Sermon On The Mount Devotional Blog 17

Sermon On The Mount Devotional

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

Read Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV)

“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.”

When you were a kid do you remember this kind of exchange happening between you and a friend? “Do you swear? Really swear? Pinky swear?” Or perhaps a friend, in an effort to get you to believe their promise, added “I swear on my mother’s grave!” Let’s set aside that fact that if the person’s mother was still alive, what were they saying? Perhaps they were trying to get across the severity of their promise. They or you really wanted to be believed. Your normal word or the simple making of a statement was not enough. Why might that be? Perhaps we have not kept our word in the past or we have told “white lies”. What are those? We use the word “white” at the beginning to let on that it wasn’t really a big lie; it was a little lie. We certainly wouldn’t want anyone to know that we were liars on a grand scale.  So, of course we, like everyone else, tell little, manageable, “understandable” lies. You know, like when someone asks you, “How do I look today?” or “Do you like my hair cut?” Well, those can be difficult questions to answer. What if they don’t look very good on that particular day? What if their hair was a huge mess and looked closer to how a wet dog might look? What if their clothing was mismatched? White lies cover the embarrassment. What if their hair cut makes them look more like a guy than a girl? These are tricky questions to answer. So, in what we think is an effort not to hurt feelings, we lie. Not a huge lie, we rationalize, but a white lie. We tell ourselves that it was for their good not to tell them the whole truth. It is easier for us and saved their feelings.

Our society has a difficult time with truth, as did the culture prior to Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament vows were allowed by God. They weren’t commanded, but neither were they forbidden either, not because God desired man to make vows, but because of the weakness of man and his inability to keep his word. In the same way that God allowed divorce due to man’s weakness and sin, so too did He allow for vows. The chief purpose of the Mosaic Law was to restrain man’s propensity to sin and lie. Exodus 20:7 reads, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. Leviticus 19:12 says, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God.” Numbers 30:2 reminds us, “When a man vows a vow to the Lord… he shall not break his word.” And Deuteronomy 23:21 commands, “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it.” These verses show a prohibition of false swearing or perjury, that is, making a vow and then breaking it - not against making any vows.

Now move forward into the New Testament. Enter the Pharisees. They shifted the emphasis from the vow and keeping one’s word to an emphasis on the formula by which they swore.

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.’” This is not in the OT law. This was said by the Pharisees. Pharisees were notorious for pitting the letter of the law against the spirit of the law. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was the letter but they seemed to care nothing for the spirit (a pure heart and mind). They argued that what the law was really prohibiting in the 3rd Commandment – “Thou shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” was not taking the name of the Lord in vain but taking the name of the Lord in vain. “False swearing”, they concluded, meant profanity (a profane use of the divine name), not perjury (a dishonest pledging of one’s word) … One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows, in which the divine name had not been used. (The Sermon on the Mount by John Stott, pg. 100) 

The Pharisees were masters at splitting hairs. Speaking of hair, perhaps again when you were a child, you would, when called to perform your word or be true to it, claim that you didn’t have to keep your word or fulfill your promise because of the well-known loop hole, that your fingers were crossed. I have even a memory of one friend taking the exception to keeping his word because, not his finger, but his hair was crossed. Absurd! We too will try and find any way possible to get out of keeping our word.

Now enter Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount He is interested in correcting the false representation from the Pharisees and replacing it with what was said but also with restoring the original/expanded intent. He says that the formula used is really irrelevant - the Pharisees add all these layers making distinction with the name of God. Jesus is saying it is all artificial.

Jesus says you cannot mention some reference to God as a specific way of emphasizing its importance over something else because all of the world is His. If you vow by Heaven - it is God’s throne. If by Earth – it is His footstool. If by Jerusalem- it is His city. If you swear by your head - it is God’s creation. (Stott, pg. 101)

Christ here is emphasizing that we are to keep our vows/oaths/word - do what we say we will do. The wording or the formula does not add to the seriousness of the vow. A vow is binding irrespective of the wording. Keep our word. When Christ adds “Do not swear at all”, He means that we are not to go through verbal gymnastics to emphasis the vow. Let our “yes” be “yes” and our “no” be “no”.  Anything more than this “comes from evil”. This means that it comes from a place of trying to trick the other or to find a way to get out of having to keep our word. (Stott, ibid.)

So, What Now?

Are you a man or a woman of your word? Do you split hairs, cross your fingers, “pinky swear”, cross your heart and hope to die, or swear on your mother’s grave (that dear woman who is still alive)? These are all modern-day incarnations of what Jesus was speaking against in the Sermon on the Mount. Truth is important. Confess the ways you bend, break, or twist the truth. Ask the Lord that He would make you a man or woman, who is trustworthy and truthful.