Telling the Truth – Mt. 5:33-37

There is a story from The Hiding Place which I’ve never forgotten since my mother read the book to my brothers and me when we were children.  Some of Corrie Ten Boom’s close family – it was a sister and brother-in-law – had a hidden cellar in the kitchen where their boys would hide when the Gestapo would come to round up young men for their factories in Germany.  The entire family was very devout; they were all men and women of integrity.  But such integrity can sometimes precipitate a crisis, and this is what happened to the Ten Boom family.

Here is how it happened.  One day, German soldiers came round to search their house in a routine search for workers.  The boys quickly went into hiding in the cellar.  When the Germans couldn’t find any young men in the house, one of them directly asked Corrie’s niece where her brothers were.  Now her mother had taught her that lying was never justified for any reason.  Everyone in the family held their breath – would she lie and save her brothers from being kidnapped by the Nazis?  Instead, she told the truth – she answered that her brothers were under the table.  But as a German soldier kneeled down to take a look, she started laughing hysterically, at which point the Germans stopped because they interpreted her laugh as mocking them and that there really was no one down there.  They got up and left abruptly.  She had saved them by telling the truth!

Here is a girl who believed in telling the truth so strongly that she didn’t lie when many people would have felt completely justified in doing so.  That kind of conviction is rare these days.  We are living in a time – though has there ever been a time when this has not been the case? – in which people lie all the time about everything.  We lie about our taxes, we lie about our faults, we lie about our past and present – and if we could we would lie about our future as well.  We lie about ourselves and we lie about others.  I say we, for who among us can say that they have never misrepresented the truth or never told a lie?  It may have not been egregious – “white lies” we call them – but we have not always told the truth, have we?  It may have just been an exaggeration of the truth.  But whether it is a white lie or an exaggeration or an out-an-out falsehood, if we’re honest we still have to confess that we’ve not been always faithful to tell the truth.

Of course, we justify our lies by convincing ourselves that it doesn’t hurt anyone to tell them.  In fact, sometimes we convince ourselves that it’s somehow safer to tell them.  However, lying undermines the very basis of human flourishing.  The reason is that we cannot coexist with one another without trust.  But trust cannot exist apart from truth.  You simply cannot trust a person who is not honest.  That is why we go to such lengths in our society and pass laws to make people keep their word.  It is why there are such serious punishments for perjury and breaking a contract and so on.  It’s why we put people under oath on the stand in court.  We have to be able to believe that people will honor their agreements and that if they don’t they will be punished.  Our society would simply break down if such laws were not in place.

It is precisely this issue of honesty that our Lord is dealing with in our text.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no – mean what you say and say what you mean.  Tell the truth.  When we pause and consider what our Lord is doing in this sermon, we can see why.  He is telling us what his disciples look like.  But more than this, he is laying out a program for a new society, the church.  If his followers are going to coalesce into a body, if they are going to become a community, then there is going to have to be trust.  And therefore there is going to have to be truth.  We cannot live together as a community without trust – that is true for society in general, it is true in marriage, it is true in friendship, and it is true no less of the church.

The apostle Paul underlines this in his epistle to the Ephesians.  He has told us about the new life that we have in Christ and how we are therefore to put off the old man and to put on the new man (Eph. 4:17-24).  He then follows with these words: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (v. 25).  “Members one of another” – in other words, because you are a community, speak the truth!

On the other hand, to be outside the church, to be outside the community of God’s people, is to be in the kingdom of darkness and under the rule of Satan.  It’s interesting that Satan is primarily noted for two things in Scripture – he is a murderer and he is the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).  Those who are under his dominion are described as being deceived (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:9-11).  In fact, it was with a lie (“thou shalt not surely die”) that the devil precipitated the fall of man into sin.  Every time we sin we do so ultimately because we believe a lie: the lie that disobedience is better than obedience.  And the poison of our biting into the fruit of lies – whether our own or someone else’s – pervades our lives and brings with it ruin, especially in terms of relationships.

