Pastor David B. Curtis


Truthful Communication

Matthew 5:33-37

Delivered 11/10/2002

When I was a child, there was an oath we used to convince our friends that we were REALLY serious about keeping a commitment we were about to make, or that we were telling the truth. You probably used it too. Do you remember?

Cross my heart and hope to die, Stick a needle in my eye.

Think about that for a moment - "hope to die...stick a needle in my eye"? That's a pretty heavy consequence for a young child! You'd have to be pretty serious to make a commitment like that, wouldn't you?

Now, do you remember how a person could legally break even a "cross-my-heart" commitment without any repercussions? By crossing your fingers, right? I mean, you could commit to anything, and as long as you had those fingers crossed, you could renege with impunity. No one could touch you. All that oath taking and finger crossing stuff was pretty harmless when we were children. But, we aren't children anymore. And yet, it seems to me that as we have grown up many of us have kept right on using this finger-crossing technique so that we can find ways to justify breaking almost any commitment - especially when keeping the commitment becomes difficult, costly, or even just inconvenient. And as a society, we are reaping the consequences of generations of finger-crossing in our commitments. Each year, as a society, we spend billions of dollars to cover the costs of broken commitments in businesses, in marriages, in society in general.

Beyond the monetary cost, consider the personal, emotional, and spiritual costs of broken commitments. Many here today know the pain of discovering that someone we trusted - a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, an employer or co-worker - apparently had their fingers crossed when they made those "cross-my-heart" promises to us. And we still feel the pain of those broken commitments. It has shaped the way we view the world and people. It may have even shaped the way we view God. That's why the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are so relevant for us today.

Matthew 5:33-34 (NKJV) "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.' 34 "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne;

In our text, Jesus is giving an example of how the scribes and Pharisees are perverting the intent of the law regarding lying and taking an oath. Jesus' quotation of the scribes and Pharisees, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord", is not found in the Old Testament. He is quoting this as one of their traditions. This teaching of the scribes and Pharisees was arrived at from passages such as:

Exodus 20:7 (NKJV) "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
Leviticus 19:12 (NKJV) 'And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
Deuteronomy 23:21 (NKJV) "When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.

The scribes and Pharisees were using the words "swear falsely" to say that the only time it was wrong to lie was when you were under oath. In effect, their teaching permitted them to lie whenever they were not under oath. The scribes and Pharisees summarized these teachings by saying, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord." If you didn't have an oath unto the Lord, you didn't have any obligation.

The Greek word translated "swear falsely", is used only once in the New Testament. It is taken from the word epiorkeo, which means: "to commit perjury". Perjury means: "to lie under oath". The scribes and Pharisees were, in fact, teaching that you are not allowed to lie if you are under oath, if you have sworn in the name of the Lord. If you have taken the name of the Lord to swear to tell the truth, you are then bound to do so, but if you swear by anything except the Lord, you are not bound to tell the truth.

This was their hypocrisy. The perversion of the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees came through their legalistic emphasis placed upon the law of God, which missed the spirit of the law. They were legalistically abiding by:

Leviticus 19:12 (NKJV) 'And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.

What they taught is to never lie if you have taken an oath:

Deuteronomy 23:21 (NKJV) "When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.

The scribes and Pharisees taught that if you did not make the vow in the name of the Lord, you're free; it means nothing; you are not bound. The result of their teaching was that lying was not forbidden as long as it was not under a binding oath taken in God's name.

One entire section in their Mishna, or Talmud, was devoted to the question: What were binding or non-binding oaths? The Mishna gave the exact formula. They taught that to be a binding oath, it must be an oath unto the Lord, in the Lord's name or what was considered a valid substitute for God's name. If the substitute for God's name was not valid, it was not a binding oath. This legalistic teaching led to a denial of God's teaching of honesty in speech and promise. It led to a denial of the need to be honest and upright before God and before men in everything you said.

Jesus sharply rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for this double standard in what they considered as a suitable substitute for God's name.

Matthew 23:16 (NKJV) "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'

In other words, they said that to swear by the temple meant nothing, but swearing by the gold was supposed to be a suitable substitute for swearing in the name of the Lord!

Matthew 23:17-18 (NKJV) "Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? 18 "And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.'

In other words, if you want to use a strong expression to really emphasize that you are telling the truth, you can take an oath in the name of the altar, but then say it is nothing. You can impress people with it, but you are not bound to the Lord by that oath. Why? "...but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.." They said the gift was a suitable substitute for the name of God. If you took an oath by the gift upon the altar, you were bound because that reflected God. Jesus, however, says:

Matthew 23:19-21 (NKJV) "Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 "Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. 21 "He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.

