Heavenly Father, this evening, please teach us from your word. Show us what we need to see. Impress on our hearts how we need to change, and by your spirit equip us to do so! In Jesus' name, amen.
We're all big, fat liars! Expecting that opening line?! We're all big, fat liars! So says the mentalfloss.com website. In a piece of research from the mid-2000s this is what they said:
"By age four, 90% of children have grasped the concept of lying, and it just gets worse from there… 60% of adults can't have a ten minute conversation without lying at least once… in fact the average was three lies during that brief chat. We lie to everyone. Our parents get the worst of it, with 86% of us lying to them regularly, followed by friends (75%), siblings (73%), and spouses (69%)."
Hence their conclusion – we're all big, fat liars! But Christians don't need that modern research to qualify a truth that has been known for centuries, do we? We know, as Jeremiah reminds us, that the heart is deceitful above all things and it is sick. We also know, as Jesus himself taught, that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. We know lying is a part of our fallen humanness. And actually, all we need to do is obey God, keep his commandments not to lie, not to promise something in his name that we can't deliver on and then we can move on, right? Actually, no!
In our passage tonight, Jesus is still on the hill. He's still preaching his most famous sermon. He's gathered his disciples, the crowds are listening in. And once again he uses the same refrain: "you have heard it said… but I tell you…" Once again there is another 'but', that any disciple of Jesus needs to get their head around in order to faithfully follow him. Matthew 5.33-34:
"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…"
And down to verse 37:
"Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil."
I've three headings tonight:
- The principle of the law.
- The fudge of the law
- The application of the law.
1. The Principle of the Law: Honesty (v.33)
That is what God requires of his people. Internal honesty. External honesty. Complete honesty. Now, as we've been seeing in this series, none of the 'you have heard it said' phases that Jesus uses are actually accurate quotations of God's law. They are all distortions, admittedly some subtle, but they are distortions that have come from the false teaching of the Pharisees. And so it bears repeating that Jesus is not correcting his Father's law; he's correcting the Pharisees' incorrect interpretation of that law. This is why he can say in verse 17:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them."
In other words, 'I'm not contradicting God's law – I'm clarifying it, because your teacher's have got it wrong!' So what needs clarifying? Back to verse 33:
"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.'"
Now this phrase is not an accurate direct quotation of any single law, but it is actually quite an accurate summary of several Old Testament instructions – that if you swear an oath (promise/vow), if you do that in the Lord's name then you keep it. We see it in places like Exodus 20, Leviticus 19 and Numbers 30.
But you may rightly say – why the qualification of 'performing to the Lord what you have sworn'? Why is that singled out for special mention? Well, two things to say. One: well done for noticing that, because it is significant. But, two: be careful. We need to ask what our motivation is in asking the question. Because if it is to see whether we meet the external requirements in obeying the law and then move on, satisfied that we've ticked that box and met the letter of the law, but paid scant regard to the spirit of it… then we can easily start down the slippery slope that the Pharisees travelled.
So what were the Pharisees getting wrong? Well their thought process must have gone something like this: 'God's law says that we must keep the promises we make in his name. They're special. But the ones we make not in his name…not so much! It doesn't matter if we break those!' Do you see the danger? Remember what Ian was saying a couple of weeks ago? They were working to lower the bar of each commandment so that it was easier to obey! And that is a massive fudge. Here's my second point.
2. The Fudge of the Law: Deceit (v.34-36)
Now I don't know about you guys, but I've been loving this series on the Sermon on the Mount. And one of the reasons for that is some of the visual aids that people have been giving us. You'll have heard Ian talking about the Gateway verse. Can you remember which one? It's verse 3:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God."
We've got to go through the gate of verse 3 in order to understand all that follows. And we won't understand all that follows unless we come humbly, knowing that we are morally and spiritually bankrupt. Only those who know they're broken can receive the Kingdom of God. That's the Gateway visual aid.
Then Ben reminded us of the 3D glasses verses. Do you remember them? He was referring to verses 17-20. He was saying that once we come through gate of honest, broken humility, we put on the glasses that help us understand all that follows. Particularly verse 20:
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
The glasses we put on show us that we're not talking about moral attainment or law-keeping here. We're talking about glasses that let us look with spiritual honesty at our sinful hearts. That's the righteousness that Jesus is talking about, that's the righteousness that needs to surpass that of the Pharisees.
So we've had our gate. We've put on our 3D glasses. Let me give us a third visual aid for this series. It's a fudge! Remember the fudge. Look for the fudges that Jesus is identifying time after time! Funny word fudge… It comes from a certain sea captain Fudge, who in the mid-1600s became notorious for telling all kinds of lies, tall tales and exaggerations about his adventures at sea.
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus is all about exposing the lies, tall tales and exaggerations of the Pharisees. He hates their fudge. He hates their hypocrisy and he calls it out. So how exactly did the Pharisees fudge God's law on oaths and honesty? Well they deceived themselves and the people by arguing that God's third commandment, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" was more concerned with the 'taking the name of the Lord' part, rather than the 'in vain' part. And so they developed a whole range of alternatives. We see it in verses 34-36:
"take an oath… by heaven… by earth… by Jerusalem… by your head…"
In other words, 'let's fudge it folks – as long as you don't take an oath or make a promise in God's name, you can break it.' This is the fudge, it's deceitful and way wide of the mark concerning the principle of the law. And Jesus says 'no!' Verse 34:
"But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all…"
The Pharisees were up to their old tricks. Trying to lower the bar so that they can say they've obeyed. But do you know what? However hard you try to bring that bar down and try to remove God from the equation – you can't. Jesus says (v.34-35):
"…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."
In other words, the whole world is God's. He created it. It's all connected to him and he's in control of it. Verse 36:
"And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black."