Hopefully you can see how important it is to tell the truth.  It is so important to our Lord that he deals with it right alongside of murder and adultery!  But of course our Lord is simply following Moses here because in the Ten Commandments, the ninth commandment (“thou shalt not bear false witness”) follows the sixth (“thou shalt not kill”) and the seventh (“thou shalt not commit adultery”).  Again we can see that, far from replacing the OT ethic, he is upholding it.

But what exactly is our Lord saying in this text? 

First of all, our Lord is not dealing with cussing in this text.  We normally associate the word “swearing” these days with foul language, but that is not what is opposed here.  That is not to say it is not dealt with elsewhere – it certainly is (cf. Eph. 5:4, for example).  Here, “swearing” relates to taking an oath.  When we take an oath in the sense in which Jesus is speaking here, we are calling on God to bear witness to the truth of what we have said, and we are by implication asking him to punish us if we commit perjury.  

What our Lord quotes at the beginning (v. 33) is not a quotation of any passage from the Law, but it is a summary of several important OT verses from the Law.  For example, in addition to the ninth commandment, you have the following:

·         Exodus 20:7 (the third commandment): “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: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.”

·         Numbers 30:2: “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.”

·         Deuteronomy 23:21: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin.”

Now what these commandments clearly say is that if you vow or take an oath, you must keep it. 

Jesus, on the other hand, says that not only should you not swear falsely, you shouldn’t even swear at all: “But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all. . . .” 

Now, two wrong conclusions are drawn from Jesus’ words here.   One is that Jesus is contradicting Moses, and the second is that it is always wrong to take an oath.  In some sense, these are really two sides of the same objection because they stand or fall together.

Is Jesus contradicting Moses? 

On the surface, it seems so.  Moses says that if you swear or take an oath, you must keep it.  You must not swear falsely.  But Jesus says that we shouldn’t take oaths at all.  However, that’s not all he says, and it’s important to read this verse in context.  He doesn’t just say, “Do not take an oath at all,” but he immediately follows it with: “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God. . .” and so on.

In these words, Jesus makes clear what the real issue was.  As Stott explains, the scholars of the law in Jesus’ day spent a lot of time on the formulae involved in oath taking and when an oath was valid and when it wasn’t: “They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding.  One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which the divine name had not been used.”[1]  Evidently, if you swore by heaven or Jerusalem or your head (vs. 34-36), your oath was not binding because in it you didn’t explicitly invoke God’s name.

Jesus’ attitude toward this kind of sophistry is further illustrated in his rather biting words against the Pharisees and scribes in Matthew 23:16-22.  In that text, as in Matthew 5, Jesus shows the utter groundlessness of their attempts to evade God’s law.  In the present instance, Jesus argues that even though you may not explicitly invoke God’s name, you still cannot get around the third commandment and taking God’s name in vain when you break your vow or oath.  If you vow by heaven, you have invoked God because heaven is his throne.  If you vow by Jerusalem, you have invoked God because Jerusalem is his city.  If you vow by your head, you have invoked God because only he can make your hair white or black.  In other words, because God’s sovereignty includes the entire universe, swearing by any article in the universe which is under God’s dominion is in effect to swear by God himself.  So if you break your oath you have still taken God’s name in vain, no matter what formula you might have chosen to use.

In other words, Jesus was getting at the attempt of his contemporaries to make swearing falsely okay under certain circumstances.  Rather, Jesus tells us that we should always tell the truth: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (v. 37).  If you have to append an oath to what you say, it’s probably because your intention is less than honorable.  On the other hand, if you always tell the truth, there is no need to join an oath with your words.  Your “yes” or “no” will be sufficient.  As Stott put it,

Swearing . . . is really a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty.  Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some tremendous formula, ‘I swear by the archangel Gabriel and all the host of heaven’ or ‘I swear by the Holy Bible’?  The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted.  So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath.[2]

The real issue at hand was not so much whether it is ever necessary or right to take oaths: the real issue at hand was honesty and truthfulness at all times.  Certainly, as private individuals, there should never be a need to affix an oath to our words if we are men and women of our word.

But that doesn’t mean that a Christian should never take an oath.  There are some who, like the Quakers, take Jesus’ words literally and therefore refuse to ever take an oath.  But there are several reasons why we should not interpret Jesus’ words this way. 

First, Jesus himself spoke under oath at his trial.  What is interesting is that up to this time, according to Matthew, he was silent.  Then when the high priest puts him under oath, he responds (Mt. 26:62-64).  Hence, I think Stott is right when he concludes from this that “[w]hat Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority.”[3] 

Furthermore, Paul himself speaks under oath in several places in his writings, in the sense that he invokes the name of Christ or God to attest to the truth of what he is saying (cf. Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20).  So it’s clear that the New Testament Christians themselves did not see Jesus’ words as absolute, even though they are couched in absolute language.  Furthermore, the fact that God himself has put himself under oath (Heb. 6:16, ff) makes it hard to argue that it is something a Christian should never do.

In fact, to focus on whether or not we should ever take oaths and to make that the point of Jesus’s teaching is in some sense to play into the hands of the Pharisaic misinterpretation of God’s word.  It is to miss the main point of the passage.  The take away here is that we should always tell the truth and that we shouldn’t need an oath to make our word believable.

As Christians, as followers of Christ, we are called to be truthful.  After all, how can we be believed when it comes to the gospel when we can’t be believed about other things?  And the gospel should motivate us above all else to want to be honest men and women.  All our hopes lie in the fact that God does not lie, that he always keeps his promises.  Paul summed it up to Titus: “[i]n hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the world began” (Tit. 1:2).  We are saved by hope (Rom. 8:24); most of what God has promised us still lies in the future.  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19).  The fact that you are still a Christian is a testimony to the fact that you really believe that what God has promised you in his word will come to pass.  God will not swear falsely, he will not back out of his oath.  As Hebrews puts it: “By two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.  We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:19-20).  The fact that all our hope lies in the faithfulness of God to his word ought to call us to a similar faithfulness in our words to others.  We ought to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven in perfect (Mt. 5:48).

The gospel also gives us another reason to be truthful to others.  Why is it that we do not tell the truth?  Is it not often because we are afraid of what people will think of us?  We exaggerate claims about our accomplishments because we want to look good to others.  We hide our past (and present) failures because we don’t want other people to look down on us.  We let shame cower us into falsely representing ourselves to others.

And yet, as a gospel community, there should never be any reason to let that happen.  Why?  Because the gospel tells us that Jesus has already taken our sin and our shame and given us his perfect righteousness.  Why hide our past?  Jesus has taken it.  Why misrepresent our present?  In Jesus we are clean and loved and forever safe.

We hide ourselves behind deceit and misrepresentation because we do not feel safe.  And yet, the Christian can be no safer than he or she already is.  As Toplady put it:

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;

Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.

Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is given;

More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heaven.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  Of all people therefore, we have no need to hide.  We have no need to make ourselves to be something that we are not.  For we do not need to impress one another.  We have already in possession something infinitely more precious than the good opinion of others.  We have the friendship and favor of the living God through Jesus his Son. 

The Christian community ought to be the most loving, the most forgiving, the most open, and the safest place on the planet.  It ought to be a place where messy, failure-fraught sinners can embrace one another in light of what Christ has done for them and is doing in them through the Spirit.  The fact that it often is not is testament to the fact that we do not take the God Who Cannot Lie at his word.  We do not believe the gospel as we ought.  Oh, may God make us more like himself: men and women who do not lie, who love the truth, and who speak it in love.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 100.

[2] Ibid., p. 102.

[3] Ibid., p. 102.


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