And Nothing but the Truth

Why don’t disciples of Jesus swear oaths? Because we don’t need to.

Chris Hutchison on January 24, 2021
And Nothing but the Truth
January 24, 2021

And Nothing but the Truth

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Passage: Matthew 5:33-37
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Some of you here might be old enough to remember the “Herman” comics by Jim Unger. One of my favourites pictured a courtroom scene, where the bailiff was swearing in a witness and was having the witness repeat after him.

“I swear to tell the truth,” said the bailiff. “I swerve to smell de soup,” repeated the witness.

“The whole truth,” said the bailiff. “The toll booth,” was the response. “And nothing but the truth,” said the bailiff. “And nuts sing on the roof” finished up the witness. And then in the final panel, the witness is told, “Now tell us the story in your own words.”

What good are someone’s words if you can’t trust what they are saying? That’s a question that the comic makes us ask in a humorous way. It’s also the kind of question, in a much more serious manner, that our passage makes us ask today.

Because that’s what our passage is all about today. The truth. The reliability of our words. Whether or not we are trustworthy. And the big idea here is that disciples of Jesus are people of the truth whose words can be trusted. When they say yes, it means yes, and when they say no, it means no.

These are relevant issues for us these days, aren’t they? In many ways we could say that truth and trustworthiness is one of the hot-button issues of our times. Just think about the phrase “fake news,” which represents the mistrust so many people have towards the official information sources in our world. Think about the political scandals in the past few years on both sides of the border and how many of them have come down to the trustworthiness, or lack thereof, in someone’s words.

None of this is really new. As long as people have been speaking to each other, we’ve been lying to each other. It started back in the Garden when the father of lies suggested to Adam and Eve that God Himself had been lying to them.

It carried on when, according to some translations, Cain deceptively invited Abel to go out to the field where he planned to kill him. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all are recorded as telling lies or deceiving others, often in ways that brought harm to them or others. Israel and Judah often had major problems with false prophets who told lies in God’s name.

These are just some brief reminders about this age-old problem, seen all over the Bible and all throughout history, of people lying and deceiving and saying what is not true in order to protect or promote or help themselves out.

And our passage today points to one of the solutions that people came up for this problem, namely, swearing oaths. Swearing an oath is where you use special words, often the name of your god or something like that, to prove that what you were saying was true.

This kind of thing still happens today. This past Wednesday, the new President and Vice President of the United States were sworn into office. They made a promise to uphold the constitution and so on, and at the end they each said, “so help me God.” That is swearing an oath by God’s name.

In the ancient world, it was very common for people to swear an oath by the name of their god when they wanted to demonstrate that they were telling the truth.

The Law that God gave to Moses assumed that the people would swear oaths. And God actually commanded the people to swear their oaths by His name and not by the name of any other god. “It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

God also commanded that any oath sworn in His name must be a true oath. “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord(Leviticus 19:12).

And if you promised to do something in the future by using an oath in God’s name, you had to do it. “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2, see also Deuteronomy 23:21).

So that was the law. Don’t swear by any other God, don’t swear things that you know are false, and if you make a promise in God’s name, you have to keep it.

By the time of Jesus, however, the people had generally stopped swearing oaths in God’s name. One reason may have been that they wanted to show respect for God’s name and were afraid of speaking it. So instead were swearing oaths by things like heaven and earth or the temple or even their own head.

But then there was a question, right? The law said that if you swore an oath in God’s name, it had to be true. But what about an oath by heaven or earth? According to the law, did that kind of oath have to be always true?

And in response to these questions the ever-helpful scribes and Pharisees came up with all kinds of rules and regulations for these oaths—which ones needed to be true and which ones didn’t need to be true; which promises you needed to keep and which promises you didn’t need to keep.

Jesus addresses some of these rules in Matthew 23, starting in verse 16. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:16–22).

That’s the situation in the time of Jesus. And the result of this would have been people having a hard time knowing what to believe. “My neighbour promised to bring back my cow tomorrow, but did he swear by the temple or by the gold in the temple?” That’s where the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees had gotten the people to.

