A Crisis of Dishonesty
Topic: Expository Passage: Matthew 5:33–37
(Read Text) This morning we come to the 4th of 6 paragraphs in Matthew 5:21–48, where Jesus both deepens a demand of the OT Law but also confronts a common abuse of the Law from his day. We have seen that the 1st 3 paragraphs are remarkably powerful and convicting both in how they confronts Jesus’ generation but ours as well.
Afterall, anger, lust, and divorce are just as big of problems in our day as they were in Jesus’. I don’t think any of us have thought that vv. 21–33 are outdated instructions for a different world. No, they are just as relevant today as they have ever been.
And the same is true of vv. 33–37, where Jesus confronts the issue of dishonesty. Do we have an honesty problem in our day? You better believe it. Our society places hardly any value at all on honesty, truthfulness, and integrity. We bend and manipulate the truth all the time, without even batting an eye.
I only mention this example, because it’s so recent (Republicans lie too), but on Wednesday morning, I was watching President Biden talk about the CDC’s new moratorium on evictions. He openly acknowledged that they don’t have the Constitutional authority to stop evictions, but then he said that it’s okay, because the lawyers will hold up the litigation long enough to help those in need.
That’s coming from someone who took an oath to uphold and defend our Constitution. I was stunned to hear him say what he did so openly, knowing that most people would consider it perfectly acceptable. They believe that honesty and standing by your word are a small price to pay for getting what you want.
So, there is a crisis of dishonesty in our culture. Truth has become a “matter of perspective” instead of an objective reality. Therefore, you can twist the truth to mean whatever is convenient. And unfortunately, Christians are often just as guilty of devaluing the truth. Therefore, we need this text. Notice, first, in v. 33 that…
I. The Law required faithfulness to oaths (v. 33).
To begin with, we need to understand how the ancients understood vows. Specifically, they frequently took oaths in the name of a greater power, typically a god. By doing so, you were calling on that power to judge you and maybe even kill you, if you failed to follow through with your commitment.
Therefore, when an Israelite swore an oath in God’s name, he was calling on God as his legal witness and his judge if he did not fulfill the vow. It was a solemn, serious statement.
Therefore, the Law warned Israel to be cautious about taking oaths. Verse 33 mentions these warnings (read). This verse does not quote a particular verse, but it accurately summarizes what the Law demanded.
Specifically, God permitted Israel to make vows in his name, but he demanded they be kept. “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Num 30:2). God expected Israel to stand by their word.
And this was especially so if an Israelite swore by God’s name. Leviticus 19:12 warns, “And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I amthe Lord.” God warns that if you swear in his name and then fail to keep your vow, you don’t just damage your own name; you damage God’s name as well. It’s a big deal.
Therefore, Jesus reminds his disciples that when they make a vow, God expects them to keep it. I want to emphasize that this is even so, when life takes an unexpected turn and keeping the vow becomes very costly.
Psalm 15:1 asks, “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill?” In other words, who pleases the Lord? Among other things, v. 4 answers that God highly favors the one, “Whoswears to his own hurt and does not change.”
That’s a good word for our day. It’s true when you take your marriage vows, if you make a legal statement under oath, or if you sign a contract. You should highly value your word, and you must be willing to keep your word, even at tremendous personal cost.
This is because God’s instructions regarding oaths are rooted in God’s value of truthfulness in general. The 9th commandment states, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16). God demands honesty.
I want to park here for a minute, because our society that wants to believe that all truth is relative and that we can all have our own self-serving version of the truth. As a result, we couldn’t care less about telling the truth and standing behind our word.
But Our God is a God of truth. He is sovereign even over truth, and we live in a universe of objective truth and reality. As a result, Proverbs 6:16–17 declare that among other things God “hates” a “lying tongue.” It is “an abomination to Him.” Instead, Psalm 51:6 states, “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.” God loves a sincere heart that is ruthlessly committed to honesty.
Therefore, no one else may care if you are a person of your word, and they may even mock you for absorbing the cost of honesty, but God delights in an honest person.
Furthermore, while the 9th Commandment is often inconvenient and costly, it is ultimately a grace that serves our relationships and society in general well.
We all know that every deep relationship is built on truthfulness and the trust that comes with it. You can’t have a healthy marriage, family, or work environment without honesty and trust. And you can’t have a healthy society without a foundation of honesty and trust. Dishonesty tears apart every type of relationship and the blessings they bring.
But when there is mutual trust, it provides a strong foundation for relationships to thrive and for them to benefit everyone involved. Trust is a wonderful grace that benefits everyone.
