DUNCAN/God’s law vs. human tradition: Part IV
Please turn with me in your Bible to Matthew 5:33-37 as we continue our study of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. In this passage, Christ is applying the law specifically in the hearts of the people. Jesus’ words here hit close to home to every single one of us because here He is calling His disciples to tongue righteousness. He is calling on us to have godly speech. As such, we see two important things in these verses. First, we see how Jesus addresses false vows. Secondly, we observe how Jesus rebukes false vows.
I. Jesus Addresses False Vows.
In verse 33, Jesus addresses what the Pharisees were teaching regarding false vows, and that brings to mind two things. First of all, what Moses originally intended by his words; and secondly, what the Pharisees were teaching. In verse 33 Jesus says, “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’” It is important to remember that vows were common then, as they are now. Vows were a solemn way that a person could commit himself or herself to the performance of a particular duty. Vows were also a way of calling down a higher judgment upon ourselves. Vows were a way of solemnizing an agreement, an arrangement, and a promise. And the Pharisees were teaching that this was very important in the context of their testimony in court. And thus far, that was of course, absolutely true. In each of these passages, in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the emphasis was on our being truthful in our intentions and in our performance of our promise.
But the Pharisees restricted the scope of this commandment. They misread it and they misinterpreted it. They stressed that this command required an external refraining from perjuring oneself in social, and civil, and legal situations. But Jesus is saying that this commandment means much more than that. This commandment is spiritual. It extends to the heart. This commandment is more than merely external. It is internal. It has to do with all of our truthfulness before the living God. And so, the Lord Jesus is derisive of the Pharisees teaching of this command because they had taught the people that they could somehow keep this command as long as they did not perjure themselves.
II. Jesus Rebukes False Vows.
Furthermore, the Pharisees apparently were teaching that vows that were in the name of the Lord were somehow more rigidly binding than vows that were not made in the name of the Lord. And so Jesus gives His interpretation of the truth in verses 34-37. Specifically, Jesus says, “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, of by earth, for it is the footstool of His foot, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. Nor, shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be ‘yes, yes’ or ‘no, no’ anything else beyond this, is of evil.”
There have been many Christians who have asserted that Jesus is teaching that no Christian ought to take a civil or a religious oath or vow. They take His words, which read, “make no oath at all” to be an absolute prohibition to believers in the taking of civil oaths. However, it is not oath taking, per say, that the Lord Jesus opposes. Jesus is opposing all speech in which the person making a promise or a commitment is equivocating in their heart. Jesus is opposing all speech which knows one thing to be true in the heart, but actually speaks another thing. Jesus is opposing all rash oath taking. Jesus is opposing all unnecessary swearing. Jesus is teaching us that we ought not swear at all, except where it is our duty. Jesus goes on to say that we ought to be careful of making promissory oaths. He is reminding us that we need to be careful about making promises to fulfill certain vows that we are not able to keep.
There are two great points that Christ makes in this passage. The first is to recognize that every commitment we make, no matter what terms we use, is a commitment in the name of the living God. Jesus is reminding us that the third commandment is at stake every time we speak. This is because the third commandment says that we are not to take up the name of the Lord our God in vain. And therefore, when we speak, we speak as representatives of the living God. Secondly, He also stresses that our speech must look out for the best interest of our neighbors. Why is it that people lie? Well, some people lie in order to take advantage of us. Some people have malicious purposes in their intentions. Sometimes we lie to flatter others. We don’t want to discourage the person. Other times we fear the consequences of our speech. So we would much rather lie and avoid those consequences than face those consequences. All of these are ways in which we are tempted to be untruthful, but Christ is telling us that God demands godly speech.
Christ’s words have application to us, no matter who we are and no matter where we are. For unbelievers, Christ’s words are a reminder to you that you need the grace of God. You need the grace of God to spare you from your sins because you are locked in a pattern of untruth. Lying destroys human relationships. Unbeliever, if you have engaged in the sin of lying, you know insidious it is. You know how it wraps itself around you and you know how one lie leads to another. Christ is reminding you that the patterns of lying teach you that you are a sinner. And the fact that you are a sinner teaches you that you need a Savior. To believers, Christ is saying that you are not perfected, you are not entirely sanctified, and you are not free from sin. The continuation of struggling with tongue sins which reeks so much havoc both in families and in congregations reminds us that we need to grow in the Lord. We need the continuing sanctifying work of the Spirit in our life and we need to run back to Christ.
Christ’s words in this passage are for both believers and unbelievers. For unbelievers, Jesus’ words are a diagnosis of your condition and a reminder that you need grace. For believers, they are a reminder that we need humility for we all fall short. Christ’s words are a reminder that we live a life of repentance and a reminder that we must always be involved in an ongoing quest of sanctification. May we strive to use godly speech in our interactions with others always depending upon the grace of God in Christ.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at email@example.com.