Sermon preached on Matthew 5:33-37 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/11/2014 in Novato, CA.
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Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Let Your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes'”
As we continue to study the Sermon on the Mount, remember that we are considering the lacking righteousness of the scribes and Pharisee at that time. Today we come to the fourth of six examples by Jesus demonstrating this. Today’s example is on how they abused the oath and tried to find ways to justify their lies. Well, you don’t have to go back to their day to find examples of this. In fact, you can surely start even at the elementary school playground today. There, no doubt, you will find children flippantly saying things like “cross my heart and hope to die” when they want someone to believe them. But I doubt many of them have seriously thought through what it means to say something like “cross my heart and hope to die.” Or similar to this, no doubt there are many kids on the playground that tell a lie while crossing their fingers, and say that it is okay that they lied, because they crossed their fingers. Listen to what Wikipedia says about this practice of crossing of fingers; it says that it is: “A means of nullifying the binding nature of a promise or oath, as in: ‘You promised!’, ‘I had my fingers crossed so the promise didn’t count!’. This is predominantly a childish usage.” Well, crossing the fingers may be a predominantly childish usage, but the desire to swear falsely without consequences is not. It was happening during Jesus’ earthly ministry. And it still happens today, on the playground, and beyond. That then is our topic for today.
And so we will consider this topic with three points. First, we will consider the Old Testament laws on oaths. Second, we’ll see what Jesus is and is not forbidding here. Third, we’ll think about how Jesus says that the evil one is the source of how they were sinfully handling oaths.
Let’s begin then by looking at verse 33 and seeing the saying of old that Jesus is addressing. Verse 33, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.” Here again we see a saying of old that is clearly drawn from Old Testament passages, but is not an actual quote of any. Leviticus 19:12 shares a close similarity with the first part of this saying of old. It says, “And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God.” And Numbers 30:2 shares a close similarity with the second part of this saying of old, “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 so this saying of old is not a direct quote of Scripture, but it certainly finds its roots in Scripture. It can go back even further then to the third commandment. That’s the command to not take the name of the Lord in vain. In other words, the Old Testament said that when you take an oath, it should be in God’s name. And the third commandment warns against misusing that great name — not keeping an oath in God’s name would be an example infringement of that commandment. And so, the reality is that the Old Testament legislated the use of oaths. And so as with the other examples in this chapter with these sayings of old, we are left to realize that Jesus is not correcting the teaching of Scripture. Remember, he said he did not come to abolish the law. Rather, he’s correcting the flawed usage of the Scripture by the scribes and Pharisees. With each of these examples, we see that Jesus is concerned with how they were taking the commands and either going only by the letter of the law or simply perverting the point of the command all together. That seems to be the case here with the teaching on oaths.
You see, the whole point of an oath in the Bible is that you are swearing to another human about something in the name of God, as a way to assure the person about what you are swearing. In other words, if you are telling someone something, you might swear to its truthfulness by making an oath to them in the name of God. Or if you are making a promise to someone, you might swear that you will keep that promise by making an oath to them in the name of God. This is what Hebrews 6:16 tells us about human oaths. Hebrews 6:16, “For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute.” That greater one, of course, is God. The idea behind this is that you are calling God to be your witness and to hold you accountable. In the oath, you are very consciously saying, may God directly hold me accountable if I am lying to you, or break my promise to you. The idea it says in Hebrews is that this is supposed to end the dispute. In other words, the party who’s receiving the oath from the other person can be at ease to the truthfulness of the oath. Because they know they swore by the name of God, and that is a serious thing. If the person is lying, then they will have to answer to God.
And so that is a little bit about oaths in general and their Old Testament legislation. That’s the background to this passage on oaths. But, what then is Jesus teaching about oaths here? Well, let me say right from the start, that it does not seem correct to interpret Jesus making an absolute prohibition against oaths. To say Jesus forbids oaths in any and every circumstances seems to go beyond the point here. I’ll mention two quick reasons here. First, we mentioned that there are several Old Testament laws related to oaths, and none of them would give us any sense that they were concessionary or dealing with a practice that you actually shouldn’t do. Second, in both Old and New Testaments, lots of people of God make oaths, and we don’t see the Bible being critical of them. Let me give you some examples: Abraham makes his servant take an oath before sending him out to find a wife. David swears to Jonathan at his request. Paul uses oath language quite a bit. Christ, answers the high priest when adjured under oath, without objection to the oath. And Hebrews 6 mentions how God himself made an oath by himself to Abraham. So, not only do Godly men make oaths in the Bible without negative commentary, but even God and the Messiah take oaths in the Bible. So, to say that oaths are inherently sinful would not fit with the rest of Scripture.
So, what then is Jesus saying here? Well, the context seems to clarify this for us. When you read verses 34-37 and as well when you cross reference this with other similar passages in the gospels, it seems Jesus is addressing two interrelated problems. One, people taking oaths way too commonly, way too flippantly. Two, people taking oaths on things other than God’s name, and thinking they can get away with breaking their oath then. Again, think of the school playground example. It’s akin to the two things I mentioned there. People saying “cross my heart and hope to die” way too casually. That’s like Jesus addressing the careless way people might take oaths about any little thing. And the crossing of fingers to think that such could somehow free you from your obligation to truth. That’s like Jesus addressing people swearing by things other than God and think they can then get away with breaking their oath.
