February 1 2015

Let Your Yes be Yes


Scripture: Matthew 5:33-37. 


Two boys were friends. One was a Catholic and one was an Evangelical Protestant. They were both curious about each other’s churches so they asked their parents if they could visit their friend’s church. Both sets of parents agreed. The first Sunday the Protestant boy, Bill, visited his friend Mark’s church. He observed many rituals. Sometimes the priest would say something in Latin. Bill asked Mark what that meant. Mark, being a devoted young boy, knew. So, he explained what the words meant. Then the priest sprinkled holy water on the congregation. Again, Bill asked Mark what that meant and Mark explained the significance. So it was with the other rituals that transpired while they were there. Bill would ask and Mark would explain.


The next week Mark visited Bill’s church. First they sang songs. Of course, Mark had no questions. Then it was time for the sermon. The pastor went up to the pulpit and opened his Bible. Then he carefully took off his wristwatch and placed it on the pulpit in front of him. Mark asked Bill, “What is the significance of that action?” Bill answered, “Absolutely nothing.”


 I think my message will be relatively short this morning…but that doesn’t mean too much as many of you know.


We continue this morning with a passage from the great and wonderful Sermon on the Mount. We have already seen that this sermon is meant for the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have also seen that Jesus has been teaching on the true meaning and intent of God’s laws. He continues in that stead here regarding oaths.


[I] In verse 33 Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely…’” Jesus here refers to two passages and places them together. Leviticus. You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am yahweh.  (Lev. 19:12)


And Numbers:            If a man vows a vow to yahweh, 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. [1]


Most naturally, we wish to ask, “What does it mean to make an oath?” An oath, a vow, and being sworn, “swearing” in the good sense of the term, are all synonyms. An oath, then, is calling upon God as a witness to one’s statements. But it is more than this. An accurate definition is:


“a solemn affirmation or declaration made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed, and calling upon his vengeance and renouncing his favor if what is affirmed is false.” (Govett quoting Barnes) In other words, you call God as a witness and then, if you are not telling the truth, you invite His wrath.


This is seen in Genesis 31:49–53 in the covenant made between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban:      [Laban] said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. 50          If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.”

51         Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52             This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53      The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,


This phrase, “May God judge between us,” is clearly referring to God’s judgment if the terms of the oath are violated by either party.


Therefore, to take an oath or to make a vow is not only to call God as a witness to what you are saying, but to call a curse upon yourself if you should speak something untrue.


[II] As with the other explications of God’s laws here, Jesus addresses the abuse or misunderstanding of the law by the Jewish people at that time. Moses had established oath-taking as part of God’s divine legislation. We saw that in the passages that we read in Leviticus and Numbers. In practice, it was reserved for public declarations in important matters as, for example, in court cases. This is similar to the same way oaths are taken now. Court is one of those areas in modern life where oaths are still taken. A person lays their hand upon a Bible and swears to “tell the truth and the whole truth.” (Possibly play short clip here.)


Why did Moses give such a command? Ans: Because people have a tendency, a proclivity, to lie if it will protect them from financial loss or physical harm. People will even lie to avoid shame. People will lie to evade embarrassment. People lie often. Hence, to bind a person to telling the truth God instituted the oath. An oath was not to be taken lightly and God Himself would judge those who lied under oath.


The original intent of God’s law was to prescribe speaking the truth. Remember, this is what Jesus is driving at: the intent of God’s law.


Two things happened which demonstrate the fallenness of man. First, people began to make oaths for all kinds of things, not just important matters. Oaths, rather than being reserved for life-changing matters, became commonplace. Rather than being used in public settings, they were used in all manner of personal interactions. The second practice that arose was that, probably because the Israelites were fearful of coming under the temporal judgment of God when they made an oath, they began to swear by other things besides the Living God. They would swear by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, by the temple, by the altar, and all manner of things.


By Jesus’s day the situation was such that people were swearing but were not keeping their word. What is to lose if you swear by the earth? Will the earth rise up against you?


