Keeping Your Word

Matthew 5:33 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.” 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.

Today we will talk about keeping our word. How many of you are liars? Most of us would probably say we are not liars, that we do what we say and we tell the truth. So let me be the first to admit that I often struggle with keeping my word. Now, you may be troubled to hear that. But I’ll tell you, if you don’t know already, that I tend to say I will do more than I can possibly do. When someone asks me for help, I tend to say sure…I can do that. And along the way, I find out that I said I can do about three things on Saturday at 10:00! Well guess what? I can’t be at three places at the same time. This is me not keeping my word. Or I’ll tell Tammy I’ll do something around the house and sometimes I will forget I said it. This is me not being careful with my words, not taking my own commitments seriously enough. And you know there are those times when I just don’t want to do something I said I will do so I procrastinate, put it off until, well, it’s too late now!

I tell you all this not just to confess my sin to you but hopefully to jog your memory and help you see that perhaps there are some ways in which you too struggle with keeping your word, doing what you said you would do. By the way, I am working on these things and trying to be more diligent with the Lord’s help to be more careful with my words of commitment and with following through where I should.

But the truth is that all of us probably struggle in some way with keeping our word. Oh and yes, my big excuse is always I am too busy…well maybe I am but that does not mean I can be disobedient to the Lord guilt free. Do let’s be honest with ourselves as we open up God’s Word today and consider ways in which we can live our lives to the honor and glory of our Lord who has redeemed us for Himself and for our joy.

We have an interesting passage to look at in verses 33-37. Six times in Matthew chapter five Jesus says two phrases: The first is “You have heard that it was said” and the second phrase is “But I say to you.” Only two times Jesus quotes directly from the OT after the phrase, “You have heard that it was said.” In those cases Jesus emphasizes not just what the OT says but also what it really means, not just the letter of the Law that they understood but also the spirit of it.

The other four times we see these phrases Jesus does not quote directly from the OT but paraphrases from it, and it appears rabbinic paraphrases of OT passages and in one case for sure, verse 43 of chapter five we even see a clear distortion of the OT passages and its intent which indicate a rabbinic paraphrase. What we see is that at least in part, Jesus is countering current day teaching from the rabbis. He is directly confronting the religious order of the day giving truth up next to their error.

Like I said last week, Jesus did not come to uphold the current day culture even religious culture but to lay out truth for God’s glory. His entry and life in this world was radical and His teaching was as well. In John’s gospel Jesus is described as the Word.

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus is the Word and He is communicating truth. So what does Jesus say?

Matthew 5:33 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 is interesting and again it appears to be a loose paraphrase from some OT passages but is most likely how the rabbis of the day taught the people regarding keeping one’s word.

The rabbis taught first: “You shall not swear falsely.” This phrase is a legal one. To swear falsely means literally “do not commit perjury,” or, “Do not lie under oath.” So this command while addressing telling the truth in a legal proceeding, it does not address or prohibit deception when one is not under oath in a legal setting. So the plain meaning of this phrase is…tell the truth while in court under oath…and that’s it. So it is not a sweeping broad statement requiring truth or keeping of one’s word, period.

Now the second phrase is, “but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” This too is interesting because while it appears to be a broader command on keeping one’s word it too has a loophole. This clause used regularly by the rabbis seems to allow for dishonesty to others. The phrase “to the Lord” is key and emphatic in the Greek which suggests that one was to be honest in commitments made to God but not necessarily to others unless God had been invoked in the oath. So, for instance saying something like “I swear to God, I will do such and such,” this then became an oath to God and must be kept. But if God’s name was not invoked then it didn’t carry the same weight leaving a place for deception.

When fulfilling a promise to an individual became a divine obligation because God’s name was invoked then there is no place for deception or dishonesty, one must keep his word. But if God’s name were not invoked then, well, you can do whatever is convenient. Here though is what the OT said:

Zechariah 8:16 These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace; 17 do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath, for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.

Malachi 3:5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

But again, some first-century rabbis emphasized only the importance of speaking the truth to God and downplayed the importance of absolute honesty in all communications. They thought they had a special obligation to keep promises made to God specifically but could break promises made to others when it was convenient. That is the bottom line.

Now what does Jesus say about this? He begins by distinguishing Himself and His teaching from the current day rabbis with these words: “But I say to you.” “Do not take an oath at all.” What Jesus does here is He closes the loophole created by the rabbis in the Jewish system of oaths, and instead Jesus requires truthfulness, consistent truthfulness that does not require oaths at all. Here is the thing…Jesus’ followers are to be characterized by such integrity that an oath is not necessary to make their words credible and true.

Now on the surface we can all shake our heads in agreement and maybe even feel really good about ourselves, but I really want to challenge you as I have myself and ask…do you do all that you say you will do? At home? At work? With your kids? With your husband or wife or parents? At church? In ministry? to strangers? With a sales person? With a customer? to your creditors? Is your word credible all the time? When the words leave your mouth, do you take them seriously and fulfill what you say you will do?