But do you remember how this whole section of the sermon on the mount began? “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And so in our passage today Jesus unpacks what this better righteousness of the kingdom of heaven looks like when it comes to oaths and vows and telling the truth. This is what He will expect of His disciples and this is what, by the Holy Spirit, He will enable His disciples to do.

Challenging the Pharisee’s Rules

So turning our attention to this passage, the first thing I want us to notice is how Jesus challenges the silly rules of the Pharisees. He uses logic to show how silly these little distinctions were.

“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” (Matthew 5:34–36).

The Pharisees said that if you made an oath in God’s name was binding, but if you made an oath by heaven it wasn’t binding. And same goes for earth or Jerusalem or even your own head. You wouldn’t get in trouble if you broke those vows. And Jesus shows how ridiculous that is, because who made heaven? Who made earth? Whose city is Jerusalem? Who made your head?

I hope we notice here that Jesus is using logic. Jesus is using reason to show how silly these rules are. And that’s something you see more all over the gospels. Jesus was a very logical thinker who often used logic against His opponents in a powerful way.

And that’s what Jesus is doing here. He is challenging the Pharisee’s rules and showing how they make no sense.

Jesus’ Solution

But if the Pharisee’s rules don’t really work, then what is Jesus’ solution? What should His disciples be doing in stead of making all of these nonsense oaths?

And here’s where things get surprising. Because some people might have expected Jesus to just point the people back to the Law of Moses. “Stop it with all of these silly Pharisee rules, and take all of your oaths in God’s name just like Moses told you, and then there will be no question as to whether people should believe you or not.”

But that is not where Jesus goes. That’s not what He says. Instead, here is what He says, starting at the beginning of the passage. “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’” (Matthew 5:33).

Jesus is not quoting here from one of the Rabbis. Instead, He is referring to the Law of Moses itself, summarizing some of the very passages that we’ve already reviewed together (Leviticus 19:12, Deuteronomy 23:21).

And what does He say? Verse 34: “But I say to you.”

Just stop there. I just don’t want us to miss the sheer authority of Jesus. “You’ve heard this being taught to you from the Law of Moses for thousands of years, but I say to you.” We can’t miss how stunning these words would have sounded from a 30-year old with no credentials from the middle of nowhere.

It’s just staggering. It’s stuff like this that led C.S. Lewis to say that Jesus is either a liar, or a lunatic, or He is the Lord. Jesus is either bold-faced deceiving the people, or He is totally delusional, or He is who He says He is. And I would suggest to you that the force and power of His words make it easy for us to see which of these three options is the right one.

“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” (Matthew 5:34–36).

This is Jesus’ solution to the silly system of the Pharisees. Don’t take vows at all. In other words, He is telling them to do something different than what God told them do do through Moses. Back then, God said to make oaths in His name, and yet now Jesus says do not make oaths at all.

This sounds a bit like Jesus is abolishing the law, doesn’t it? It sounds like He is saying, “don’t obey this part of the law.” But just like Jesus said back in verse 17, He had not come to abolish the law. He had come to fulfill it.

Abolishing the law would be saying, “Don’t swear oaths at all because being truthful doesn’t matter.” But Jesus hasn’t come to fulfill the law. He has come to bring about the perfect righteousness which the law had been pointing to all along. He has come to give us the Holy Spirit who will help us live out the righteousness which had always been God’s intention from the beginning (Romans 8:4).

And here’s what that righteousness looks like. Verse 37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37).

This is the truer and better righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. Disciples of Jesus don’t need to take oaths, because they simply tell the truth. Disciples of Jesus don’t need to make vows, because their word is good. When they say “yes,” it means “yes”; when they say “no,” it means “no.”

When disciples of Jesus say that something is true, they don’t leave people scratching their heads wondering if they can believe them or not. Because disciples of Jesus will have earned a reputation as truth-speakers whose word about the past or the present can be trusted. When disciples of Jesus say that they will do something in the future, they don’t need to take an oath because they will have earned a reputation as a truth-speaker whose word about the future can be trusted.

So in other words, Jesus tells His disciples not to take oaths because His disciples will be the kind of people who don’t need to take oaths. They will earn people’s trust by speaking the truth at all times in all circumstances. Their “yes” means yes, and their “no” means no, and so oaths—and these laws about oaths—are unnecessary.

