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5. To Tell the Truth (Matthew 5:33-37; 23:16-22)

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If you think about it, it’s one of the first skills we learn all by ourselves, usually without the assistance of any parent or teacher. We don’t even need to have it modeled by someone else. We just have a natural talent for it, that blossoms automatically when we are really young. Just after we learn to talk, we learn to lie.

Title: To Tell the Truth

I was about 6 when I told the first lie I remember telling. (I’m quite sure that it wasn’t the first lie I told, because we all start much earlier than that.) But the first one I remember, I was playing with a friend in the yard in front of the house, when my Dad came home…

That made quite an impression on me. (I didn’t know Jesus could hit so hard!) Unfortunately, I’m not saying that I’ve always been completely honest, but for the rest of my life, I remembered that lesson.

In fact, that skill, which begins so early in our life, was never allowed to fully develop in me. In third grade I remember getting back a homework assignment the teacher had graded…

The Jesus Curriculum

Today we’re studying Matthew 5:33-37 and a related passage in Mat. 23, where Jesus talks about the importance of telling the truth. This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount, what we’re calling, “The Kingdom Handbook” because in it Jesus teaches his followers about life in God’s kingdom.

The Kingdom Code

This particular section of the handbook is about The Kingdom Code, the rules we ought to follow as citizens of the kingdom. If you remember, we don’t follow the rules to get into the kingdom—the only way to get in is by trusting in what Jesus has done for us. The reason we follow the rules is because we are already in the kingdom and we trust God to tell us the truth. When he says something is off limits, we believe that he’s got our best interests at heart and that he’s trying to spare us from the pain and destruction that sin would produce if we gave it the chance.

But as Jesus lays out the Kingdom Code, it becomes obvious that he is explaining not just the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law, the law’s intent. Jesus says it’s not enough to avoid certain external sinful behaviors. We also need to honor God with our thoughts, our motives and our attitudes—the inner things only God can know about us.

Matthew 5 contains six comparisons between this “external performance” and the “internal obedience” that God desires. Jesus talks about anger, sexual desire, divorce, lying, revenge, and hatred. In each case, he calls us, his followers, to commit ourselves not just to obeying the external requirements of the law, but also to allowing the Kingdom Code to govern our thoughts, our motives and our attitudes.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about three of these comparisons. First, anger. Jesus says it’s not just the external behavior of murder that’s wrong. It’s also wrong to maintain unresolved anger toward another person. Next, we saw that Jesus taught that it’s not only against the law to cheat on your spouse. It’s also against the law just to entertain the desire to have an affair with someone else. Last week, we talked about divorce. Although the Bible allows divorce, God’s intention is that we remain faithful to our spouses even when things get difficult.

Today we’re going to talk about the fourth of these six contrasts as Jesus teaches us about truth. Just as he did with the previous subjects, Jesus begins with what his followers already knew about telling the truth from the Old Testament.

“Cross My Heart”

Matthew 5 [33] Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'

An oath was a solemn promise someone made to indicate that they were telling the truth. The story of the Old Testament is full of examples—oaths are mentioned almost 200 times! This practice didn’t begin with the law. It already existed in Abraham’s day, over 500 years before Moses.

But the law picks us the practice and talks about the significance of making an oath.

Numbers 30:2 When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

The OT teaches that a person following God, an honest person, will fulfill their promises. You will be able to rely on him doing what he said he would do.

But not everyone tells the truth. And more particularly, people tend to make what Mary Poppins calls “pie crust promises”—easily made and easily broken. Because of that we sometimes don’t believe people when they say they will do something.

But if they swear that they will do it, that usually means something more to us. “I will do it” vs. “I swear I will do it.” It seems more reliable, more believable. At least they seem to know that they are making a promise.

“Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye.” Shake the secret handshake.

That’s the function of oaths. They are intended to demonstrate honesty.

In fact, when there were no witnesses to a crime, testimony under oath was to be accepted as true testimony (even though no one else could corroborate it).

