As Good as Your Word

These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages. 

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.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

Matthew 5.33-37

What is an oath? In the Bible, an oath is usually a commitment to do something for God (see Numbers 30.1-2). But we’re not really used to the idea of making oaths so it’s not immediately obvious how we can relate to the teaching here. It’s likely that the last time any of us said an ‘oath’ was in the playground: ’Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.’

But with a little thought, it’s clear that this passage gets to the very heart of the Christian faith, and it is absolutely vital to our calling. How? I think Jesus is concerned with three things.

1. Rekindling the fear of God

Remember that throughout this section of the Sermon, Jesus is showing us what true righteousness is in the light of his demand: ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (5.20). So each time he takes up a new subject he is showing us how far we fall short of his standard.

When it comes to commitments and promises we are exactly like Jesus’ original audience; we all have ways of graduating our level of seriousness, from half-hearted to iron-clad commitments.

The Jews knew that they ought not swear on God’s name (because of the Third Commandment not to take God's name in vain). If they broke such a vow they would be guilty of blasphemy. So, instead, they found inventive ways of making lower grade vows. That’s why Jesus talks about swearing on heaven, or on earth, or on Jerusalem — they're all substitutes for swearing on God's name. Later in this Gospel he ridicules the way people would make a distinction: an oath sworn on the Temple is relaxed, but an oath sworn on the gold of the Temple is binding. An oath sworn on the altar is relaxed, but an oath sworn on the gift on the altar is binding (see Matthew 23.16-22).

Are we any different? Definitely not. We have all ticked that box on websites that says, ‘I confirm that I have read and understood the terms and conditions’. That is a legally binding act, but very few people take it seriously. How many of us take our RSVPs seriously to Facebook invitations? Even marriage, a covenant oath of the highest order, is considered a two-way, in-and-out commitment.

So how does Jesus deal with this tendency to make a distinction between more and less serious commitments? He shows that theologically it makes no sense. Swearing on heaven, earth, or Jerusalem, is just as binding as swearing on God’s name. Why? Because God owns heaven, earth, and Jerusalem. In fact, Jesus says, God owns your head also (since he is the only one who has the power to change your hair colour).

John Stott put it like this: ‘However hard you try… you cannot avoid some reference to God, for the whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate him from any of it’. 

It may sound ridiculous, but it means that even our most casual commitments are, in effect, the most serious and binding sort of oaths in God’s eyes. There are no casual commitments or ‘white lies’.

All the way through this part of the Sermon Jesus has been showing us that we are so badly mistaken when we try and blur the edges of what holiness and righteousness are. We are content with being vaguely good. But Jesus is showing us here that we are, basically, perjurers in God’s court of law.

2. Reshaping the image of God

Why is truthfulness so important to Jesus? Because he understands truth and lies to be the great dividing line between the Two Kingdoms. This is odd to our ears because these days, largely speaking, we’ve dropped the language of ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ when we’re talking about religious ideas. Francis Schaeffer described how we’ve separated different kinds of ideas into two stories. There is Lower Story truth that concerns scientific knowledge and the things about which we can be certain. There there is Upper Story truth — the place where we’ve put all the competing claims of religion and decided that they’re equally valid and we can't really know if they're true or not.

But Jesus is hardline and black-and-white on the issue of truth. He spoke about those who didn’t believe in him as being sons of their father, the Devil (John 8.38-45). In other words, when we perpetuate lies we’re doing the Devil’s work and carrying the family likeness. A lie is a force for destruction, since the Fall was set in motion by a lie. To lie is to do the Devil’s work.

In contrast, Jesus loved truth and spoke what he heard from the Father (John 8.38), since God is the fountain of all truth. It follows that to be a truth-teller is to embody the image of God more perfectly. 

God is the one who cannot break his oath (Hebrews 6.17-20), so that his word is our anchor and hope that goes beyond the curtain, into God’s very throne room, and gives us a certainty amidst all of life’s confusion and turmoil. 

What does all this mean? It means that to be a person of integrity and honesty is to walk in the likeness of God, to be reshaped in his image. God never lies. He is always faithful.

So, how is your timekeeping? When you understand that God created time and is always on time, you will realise that being punctual is not a matter of personality, it’s profoundly theological.

How well do you keep deadlines? God is true to his commitments, and never late. So, to keep a deadline is divine.

How well do you keep other commitments? Are you wholly committed to your local church? God is. Are you wholly committed to your friends? God has shown us what faithfulness is. 

Do you take care of other people’s property? Do you show up to events or meetings if you’ve said you will?

To walk in such integrity — where your Yes and No are literally what you mean — is to grow in the image of God.

3. Relaying the word of God

Remember that Jesus’ bigger concern throughout the Sermon is to set out his kingdom manifesto. He is basically answering the question, What do my disciples look like? 

A little earlier on he has told us that his disciples are salt and light. It speaks of purity, but it also speaks of the effect we are meant to have on the world around us. So, each of the subjects Jesus’ tackles (anger, lust, etc.) is deeply related to us becoming more salty, more bright.

And so the bigger point here is that our integrity massively affects our witness as word-bearers and truth-tellers. Paul is very clear on this issue in his own work as a missionary. He stresses again and again his effort to walk in integrity so as to make his witness more effective:

Was I vacillating when I wanted to do this? Do I make my plans according to the flesh, ready to say ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No. (1 Corinthians 1.17-18)

A little later in the same letter:

We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (1 Corinthians 6.3-10)

Paul is saying that he lived his life so that every part of it would lend credibility to the gospel, and make it easier for people to believe him. And as you can see, he specifically mentions his honesty: ‘by truthful speech’ (v.7).

Being honest people makes our message more readily believed, and this is especially true when you consider that our message is a demand for people to trust. We are calling for people to bet their entire lives on this message, and learn that God is faithful and can be trusted. As the hymn puts it:

His oath, His covenant, His blood, 
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.

If we are to call people to rely upon a trustworthy God who is rock-like in his dependability, it is so vital that we also grow as people who are utterly dependable, totally faithful, completely honest.