So that’s the basic teaching of this passage. Disciples of Jesus don’t make oaths because they don’t need to.

Should Christians Never Take Vows At All?

Now let’s ask an important question that many Christians throughout history have asked. If we are going to obey Jesus here, all the way, then does this mean that Christians should never make oaths or take vows at all? Like, if you are summoned to be a witness in a court room, are you disobeying Jesus when you say, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”?

Some Christians have taken this position. But I disagree. I don’t think we should feel afraid or guilty about taking oaths in those kinds of situations. And the main reason I say this is that Jesus Himself was not afraid to speak under oath in a special situation like a courtroom.

Matthew 26:63-64 says that when Jesus was on trial before the high priest, “…the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’” That’s an oath formula. The High Priest is swearing Jesus in and putting Him under oath. And how does Jesus respond? “Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’”

If Jesus really thought that we should never, ever, ever take an oath even in a courtroom, it seems unlikely He would spoken at that moment. He kept silent at other points. But by speaking up and answering the question, He was saying what He said under oath.

We see similar examples of serious oaths in the New Testament. Galatians 1:20: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” That’s an oath formula. “But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” says 2 Corinthians 1:23, another oath formula. (See also Acts 18:18, 21:23.)

One of the big ones is Genesis 22:16, which shows God Himself making an oath. “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…” (Genesis 22:16–17).

And all of these cases together suggest that there are unique and special circumstances, like a courtroom, or a really solemn event, where an oath or a vow may be appropriate for us.

The context Jesus seems to be addressing is normal life. Neighbours talking to each other. That kind of thing. And in daily, normal life, we should not use oaths and vows because we do not need them because we are people of the truth.

What Does This Mean for Us Today?

So that’s what this passage is teaching us. And this is a passage where it might be easy to come to the end of it and feel pretty good about yourself. After all, most Christians I know don’t use oaths or vows very often. “I swear to God” or “God is my witness” are sometimes used flippantly by people around us, but this is not how most Christians talk.

So what do we do with a passage like this today? Does this even mean anything for us today, when oaths have kind of fallen out of use? I want to suggest that there is a lot for us to take home from this passage today when we remember the big idea, the big truth that Jesus is getting at here, which is that disciples of Jesus speak the truth. Disciples of Jesus are people of the truth who can be trusted in all that they say.

And if we think about it in those ways, then we can probably imagine all kinds of cases today where it is easy for us to be less than truthful. We may not use oaths and vows, but there are all kinds of other ways for us to be as untruthful as the people in Jesus’ day. Here’s four examples that come to my mind for us today.

#1: Lying

The first one is just plain old basic lying. As much as we’d like to ignore it, there are many people today, and sadly many people in the church, who have no problem lying. Telling you something is true when in fact it is not true.

And this should just be a no-brainer to us. A disciple of Jesus telling a lie should be one of the most horrifying thoughts to us. Parents, do not tolerate lying in your children. There should be zero tolerance for lying in your home.

And I hope you see the reasons for this. If you can’t trust what someone says, how can you even function with them? How can you have a relationship with them?

But the reasons are even bigger than this. Lying is Satanic. The Devil is the father of lies (John 8:44), and lying is one of the most Satanic activities we can perform.

So this one is just obvious, on the surface here. Disciples of Jesus speak the truth and we raise our children to do the same.

#2 - Social Media

The second example that comes to mind is the way that disciples of Jesus use social media. Many people today complain about all of the misinformation being shared by the mainstream media, and many times they may have a point. I was a part of a situation once that got reported on the front page of a newspaper, and I saw first-hand how easily the truth was distorted and misinformation was spread.

And yet, especially over this pas year, I have seen way too many Christians passing things along on Facebook that are just totally false.

My dad showed me a post where people had supposedly found the schematic diagram of the 5G microchip that was going to be implanted into people via the COVID-19 vaccines. And they were passing this around on social media.

And you know what the schematic diagram was actually of? A Boss Metal Zone guitar pedal. With a bass, treble, and volume knob. And people who didn’t know enough to know better were passing it around.