Exodus 22:10-11 "If a man gives …[an] animal to his neighbor for safekeeping and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, [11] the issue between them

will be settled by the taking of an oath before the LORD that the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person's property. The owner is to accept this, and no restitution is required.

When no human witness can validate our words, an oath involves an appeal to some supernatural witness:

Hebrews 6:16 Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.

An oath is the promise someone makes when he swears. Today, right here in church, we’re going to talk about swearing and cursing.

Interestingly enough, swearing and cursing have come to mean, “using profane or vulgar language”.

But both swearing and cursing were originally meant to validate:

  • the truth of a statement (like I didn’t take your cow), or
  • the certainty of a promise (like the vow made to the Lord)

Swearing and cursing are two different methods of validation:

Swearing an oath does so by invoking a greater witness.

  • “By God, I’m going to do it.”
  • “As God is my witness.”
  • “I swear on my mother’s grave.”
  • “That’s the God’s honest truth.”
  • “Do you promise to tell the truth, etc., so help you God?”
  • Herod promised Salome whatever she wanted if she’d dance.

Cursing does so by invoking dire consequences.

May this happen to me (or to you) if this isn’t true or if I don’t do it.

  • “Well, I’ll be damned.”
  • “God help you if you’re lying to me.”
  • “Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye.”
  • When Peter denies Jesus three times, the first time he denies it. The second time, he denies it with an oath. The third time, he calls down curses on himself and swears to them.

Both swearing and cursing are used in the Bible and used by God!

The important thing, from the perspective of the Old Testament, is that if you’re going to swear something is true, then it better be true. And if you swear you’re going to do something, then you better make sure you do it.

Leviticus 19:12 "'Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.

Often, God was called as a witness to an oath. And so he told the people that if you’re going to use him as a reference, then you better be serious about telling the truth.

In fact, this is what the third of the ten commandments is talking about:

Exodus 20:7 "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

The phrase translated in NIV “misuse” literally means, “to lift up without any purpose.” God said that if you use his name, there better be some meaning behind it. He doesn’t want to be party to our lies and deceptions.

But the intention of the OT was not that words under oath are the only words that are binding! The intention was that it is wrong to lie under oath, just as it is wrong to lie at any time.

“Crossed My Fingers”

Oaths were corrupted to allow for deception.

Unfortunately, whenever there’s room for a loophole, people usually find it. By the time we get to Jesus’ day, people had found a way to actually use these oaths in order to lie.

  • Cultural background

My promise didn’t count because I crossed my fingers!

Matthew 23:16-22 "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'

[17] You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?

[18] You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.'

[19] You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

[20] Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. [21] And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.

[22] And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

That’s why Jesus says in Matthew 5,

Matthew 5 [34] But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; [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 swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.

Does this absolutely forbid taking an oath? Quakers.

No. Jesus puts himself under an oath (Matthew 26:63-64). So does Paul. The basis of God’s promise being certain is because of his oath.

The point of the OT was to say that because we should fulfill our oaths because we should always be honest. The Pharisees interpreted it to mean that ONLY when you made an oath did you have to tell the truth, and even then, it only had to be a certain kind of oath. That is not at all what God meant.

“Won’t Cross the Line”

That’s why Jesus says,

Matthew 5 [37] Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Trustworthiness depends on integrity.

James 5:12 Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.

1 Peter 3:10 For, "Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.

Proverbs 12:22 The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.

Proverbs 19:5 A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free.

Psalms 5:6 You destroy those who tell lies.

Revelation 21:8 The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.

Colossians 3:9-10 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices [10] and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Ephesians 4: 25 each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Giving an oath matters,

Because not all words are true.

But if all your words are true,

Then giving an oath doesn’t matter.

1 Copyright © 2004 by Lewis B. Bell III. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 5 in the The Kingdom Character series delivered by Chip Bell at Fellowship Bible Church Arapaho in Dallas, TX on April 4, 2004. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with credit.

Related Topics: Sanctification

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