In other words, He is saying that you and all your distinctions are hypocrisy. If you swear, you swear. If you swear by the temple, you are swearing by the temple and by Him that dwells therein. Jesus is saying that they were wrong to think they were free by not using their "suitable substitutes." They felt that swearing by heaven put greater power in their language. It was an expression used to emphasize the sincerity of what they said, but they thought it was a non-binding oath as far as God was concerned.

We often hear people use strong language. What is their reason for it? Isn't it to impress you with "I know I'm a liar, but this time I'm telling the truth!" Have you ever thought about that? Every time you hear a person swearing, he is taking a sworn oath in a confirmation that, "Now, I'm telling the truth!" Isn't he really telling us, "If you don't hear me swear, take for granted I'm lying."? The Lord Jesus is telling us that this was the philosophy and the principle of the scribes and Pharisees. They felt that swearing by heaven put greater power in their language. It was an expression used to emphasize the sincerity of what they said, but it was a non-binding oath as far as God was concerned. Do you see the hypocrisy?

Instead of promoting the spirit of the law, i.e., truth, honesty, and reverence for God in daily speech, these perversions led to dishonesty and all types of irreverent expressions.

Jesus said in our text:

Matthew 5:34-37 (NKJV) "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35 "nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 "Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 "But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.

Jesus is cautioning against swearing blasphemously using God's name in vain and making all these hypocritical distinctions; He is also cautioning against swearing needlessly in daily conversation. There is a time to take an oath, but Jesus doesn't want us to needlessly take an oath to confirm a lie, nor does He want us to take an oath to confirm a truth if it is just common conversation. Jesus is saying rather "...let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one."

Our communication should be perfectly trusted without vainly using God's name to confirm what we say. The Lord is teaching that our "Yes" must be yes. In other words, we must not say what is not true; our communications must not need confirmation. We are not to tell white lies or what will have a tendency to deceive or distort the truth. Jesus is saying that you must tell the truth! The essence of what the Lord Jesus is telling us is that our communications should be perfectly trusted without vainly using God's name to confirm what we say.

A person who uses stronger language than "Yes or No", implies that he is a habitual liar, but now he is going to use strong language with an oath, because this time he is going to tell the truth. He expects you to question the truth of what he says. If you have a reputation for honesty, you don't need strong expressions, much less oaths, to impress anybody that you are telling the truth. You don't have to confirm what you say by saying, "By God". You don't have to take an oath and swear by anything. You are not to swear at all! You are to just say, "Yes or No."

Needless, strong, and commonly used expressions such as: "I promise you," "I guarantee that what I'm saying is true," "This is a fact," "I'm positive of that" are not necessary for those who tell the truth. Have you ever noticed when a person thinks you may be questioning what he is saying, he adds, "I promise you," "I guarantee you," "that is a fact," etc. Everyone of those expressions are swearing, because they add needless confirmation to what you are saying. You are to build a reputation that you never speak anything but the truth. The very fact that you have spoken should be taken as the truth.

Strong language does not add trust to the words of a liar. Think about this. When you hear a person who uses such outlandish, strong language to confirm what he says, does that add to your confidence in what he is saying? No, it doesn't, but it causes the words of an honest man to be doubted. You can be an honest man whose yes is yes and no is no, but if someone hears you use some strong expression to confirm what you say, it will generate doubt that you are a honest man.

The Society of Friends and a few others consider that the New Testament expressly forbids the use of ANY oaths. They take the first part of Verse 34, "But I say to you, do not swear at all...", to argue against any oath even when being sworn to tell the truth in a court hearing. I believe they are wrong. Two very important rules must be followed in unfolding Scripture. First, we must compare Scripture with Scripture to come to its meaning. The second is to hold it in its context. We may not take a verse out of context and draw a conclusion.

First, when we compare our text with Scripture, we find that Abraham took an oath of Eliezer:

Genesis 24:2-3 (NKJV) So Abraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, "Please, put your hand under my thigh, 3 "and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell;

Abraham caused his servant to take an oath in the name of God. Scripture gives several examples where men of God took an oath, so we may not take verse 34 of Matthew 5 to mean that you never take an oath.

Joseph made his brothers swear that they would carry his bones up out of Egypt:

Genesis 50:25 (NKJV) Then Joseph took an oath from the children of Israel, saying, "God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here."

What did Joseph perform by making that oath? He demonstrated his faith in the promise of God that He would deliver Israel out of Egypt. By taking this oath, Joseph demonstrated an act of worship of the Lord.

This is not only in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul took an oath as he wrote to the church at Corinth. We read in:

2 Corinthians 1:23 (NKJV) Moreover I call God as witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth.
Romans 1:9 (NKJV) For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers,
Galatians 1:20 (NKJV) (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.)

