Let Me Be Honest: People today have a complicated relationship with the truth. We feel that certain things are universally true but may actually be preferences or opinions. Other times we bend the truth to get out of commitments. Still other times we know that the information presented or shared online isn’t true. All these things undermine our ability to trust one another. The way of Jesus calls us to not only speak truthfully, even when it’s costly, but also to be men and women of our word. Recorded on August 7, 2022, on Matthew 5:33-37, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus, which means basically all year, we’ll be answering the big question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” To start, we’ve been working through a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount in a sermon series called, The Unexpected Way. The teaching of Jesus leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic which is totally unique. The way of Jesus is a different way from the other philosophies or religions in history and, if it’s actually put into practice, leads to a life of love/joy/peace. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been teaching us that the heart of God goes way beyond the Law because the Law is rooted in the goodness/wisdom/love of who God is. In our ability to value other people or in our faithful love in marriage, again and again, Jesus refuses to shrink the requirements of the moral law. Instead, he raises the bar far higher than we would expect. Today, we have another example of this high standard relating to our commitment to speak the truth and be men and women of our word. Is this not such a needed teaching for our world today? Before we jump into this, let’s think about the world we live in. We live in a culture that doesn’t believe in truth, at least not in the absolute/universal sense. Whether you look at our politics/education/art/media, if you pay attention to the stories we tell or read the news, it’s clear we’re becoming more and more secular. A secular life doesn’t have a view of God. It could be you don’t believe in God, or perhaps you do believe in God but it doesn’t have any impact on your life. And if there is no God who is transcendent over all, then there is no objective truth that is over all. So what are we left with? We’re left with only facts and opinions. We’re left with scientific facts that may very well be replaced, and often are replaced, by further scientific inquiry. What is a fact today may not be a fact tomorrow. Also, there’s a well-documented history of confirmation bias. Of course, this is a problem for everyone, but also in science, of only looking for evidence that supports our existing beliefs. Stories of confirmation bias undermine our ability to trust the facts. Now I am certainly not anti-science, but many people have the feeling that so-called facts change, that what is presented as true will change over time. Beyond facts, in a secular society, everything else is just an opinion. With no God, with no objective truth, there can be no higher law, no objective right and wrong, no real good or real evil. Of course, no one actually lives like this is fully true. Even the most secular people still believe that cops ought to come if their house if it’s being robbed, or that things like rape or human trafficking are objectively wrong, not just wrong in their opinion. And yet, without a God who is over all, these beliefs are only coming from our own opinions/feelings. This is why we’re encouraged today to share our truth; not the truth, but our truth. No wonder people are so confused. No wonder kids don’t know what to think. No wonder people are so upset with each other. Everyone is sharing their truth like it’s God’s truth, but it’s not; it’s just their opinion. But we don’t know how to handle it when someone has a different so-called truth, maybe from a different political/religious perspective. What do you think God thinks about this? Is the way of Jesus different in some way than the ways of the world? You bet; let’s jump in. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Matthew 5:33. We’ll read through this and unpack it together.
Matthew 5:33-37 (NIV), 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
Again, just like the last two weeks, Jesus shows us that the OT Law has an underlying principle that goes way beyond what the Law simply prohibits. But this underlying principle, rooted in God’s character, is how God intends for human beings to actually live. In this case, that God greatly cares how we speak to/about others is rooted in the truth. Let’s start again with v.27.
Matthew 5:33-34a (NIV), “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all:” Let’s pause here. Jesus starts this section with “Again,” meaning here’s another example of what I’ve been saying. “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath,” Where in the OT does this law come from? In this teaching, Jesus is a little less clear than the last few examples about which OT law he’s referring to here. I believe he actually had several in mind. Probably, he’s referring to the third commandment of the Ten Commandments, not to misuse the Lord’s name, not to take the Lord’s name in vain, for example in making an oath. In a day before there were legal contracts where you could be sued for breaking your contract, making an oath or vow was how you communicated to someone if you were serious or not. There are several places in the OT dealing with the taking of oaths or the making some sort of solemn vow. My favorite might be Ecclesiastes 5:4, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.” I love that. So do not misuse the Lord’s name and keep your vows. But also, the ninth commandment of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” This law is rooted in our responsibility to speak the truth about others. So what is Jesus referring to here? Probably all of these passages and more form the background of his teaching. If that’s true, then the expectation of people in his day, and probably the expectation of people in our day, is that if you make an oath, if you sign a legal contract, if you make a promise to God, then you need to do it. You need to do what you say you’ll do. But Jesus goes beyond this. Again, he raises the bar for us who are trying to learn his way. He says, “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all:” Why? Does Jesus hate oaths? Does he not want us to sign contracts? Does he not think it right for us to make promises to God? I don’t think that’s the point here. Down in v. 37, he says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” In other words, Jesus is calling his followers to be people who are so committed to the truth — men and women of such integrity who so reliably do what we say we’re going to do that no special oath or binding agreement is even necessary. When people find out you’re a Christian, do they almost reflexively trust you to be a man or woman of your word? If not, then we have not done a very good job of following the way of Jesus in this area. Christians should be known for being people who speak the truth, even when it costs them personally. Christians should be known for doing what they say they’ll do. Christians should be known for being careful in our speech both to and about others, so our speech matches the values of God’s Kingdom, no matter what someone else might believe about Jesus or how they vote or where they live or whatever. But this is so hard, right? We are constantly tempted to shrink the requirements of the law — to fudge the truth or to not tell the whole truth because we don’t want to look stupid or selfish or uncool. Once we realize how hard it is to do something we said we would do, how often are we tempted to play games to get out of our commitments? I don’t think this is only a problem today. This is a human problem, a universal problem in this broken world. It was no different in Jesus’ day. Look again at v. 34.