So, yes, honesty is often costly in the short-term, but one of the best ways you can love your neighbor and enjoy the long-term fruits of healthy relationships, is to be a man or woman of your word.
So v. 33 reviews a basic ethical principle of the law. God requires faithfulness to oaths because God requires honesty in general. Then Jesus follows in vv. 34–36 by condemning a way that his contemporaries slithered around God’s demand.
II. Jesus condemns deceitful words (vv. 34–36).
These verses may strike you as confusing, odd, and maybe even as contradicting other stories of Scripture. Afterall, Jesus seems to condemn all oaths, but the Scriptures are full of them. Even God makes oaths on several occasions. Is Jesus contradicting his own Father?
Of course not, and Jesus’ point becomes abundantly clear, when you understand vv. 34–36 in light of a contemporary problem. Jesus tells us more about the issue in Matthew 23:16–22.
In these verses, Jesus condemns a sleezy practice that had evolved within Judaism. Specifically, the Jews had developed a whole system by which you could make oaths in the name of greater or lesser items or persons.
For example, Jesus says they believed that swearing by the temple was less significant than swearing by the gold of the temple and that swearing by the altar is less significant than swearing by the gift on the altar. Our text mentions several other “lesser” items by which the Jews would swear—heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and your own head.
This system was a way to have your cake and eat it too. It allowed the Jews to impress others and convince them that they meant what they said, but they thought these lesser oaths also left them a convenient out, because they consequence of a lesser oath would not be as severe as, for example, breaking an oath in God’s name.
It would be comparable to how kids today will cross their fingers while making a promise. It’s a way to sound convincing while manipulating the situation to your own benefit.
Frankly, it’s dishonest. And yet the Jews embraced the entire system. In fact, a whole tract of the Jewish Mishnah was dedicated to explaining all the loopholes the Jews had built into oath-taking. So yes, the Jews would have agreed that you should never break an oath in God’s name, but if it was a lesser oath, it could quickly get slippery.
But in vv. 34–36 Jesus obliterates the whole system. First, Jesus argues that breaking an oath against anything God created is an offense against God himself. Like we so often do, the Jews wanted to separate life into compartments where some things belong to God and others belong to us. Therefore, they believed that they were free to manipulate certain things according to their purpose.
But notice how Jesus points out the fallacy in the system. Heaven is God’s throne, and earth is his footstool. You can’t separate the creation from the Creator. An attempt to manipulate what God’s creation is an attempt to manipulate God himself.
He makes a similar point about Jerusalem. The Jews believed a failed oath against Jerusalem was less severe than a failed oath against God. But Jesus counters that Jerusalem is God’s city, and someday Messiah, “the Great King,” will rule there. Again, to defame Jerusalem is to defame God himself.
But an Israelite may counter, “Fair enough, but my body belongs to me, and I am in control of my body. Surely, I have the authority to swear by my head.” However, Jesus responds that we aren’t even sovereign over our bodies. You don’t cause your hair to grow or determine its color. Only God has that authority.
Jesus’ argument is fascinating. Fundamentally, Jesus is pointing out that we can’t claim sovereignty over one square inch of creation or even of our own lives. It all belongs to God, and we must honor him with all of it.
Therefore, any effort to manipulate part of God’s creation contrary to his will is an attack against him. I’m not free to bend the truth or any of God’s Law according to my will. No, I must always be conscious of God’s lordship over me and submit to him in every aspect of life including my speech.
As a result, Jesus urges his audience to put away manipulative oaths. I want to say up front, that Jesus is not condemning all oaths as sinful. We know this, because God himself made oaths to Noah, Abraham, and David, and the NT celebrates them.
As well, Paul took vows, and Acts 21 describes the other apostles talking positively about several men in the church who had taken vows. So, if they didn’t understand Jesus to be condemning all vows, then neither should we. There’s nothing wrong with taking wedding vows, or swearing to tell the truth in a courtroom, or any other similar vow.
No, Jesus is specifically condemning the manipulative, self-serving vows that were in vogue during his day. As v. 33 says, he is condemning “swearing falsely,” when we either have no intent to keep a vow or we are willing to compromise the vow, when it no longer serves our purposes.
To broaden it out, Jesus condemns all flippancy with the truth and with the commitments we make. Christ expects us to be honest and to stand by our word. Finally, he closes the text by calling his disciples to replace this ridiculously complex vow system with a simple commitment to truthfulness.
III. Jesus commends truthfulness (v. 37).
This verse is beautiful for its simplicity. Think of it this way. Why do we even have oaths, contracts, and penalties for things like perjury or contractual breaches? The simple answer is that in a world of sin, someone’s word is often not enough.