Many of the Jews thought as long as they weren’t in court or they didn’t invoke the name of God in their promise then keeping their word was optional; if something else comes up then no big deal. But Jesus says it is a big deal—it is a big deal that our word is our word and it should mean something, as believers.

And it gets even more interesting. Jesus goes on to help us by prohibiting oath formulas that the religious had come up with, really, deceptive formulas that had been developed by religious leaders that we said to give an impression of a binding oath when the person who gave it did not believe it to be binding. What was developed was ways to lie without guilt.

Do you remember as a kid how someone would say, “Do you promise?” And you or someone you know would put their hand behind their back and cross their fingers and say, “Yes, I promise!” And someone crossing one’s fingers meant that although they said I promise they didn’t really have to keep their promise. I don’t know where that came from, I should have looked it up, but I remember seeing that as a kid. That is sort of what the Jews would do. Let me show you this from Matthew 23:16-22.

Matthew 23:16 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.” 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 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.” 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

What was happening is that all these formulas were created for swearing. Jesus rebukes the rabbis because they had developed a system of deceit really. They had come up with ways to evade obligations of honesty by carefully crafting these oaths. So they could fool people who didn’t understand what they were doing or saying.

So a rabbi says yes I will do this and I swear by the temple of God! And the person hearing that thinks, wow, that sounds serious, he is really serious about his promise to me. And believes the person will do what he says. Yet the rabbi is thinking, well I got away with that one, swearing by the temple means nothing.

Or for some they may know there is this complicated system of oaths and a hears a rabbi swear by the temple and they may think, well I’ve got to go look this up—this swearing by the temple, is that binding or not? So trying to figure it all out could be a chore! This was crazy, it was deceitful, it was condoning of lying, really. And this is why Jesus says in our passage today in verses 34-36:

Matthew 5:34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.

It is this system of deceitful oath making that Jesus is countering here. In the first century regular Jews were not allowed to invoke the name of God so substitutes were installed. According to the rabbis, none of the formulas that Jesus lists here were approved substitutes for God’s name. So each of these were considered non-binding oaths in Jewish law. So breaking oaths made with any of these words were not considered to be breaking one’s word.

So Jesus steps in and makes simple the complex. What does he say? Forget all this non-sense. Forget the complicated formulas. Forget the oaths all together. Listen to the simplicity of Jesus words:

Matthew 5:37 Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.

I like simple, this is simple. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Speak words with integrity, and keep your word. When you speak, speak the truth. There is no need for complicated formulas just be honest and be truthful always. Jesus says, anything else is from the evil one or, the ESV says, comes from evil. Anything beyond simple statements of truth are from the evil one who is Satan, who is the father of lies and who deals in half truths for his deceptive purposes.

Now does this mean it is absolutely wrong for any of us to take an oath under any circumstance. I don’t think so. It does not seem to me that Jesus is forbidding all oaths in any circumstance like in a court of law but is condemning these deceptive formulas of oaths.

One reason I can say this is because in Matthew 26:63-64 Jesus was placed under oath by the high priest and did not refuse to speak but spoke, forcefully spoke the truth. Jesus kept all of His and the Father’s commands perfectly and that would include what He is teaching us here regarding oaths. So in Matthew 26 he did not violate His own words. So taking an oath in a court of law falls outside the scope of the deceptive practices that He was countering in Matthew 5:31 and 32.

Now, I have gone through a lot of detail here about oaths, our word and truthfulness. But let me sum it all up for us, and really the best way to sum it up is to quote from Jesus…

Matthew 5:37 Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”…

Let your word be your word and mean it and do it. When we say were are going to do something, most likely there is another person who is depending on it. When we fail to do what we say we will do someone usually suffers in some way. How is that loving our neighbor? How is that putting others ahead of our own interests? How is that honoring to the Lord?

There are those times, I understand, when providentially we are hindered from doing what we say we will do. I may say I will meet you for lunch and on the way have a wreck and be in the hospital. That would be me being providentially hindered. This is the exception, really not the normal problem of us not following through with what we say we will do.

Perhaps we should always make provision for God’s providential work around us when we say we will do something. Like, I will meet you for lunch, Lord willing. That means I plan to meet you for lunch, unless God providentially hinders me from doing so. Or we can so “I plan to do such and such” meaning this is my plan, my intention, but God can step in and change it. Let’s not make God into our excuse for not keeping our word, only acknowledge that He can and has the power to do so. We are to be a people of our words.

One more thing before I close. Each of us will fail at this at some point. We will commit to something we won’t do. When this happens we must repent, confess and repent, ask forgiveness of those we have let down. But there is more. We must remember that God always keeps His word. Every word that we read in the Bible, every one is true, every promise will be kept, All that He has said He will do. He is the ultimate and the only forever and always Promise Keeper. Aren’t you glad for that. And even more when we fail in this, He forgives. He keeps us in the faith, He will keep us all the way to heaven and then forever more.

Matthew 5:33 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.” 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.