Matthew 5:34-35 (NIV), “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” Let’s pause here. What’s going on here? Jesus gives two examples of the type of game I mentioned that people are tempted to play to get out of keeping their word. The first is swearing by heaven or the earth or by the city of Jerusalem. To give you a little context, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, or religious leaders of their day, taught that certain oaths were binding (that you actually had to do what you said you would do), but other oaths, depending on the language, were not necessarily binding. In Matthew 23, Jesus directly calls out this practice. He says, “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Mt 23:16-19). God doesn’t want us to play games with our words in this way. A solemn oath that you can break on a technicality inspires no trust between people, only suspicion and self-protection, only a society where everyone has to watch out for themself. It kind of sounds like our world, right? But this is not the world that God wants or the kinds of relationships that God wants us to have or the people God wants us to be. So in our passage, Jesus says don’t swear an oath “by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” Don’t play these games. Why? Because none of these things are yours to give as collateral if you break your word. Don’t swear by heaven. Why? It’s not yours to give. Don’t swear by the earth or even by Jerusalem. Why? It’s not yours to give; these are mine, says the Lord. I think God might say, “If you’re not sure if you’re going to keep your word, if you’re not committed to the truth, then don’t drag me into it.” We might think saying, “I swear to God,” adds to our credibility, but it does not. The second game that people play is in v. 36.
Matthew 5:36 (NIV), “And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” Another practice in Jesus’ day was to swear by your head or by your own life. Meaning: if I break my promise, then may my life be forfeit. But in a memorable way, Jesus reminds us of the limitations of our own sovereign will. He says you can’t even make one hair white or black. Now, he’s not talking about whether or not we can dye our hair. He’s talking about our ability to control what happens in our own life. So much happens in life that is outside of our control. None of us can perfectly guarantee what might happen in our future. We do not have that power. We are not God. We are not sovereign over the heavens and the earth. We are not perfectly sovereign over even our own life. That is not in our job description. So why would you use something you cannot control as proof that you will do what you say you will do? We might think that saying, “I swear on my life” adds to our credibility, but it does not. Not only does it not make any sense, but more so, it shouldn’t be necessary. Why? Here’s the conclusion in v. 37.
Matthew 5:37 (NIV), “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I love what commentator Leon Morris writes, “No oath is necessary for the truthful person.“ (PNTC). All you need to say is simply yes or no. If your answer is yes, then say yes. If your answer is no, then say no. You shouldn’t need to play games to get out of your word or to get out of your responsibility for speaking the truth. Jesus concludes with a powerful statement. He says, “anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Anything beyond being a man or woman of your word, anything beyond the simple truth, any games, any bending or hiding of the truth, comes from the evil one. In John’s gospel, Jesus says that “He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (Jn 8:44). It’s a powerful thing to remember that in most of the conversations between the devil and various people in the Bible, the devil often quotes Scripture. But he either misinterprets it, or he distorts it or twists it in some way for his own desires for destruction or his own gain. We are playing the devil’s game when we play loose with the truth. It is literally satanic to break our word. Do we understand this? Do we take the integrity of our word and our speech this seriously? Are we careful that what we share on social media is only what we know to be true? Can other people, including our spouse/kids/coworkers/friends rely on us that our yes will be yes and our no will be no? Anything beyond this is not the way of Jesus.
Now I know that this is counter-cultural. It was countercultural in Jesus’ day, too. Jesus had to confront and correct the silly games the religious leaders and religious people were playing with making oaths. But Jesus also had to deal with the secular tendency to relativize truth to facts and opinions, as well. We see this in his conversation with Pontius Pilate in John chapter 18. Remember, Jesus’ actual life is on the line here. He had been falsely arrested, accused, mocked, and beaten by the religious leaders. But because the Jews were under the Roman government, they needed the political leadership of Rome to put Jesus to death. So they turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Jerusalem. John writes, “Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” retorted Pilate.” What is truth? That’s the statement of a man who was used to doing what was politically expedient, not what was right or honest or true. Doesn’t that sound like the politics of our day? It doesn’t matter what you say to get elected, what lies you tell or what promises you break, so long as you advance our agenda. That temptation was no different in Jesus’ day. But the way of Jesus is a different way. It’s a way that values the truth, even when it isn’t expedient. It’s a way that values honesty, even when it’s costly. It’s a way that calls us to be men and women of our word, to be trustworthy and true.