[III] Jesus first explains that such contortions do not allow an escape from God’s All-Seeing eye. He says not to swear by heaven because it is the throne of God. In effect he was saying, “You may swear by heaven but you are still touching God because that is where his throne is. God’s presence is in heaven. Not just His presence but His throne, the place of His judgment!!”


Jesus spoke about judgment when he taught on anger and when he taught on lust. He alludes to it again here.


He says not to swear by the earth for it is His footstool, the place that brings Him pleasure. His feet are there resting. If His feet are there, He is there!


He says not to swear by Jerusalem because it is the city of the Great King. The Great King is God. It is His city. He is there. You cannot escape the presence of God!


When oaths are taken by other things besides God the idea is also present of forfeiture. If I am swearing by earth I am giving up any right to it if I lie. But heaven is not mine, earth is not mine, nor is any city mine. They all belong to God.


What about my own head? I can swear by my own head, may I not? No. Jesus says that even your own head is outside of your power and is not yours. God is the one who even decides the color of your hair. Jesus said that you cannot change the color of your hair and some might say that, with Clairol, you can.


Once upon a time, a blonde became so sick of hearing blonde jokes that she had her hair cut and dyed brown. A few days later, as she was driving around the countryside, she stopped her car to let a flock of sheep pass. Admiring the cute woolly creatures, she said to the shepherd, "If I can guess how many sheep you have, can I take one?"

The shepherd, always the gentleman replied, "Of course."

The blonde thought for a moment and for no discernible reason said, "352."

This being the correct number, the shepherd was, understandably, totally amazed and exclaimed, "You're right! O.K., I'll keep to my end of the deal. Take your pick of my flock."

The blonde carefully considered the entire flock and finally picked one that was by far cuter and more playful than any of the others.

When she was done, the shepherd turned to her and said, "O.K., now I have a proposition for you. If I can guess your true hair color, can I have my dog back?


I should not pick on blondes. I need to be fair.


Q: What’s the difference between a terrorist and a redhead? 
Ans.: you can negotiate with a terrorist.


Q: How do you know when your redhead has forgiven you?
 A: She stops washing your clothes in the toilet


Q: What’s safer: a redhead or a piranha? 
A: The piranha. They only attack in schools.


Q: Why aren’t there any more redhead jokes?
 A: Someone told them to a redhead.


We can change the outside of our hair color but not our true hair color. We can change our outward behavior, but only God can change our heart.


God is ever present and we should live with this consciousness and with lips that speak the truth.


[IV] In verse 34 we read these words: “But I say to you do not take an oath at all.” There are two possible ways to understand this command. One is as an absolute prohibition. That is: never take an oath at all under any circumstances. The other is a prohibition that reaches to the heart of the commandment. That is, do not take oaths for non-public and unimportant reasons and, when you do speak even in personal conversations, speak the truth.


If the book of Matthew were the only book we had in the New Testament then, it would seem, that the words of Jesus taken at face value should be understood to communicate an absolute ban on the taking of oaths. After all, do not his words seem plain enough? “Do not take an oath at all.” The “at all” part seems to end all controversy. Indeed, for some Christians it has. They believe it is so plain that there is no room for discussion.


However, the proper way to interpret the Bible is not by taking just one verse on a subject and then thinking we understand it. We ought to consider all that the inspired writers have revealed about a subject before we decide what the meaning is. When we do this on the subject of oaths we discover that Jesus’s command cannot be absolute. Why? Because we have interpreters of Jesus who are more qualified than we are. Those would be the apostles. They are more qualified because they lived with him and then they were infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit as no other men since have been.


Jesus’s command cannot be absolute because the apostle Paul took oaths. In the second half of 2 Corinthians 1 Paul is trying to explain to the church why he did not visit them on one of his trips. Evidently, they may have been deeply troubled by his decision not to visit them. In verses 23 and 24 we read: “But I call God to witness against me – it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” Paul calls God as a witness against him. That is a sworn statement.


Again in 2 Corinthians 11:31, when Paul is defending his apostleship, we read: “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.” This is a statement calling upon God as a witness.


