2 June 2013
Jesus continues his commentary on the law defeating self-righteousness, pointing to law-keepers who do not reflect the holiness of God, and calling us all to repentance. If you escaped the judgment of anger and lust; perhaps deception is the source of your self-righteousness.
We have covered much thus far, some very difficult passages, this week we cover another area that we need to make sure that we are both righteous (see Matt 5:20) and perfect (Matt 5:48). The topic for this week in many of your Bibles may say "Oaths" or "Vows," and this is true, but the major topic of concern is the topic of Lying and the Truth.
"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. (Matthew 5:33-37)
The Legacy of Lies
This particular passage is one of six examples, or illustrations, of what Jesus has for the Christian Life. The particular rule of the Jews that He is addressing concerns oaths, but the underlying issue is truth and deception. We will address the passage in particular shortly, but it is beneficial for us to see the larger problem underneath the text of the heart's desire to cover up truth, or to lie. From the very beginning the temptation was to distort truth and hide from truth. We see this in Genesis 3:4 where the serpent says, "But the serpent said to the woman, 'You will not surely die.'" Following this Adam and Eve eat and then hide themselves from God. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself." (Gen 3:8-10) From this day onward it has been a part of humanity to distort and hide the truth. We see this in Cain (Gen 4:8-9), Abraham (Gen 12:10-20; Gen 20:1-7), Jacob and Laban (Gen 29). We also find it in the New Testament in Acts 5:1-11 where Ananias and Sapphira lied about the money they had given to the church. Lying is a big deal for God.
The Bible is replete with commands to not lie, here are but a few:
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exod 20:16)
- You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. (Lev 19:11)
- There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Prov 6:16-19)
- Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Prov 12:12)
- No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes. (Ps 101:7)
- Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:9-10)
- Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (Eph 4:25)
Even in Revelation 21:8 liars, those who practice deception are numbered among the worst of all sinners being cast into the lake of fire.
It is clear that we are not to be liars and are to be people who seek after the truth, but we cannot come to that place of truth and honesty without acknowledging that we battle against our flesh and its desire to tell lies and cover up truth.
Most of the time people lie to deceive others to think better of us than we deserve. "Oh, I wanted to come to your party but my husband (or wife) had to work late". Translation – there are other things I'd rather do.
The Result of Rules
"A liar is always lavish of oaths." ― Pierre Corneille
Knowing that we are indeed in a world of lies and liars we need to see what it was in particular that Jesus was addressing in this passage. At first glance it appears to be solely about oaths and vows, "Do not take an oath at all." But if we look closer at the passage there is much more to it that First Century Jews would recognize immediately.
The first thing to notice is the common phraseology of Jesus in this part of the sermon, "You have heard it said…" Here we must look back to the Old Testament and find out where they have heard this said, since this was a teaching of the religious leaders. This teaching comes partly from the Jewish Mishnah, an important religious work for the Jews second only to the (Hebrew Bible). Here you find intricate teachings and commentaries on the Law. "For example, one rabbi says that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem, then you are bound by your vow." (Carson 47) As we can see from our passage this is exactly what Jesus was dealing with for he says not to take oaths by heaven, or Jerusalem. It was a practice of the Jews to make these oaths and Jesus was addressing that practice.
Second, we need to see in this passage that Jesus is not saying that making an oath is wrong, bad or sinful. There have been many in the history of Christianity (and many Baptists are in the number) who read this passage as forbidding any oath. For example, the Anabaptist of the Reformation era, would not work for the government because it required an oath to take the office. This is why the "swearing-in" witnesses says "solemnly swear or affirm", because some refused to take any oath due to this scripture.
But we find throughout the Bible other oaths that are taken and appear to be accepted as good. "You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear." (Deut 10:20) After the Flood God made a covenant (a type of oath) with Noah in Genesis 9:9-11. In the New Testament Paul is repeatedly calling God as his witness to what he is saying, (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; 1 Thess 2:5, 10; Phil 1:8). There are appropriate ways in which we can take oaths, vows, covenants, and bear witnesses that do not violate what Jesus is teaching here in the sermon.
Third, we need to see that what is really being addressed is the Result of Rules. Though it may be exclaimed by some that the additions to the Law that were made were done so to protect the Law and keep people from violating the Law, what it did was create a new law unto itself. What once was a religion based upon a relationship became a religion based upon rules. When we live a life based solely upon rules we inevitably create new rules to bend older rules, which is exactly what was going on. Unfortunately deceptive people use oaths for the "halo-effect"; that if they swear by something important, they are presumed to be more truthful.
Think about it for a moment. Why would anyone need to clarify truth by an oath? Does saying, "I swear by my mother's grave" make a statement any more or less true? What it does is that it tries to convince a hearer that this statement is more true than other statements. By doing such we are living a life that accepts lies as a part of living. We create rules, like oaths and vows, that allow us to have degrees of truthfulness, which is just a justification for lying. The reality of Jesus' words here are that such rules only show the motive of the heart to live in lies. If we live by rules we will be run by rules, but that is not what Jesus has in mind for the Christian Life.
The Honor in Honesty
So what does Jesus want for us if we are not to live by rules? The answer is honesty and the honor that comes with it. Look at the response Jesus provides for what a Christian is to do: "Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil." The simple answer of "yes" or "no" or of just the truth without anything else is all that is needed, but there is more to this. In order for us to just be able to say "yes" or "no" means that we live lives that are honest.
Your personal integrity becomes your constant oath endorsing the words you say.
When we live lives that are honest people have tendency to believe what we are saying. When we live lives that are dishonest we have the tendency to disbelieve anything without further evidence, we become cynical.
What we must do is live a life that is "above reproach," a requirement for a pastor found in 1 Timothy and Titus. This means that we live in such a way that no one can have reason to doubt, or reproach us. It is living a life that is full of integrity and honesty. It is living a life where people trust every word that comes out of your mouth. This is what Jesus means when he says let your yes be yes and your no be no. It is a life of honesty, and when we live a life of honesty we receive the honor that comes with it. We must be people that strive after both of these things.
The Triumph of Truth
Finally, we are confronted again with the realization that this is indeed a difficult thing to do. We do come from a legacy of lies and often we try to cover them up by appealing to rules and loopholes in those rules. In the case of living a life of honesty and honor what we must do daily is to fall upon Jesus, who is the only Truth and in whom we triumph over every adversary in life.
We see this especially throughout John's Gospel. We are told to abide in the truth of Jesus, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32) By living in Jesus we are able to live in truth, we are able to live honesty and in honor, but we can only do so by abiding in Him. Jesus further teaches his disciples about how He is the Truth. "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. … I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:1, 6). Finally, we see Jesus even asking the Father to help his disciples (and us) to abide in truth, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17) Without the help of God and the life abiding in Christ we are unable to shrug off the legacy of lies that we have inherited. So, once again, the only way to conquer the heart issue of lying and untruth is to live in the righteousness and perfection of Jesus Christ.
Discussion Questions for Life Groups
- Is there an appropriate time for anyone to tell a lie?
- Have volunteers discuss how they have inherited a "legacy of lies"
- What are some of the loopholes and bending of the rules that we use?
- How do we know if someone is honest or not?
- How can we become an honest, honorable person?