Read Matthew 5:33-37.
Eternal Truth: Truthfulness in word and deed is a benchmark of the life of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
There is no substitute for contextual honesty.
When Jesus began, “YOU HAVE HEARD IT SAID TO THE PEOPLE,” He may have been referring to opinions, not Scripture. His purpose was served by exposing the downsides to oath-taking.
Swearing an oath doesn’t guarantee honesty or follow-through. Oaths can be JUST WORDS. Like all legalisms, it can be used as an excuse, a way to dodge the truth. It ranks certain situations as requiring more truthfulness than other situations. Most importantly, oath-taking is actually based on distrust.
Jesus correctly identified the main Old Testament concern about vows and oaths; “DO NOT BREAK YOUR OATH.” In these verses, Jesus is not directly quoting, but alluding to several Scriptures: Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-24. Oath-breaking is forbidden. Making an oath and not keeping it is the worst. It is a sin; it destroys trust and harms all relationships.
Oath-taking was practiced and commanded in the Bible. Deuteronomy 10:20 requires swearing by God’s name. God swore by Himself (Genesis 9:9-11; Luke 1:68+73; Acts 2:27-31) and confirmed His promises with an oath (Hebrews 6:17).
SO, if God swore oaths, why is Jesus unconditionally setting it aside? Remember Jesus’ self-declared mission to fulfill the Law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). His divine authority and mission gave Jesus the right and responsibility to set aside portions of Old Testament Law and replace the legalisms with principles founded on the higher and better command to love.
Oath-faking is also forbidden. Swearing an oath to make a lie seem sincere is not any kind of honesty. The person who swears such an oath is guilty of a great foolishness.
In all, Jesus’ teaching makes oath-taking unnecessary. If we are consistently, reliably honest, we don’t need an oath to back up what we say. If people know they can count on us to tell the truth, we won’t need to prop up our words with vows or oaths. That is why He taught, “BUT I TELL YOU DO NOT SWEAR AT ALL”
The first reason for this prohibition is that we’ve nothing to confirm our oaths. Jesus lists four things, in descending order, that Jews of his day used for oath-making. He explained why each didn’t work.
“BY HEAVEN, FOR IT IS GOD’S THRONE” We don’t rule over heaven, God does. It is not ours to use as relational collateral.
“BY THE EARTH, FOR IT IS HIS FOOTSTOOL.” While we claim to own pieces of the Earth, it is the Lord’s, not ours (1 Corinthians 10:26).
“BY JERUSALEM, FOR IT IS THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING.” One could be a citizen or resident of Jerusalem, but it is truly God’s city (2 Chronicles 6:6).
“BY YOUR HEAD, FOR YOU CANNOT MAKE ONE HAIR WHITE OR BLACK.” Well, not by mere willpower anyway.
The second reason is profound in its simplicity; oaths are like collateral offered for a loan; proof that you will fulfill the terms of the agreement. It’s simpler to just be honest.
As Jesus said, “SIMPLY LET YOUR ‘YES’ BE ‘YES’ AND YOUR ‘NO’ BE ‘NO’.” Life is easier and communication is more effective when we just tell the truth. The convoluted legalisms of the Jewish traditions of Jesus’ day and the stacks of laws in our own day are rendered unnecessary when citizens of the messianic kingdom just tell the truth.
Verbal nuances, splitting hairs, and legalistic evasions are condemned as sin in His statement; “ANYTHING BEYOND THIS [a simple “Yes” and “No”] COMES FROM THE EVIL ONE.” Similarly, in John 8:44, He exposed Satan as the Father of all lies. In Matthew 23:16-22 He pointed out the Pharisees’ abuse of oaths.
These two reasons are cause enough to forbid the swearing of oaths entirely, as found in Jesus’ words “AT ALL.” This unequivocal prohibition makes a problem – what do we do with this teaching?
We are so prone to excuse-making, self-deception and outright lying, we need this standard to keep us from self-serving falsehood. However, Jesus is not a lawmaker. We need to be careful not to turn this teaching into a law. It is an outcome of love for our neighbor. Because we love, we tell the truth. To have a comprehensive view, we combine it with what is taught elsewhere in the Bible.
In Exodus 20:16, the ninth Commandment forbids false testimony against one’s neighbor. James 1:26 states IF ANYONE CONSIDERS HIMSELF RELIGIOUS AND YET DOES NOT KEEP A TIGHT REIN ON HIS TONGUE, HE DECEIVES HIMSELF AND HIS RELIGION IS WORTHLESS.
How do we hold all this together? By what I call “contextual honesty.” By “contextual” I mean paying attention to the situation; avoid giving offense and betraying secrets. By “honesty” I mean to be as truthful as you can. It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It may not be good to voice everything you think. Monitor your speech.
There are several levels of honesty.
I list them in ascending order, from the least truthful to the most. We must recognize that Jesus standard of simple honesty must be combined with His command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This love will cause us to be sensitive to our neighbor and seek to avoid giving offense in our words and deeds.
DISHONESTY has the least amount of truth to it; it involves lying all or most of the time, out of mental illness or self-interest. It is characterized by violating trust; notkeeping promises or confidences.
SELFISH HONESTY is lying occasionally or “shading” the truth for personal benefit. Behaviorally, this person may appear to be inconsistent, but is consistently acting in self-interest, even to the detriment of others.
CONVENIENT HONESTY occurs when people tell the truth only when no personal loss is perceived. Decisions about service to others is based on whether or not such action is convenient.
CONTEXTUAL HONESTY is motivated by a devotion to the truth regardless of self-interest. It places the will of God and the good of others before self. It pays heed to the context of the situation. Actions are conscientiously truthful as guided by God’s commands, without falling prey to perfectionism.
BRUTAL HONESTY May be the most accurate, but is truthful without considering God and/or the good of others. The Bible condemns unguarded speech; saying “I’m just being honest is not an excuse for boorish insensitivity. This often stems from perfectionism; setting unrealistic and unbiblical standards for self and others.
May Colossians 4:6 serve as another guard on our speech: LET YOUR CONVERSATION BE ALWAYS FULL OF GRACE, SEASONED WITH SALT, SO THAT YOU MAY KNOW HOW TO ANSWER EVERYONE.
Being honest does not require you to answer every question, tell everything you know or think or feel. It is equally honest to say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “I can’t talk about it,” as it is to spill your guts. when stuck between the ethical demands of honesty and keeping a confidence, choose silence and simply let the other person know you have nothing more to say on that subject. To cease the conversation honestly is better than lying. Among Kingdom citizens, oaths are unnecessary; by means of the Holy Spirit, we live in the simple truth instead of complicated excuses and lies.
REMEMBER to make your words sweet as you may have to eat them later!