You don’t have to be a slick politician or a crooked lawyer to be good at lying: it just comes natural. Even though our hearts, if we’re honest, will readily admit that guilt seems to mount up the more we’re shady in our speech. The ninth commandment states, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16) but our brains don’t have to be firing on all cylinders to notice how much in our society is built on deception. We need lawyers to protect us from other people’s lawyers. We need locks to protect us from neighbors. We need agreements in signed contracts while there are still a few of the endangered species of “A-Man’s-Word-is-His-Bond” and even rarer, those willing to trust another person’s handshake as a firm gesture of good faith.
Jesus faced a similar situation in his day. Not only did He live in a time of government corruption. The great Roman Republic had degenerated into the Roman Empire: a monster that had mutated from the rule of law to an autocratic and bureaucratic monster driven by tyrants whose passion for empty entertainment was only eclipsed by their own cruelty. Did Jesus find a counterbalance in the Jewish religious establishment? Unfortunately, Jesus found some of the stiffest opposition among those who had the closest access to Scripture. Here’s the situation He faced:
“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 (Matthew 5:33-37).
Here are a few observations…
- Jesus is not condemning commitment. Rather, He is condemning the dishonest use of oaths and contracts to get out of obligations – 5:33-36
In the Old Testament, God Himself even uses oaths! On multiple occasions God says, “As I live…” (Numbers 14:28; Ezekiel 18:3, 20:33, 33:11). Isaiah 45:23 reads, “By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ Even the Apostle Paul puts an entire church under oath; “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers” (1 Thessalonians 5:27). Isaiah 65:16 states, “he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of truth.”
Out of context, Jesus’ words are somewhat confusing. Warren Wiersbe explains, “The Pharisees used all kinds of tricks to sidestep the truth, and oaths were among them. They would avoid using the holy name of God, but they would come close by using the city of Jerusalem, heaven, earth, or some part of the body.”[i] In other words, the people at the direction of many of the religious leaders, had become experts in slick speech. They would parse words and syllables to make it appear like they were serious about keeping commitments but as long as they didn’t swear by God Himself they didn’t think breaking one’s word was a big deal. Craig Keener explains, “They reasoned that if they broke their oath based on any of these lesser things, at least they were not bringing God’s name into disrepute.”[ii] It seems that Jesus is slicing into their false dichotomy of “little sins vs. Big Sins.”
We slip into a similar pit in our culture. We like to categorize the so-called big sins and little sins. Before going to seed on this we should be careful not to commit the fallacy of “all sin is the same.” In one sense this is true. All sin brings guilt and warrants God’s judgment but not all sins create the same amount of devastation.[iii] For example, a mass murderer causes far more carnage and suffering than the person who has the spirit of pride and arrogance yet outwardly follows the moral and civil law. However, internal pride and external genocide both place a person under God’s judgment. Outside of repentance and faith in Christ both the murderer and the internally arrogant both go to hell.
Notice that Jesus raises the bar far above the “little sin vs. Big Sin” distinction where he commands, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:37). Jesus cuts to the heart of truth supplements in exposing how insane it is to intentionally make false promises by swearing by anything under the sun so long as its not by God Himself. Jesus states, “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” (Matthew 5:34-36). Jesus flays open the use of slick speech and goes to the heart of the issue: God isn’t concerned about the legalese; He’s concerned about the heart. For a Christ-follower, our word should be sufficient. We shouldn’t need to have to qualify our statements. Our character should be sufficient backing.
- Jesus’ reference to Leviticus 19:12 highlights the Old Testament teaching on the seriousness of fulfilling vows: Give God what you’re promised Him – 5:33 The word ‘perform’ (ἀποδώσεις) can be translated – ‘to give up’ as in trees ‘giving up/yielding’ their fruit (Rev. 22:2 & Heb. 12:11).
What is God worthy of in your life? He’s worthy of everything and for the one who follows Him, He is worthy of being honored in the honesty of their speech. The word of a Christ-follower should be sufficiently trusted without having to be held over the fires of legalism.
- Jesus once again assumes the role of the Old Testament interpreter – “But I say to you…” – 5:34
It’s sort of like saying, “I know that the Law says such and such but I say to you…” People would give you a puzzled look as if to say, “Who do you think you are?!” This is classic Jesus-speech where he indirectly references Himself as more than a prophet.
- Slick speech comes from hell – 5:37
Jesus’ tagline, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (5:37), exposes the sinfulness of the human heart that pull us away from commitment. In John 8:44-45 Jesus states, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” According to Jesus, speech that is not honest in form and honest in intention is inspired by Satan who is the father of lies.
So how can we apply Jesus’ teaching on slick speech to our lives?
1) Joy is found in sacrifice-intensive commitment rather than scooping off the top of others’ work.
The satisfaction of ploughing, sowing, and reaping is far more joy-filled than waiting for someone else to do all the heavy lifting and only then swooping in and scooping off the top. Napoloeon Hill said, “Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness.” We never just slide into commitment. Joy comes from sacrifice and sacrifice requires honest commitment.
2) Our main priority is to be a witness for Christ: Small things are big things when you’re a light in the midst of darkness.
Jesus is not teaching mere moralism! Think of the insanity of a Christ-follower being honest in his or her business dealings but never making the connection to Christ. At best, someone will conclude that you’re just an awesome person. At the end of the day we’re not trying to create a wall of sticky note compliments about how great we are but become a mirror so that people can see Christ through our honesty in speech.
3) Our motivation for fulfilling commitments should be rooted in God’s sovereignty.
Some feel that they would never be able to keep a commitment to God and even any commitment smacks of pride. Yet others think that to qualify a commitment to God with an oath reeks of legalism. So what gives? James 4:13-17 provides a beautiful watershed for such reservations:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Simply put, we should place not only our sin but also our drive to achieve success under the shelter of “if the Lord wills” (Deo Volente for you scholars). Rather than being a copout, submitting our dreams and aspirations to the sovereignty of God is evidence of genuine commitment.
*Feel free to check out our podcast for a more detailed discussion of this topic:
[i] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible exposition commentary (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1996), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].
[ii] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].
[iii] Much thanks to Pastor Mark Driscoll for raising this very important distinction.