Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 5, verse 33. 5:33. We have been studying the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. We saw in verses 17-20 that Lord set forth the principle of the righteousness of His kingdom. In that passage, He said that the righteousness demanded of His citizens, the citizens of His kingdom, was far beyond that righteousness expected by the Pharisees.
In verses 21-48, He begins to apply the principles that He set forth in general in verses 17-20 to specific commands and to specific relationships. Understand what Jesus is doing. He is showing how practically the principles of righteousness and the opposite principles of wickedness work out in different commands.
In verses 21-26, He took the commandment against murder. He said that this command means much more than to refrain from the unlawful physical killing of another person. It extends to the heart and to the tongue. You can murder someone through unrighteous, un-called-for, disproportionate anger and hatred in the heart. And so He says that command applies not just to outward things, but to inward things.
What is Christ doing? He is ripping up the conscience of His hearers. The Puritans used to put it this way, “That in preaching the minister attempts to rip up the conscience.” Now what is that? Some sort of a cruel thing, that ministers do to their people, like guinea pigs? No. The point is that people come to the word, often times thinking that the word does not have anything to say to them, thinking that they do not have a particular problem with a particular sin. And Christ is speaking to moral people in Israel, and they are thinking to themselves, “Certainly I have not committed the sin of murder.” And Christ is saying, “O yes you have, you just haven’t thought about it. You haven’t realized how far this command goes, and you haven’t realized how much you need the grace which I offer. You haven’t realized how much you need the atonement that I offer. You don’t realize how much you need the forgiveness that I offer.”
He speaks to those who are apart from Him, who have not embraced Him, and He reminds them that their breaking of the commandments in these details which they may have never ever thought of, are simply further evidence that they need His grace. He speaks also to His followers, and He says, I want you to understand that when you are in Me, when you are united to Me, the Spirit will work in you obedience, which is pleasing to the living God. And you must search yourself out, examine yourself to see if you are walking in the way or if you have become complacent, allowing yourself to drift into ways of sin, which are not my intentions for you. And so the Lord simultaneously speaks to believers and unbelievers, as He ministers this word. We read now His application of His principles to verses 33 and 37. Let’s hear the word of the living God.
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. “But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'; and anything beyond these is of evil.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in again in prayer.
Our Father, we thank You for this word, we ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment. We would digest the truth of Your word and not only apprehend it with our mind, but embrace it with our will. We pray O God, that You would remind us fo the necessity of the Spirit and of grace that we might walk in this way. We pray, O Lord that you would bring conviction where we have departed from Your ways. And that You would bring us into both fellowship and blessedness for our good, and for Your glory. We ask it all in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The practicality of Jesus’ teaching here, hits a little too close to home. Notice these contrasts that He keeps bringing up. Christ is applying the law specifically in the hearts of the people. He started in verses 21-26 with murder. And again, this congregation wasn’t expecting murder to have a lot to say to them. They were not murderers after all. And the Lord applied that commandment in such a way that they understood that they, too, were guilty of murder. In verses 27-32, He applies the seventh commandment, the commandment not to commit adultery to the situations of both immorality and of illegal marriage and divorce. And He speaks to His disciples, applying the truth of that commandment. Now, He comes back to the third commandment, the commandment not to take the Lord God’s name in vain. And He applies the truth of that word to our personal situation and our speech and to our human relationship. The practicality of this issue is beyond all question. Jesus’ words here hit close to home to every single one of us, because here He is calling His disciples to tongue righteousness. He is calling on us to have godly speech. Notice what He does in this passage as we consider it this morning.
I. False vows.
First in verse 33, He records for us what the Pharisees were teaching, and that brings to mind two things to us: First of all, what Moses originally intended by his words; and secondly, what the Pharisees were teaching. In verse 33, He says, again, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’” Now, again, as we have seen before, there is nothing wrong with that statement. The statement is perfectly fine. The statement is in fact an amalgamation, it is a conglomeration of various statements about truth telling in the context of making promises or being under vows or obligations in the Old Testament.
There are a few passages that I would turn you to for your attention. In Leviticus chapter 19, for instance, in verse 12, we read this: “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of the Lord your God. I am the Lord.” There, the stress is on not swearing falsely. Now, surely this is what is being entailed in this teaching in Matthew 5:33. Again, in Numbers chapter 30, verse 2, we read, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Again, this passage takes up that idea and applies it to the people of God. In Deuteronomy 23, verse 21, we read, “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it. For it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God would surely require it of you.”
