Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the oaths you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by earth, for it is His footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘yes,’ or ‘no’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
As we have seen already, Jesus challenges our ways of thinking. He is very much against those who teach that salvation can be obtained by slavish devotion to the law. He also showed that literalism in interpretation of the law means that you will fall a long way short of the standard that is acceptable to the Father, and that by such means you will not enter into the Kingdom.
He challenges His followers to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. And, of course, we know that such righteousness is obtainable to all of us, not through any works that we can do, but because of the work that Jesus did in offering Himself as a sacrifice for us all on the cross of Calvary.
We have already seen previous statements by Jesus that began with the phrase: “You have heard that it was said.” He then goes on to quote scripture from the Old Testament. And after that He shows the difference between the standards of men and that of God.
The swearing of oaths is the subject here. Giving and receiving promises comes under this category. But Jesus challenges us to think about the whole area of what is happening here. He is not impressed by the idea that we can swear on this or by that. And what are we really doing when we do that? And why do we do it?
The why is the easier question to answer. Jesus tells us that to mean more than our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ comes from the evil one. And why is this? It is surely a statement about the fallen nature of mankind. The fact that we can’t trust each other to be true to our words. And if we can’t be true to our words, then we make of them a lie. And we read in more than one place in the scriptures of how the evil one, Satan, is the father of all lies.
So you made a promise that you did not keep? You said you would do something and then failed to do it? You said you would not do something, and yet you did it anyway? Then you have let something happen in your life that has it’s source in the evil one. And yet, which of us has not been guilty of such things at one time or another in our lives? And so which one of us has not opened a door to the evil one?
And so it is that there came this idea of swearing an oath, maybe by heaven or on the Bible, or on your mother’s grave, or one of any number of other phrases that I have heard. Some of these are really not very nice phrases when you think about it (and I don’t like the ‘on my mother’s grave’ phrase that I have heard quite often in recent months).
These are attempts to add more weight to the promises, to give them more meaning and to make it seem more serious if the promise is broken. And here we begin to see the repeated theme of Jesus: that there is a big difference between the following of the letter of the law, and the spirit of obedience that would be pleasing to the Father. These things said long ago about oaths come from the fact that we are a fallen species, full of sinfulness, and so can’t be trusted. But the standard that the Father requires is simple trustworthiness. And for that, all you need is for your ‘yes’ to mean yes, and your ‘no’ to mean no – and for people to be able to trust and to believe whatever you say. That you stand or fall by your word, and for you not to keep to your word is the same as not keeping an oath.
So, even today, we have this feeling that to break an oath is more serious than to fail to do something you said you would do, or to do something that you said you would not do. And yet, before the Father, your normal speaking, without oaths, is your word – and that to break your word is to fail before the Father.
And so we come back to the words of Jesus where He told His followers that their righteousness needs to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Followers of the law are able to quote the Old Testament scripture and so claim that they do right. But we need to see that Jesus quoted the same scripture and so was able to show just how far short we fall from the standard that is acceptable to the Father.
Is this to make us feel like failures? Is it supposed to make us even more careful what we say and to worry over speech? In no way! That is legalism and it is to again bind yourself in chains of bondage. Jesus came to set us free of such things. Whoever is set free in Jesus is free indeed!
So what are we to do? It is quite easy really. We need to see even our tongues and our words as sacrificed with Christ on the Cross of Calvary.
Salvation is much more than prising open the doors of heaven for the few who accept and believe the words of Christ (many think that is what it is, but actually that alone will not bring you salvation). It is a much wider work. Everything about our lives and our bodies, these things can be reckoned as dead with Christ, identifying with His death for us on the Cross. So that every part of our bodies and every part of our being can be reckoned as new life and sanctified to God. As Paul said in Romans, he who is dead can no longer sin.
In the same way, our tongues and our words can be, and are, subject to this redeeming work of Christ our saviour. And here is the big game-changer: as redeemed and sanctified new creations, we are no longer part of a fallen mankind, but part of another race temporarily living here on earth, and ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven.
And if we are no longer a part of the fallen race, then why is there any need of oaths? For swearing by this or by that or on the Bible? That is from the evil one, because fallen man cannot be trusted to keep his word. But as citizens of heaven, born again, redeemed and sanctified by the precious sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, we have different standards. And so we no longer have any use for oaths and for swearing promises. For us, our ‘yes’ means yes, and our ‘no’ means no – and people will see this difference in us: that we are completely trustworthy.
Of course we are all works in progress, and not one of us has the right to point the finger of judgement at another. How I wish it was different! How I wish that I was already living a perfected life! And for all those who wish to please our Lord, I imagine similar thoughts and feelings.
But each day we can come before the Lord and ask that our words that we speak can be pleasing to Him, and to ask for forgiveness when we fall short of the standard that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.