Watching What We Say

Have you ever gotten yourself into a mess by the things you have said? I think we could all recall a time like that. Let’s consider some important teaching from our Lord on the topic of watching what we say.

Matthew 5:3337 – Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear 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 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Jesus begins in v.33 by summarizing the basic Old Testament teaching about oath taking. Based on a composite of verses (Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21), the basic idea, under the Old Testament law, was that if you made an oath, a promise to someone, you were to keep it, whether that promise was made to man or to God.

Taking oaths and making promises isn’t wrong. The Bible is full of accounts of godly men who did this. For example, in Genesis 24:3, Abraham insisted that his servant Eliezer “swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth” that he would not get a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites, but rather from his own people.  In Genesis 31:53, Jacob took an oath “in the name of his Father Isaac” when he made a promise to Laban. In Psalm 132:2, David “swore an oath to the LORD and made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob.” The oath or promise that David made was to make a temple for God. In the New Testament we also read in Matthew 26:63-64, how Jesus himself swore an oath to Caiaphas declaring that he was the Christ, the Son of God. So, there can be a proper time and occasion in which to make an oath. If you are called to appear in court as a witness, you may be asked to swear on the Holy Bible to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s an oath. There isn’t anything wrong with this.

However, when a person utters an oath, it is of course no guarantee that the person is telling the truth. On the eve of the crucifixion, when Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus, Matthew 26:74 records how Peter then “began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them [saying] “I don’t know the man! That swearing wasn’t profanity. It was the swearing of an oath. Peter was trying to increase the credibility of what he was saying by appealing to an authority greater than himself. It’s like when someone says, “I swear to God, I’m telling the truth.” It increased the force of his words, but it didn’t increase the accuracy of his words. Peter was still lying.

I think this is what Jesus is so concerned about for his followers when he goes on to say what he says in Matthew 5:34-37 – “But I tell you, Do not swear 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. … 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

In light of the Old Testament approval of oath taking, and even the examples of the Lord himself on various occasions, the words of Jesus at first glance seem to contradict the Scriptural precedent that we’ve observed. What does Jesus therefore mean when he says, “Do not swear [an oath] at all”?  Jesus is not condemning the taking an oath or making a vow per se. What he is condemning is taking an oath improperly and making a vow insincerely.

For the Jews in his day, they would make an oath or take a vow but in order for it to be less binding, they wouldn’t utter the oath by God’s name.  They would swear by heaven or by earth, or by Jerusalem. Those things gave the aura of importance but were considered to be less binding.  They knew that if they swore by God’s name, then they would have to keep it just as the Scriptures commanded. That is the background context to this passage. So, when Jesus says, “Don’t swear at all” (v.37) he means that we shouldn’t make a promise if we don’t intend to keep it! Furthermore, he is saying that even if we don’t use God’s name to back up our promise, to use any part of his creation in an oath that we don’t intend to keep is sinful and wrong.

Now, where does this leave us?  Let me suggest two points of application.

God has no separate categories of sacred and secular

We tend to think in terms of sacred and secular. What happens in church is sacred, but then what happens at home or work is secular. However, life can’t be divided into compartments like that where in some compartments God’s involved and in others he’s not. There can’t be one kind of language at church and another outside of church. There can’t be one kind of conduct in the church and then another when you’re with your family or friends. There can’t be a place where God is welcome but then another where he isn’t. He’s everywhere. He hears all and sees all, and as believers in Jesus who are indwelt with the Spirit we dwell in the presence of God all the time! What we say and do therefore is sacred because our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Jews of the day, by uttering vows by heaven or earth or Jerusalem, were implying that those were less sacred than the ones uttered by God’s name. Yet, our Lord replied in effect saying that they had got it wrong.  All is sacred, because all promises are made before God whether you utter his name or not.

God is supremely concerned that what we say and do is truthful.

That’s why Jesus says in v.37, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Let us remember that whenever we say something that isn’t true, the real problem is in our heart. The tongue communicates what’s in the heart.  Jesus said, “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This is why we need God to change us.  This is why we need the life-transforming application of the gospel. We have a heart problem, and only God can change our hearts.  So, each day we need come to God as beggars in need of the bread of life. Each day, as we believe the gospel, we are reminded that Jesus died for our sins and rose again in victory, and his power is made perfect in our weakness.  His power to transform begins as we acknowledge our sin and our need for him.  As we then give him control, he changes our heart, and then the overflow from our mouth will change. As we ask him to let us speak words of truth, life, hope, encouragement, and faith, this is a prayer that he loves to answer.

Is there a daily prayer we can make which expresses this need for his transforming help? Try praying the words of the psalmist in Psalm 139:23–24 – “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Categories Devotionals | Tags: , | Posted on June 12, 2023

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