These are forms of an oath, swearing before God. Paul called God to witness that what he was saying was the truth. He is going beyond simply stating that he is telling the truth. He is calling God to witness and testifying before Him that what he is saying is true. It's like saying, "I swear before God that what I am telling you is the truth." In these passages, he takes an oath to guarantee how solemnly true and reliable his words are. Surely Paul would not have done that if Christ had been forbidding all oaths in our text.

Scripture also records an occasion when God Himself took an oath. Of course, God never needs to validate His word. The fact that He says something is good enough. Yet on this occasion, He took an oath to show the absolute reliability and to confirm the truthfulness of what He was saying. An oath is given to confirm the truthfulness of something:

Hebrews 6:17-18 (NKJV) Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, 18 that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.

God wanted to make sure that the people to whom He was speaking understood that His promise was unchanging, so He stated with an oath what He had promised. By two unchangeable things, the descendants knew the promise was settled. One, God had said it. That was good enough. But then He confirmed it with an oath, just to emphasize its absolute reliability. Of all people, God would never need to take an oath. His word is truth by the very fact that He says it. But on occasion, He did show the absolute reliability of His word in this way.

Thus by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we find that Jesus did not mean it is wrong to reverently call God to witness in an oath under appropriate circumstances. This is the key: under appropriate circumstances. It cannot be used as a by-word. It cannot become a hypocritical maneuvering where you tell yourself, "Now I can get by with lying, because I did not quite use God's name to swear an oath" This is what Jesus was revealing.

The second rule is to interpret Scripture in its context. When we interpret Verse 34 in its context, what do we see? Jesus was teaching the hypocritical nature in which the scribes and Pharisees were teaching the use of swearing. Jesus was saying that you do not needlessly, hypocritically, or irreverently swear. Jesus is telling us that swearing is to be done only in appropriate circumstances with reverence.

Jesus is not outlawing the making of vows altogether. He is trying to undo the finger crossing when making those oaths. The Bible readily affirms the usefulness of making formal vows, like marriage vows. The Bible is full of instances where men and women of God made legitimate vows, and they made them because they wanted to underscore the sense of purpose that they felt in their spirit. They wanted to invoke God's name and go public with their vows.

God intended that the taking of oaths be an affirmation of truth. In Hebrews 6:16 we read this about oaths: "For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute." An oath was a solemn thing never to be entered into casually. When we swear or take an oath in a solemn and reverent manner, it is to officially confirm the truth, to officially end all strife, or to confirm a person into a public office. These are the places where we can properly take an oath. When an oath is taken properly, reverently, and on the proper occasion, the taking of an oath is an act of worship. It expresses a belief in God! When you stand before the court and hold your hand up saying, "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God," this is making a public profession of a belief in God. "So help me God" is praying or asking for God's help to tell the truth. It is a confession of our own inability to fully tell the truth and is calling upon God to help. This is a worship of God.

In this text, Jesus calls us to a new and different way of living! When Jesus says, "Let your yes be yes and your no be no", He is calling his followers to be people of integrity. People who mean what they say, and say what they mean. The word integrity, by the way, means: "wholeness" or "consistency." Some synonyms for integrity would be: credibility, character, fidelity, honesty, reliability, and morality. A person with integrity is consistent in what he says and what he does. His word is his bond.

Can you imagine living in a world where, "I'll be there" meant they would be there? Where "You can count on me" meant you could count on them? Where "yes" meant "yes" and "no" meant "no"? The whole world would be a very different place, wouldn't it? Jesus wants the world to be like that, and he wants his followers to lead the way!

Let me share with you two reasons why integrity is so important for believers.

First: Integrity reflects the character of a covenant-keeping God!

From cover to cover the Bible reveals God to be one who makes commitments to us and then keeps them - every time! Just read through the Bible and see how God has committed himself to us:

John 11:25-26 (NKJV) Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"
Hebrews 13:5 (NKJV) Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you."
Psalms 37:28 (NKJV) For the LORD loves justice, And does not forsake His saints; They are preserved forever, But the descendants of the wicked shall be cut off.
Isaiah 41:10 (NKJV) Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.'

Now that's commitment! And when God makes a commitment, he keeps it - no matter the cost. Even when keeping it would lead him to the cross!

Now, friends, I want you to understand, God keeps his promises - every time! When he says something, he means it - every time! God's fingers are never crossed. He always keeps his word. Do you?

Ephesians 5:1 (NKJV) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.

Every time we make a commitment and keep it, every time we keep our word, we are reflecting the fact that we are imitators of that commitment-keeping God! And when people see His commitment-keeping character taking root in us, it will draw people to him! It's contagious!

1 Chron. 29:17 (NIV) I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity.

But there is another reason why Jesus calls us to lives of integrity - Authentic Biblical community depends on it! We cannot have authentic Christ-honoring community without integrity.

