The Code of Righteousness: Honesty

33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matthew 5.33-37)

The Righteousness of the Pharisees: Keep Your Oaths To God

On the surface, what the people heard from the Pharisees, “you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord,” would seem to promote and encourage honesty. Their teaching on this matter was not quoted directly from the Law, but alluded to several Old Testament passages:

  • Leviticus 19.12, “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.”
  • Numbers 30.2, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
  • Deuteronomy 23.21-23, “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you. However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised.”

All of these commandments from the Law encouraged honesty and integrity, but in the hands of the Pharisees they had become excuses for dishonesty. They began to make distinctions between binding and non-binding oaths (see Matthew 23.16-22) and required honesty only when a vow had been made to the Lord. “In the Jewish code of law called the Mishnah, there is one whole tractate given over to the question of oaths, including detailed consideration of when they’re binding and when they’re not. For example, one rabbi says that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem, then you are bound by your vow. The swearing of oaths thus degenerates into terrible rules which let you know when you can get away with lying and deception, and when you can’t. These oaths no longer foster truthfulness, but weaken the cause of truth and promote deceit. Swearing evasively becomes justification for lying.” (D.A. Carson) Laws which demanded honesty and integrity had been turned into excuses for deception. Far from encouraging righteousness, the Pharisees had encouraged lying, and thus the judgment of God (see Proverbs 6.16-17; 12.22).

The Righteousness of the Kingdom: Be Honest All The Time!

The righteousness of the Kingdom will tolerate no such deceit! If vows and oaths become an excuse for dishonesty, then the Lord will abolish oaths! Furthermore, He exposes the ridiculous nature of the Pharisees’ rules regarding oaths by showing that ALL oaths are oaths to God. “He sweeps away the vain oaths of the Pharisees with their deceitful subtleties by observing that there is nothing by which they might swear (heaven, earth, Jerusalem, their own head) which was not at last tied directly to God and His power (Matt 5.34–36; 23.16–22). The Lord is simply stressing the essential truth that every word we utter is ‘before God’ and subject to divine judgment (Matt 12.36–37). A simple emphatic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ puts men under no less obligation to tell the truth and honor their promises than the most stringent oath. Oaths were never intended to heighten the swearer’s obligation to tell the truth (that existed already) but to give greater assurance to those who received them (Heb 6.13–18).” (Paul Earnhart) The point of Jesus’ teaching is plain: honesty is a requirement for Kingdom citizens. His people must mean every word which they say, there is no room for deception or falsehood. In the inspired words of James, “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.” (James 5.12).

But does this mean that every taking of an oath, every making of a promise, is in fact a sin? Brethren have long debated this issue, questioning whether even practices such as taking an oath in court might be sinful. Consider a few points from Scripture:

  1. In the Law of Moses, God permitted the taking of oaths, even oaths in His name (Deuteronomy 10.20).
  2. Both God (Acts 2.30; Hebrews 6.17; 7.20-21) and His angels (Revelation 10.5-6) have sworn oaths.
  3. Paul routinely swore by the name of God (Romans 1.9; 9.1; 2Cor. 1.23; 11.31; Galatians 1.20; Philippians 1.8).

How are we to reconcile these facts with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.33-37? As usual, context is key. The oaths spoken of favorably in Scripture were made by those who always kept their word, but found the taking of an oath a way to give added assurance to others. This is in contrast to the Pharisees who would only be true to their word if the right vow were taken. Truly, disciple of Christ need not take oaths. When we speak, people should know that we intend to keep every word. And if honesty and integrity are part of our character, then any promise we make or oath we take will only add to the assurance that we mean to keep our word.

Our God cannot lie (Titus 2.1). This fact is vital to us, for it gives assurance that He will keep His word to us (Hebrews 10.23) and that His will for us is what we truly need (2Timothy 3.16-17). Since He is defined by honesty, we must become like Him (Colossians 3.9; Ephesians 4.15). We, His people, are the “pillar and support of the truth” (1Timothy 3.15). What great disservice we render our God when we fail to keep our word, when we cloud His truth with our dishonesty. “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,’ or ‘No, I won’t.’ Anything beyond this is from the evil one.” (Matthew 5.37 NLT).

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