Vows were very common then, as they are now. Vows were a solemn way that a person could commit himself or herself to the performance of a particular duty. Vows were a way of calling down a higher judgment upon ourselves than ourselves. Vows were a way of solemnizing an agreement, an arrangement, and a promise. And, the Pharisees were teaching that this was very important in the context of their testimony in court. That they were not to purger themselves. And thus far, that was of course, absolutely true. In each of these passages, in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the emphasis in on our being truthful, especially when a solemn promise has been given or extracted. To be truthful in our intentions and in our performance of our promise.
But the Pharisees restricted the scope of this commandment. They misread it, they misinterpreted it. Jesus again contrasts their teaching: you have heard the ancients were told, you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord, but I say… And His contrast is critical, not of their teaching that we must be truthful in court, but of their restriction of that law, of that commandment, to merely external civil legal proceedings. That is, their restricting of that commandment just to the sin of perjury. The Pharisees were saying, if you perjury yourself, you are breaking that commandment, and the Lord Jesus is saying, right, and…. But the Pharisees went no further. They stressed that this command required an external refraining from perjuring ourselves in social, and civil, and legal situations. And Jesus says, this commandment means much more than that. This commandment is spiritual. It extends to the heart. This commandment is more than merely external. It is internal. It has to do with all of our truthfulness before the living God. And so, the Lord Jesus is derisive of the Pharisees teaching of this command. Because they had taught the people that they could somehow keep this command, as long as they did not perjure themselves.
II. Jesus rebukes false vows.
Furthermore, the Pharisees apparently were teaching that vows that were in the name of the Lord were somehow more rigidly binding than vows that were not made in the name of the Lord. And you can see their logic in the Lord’s rebuke in verses 34 and 35, and 36. The Pharisees were saying something like this: If you make a vow in the name of the Lord, well, then that vow has to be kept. But if you have made a vow in the name of Jerusalem, well, maybe there is a little more flexibility there. If you make a vow on your own head, maybe there is a little more flexibility on whether you keep that vow or not. But if you make a vow in the name of the Lord, that is a very serious vow. And the Lord Jesus is derisive of that type of sophistry, that type of playing with the words of the living God. And so He gives His interpretation of the truth in verses 34-37. And we see it there. “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, of by earth, for it is the footstool of His foot, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Nor, shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’ anything else beyond this, is of evil.”
Now before we look at what Jesus means there, we have got to take a little time to say what He doesn’t mean in that passage. There have been many Christians who have asserted that Jesus’ teaching is that no Christian, no believer ought to take a civil or a religious oath, or vow. They take His words, which read, “make no oath at all” to be an absolute prohibition to believers in the taking of civil oaths. And some of these groups, like the Quakers, teach that Christians may not take an oath in court. That what Jesus is saying is that no Christian should take a civil oath.
Now there are two problems with that interpretation of Jesus’ words. The first problem is that interpretation actually assumes the same thing that the Pharisees were assuming. That this command primarily has in view our speech in court, our speech in contracts, our speech in civil and commercial contractual agreements. Jesus makes it clear that His idea of this command is much broader than that. Yes, it does include how we speak in court. But it says much more to us about all of our communications, all of our speech, all of our speaking. And so those who say that Jesus’ main point is to keep Christians from taking oaths in court, somewhat miss the point just like the Pharisees.
Secondly, it is clear from both the Old Testament and the New Testament that righteous and holy and godly men and women do take religious and civil oaths. In the Old Testament, you don’t have to look far before you find Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, making oaths to the living God. In the New Testament, in Romans chapter 9, verse 1, and in I Corinthians chapter 1, verse 23, we find Paul making oaths. His oaths for religious purposes are recorded in the book of Acts. And in fact, we find the Lord Jesus Himself being put under oath and responding to the High Priest. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 26, Jesus’ trial before the High Priest in verse 63. You remember, to this point Christ had been refusing to answer the questions of His accusers because it was a ‘kangaroo court.’ They really didn’t want to hear what He said anyway. They just wanted to convict Him. And in verse 63 of Matthew 26, the High Priest says, “I adjure you by the living God that You tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now the Lord Jesus, in the next verse, does not go on to explain to the high priest about why it is that He is not going to take an oath and answer him under oath. The Lord Jesus, having been adjured, having been put under oath ‘according to the living God, as God is His witness to tell the truth’ says this: “You have said it yourself, nevertheless I tell you, hereafter, you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The Lord Jesus answers the question under oath. He gives him the answer that he wants. He takes the oath as it were, and He gives the answer to the high priest and so we see by scriptural example, that even the Lord Jesus allows Himself to be put under oath. So His point is not to prohibit all taking or giving of civil and religious oaths.
