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Oath Games

September 11 2022

Book: Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 5:33-37

We continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount this morning. Today is all about communication – how we talk to each other. This lesson is especially convicting for me because I’m not the most careful person when it comes to my words.

Let’s consider the words of Jesus together:

33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

I’m sure we are guilty of this at times. Last week, I told some of my friends a story about something that happened to me. A few of them questioned the truthfulness of my story, so in an effort to convince them I literally said these words: “May God strike me down if I’m lying about it.”

One of my friends responded, “Please let me back away before you say something like that.”

That’s an embarrassing story, because I shouldn’t need to say something so foolish to convince people I’m telling the truth. And that is the point Jesus makes in verse 37. It was unnecessary. Even evil, he calls it.

But there’s a context I need to share. The religious leaders at that time were known for creating loopholes when it came to oaths. In fact, I’m going to call them “oath games”, almost like a game children play with each other.

As a child, if I made a promise but I had my fingers crossed, what did that mean? It meant I didn’t have to keep the promise.

That’s the kind of nonsense people were doing with these “oath games”. They decided that the oath is only binding if the correct formula was used. It was a sneaky way of getting out of a promise and essentially cheating other people.

Jesus attacked the Pharisees for exactly this type of game in Matthew 23:

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?

18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

In other words, they invented these rules to help people get away with lying – or bearing false witness, which was a violation of the ninth commandment.

And what does Jesus teach? The formula is irrelevant. His point is that words have power in and of themselves. There is no magic formula. If you’re going to play games with oaths, then stop using them altogether. That is His message.

But we need to talk about this further, because this teaching would have been very confusing to the crowds, and it should be a little confusing to us if we know our Bibles.

It should be a little confusing because God Himself swears by oaths all over the Bible.

Genesis 22:15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,

Deuteronomy 7:8 It is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Psalm 132:11 The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.

You might say, well that’s God. He’s different. But the apostle Paul does it too.

Romans 1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers,

2 Corinthians 1:23 But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth.

Philippians 1:8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

It seems that Jesus could not be making an absolute prohibition against oath swearing. In fact, the Old Testament clearly allows oath swearing, even by God’s name.

Deuteronomy 10:20 You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.

Is Jesus contradicting this by telling his disciples not to swear oaths? I think there are several considerations.

First, I think there is a clear difference in the Bible between public speech and private speech. There is a place for public oath taking – marriage vows, joining a church, signing a contract. I don’t think Scripture forbids these types of oaths.

Second, remember that Jesus is calling out a very specific practice – the oath games of the religious leaders.

Third, if we follow the pattern of the sermon on the mount, Jesus is using this commandment to reveal something about the human heart. The very existence of oaths and promises should tell us that we live in an untrustworthy world.

Why does even God choose to speak to us through oaths and covenants? Not because God lacks credibility, but because we lack faith. We question the words even of our Creator.

This was the first sin – believing a lie instead of the Creator. And God knows that we are so prone to hearing lies, we are so distrusting of the words we hear, that he chooses to take oaths for our sake. He uses them to comfort us in our doubts and to assure us in our faith. In other words, God used oaths to help convince people who don’t already know Him that He can be trusted.

But that’s not how most of us use our words and that’s what Jesus wants to expose in us. Let’s use this as an opportunity to think about our words together this morning.

Do people trust what I say, or am I the kind of person that must exaggerate to convince people I’m telling the truth? If I carried the reputation of being a trustworthy person, would all the extra words be necessary?

It may be difficult to see this problem, especially if you focus on professional relationships. It is easier to see in our informal relationships. Moms and dads, one of the most important things we want from our kids is that they learn to tell the truth, right? We want to be able to trust them.

And yet, if we are honest, how often are we guilty of breaking little promises to our kids? How often do we fail to follow through because “we’re adults and they are kids, and they need to adjust”? We play these oath games with our kids and then we act surprised when they lie to us.

Dan Doriani has a great section in his commentary on this passage asking the question, “Why is telling the truth so difficult?”

And if we are honest, it is difficult. It seems like it should be easy to tell the truth, but we all know it can be a challenge.

He suggests that we face a temptation to bend the truth out of carelessness or cowardice.

Sometimes we are careless with our words. This is me most of the time. I don’t always think before I speak. I joke that there’s a slip and slide from my brain to my mouth, but it’s not funny. It can be hurtful. It can be unwise. It’s hard to stay truthful when you don’t think before speaking.

Other times we tell lies because we are afraid to tell the truth. Honesty exposes us. It makes us feel weak and vulnerable. And people may use our honesty against us.

It may cause conflict. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is speak the truth, but we are afraid of the consequences. We are afraid of how the other person will respond.

But Jesus is calling us to be careful and courageous with our words. And notice that His standard is perfection. He wants us to understand that these failures are significant. They are evil.

In fact, Jesus would have us all believe we are liars and cheats in order to save us.

I saw an article this week saying that one third of all pastors in the US believe that “good people can earn their way to heaven.” Let me say that again. One third of all pastors in the US believe that “good people can earn their way to heaven.”

And that is a lie, because there’s no such thing as a good person.

RC Sproul put it like this: “Yes, good people, living the perfect lives God requires, can save themselves. The problem is there are no good people!”

We cannot earn our way to heaven. We are promise-breakers and liars. We speak when we should hold our tongue and we hold our tongue when we should speak.

Thankfully, God spoke a Word when He could have held His tongue. God made and kept a very important promise. God made a promise to Abraham several thousand years ago. Abraham believed God’s promise and it was credited to Him as righteousness.

But not at first. Abraham asked God, how do I know I can trust you? And God said, “Go get some animals.” Abraham cut the animals in half, expecting to make a covenant with God.

That’s how it was done. Two people would walk between the dead animals together, as if to say, “We will keep this agreement, or you can do to me what we did to these animals.”

But God didn’t let Abraham walk the path. He put Abraham to sleep and then God walked both ways alone. What was He saying? “Abraham, I will keep my word. And when you fail, because you will, I will be the One to die in your place.”

Jesus came to keep God’s promise. He took the curse for liars and cheats like me. And all He wants me to do is repent and believe. Yes, Lord, I am a lawbreaker. You are my saving grace. And that is the truth.