In Romans 9:1, when Paul is about to make an amazing statement of self-denial, we read: “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit –“ This statement is using the Holy Spirit as a witness. (Technically his known conscience, but his conscience with the Holy Spirit.)


Finally, we see that God Himself makes oaths. Read Hebrews 6:13-17.


From this we can conclude that it is still appropriate to take an oath for public and important reasons. As, for example, in going to court. Just don’t bring a hat and a cane while you are being sworn in. And, going into the military you must take an oath. For that matter, even working for the federal government as a civilian you must take an oath of allegiance. If we could not take oaths then you could not even marry for marriage is an oath.


When Jesus says, “Swear not at all,” he must mean do not swear or make an oath in your everyday conversations because, if you do, what does that say about your other speech, your speech that is without an oath? It implies that it need not be believed. What Jesus is after is that all of what you say and all of who you are is truth.


[V] Jesus then says, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Jesus is saying that our character should be such that our honesty and integrity should be at a level where all we need to say is yes or no and people will believe what we say.


He also says, “anything else is from evil.” Some versions have “evil one.” This is not a correct translation since the word “evil” is in the neuter. If it referred to the devil it would be masculine. Always swearing that your words are true is evil because it opens the door to not speaking the truth at other times and diminishes your credibility.


Bob Harris, weatherman for NY TV station WPIX-TV and the nationally syndicated independent Network news, had to weather a public storm of his own making in 1979. Though he had studied math, physics and geology at three colleges, he left school without a degree but with a strong desire to be a media weatherman. He phoned WCBS-TV, introducing himself as a Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia U. The phony degree got him in the door. After a two-month tryout, he was hired as an off-camera forecaster for WCBS. 

For the next decade his career flourished. He became widely known as "Dr. Bob." He was also hired by the New York Times as a consulting meteorologist. The same year both the Long Island Railroad and then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn hired him. Forty years of age and living his childhood dream, he found himself in public disgrace and national humiliation when an anonymous letter prompted WCBS management to investigate his academic credentials. 

Both the station and the New York Times fire him. He admits it was a dreadful mistake on his part and doubtless played a role in his divorce. "I took a shortcut that turned out to be the long way around, and one day the bill came due. I will be sorry as long as I am alive."


Yes, lying will get you into trouble. But, it is not just speaking the truth that God is after. He intends that your heart be transformed to one of honesty and integrity. For that to happen you must pursue it. This is why Jesus speaks these words. So that we will not be settled in our lack of honesty but that we will seek after the same thing that God is after: an honest heart.


A lowly paid waiter in a major city found a briefcase containing cash and negotiables in a parking lot--and no owner in sight. No one saw the waiter find it and put it in his car in the wee hours of the morning. But for the waiter, there was never any question of what to do. He took the briefcase home, opened it, and searched for the owner's identity. The next day he made a few phone calls, located the distressed owner, and returned the briefcase--along with the $25,000 cash it contained! 

The surprising thing about this episode was the ridicule the waiter experienced at the hands of his friends and peers. For the next week or so he was called a variety of names and laughed at, all because he possessed a quality the Bible holds in high regard: integrity. 


Honesty and integrity are rare in these days. But this is our calling. In Luke 8:15, when Jesus was explaining the parable of the Sower he said,     “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” The “good soil” of this famous parable is an honest heart!


This means to love the truth. Love truth wherever you find it. When you find it about yourself, don’t deny what you see, but take it to the Lord and see what he can do. Press into those character qualities that you know you ought to have but still lack. An honest heart does not mean a perfect heart, it does not mean a mature heart. It means a heart that sees things as they really are and is willing to change.


As with anger and lust, some may think that it is all too much. The good news is that no matter how much anger we have had, how often we have lusted, how often we have not spoken the truth, if you are still alive God is not through with you yet. Today is a new day and new beginning. By His mighty power, not our own, he can give us a heart free of anger, free of lust, and free of deceit.


Bob Harris learned the hard way. Let us learn the easy way: by taking the words of Jesus and committing this very day to speak the truth, even if it will cost us something, which it often will.








[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Nu 30:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.