Our very act of worship includes oaths and vows. When parents come to have the sacrament of baptism administered to their infants, they make solemn vows. When we are baptized as adults, never having been baptized as children, and coming to Christ by faith, we make vows to the Lord. When we come to the Lord’s Table, we are engaging in a great process of oath taking. It is not oath taking per say, that the Lord Jesus opposes. Jesus is opposing all equivocal speech, all speech in which the person making a promise or a commitment is equivocating in his heart, in her heart. Jesus is opposing all those sorts of speech. Speech which knows one thing to be true in the heart, but actually speaks another thing. Jesus is opposing all rash oath taking. Jesus is saying, don’t make an oath rashly. Don’t make it lightly, don’t make it quickly. Jesus is opposing all unnecessary swearing.
You see, Jesus in this passage is teaching us several things. He is teaching us that we ought not swear at all, except where it our duty. Where it is our duty to give our oath, then it is appropriate to give an oath. But we are not to be quick to multiply oaths. We ought never to swear lightly, the Lord Jesus says. The Lord Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that everything that we say, we say under God. Whether we say it is by Jerusalem or by the earth, or by some creation or by the heavens. Everything that we say as believers is a reflection on God, because we bear God’s name, we are God’s people, we are Christians. And therefore, all of our speech, is under God. All of our speech is a vow to the living God, and so we are never to swear lightly. There is nothing we can say, such as “I swear on my mother’s grave” is less binding than “I swear in the name of the living God.” No, the Lord Jesus says. Every promise is made under God. Every promise is a vow before the Lord even as it is a vow to a person.
Jesus goes on to say that we ought to be careful of making promissory oaths. We need to be careful about making promises to fulfill certain vows that we are not able to keep. This comes upon us frequently in our own lives. The Proverbs warned about it. You remember the Proverbs warn you about signing for another person. Any of you Bruce Williams fans? Do you listen to that radio program where he gives great financial advice to people. Did you hear the fellow call up one night, “Bruce, I have a problem. I cosigned for my cousin and he cosigned for a car for my cousin and he skipped town and the bank is after me for the money.” And Bruce said, “And what is your problem?” And he said, “I don’t have the money.” He said, “Well that is a problem. Because you are liable for it.” He said, “But I want to get the car and give it back to them, but they don’t want the car, they want the money, but I don’t have the money.” He said, “Well, you shouldn’t have signed.” And he said, “Well ,thank you very much, good bye.” It is dangerous to cosign. Because when you cosign, you have made a promissory commitment, and the Lord Jesus is saying, be careful before you make that type of commitment. He wants us to recognize that all of our speech is in the sight of God.
There are two great points that Christ makes in this passage, and the first is to recognize that every commitment we make, no matter what terms we use, every commitment we make, every commitment is a commitment in the name of the living God. Every time I say, yes, yes, or every time I say no, no, I am representing the living God. Jesus is reminding us that the third commandment is at stake every time we speak, why? Because the third commandment says that we are not to take up the name of the Lord our God in vain. And therefore when we speak, we speak as representatives of the living God. We are Christians, we are followers of Christ. We are ‘little Christs.’ We are those who are the people of Christ, the people of God, and when we speak, Christ’s reputation is on the line. And when we are untruthful in speech, we bring dishonor on the living God, we bring dishonor on the name of Christ, and therefore we take up God’s name in vain, because we bear that name. And the Lord Jesus is saying, all speech must be treated as sacred. When we make a commitment, we must mean it. Yes, yes, and no, no. Because we are representatives of the living God.
He also stresses secondly, that our speech must look out for the best interest of our neighbors. Why is it that people lie? Why is that people lie? Well, some people lie in order to take advantage of you. Some people have malicious purposes in their intentions. They actually desire to defraud you of things that belong to you. They desire to trick you into making agreements which would not be to your own advantage and so they deliberately lead you into the belief of a falsehood through their speech. I would propose to you, that though there may be many here that struggle with that type of lying, many more of us struggle with a different type of false speech. What makes you lie? Well, there area many things. Sometimes we lie to flatter. We see an outfit that is horrendous, and we are asked, what do you think? Oh, it is beautiful. And we are lying. Why? Because we want to flatter them. We don’t want to discourage the person. And we flatter them. Other times we fear the consequences of our speech. We fear if we admit what we have done, we are in big trouble. And we would much rather lie and avoid those consequences than face those consequences.