None of us can change the natural colour of our hair – or how much of it we've got – can we? God is in control. What are the modern examples? I was trying to think of some:
- I swear on the Bible… God's word
- I swear on my Mother's life… God gave her that life and he sustains it
- Cross my heart and hope to die… again it's the Lord who gives and takes life away
Jesus is saying – if you want to be pedantic, let's be pedantic: everything comes back to God and is related to him and under his control, so actually it's impossible not to swear by anything but God. He is after all the source of all truth. You want to know how to apply all this? Jesus tells us in verse 37:
"Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil."
3. The Application of the Law: Integrity (v.37)
Jesus sees through the façade. He sees through the hypocrisy. He sees through the exaggeration. He sees through the lies and he looks right to your heart. If you are poor in spirit, you'll get this. If your righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees – ancient or modern, you'll get this. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No' be 'No'. How does this play out in practice? Let me ask you a question: Do you mean what you say? Every day. In every situation. Whether at home, with family, at work or at church. Do you say you will do something and then not do it?
- the promise to call
- the promise to pay someone back or return the borrowed item
- the promise to get something important finished by a particular time for someone
- the promise to pray for someone or something
And if you're sat there trying to reason and excuse these ones out (like I try to do) and you're trying to justify your lack of action by saying 'Well I said I'll call; I didn't promise to call', then you, like me, are exactly who Jesus is talking to tonight.
"Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'"
Let your word be good enough and honest enough without any embellishment or requirement to appeal to a higher authority.
This also affects our language. How many times do you hear people say ridiculous things like:
- 'To be honest... I'm not sure I agree.' Why do we qualify what we are about to say with that? Are we being dishonest the rest of the time?
"Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'"
Or what about a favourite of my lads at the moment:
- 'I'm not gonna lie… that meal was great / that goal was awesome!' Again that phrase raises the possibility that we are not being truthful the rest of the time!
This isn't just about the correct use of the English language folks. Jesus says, "Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'". What we say and what we do matters. Let's be men and women of integrity. Let's say what we mean and mean what we say. This is what followers of Jesus aspire to do – to live lives full of truth and complete integrity.
We don't have much more time, but I'm conscious that I've not touched on two fairly obvious and frequently asked questions that arise from this passage of Scripture. They may have come into your mind tonight, so let me say a couple of things about them now before we finish.
Here's the first: if Jesus says "Do not take an oath at all" is it ever alright to make a promise in God's name? Say, in court, or in like I had to do in 1996. I have a copy of my oath here:
"I, Jonathan Miller Teasdale, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Second, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will, as in duty bound, honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity against all enemies, and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors, and of the Air Officers and other Officers set over me."
That was the oath of allegiance I took when I joined the RAF. So clearly you can see what side of the fence I come down on! But some sincere Christians think that what Jesus is teaching here means that we should never take any kinds of oaths whatsoever. In many ways it's an admirable position, but I think it actually kind of misses the mark, and if I may be as bold to suggest it, I think that position is closer to the legalistic approach that the Pharisees took.
You see, for Jesus, honesty and integrity are what count – all the time. He wants us to be honest when we don't make oaths… and to be honest when we do. Just be honest all the time! This is why Anglicans take the position we do on this. Article 39 of the Church of England's 39 Articles deals with this very issue. We believe that Christians can, and should, take oaths when required to do so by proper authorities!
On what basis? Well in the Old Testament, men were allowed to take oaths. God doesn't condemn that. And in the New Testament we have the example of Jesus himself. He doesn't refuse to reply when the high priest puts him under oath on trial. So, it can't be that oaths, in and of themselves, are the problem. This is how John Stott helpfully sums it up:
"What Jesus emphasised in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so."
(p.102 Stott BST: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount)
Do you see that? Sometimes a valid external authority requires us to take an oath – in court or my RAF attestation – and that's fine. Indeed, socially and culturally there are some occasions where making a promise in God's name adds an important emphasis. So just think about a wedding ceremony for example. There, a couple acknowledge God as a witness. They promise certain things:
- to have and to hold from this day forward;
- for better, for worse,
- for richer, for poorer,
- in sickness and in health,
- to love, honour and obey / worship,
- till death us do part;
Ending with the words:
- according to God's holy law. In the presence of God, I make this vow.
And in so doing the commitment to honour the special God-ordained relationship of marriage is recognised and affirmed. So yes, there is a place for swearing an oath to add emphasis to an important promise. But it is not a substitute, nor an excuse, for not telling the truth at all times. That's the first question that may have come to mind tonight.
Here's the second: if Jesus says "Do not take an oath at all" why do we see God take oaths and promises in the Bible? Isn't that a double standard? Genesis 22.16-17 may have come to mind where God says to Abraham:
"By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore."
Does this sort of promise of God make him more credible or more trustworthy? Not at all. The reason God makes such oaths and promises is not so much so that we can have confidence he's telling the truth this time, but rather it is an acknowledgement that our natural sinful natures are always inclined to disbelieve God. And so his promises are designed to draw out faith in us … and confirm our belief and increase our faith. When we see that it's wonderful.
If you want more on this, can I recommend a couple of books? Both John Stott and Don Carson have written short, very accessible commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount. They're superb!
- John Stott: BST The Message of the Sermon on the Mount
- Don Carson: Sermon on the Mount: An Exposition of Matthew 5-7
Some ancient wisdom to finish… Ecclesiastes 5.5 says:
"It is better that you should not promise than that you should promise and not keep it."
Proverbs 25.14 says:
"Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of a gift he does not give."
- Come in through the gate of spiritual poverty and humility
- Put on the glasses that help you understand how to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees
- Look for the fudge that encourages deceit and a lack of integrity
- And then listen to your Saviour…
"Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes', and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil."