15. Practicing Radical Truthfulness (Matthew 5:33-37)Related Media
“Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.
Matthew 5:33-37 (NET)
How can we practice radical truthfulness in a world of deception?
Essentially, the first sin that happened on the earth was a lie. Satan deceived Adam and Eve, which plunged the world into sin and destruction. From that point, lying became common. In Romans 3:13, Paul described the effects of sin on humanity this way: “Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues.” Sin has affected everybody’s integrity. Children struggle with lying, adults struggle with it, and the aged struggle with it also. Dishonesty is an epidemic from pre-school through graduate school, from the home to the workplace. It is often hard to trust people in our society.
Other than simply sin nature, why do people practice lying?
- People lie to make themselves look better (a little exaggeration makes a story more exciting).
- People lie to protect themselves from consequences (often to cover up a failure committed).
- People lie to gain something they want (like a good grade, a promotion, or tax benefits).
In Matthew 5:33-37, Christ addresses the abuse of oaths and how dishonesty was prevalent in the ancient world. Christ has been correcting common misinterpretations of the OT law; here he corrects the fourth out of six. Essentially, he declares that citizens of his kingdom will be identified by radical honesty.
Psalm 15 teaches something similar, as it describes the ideal worshiper. Consider the characteristics mentioned:
Lord, who may be a guest in your home? Who may live on your holy hill? Whoever lives a blameless life, does what is right, and speaks honestly… He makes firm commitments and does not renege on his promise.
Psalm 15:1-2, 4
When God looks for a worshiper, he finds somebody with integrity: This person speaks the truth from the heart and keeps his promises. Are we those types of worshipers? Are we practicing the righteousness of the kingdom?
In this text, we learn how to practice radical truthfulness in a world of deceit.
Big Question: In Matthew 5:33-37, what principles can be discerned about practicing radical truthfulness?
To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Reject Deceptive Practices
“Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all
Interpretation Question: What did the OT teach about taking oaths?
The Old Testament did not forbid taking oaths; in fact, it encouraged taking them. Deuteronomy 10:20 says, “Revere the Lord your God, serve him, be loyal to him and take oaths only in his name.” In addition, Jeremiah 12:16 encouraged Gentiles to make oaths in God’s name. It says,
But they must make sure you learn to follow the religious practices of my people. Once they taught my people to swear their oaths using the name of the god Baal. But then, they must swear oaths using my name, saying, “As surely as the Lord lives, I swear.” If they do these things, then they will be included among the people I call my own.
God permitted oaths to restrain humanity’s natural tendency to lie. By invoking God’s name, it brought a greater accountability between people. Essentially by invoking God’s name, one asked for God’s judgment in the case of lying. Deuteronomy 23:21 says, “When you make a vow to the Lord your God you must not delay in fulfilling it, for otherwise he will surely hold you accountable as a sinner.”
What was forbidden in the OT was breaking one’s vows and also flippantly making them. Oaths were reserved for the most solemn occasions and were to be kept. Ecclesiastes 5:2 and 4-6 says:
Do not be rash with your mouth or hasty in your heart to bring up a matter before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth! Therefore, let your words be few…When you make a vow to God, do not delay in paying it. For God takes no pleasure in fools: Pay what you vow! It is better for you not to vow than to vow and not pay it. Do not let your mouth cause you to sin, and do not tell the priest, “It was a mistake!” Why make God angry at you so that he would destroy the work of your hands?”
However, this was exactly what the Jews were doing. They were flippantly taking oaths, breaking them, and deceiving others by their use. In fact, many were doing this in the name of religion. D.A. Carson explains:
In the Jewish code of law called the Mishnah, there is one whole tractate given over to the question of oaths, including detailed consideration of when they’re binding and when they’re not. For example, one rabbi says that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem, then you are bound by your vow. The swearing of oaths thus degenerates into terrible rules which let you know when you can get away with lying and deception, and when you can’t. These oaths no longer foster truthfulness, but weaken the cause of truth and promote deceit. Swearing evasively becomes justification for lying.1
Specifically, some Rabbis taught that as long as people didn’t use God’s name in an oath, they were free to break it (cf. Lev 19:12). Therefore, they would swear upon one’s mother, father, Jerusalem, or something else that appeared sacred. It was like a child making a statement with his fingers crossed—meaning that at that moment it was OK to lie.
Sadly, the integrity of people today is no better. In certain circumstances, it is considered perfectly acceptable to lie, steal, cheat, and offer or accept a bribe. Often it is thought strange to not. Illegal downloading is done and accepted by almost all. Cheating on taxes is normative; people say to themselves, “It is my money! The government shouldn’t be taking it anyway!” Lack of integrity in marriage is also becoming common. McCall Magazine published this story, as shared by Kent Hughes:
A young wife was at lunch with eleven of her friends, who had been meeting together regularly to study French since their children had been in nursery school. As they conversed, one of the women, the group’s leader, asked, “How many of you have been faithful throughout your marriage?” Only one woman at the table raised her hand. That evening when the young wife told her husband about the conversation, she revealed that she was not the one who had raised her hand. He was shocked and devastated. “But I have been faithful,” she added. “Then why didn’t you raise your hand?” She replied, “I was ashamed.”2
This was the type of dishonest culture that Christ spoke to. Unfortunately, it was the religious people propagating it. If we are going to maintain radical truthfulness, we must reject all forms of deceptive practices. We must reject dishonesty in academia, corporations, romantic relationships, and the home. What happens when we tolerate dishonesty is that our integrity begins to slowly erode: what we previously despised becomes accepted and eventually praised.
Interpretation Question: Was Christ forbidding all oath taking? What about oaths given in courts?
When Christ said, “But I say to you, do not take oaths at all” (v. 34), some have taken it as an absolute prohibition such as the Reformation Anabaptists and the Quakers. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was sentenced to prison for refusing to swear on a Bible. He said this to the court:
You have given me a book here to kiss and to swear on, and this book which ye have given me to kiss says, “Kiss the Son,” and the Son says in this book, “Swear not at all.” I say as the book says, and yet ye imprison me; how chance ye do not imprison the book for saying so?” 3
Because of Fox’s stand, people in Great Britain and the U.S. no longer have to swear on the Bible in court. They can simply affirm to tell the truth.4
However, Christ was not forbidding all oath taking. Again, the OT encouraged taking oaths. In Genesis 22:16-18, God swore that he would fulfill his call on Abraham’s life and offspring. In fact, when Jesus was on trial and put to an oath by the high priest to say if he was the Son of God, Jesus affirmed. Matthew 26:63-64 says:
…The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
In addition, Paul took oaths before God several times in his epistles: In 2 Corinthians 1:23, he says, “Now I appeal to God as my witness, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth.” In Galatians 1:20, he says, “I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you!”
Therefore, it doesn’t seem that Christ is giving an absolute prohibition of oaths. He is condemning frivolous oaths and evasive oaths, which only increased dishonesty instead of decreasing it.
As a summary, what deductions about oaths should we take from this? Kent Hughes summarized it this way:
Oath-taking is permitted, but it is not encouraged. In civil life oath-taking, as in the courtroom, is permitted, and when one does so, he does not sin against Christ’s teaching. Also, on rare occasions it may be necessary, as it was for Paul. However, oaths are not to be a normal part of our everyday conversation. In normal relations oaths should never fall from our lips. Kingdom men and women do not need such devices. Their commitment to truthfulness should be evident to all.5
If we are going to practice the radical truthfulness of the kingdom, we must reject all dishonest practices: lying, stealing, cheating, and the abuse of oaths.
Application Question: In what ways have you seen and experienced a culture of dishonesty at school, at work, in the government, and even at home? Why is it hard to maintain a moral compass in this dishonest culture?
To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Recognize God as Sovereign
But I say to you, do not take oaths at all—not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black.
Again, the Jews tried to evade God’s judgment and deceive others by removing his name from oaths. They thought if they substituted heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or their head for God’s name, then they were free from God’s judgment. However, Christ reminded them that even though they did not mention God’s name, God would still hold them accountable, since he is the sovereign judge over all. If they swore by their mother or father, God was their Creator. If they swore by their life, God was over that as well.
This is also important for us to realize. We tend to fall into the same type of dualism. If we are in church, then that is a holy place where we shouldn’t lie or curse. However, if we are at a meal with friends, our conversations are no longer as refined. That was the type of thought that led the Rabbis into hypocrisy. To them certain places or things invoked God’s judgment and other places or things did not. Consider Christ’s rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:16-22:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple is bound by nothing. But whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound by the oath.’ Blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing. But if anyone swears by the gift on it he is bound by the oath.’ You are blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and the one who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and the one who sits on it.
We must therefore recognize God as sovereign over all, if we are going to practice radical righteousness. He is everywhere and hears everything, and we will be judged not only for breaking our oaths, but also for every word. Matthew 12:36-37 says, “I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Revelation 22:15 describes those who are shut out of the kingdom of heaven as “everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Our words will be judged; they will prove whether we are truly born again or not.
If we are going to practice radical truthfulness, we must recognize God as sovereign. He is everywhere, he hears all, and will judge all. Therefore, truth is important in every situation, not just some situations. Hebrews 4:13 says, “And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”
Application Question: What are your thoughts about the fact that God will judge every one of our words? How should that affect our conversations?
To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Guard Ourselves from the Evil One by Only Speaking Truth
Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.
Interpretation Question: What was Christ challenging believers to do when he said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’?
As a general principle, people use oaths in regular conversations because their integrity is in doubt. Christ says that the members of his kingdom should not have to resort to oath taking. We are called to simply say, “Yes” or “No.”
When Christ said, “Let your ‘word,’” he uses “logos,” which can be translated not only as “word” but also as “speech” or “communication.”6 This emphasizes that not only should our oaths be truthful but our regular daily conversations. We should avoid exaggerations which are shared to display ourselves in a more favorable light. We should avoid half-truths which are often given to avoid consequences. Our words at all times must be truthful.
Interpretation Question: What did Christ mean by anything less is from the evil one?
Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). When we practice dishonesty, we not only model the devil but open the door for him to use and speak through us. In the same way, Satan spoke through Peter in order to try to convince Jesus to not go to the cross (Matt 16:23), we are no less vulnerable to the enemy’s tactics. When we accept lies and then begin to speak them, we allow Satan to use our voice box to deceive, discourage, and destroy. We must be aware of this reality.
In Ephesians 6:14, Paul said that we protect ourselves from Satan’s attacks by putting on the belt of truth. We must know God’s Word if we are going to stand against the evil one and his deceptions. We must not only know it, but we must constantly speak it.
In Joshua 1, when God commissioned Joshua to lead Israel, God told him to meditate on God’s Word day and night and to never let it depart from his lips (v. 8). Joshua was to continually talk about the Word of God. He was to teach and encourage others with it. If he did this, he would be successful in fulfilling God’s call. No doubt, this promise is for us as well. We must know God’s Truth and speak it to ourselves and others. By doing this, we leave no room for the devil in our lives. If we are going to live the radical integrity of the kingdom, we must always speak the truth, including God’s Word.
Application Question: As with Peter speaking to Christ, in what ways does the enemy try to speak through you, whether to yourself or others (Matt 16:22-23)? How can we recognize his lies and have victory over them?
How can we practice radical truthfulness in a world of deception?
- To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Reject Deceptive Practices
- To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Recognize God as Sovereign
- To Practice Radical Truthfulness, We Must Guard Ourselves from the Evil One by Only Speaking Truth
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 Carson, D. A. (1999). Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5–10 (p. 50). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
2 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 113). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
3 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 127). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
4 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 127). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
5 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 127–128). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 326). Chicago: Moody Press.