The early church was built on integrity, they were true to their commitments to God and to each other:

Acts 2:42 (NKJV) And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

The words "continued steadfastly" come from the Greek word proskartereo, a word that means: "to make a binding promise or pledge." At its heart, it has to do with enduring or sticking to something even when it would be easier not to. It's impossible to have real friendships, healthy marriages, growing small groups, or churches unless we know we can count on one another to be there to fulfill our commitments - no matter what. Regardless of how we might change or how our circumstances might change, regardless of the cost, authentic Christ-honoring community depends on integrity!

Let me read some statistics to demonstrate how integrity is vanishing in today's society. These statistics are from a book entitled The Day America Told the Truth. 91% of Americans lie regularly -- at home and at work. In answer to the question, "Whom have you regularly lied to?", the statistics included 86% to their parents and 75% to their friends. A third of AIDS carriers admit to not having told their partners. Most workers admit to goofing off for an average of seven hours a week, which is almost one whole workday a week, and half admit that they regularly call in sick when they are perfectly well.

This text in Matthew calls us to a radical honesty. Let's get very specific here. Have you ever said something like this, "I will be praying for you"? And deep down you know that you have no intention at all of praying for them. Remember, a person with integrity is consistent in what he says and what he does.

Ever said to someone, "We have to get together for lunch or dinner sometime soon," when you know that that's about as likely to happen as you being included on the next space shuttle mission?

Have you ever made a commitment to attend an event, here at church, or in the community - and you said, "Count me in. I will be there"? But in your heart you had your fingers crossed, and what you meant was, "I will be there unless the sun is shining and I have nothing else I want to do."

Now, you might be thinking, "Nobody really takes those things seriously! It's just the grease that keeps relationships moving smoothly. No one expects us to keep our word on that."

Well friends, God does. He really does. Those casual commitments matter. Now, sometimes we will make commitments with the best of intentions, and for a variety of reasons, something comes up we never anticipated, and we get derailed from keeping the commitment we made. That's going to happen from time to time, but what Jesus is getting at is: Does your "yes" mean "yes" or does it mean "Maybe" or "no"? How good is your word? Can people count on you to do what you say you will do?

Proverbs 22:1 (NKJV) A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, Loving favor rather than silver and gold.

Do you believe that? You run into that sort of moral platitude all the time in the book of Proverbs. The book of Proverbs is, among other things, a textbook of practical advice on how to live in order to have a good life. A "good name" speaks of character, integrity.

On the cover of Time magazine back in the eighties were these words: "Whatever happened to ethics? Assaulted by sleaze, scandals, and hypocrisy, America searches for its moral bearings." The article was a devastating revelation of moral crisis. It said, in effect, that when offered the choice between silver and gold or a good name, America goes for the gold.

Sometimes we make casual commitments sincerely with the best of intentions, but sometimes even as we say them, we know we have our fingers crossed. We have no intention of doing what we said we would do. Why do we do that? Often we do it because we want to be the good guy. We don't want to have to say, "No, I can't or I won't do that right now." We don't want to hurt people's feelings when they are standing right in front of us. But we create a whole lot more pain in the long run than if we had just spoken the truth in love about our limitations and ability to commit to them - We need to just let our "yes" be "yes" and our "no," "no".

We need to work on this. We need to ask God to give us an increasing sensitivity to what we say to people. We need to learn to say, "No", when we know we can't do something and, "Yes", only when we have every intention of doing it. And when we say, "Yes," we need to follow through on it even when it costs us. It is striking to note that when the Psalmist delineated the character of him who was fitted to "abide in the Lord's tabernacle" and "dwell in His holy hill" (i.e. commune with God and enjoy His presence for ever), one of the marks specified was "He that swears to his own hurt, and does not change" or as God's Word Translation put it:

Psalms 15:4 (GWT) The one who despises those rejected by God but honors those who fear the LORD. The one who makes a promise and does not break it, even though he is hurt by it.

The person of integrity keeps his word even when it costs them greatly to do so.

So how are you doing on commitments that you have made? We must understand that our commitments matter, they matter to God because they reflect his character, and they are essential for developing authentic biblical community!

The fact that the moral tone of American society is at a low point is on display everyday. We value truth as an abstract concept, but have absolutely no commitment to being truthful people. We simply do not know who is telling the truth anymore. You don't know whom to believe.

Looking for people of integrity in our generation perhaps could be compared to searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Indeed, it may be easier trying to identify a grain of salt in a snowstorm. They are rare indeed. Are you one of them? Is your life characterized by integrity? The Bible clearly indicates that our lives should be. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us that we should be as good as our word. Are you as good as your word?

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