Now some of you might be saying, “I can’t tell the difference between a diagram of a microchip and a guitar pedal.” And that’s exactly the point of my encouragement that we be really careful what we pass around online. If you can’t verify yourself whether something is true or not, then who are you helping by sharing it with others?

If disciples of Jesus are going to have a reputation of being truth-speakers, just like Jesus Himself, that means we will be very careful with this kind of stuff. We will ask questions like, “Have I done my homework? Do I know that this is true and accurate? Why am I sharing this? What do I hope to accomplish?

Is sharing this helping my reputation as a speaker of truth, someone whose yes is yes and whose no is no?”

#3 - Remembering Things

A third example that comes to mind is when people say they will do things and they don’t, because they just forgot. I talked about this one a lot in the podcast Curtis and I did called “About Time.” I shared stories form my childhood where well-intentioned people told me they were going to do all these nice things for me, but then nothing happened because they “just forgot.” But the damage was done. And I learned, sadly, that for many people their yes is not just yes, and their no is not just no.

When a disciple of Jesus tells someone that they are going to do something for them, or be somewhere with them, then they will keep their word. “I just forgot” isn’t good enough for us.

Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t “just forget” to come and die on the cross for us? Aren’t you glad that Jesus won’t “just forget” to come back like He promised?

And if you can’t trust your memory, which many of us can’t, then you can either use your phone to write stuff down, or carry a little notebook in your back pocket and write stuff down like the used to in the olden days. In my experience, many people refuse to do this and perpetually forget their commitments and responsibilities. And this is not okay for disciples of Jesus, whose yes must mean yes and whose no must mean no.

#4 - Gossip

There’s a fourth and final example here, which is slander and gossip. Many people today, including, sadly, many Christians, seem to think it’s just okay talking about other people in ways that are often not helpful and often not true.

This happens among Christians all the time. We see or hear something from someone,  we come to a conclusion about why they did that and what it means, and we pass that information on to others as if it was the truth instead of doing what Jesus told us to do, which is go directly to the person themselves (Matthew 18:15-20).

And so often we would find that if we did that—if we went to the person directly—we’d find that the real story, the real truth, would be quite a bit different than what we assumed. And even if we know for sure that something is the truth, we’re not helping anybody out by passing along what is not ours to pass along.

And so I just want to wave the flag again on this issue and say, out loud, that disciples of Jesus can have no tolerance for slander and gossip. If someone starts gossiping to us, we need to shut it down.

And that can be awkward sometimes. As a younger man I’d often find myself just listening along because the person gossiping to me was older and was supposed to know better and I felt bad saying something. But that’s not right either.

Emmanuel Baptist Church needs to be a safe place where we know that if someone has a problem with us, they’ll come talk to us instead of other people. And church, I’m going to say this very carefully, but I know enough to know that we still have some work to do on this file. I know enough to know that, within the culture of this church, our tolerance for talking about other people is higher than it should be.

And I know that much of the time, we’re not trying to hurt anybody. We’re not trying to spread falsehood. We may even think we’re helping by talking to Person A about Person B.

But we’re not. Gossip and slander are big deals. In Romans chapter 1, gossip and slander are in a list right of sins next to “haters of God” (Romans 1:29-30). This is a sin we need to take seriously and put to death.

And that might mean helping each other out. If one of us starts saying what we shouldn’t, the other person needs to say “I don’t think this is a conversation we should be having.” And then the first person, instead of being offended, should say “thank you for helping me.”

Let’s return to the big idea here: disciples of Jesus speak the truth. Our yes means yes and our no means no. People can trust us, and people can trust our words.

We are like this because we are like our saviour. “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11). Those are names for Jesus. Earlier in Revelation He is called “the faithful and true witness” (Revelation 3:14).

So if the Lord has convicted you of any sin this morning, I invite you to repent and come to Him for forgiveness. Jesus died for all of the times our “yes” has meant something other than yes, and our “no” has meant something other than no. There is mercy for each one of us here today in the wounds of Jesus.

And there is power, by His Spirit, to go out from here as people of the truth, people whose words reflect our faithful and true saviour. And so in this last song together we’re going to pray for the strength of the Holy Spirit to go and be His disciples in every corner of our lives, including our words.