christ because of its truthfulness.
Let’s pray today that God give us His heart for truth. And let’s pray that we realize there is no need to twist or add to the truth in any way to somehow control what’s going on, because God is working out all things for the good of those who love Him, and whether we know it or not, God knows what He is doing. Let’s pray.