Let’s look further at the text to see this. In verse 34, Jesus says first, “Do not take an oath at all.” I would argue literally it is, “Do not take an oath on the whole.” In other words, that this is the general idea. Don’t just generally make oaths. Oaths really should be reserved for very serious matters. Court room testimony, or entering into a marriage covenant, or something like that. They should be uncommon. But on the whole, don’t make them. This is not something to generally color your language. You can hear people do this all the time. They just casually say all the time, “I swear to God.” Jesus says not to do this. We need to understand the seriousness of this. God’s great name ought to be held in the highest regard. We need to respect the greatness of God’s name and have a healthy fear of God.
But he goes on. Not only should we not make these oaths on the whole, but don’t make them even by heaven, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or by your own head. On the first three, heaven, earth, or Jerusalem, he says that if you think you are making an oath on something lesser than God, you are mistaken. Heaven is God’s throne; earth is God’s footstool; Jerusalem is God’s royal city on earth. In other words, these are God’s thinks anyways; if you swear on them, it still comes back to God anyways. And so if you instead try to make it on your own head, don’t be that presumptuous. You belong to God. You aren’t even in control of your own hair color. You are no one to make an oath in your name. On a side note, what I find interesting about that example, about hair color, is that hair dye has evidently been around since antiquity. They were doing it in ancient Egypt. Jewish historian Josephus writes how even back in King Solomon’s day, his royal horse riders would dust their hair with some kind of gold dust to make it have a golden shimmer. And yet hair dyes and hair dusts would not really change your intrinsic hair color. It would only be an outward, cosmetic, change; a facade. But that’s what humans try do on a spiritual level. They try to make themselves outwardly look some godly way, but they can’t really change their core; what they intrinsically are. They need God’s help for that.
But back to the main point here: part of what’s behind what Jesus says here about not swearing on other things is seen in Matthew 23. There Jesus critiques the scribes for a similar practice. Evidently we see there that the pharisaical mindset made some ridiculous distinctions. For example, they said if you swore by the temple, your oath was not binding, but if you swore by the gold of the temple, it was. Or they said if you swore by the altar, your oath was not binding, but if you swore by the gift on the altar it was. You see what they were trying to do? They thought they could make oaths that were less binding, so they could get away with breaking their oaths. In response, Jesus basically says two things. Don’t make oaths for these things, simply let your “yes” be “yes” or your “no” be “no”. And don’t think that your lesser oath gets you out of trouble. It doesn’t.
You see, Jesus knows what’s the real issue here. Look at the end of verse 37. He ends this by saying that if they don’t do what he’s saying here, that this comes from the evil one. In other words, why would people either flippantly make oaths or make oaths on supposedly lesser things? It’s at the end of the day in order to deceive, in one way or another. If you are making oaths without the real serious intention of an oath, then you haven’t been truthful. In fact, likely you have intended to overtly deceive. That’s why you make an oath. You would make an oath to get someone to believe you. But if you are at the same time, trying to simultaneously find a loop hole so you can later break your word, then what does that say about you and your oath? It speaks of that evil within you; that you are okay with deceit.
In other words, think about it like this. God is a God of all truth. Satan, the Evil One, is, on the other hand, a liar. God is all about keeping his Word. Satan, is all about deception and deceit. If you play fast and loose with oaths like discussed here, then you are following Satan in that regard. That’s what is of him. But God is not. You see, this brings us back to the real issue. Mankind has fallen into sin. We listened to the deceptions of the evil one in the first place, instead of listening to God and his truth. Since then, humans in their fallen state, have begun to mimic the evil one in his lies and deceptions and deceit. This teaching of Jesus is to remind us of this. This is the core of man’s problem. Mankind had needed to be rescued from this. To be saved. The good news we know as Christians is that he has provided a rescue from this. He promised to provide a way of rescue for his chosen people. And not only did he promise it, he even swore to it. That’s what Hebrews 6 says he did for Abraham. And the heart of what he swore to Abraham looked to Christ. It looked to the saving work of Christ.
This is in fact, at the heart of all God’s promises: Jesus Christ. Jesus says to let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’. Well, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:20 that all God’s promises find their ‘Yes’ in Christ. God has sworn and promised throughout history to bring about a mighty rescue for fallen mankind. God’s “Yes” is Christ. God’s faithfulness is Christ. The proof of God keeping his solemn oath to bless the seed of Abraham is Christ. And we are Abraham’s seed if we are in Christ. We are saved, rescued, as we put our hope in him. He comes into our hearts and begins to change us from the inside out. This is then what we must all do to be saved. We must put our faith in Jesus Christ. We must turn and follow him as Lord and Savior. Because God keeps his word, we know this guarantees our salvation. Because God’s “Yes” is “Yes”, we can hope for sure in this. But let all be warned. God’s “No” is also “No”. If you have deceived yourself into thinking you are following Christ when you are not, he will tell you “No” at the end. No, you are not one of mine. “Depart from me, I never knew you. Stepping back, then, realize, this is what it’s all about. Whether or not you take an oath in God’s name and break it, there is coming a day of judgment.
But for us who have come to know Christ, we have set free from that judgment. How then shall we live? Well, we have come then into contact with the righteous one. If lies and deception are of the evil one, then we now know the true and faithfulness that comes from the righteous one. Jesus’ teaching again today is to instill in us his character. Let us put off deceit from our lives. Let us put on truth. Let us see that our “yes” is “yes” and our “no” is “no”. Let us not cling to that evil one who deceives natively, but to God who only speaks truth. Let us show forth what our reality now is: a child not of the devil, but of God.
Be encouraged as you endeavor to put this into practice. God has sworn by his own name of our salvation in Christ. That salvation includes out ultimate perfection. God will use the tests and trials of this life to grow us into being people who keep their word. He will ultimately finish this work when we go to be with him. God’s promise will not fail. Have confidence in this as you go and look to live in truth and integrity. Praise be to God. Amen.
Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.