I know of a little boy, who, when he was in the fifth grade in science class was assigned the hefty responsibility of washing the beakers after an experiment and his teacher, Mrs. Finley, said to him, “Now, when you wash those hot beakers, under no circumstances put them under cold water.” “Yes, Mrs. Finley,” he said. And when the time came to wash those beaker, he promptly put them under cold water. Now you could imagine his surprise when he saw them begin to fragment. And like spider webs, cracks shot through those beakers. Fear entered into that little boy’s heart. And so he thought quickly, and he devised a brilliant plan. He took masking tape and wrapped the beakers in masking tape. I have never quite understood why that young man thought that his teacher would notice this masking tape on the beakers. And then he declined to admit what had happened to his teacher, a vital mistake young people, a vital mistake. Oh, he thought he would avoid the consequences of what he had done, if he just didn’t tell the truth to Mrs. Fanny Finley, and he rued the day that he did not tell Mrs. Fanny Finley what he had done. He thought that the consequences would be spared him if he lied. He was wrong. Not a very smart child. I don’t what has happened to him today.
But, children and adults do that. We fear telling the truth. Perhaps disclosing something about our past, we think, will lose us friends. Perhaps disclosing what we are really like will cause us to be rejected. Perhaps the consequences of our behavior are just too much to take and so we will lie. We will refuse to tell the truth. Young people, it is vital that you not enter into that type of behavior. You will be tempted to hide things from your parents so that you will not be punished, and I promise you that even if they never catch you, the consequences of your not telling them, will be eternally far more severe and damaging than the consequences if you would confess.
Our former minister shares with many people in this congregation the words of Suzannah Wesley about child rearing, and one of those words that she shared is that whenever her children would voluntarily come and confess to her their sin, truly repentant of it, she would always spare them punishment. Why? Because she wanted to teach them the value of telling the truth. And she wanted to show them the reward of telling the truth and she wanted to inculcate in them truth telling. That is a good pattern. It may perhaps not be universally applicable, but it is a good pattern to instill in our children the recognition that truth telling is always to preferable to them and to us, in obscuring the truth. But adults need to learn that lesson just as well as children.
In other cases, we perhaps have a fear of being rejected, or desire to be accepted, and so we do not tell the truth. A prominent governor of a southern state was addressing a class of teenagers, and in the heat of the moment, that governor decided to tell them some stories about his childhood, his college years. He claimed to have run a 9.5 hundred yard dash and been on a national championship baseball team. And the press looked into this and found out that neither of these things were true. First of all, a 9.5 hundred yard dash would have been the world record. They had never heard of this guy. He was found out and the next week at the stadium in the capital city as the whole city was gathered for a great football game, a flag was flying behind a plane circling the field which said, “Governor ‘blank’ for Heismann.” Vote for him for the Heisemann Trophy. He was mocked and ridiculed, but he sought to gain the approval of his audience by telling them that which was untrue. All of these are ways in which we are tempted to be untruthful and Christ is telling us that God demands godly speech.
Now Christ’s words have application to us, no matter who we are, no matter where we are. No matter how old we are, no matter what circumstances we are in. For unbelievers, Christ’s words are a reminder to you, that you need the grace of God. You need the grace of God to spare you from your sins. Because you are locked in a pattern of untruth. Lying destroys human relationships. Internationally, socially, family, all relationships are destroyed by lying. Because it breaks down the capacity of another to trust us.
Unbeliever, if you have engaged in the sin of lying, you know insidious it is. You know how it wraps itself around you and you know how one lie lead to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to a life of self delusion and ultimately of isolation and rejection. Christ is reminding you that the patterns of lying teach you that you are a sinner. And the fact that you are a sinner teaches you that you need a Savior and He stands before you in His grace to say, I can liberate you from the dominion of sin, even a lying that has destroyed your life.
To believers Christ is saying this, you are not perfected, you are not entirely sanctified, you are not free from sin, and the continuation of struggling with tongue sins which reeks so much havoc in the life of the congregation, both in families and in the congregation itself, reminds us that we need to grow in the Lord. We need the continuing sanctifying work of the Spirit in our life and we need to run back to Christ and we need to say, ‘O Lord, as I have looked at myself, I have not come into accord with the standards of Your word. My speech has not been perfectly pure as You require. By the Spirit, by grace, work in me righteousness. Deliver me, O Lord from a continuation in sin.’
Christ’s words are for both believers and unbelievers. For unbelievers, a diagnoses of your condition and a reminder that you need grace. For believers, a reminder that you need humility, for we all fall short, a reminder that we live a life of repentance and a reminder that we must always be involved in an ongoing quest of sanctification. Striving after that which is right depending upon the grace of God in Christ. Let us look to the Lord in prayer.
Heavenly Father, tongue sins are apparent to us all. We can’t even list them, they are so multitudinous. And they are all a breaking of the commands. Make us holy in speech, for we to be holy in speech, it would revolutionize the world we think. And it would certainly revolutionize our lives. We ask that by grace, You would bring us to an end of ourselves and that we would cast ourselves upon the mercy of Christ, dependence upon His atonement, strengthening of His spirit, we would walk in His way. And we give You the praise and the glory for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.