And as honesty has become optional in our culture, the world of contracts and terms and conditions has only grown more complex. Lawyers have made a lot of money writing legal documents all because a handshake or a promise is no longer enough. And the same was true in Jesus’ day. The only reason the Jews had such a complex system of vows was because they didn’t value honesty and people couldn’t be trusted to keep their word.
What’s the solution? Jesus says, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” In other words, tell the truth every time you speak. If you make a promise, keep it. And if you do these basic things consistently, people will trust you, and they will have no reason to demand more than your word.
And if the entire community is this committed to honesty, then we won’t need more from other people either. In that world, there is no need for a system of vows and oaths and complex legal contracts. That would be awesome, wouldn’t it?
Now, I don’t think there’s any hope of our world returning to the days of handshake agreements, but that’s how it will be in heaven. And regardless of what is happening out in the world, we as Christians must share Jesus’ commitment to truthfulness. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. So, let’s get specific with 3 implications of this passage.
Value accuracy and truth. As I said earlier, God is a God of truth, and he demands the same of his people. It’s so important to God that he includes honesty in the Ten Commandments. Truthfulness is foundational to the biblical ethic and to how we love our neighbor.
If truth is that important to God, it ought to be that important to you. I know that sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often even Christians are loose with the truth, loose with making promises, and loose with following through. We sensationalize our stories and our concerns. We aren’t careful to be accurate with details.
There have been many times, where I’m listening to someone tell others a story or describe a situation that I’m already familiar with. They’re going on and on, and I’m thinking over and over, “That’s not quite true,” or “That’s not quite what happened.” It’s not that the person intends to lie. It’s just that they don’t value accuracy and truth like God does.
Maybe you find yourself always feeling the need to convince people that you are telling the truth. You commonly say, “I swear,” or “I promise,” or other things because you can sense that people doubt you. It might be that they know you as someone who fudges. Instead of piling up promises, pile up truthfulness. Earn a reputation of accuracy.
When you speak, learn to slow down and to speak accurately. When you are tempted to distort the truth to make yourself look better or to avoid pain, resist the temptation and speak truthfully no matter the cost. It may cost you in the short-term, but you will build a reputation of honesty that will serve you well and earn God’s smile.
Only promise what you can deliver. One of biggest challenges of working with volunteers is flaky people who commit to so much and then don’t do what they said they would do or they only do it halfway. They have big dreams, and they get really excited about those dreams, but they don’t count the cost or make well thought out commitments.
Now, let me be clear that I really appreciate people who are eager to jump in and do something. There’s no glory in being the person who always has an excuse as to why he can’t do anything or who makes you feel like you are asking for the world over the most basic request.
There is a balance. Be someone who loves to serve people and loves to work hard. But also be intentional about your time and take commitments seriously. Make sure that your yes is a yes and your no is a no.
Deliver on your promise. Again, one of the most challenging aspects of working with people is failure to fulfill commitments. If you’ve supervised people, you’ve probably heard all sorts of excuses, “I got busy,” “I forgot,” and so on. You feel bad, but none of those things change the fact that the other person made a commitment. Their ‘yes’ turned out to be a ‘no.’
Yes, most of society doesn’t think a second thought about breaking a commitment. And I want to be clear that there are times when you may have to back out. And there are times when you will be providentially hindered and there is no way you can reasonably fulfill a commitment.
But Christians should be people who deliver on their promises. Be the man or woman that v. 37 describes. When you say ‘yes,’ no one has reason to question it. And when you say ‘no,’ no one has reason to doubt you. Be someone who is so committed to your word that others know you as someone, “Whoswears to his own hurt and does not change.”
And isn’t interesting that this passage directly follows Jesus’ admonition regarding divorce? I can’t think of a more glaring example of how far our society has drifted from this passage than our embrace of no-fault divorce. But marriage vows are vows. When you say yes to a husband or wife, make sure that it’s truly a yes. You may be struggling through a difficult marriage, and the world may tell you to run. But don’t forget that you made a vow, so stand by it and trust that the Lord satisfies in a way that no marriage ever will.
I am so thankful that we live in a world that is governed by a God of truth. When God says something, we know it is true, and when he makes a promise, we know he will fulfill it. John 17:17 states that God’s Word is truth. And if you are in Christ, you know that God will fulfill every salvific promise. We’ll talk about that tonight. If you are not in Christ, I hope you will understand that you don’t have to live your life in doubt wondering what will happen and questioning what people say. No, John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” If you believe on Christ, you can know that the God of truth will keep his word, and you will inherit eternal life. Believe on him today.
And if you are a Christian, commit to being a person of truth yourself. Only promise what you can deliver and then deliver on your promise.