5. "Small Words, Huge Impact"

Matthew 5:33–37

This current passage, Matthew 5:33–37, is about oaths and vows. It may seem a little anticlimactic after all the discussion last week in 5:21–26, and before we study next week's 5:27–32, since both passages cover murder, adultery, eye-plucking, and hand-lopping. But the issue Jesus is addressing here goes to the very core of a person’s character — to the heart of what it means to live as a child of God.
For us who are his children, our Father’s words show us how to live. May we desire to turn the light of his truth upon our own hearts, first and foremost.

Small Words, Huge Impact

Matthew 5:33–37 [Click to open, re-click to close, this and all other links.]
33"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' 34But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

The Nature and Heart of God

In the last three sessions, we've seen Jesus fleshing out the nature of true righteousness. What we've found is that true righteousness is reflected on the very righteousness of God. The laws of how to treat each other and how to relate to God flowed from the very nature and heart of God.

So, Jesus tells His listeners earlier in this sermon, 17"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. that he's come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. In Jesus, the completion of the law becomes flesh. It's no longer just a written code that points to righteousness; it's given heart. It's lived out from Jesus’ very being. It now reflects perfectly back to God; his own righteousness in human form. After all, Kingdom living requires a Kingdom heart.

God Is; God Loves; God Remains

In the examples that Jesus gives of the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we see reflected "the righteousness of God."

  • God is fully right, or righteous towards us.
  • God is not divided towards us, either in his words or his thoughts.
  • God loves us, and his words to us and thoughts of us always spring out of that love.
  • God remains faithful to himself and therefore to us, even in the face of our unfaithfulness.

Jesus is asking his listeners to consider the nature of true righteousness in the last few passages that we've studied. He's showing them that righteousness is more deep, real, and solid than they may have come to believe. Righteousness towards others involves our words; even our thoughts. That's because true righteousness flows out of a righteous being. Only Jesus can fulfill the law and have a righteousness that exceeds whatever the scribes and Pharisees have been able to do.

Jesus begins this passage, as he has previously, by reminding his listeners of what they already know. "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'" The issue at hand here is one of integrity. The Israelites were commanded to faithfully do what they'd sworn to do. People were to be able to count on the oath they'd made.

A Matter of "Black or White"

But over time, what had developed was a system of oaths that would enable people to look trustworthy, but not be held accountable to do what they'd "promised" to do. Depending on what you swore by — on the name of the Lord, on the temple, on the altar, on what was placed on the altar, and so on — you were more or less obligated to do what you said you would. It became a task of the rabbis to sort out and decide which of these various oaths were completely binding.

Jesus, refers indirectly to Isaiah 66:1 ("This is what the LORD says: 'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.'") to remind his listeners that all of creation belongs to God. The idea that there may be some parts of the world that God has nothing to do with, allowing us to swear by them without God being involved is ridiculous. He goes on and warns against swearing by one’s head, because "you cannot even make one hair white or black." This statement points out our powerlessness. We have no capacity by sheer willpower, to change the color of our hair. What business do we have swearing by our heads, then?

Righteousness — right relationship — involves becoming one who is true to his promises. Here, Jesus is saying that integrity and honesty go deeper than that. Integrity does not require a promise or an oath at all. The oath or promise implies that there are times when our words cannot be counted on because they are simple and honest, so we have to add these things to convince another that this time we will be bound by what we say we'll do.

No Slippage Between Words and Deeds

Today, we don't have an elaborate system of objects by which to swear. We'll sometimes try to sound more convincing with the words, "I promise" or "I swear," but that's often as far as it goes.

Sometimes, we say "maybe" instead of "yes" or "no" because we think it makes us look more open than we truly are. Unfortunately this often forces the other person to remain suspended in a position of indecision and ambiguity. That inhibits trust. It even prevents cooperation and fellowship. A "maybe" doesn't invite trust, confidence, or partnership.

To have your "Yes" be "Yes," and your "No," "No," means that there's no slippage between what you say and what you do. You don't appear to be anything else than who you truly are.

Our word (oath or promise) and actions then become signs or pointers to God's integrity. The reason that letting your yes be yes and your no be no is part of that righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It's because God himself has no slippage between his words to us and his actions. We can completely count on God’s word to be backed up by his action.

We are called to be people of integrity. We are to keep our promises. We are to praise God at all times.

Jesus reveals to us the true heart of God. We can trust that God will always be faithful to himself and to us as well. Jesus is God’s word, God’s "Yes" to us! How wonderful it is to know that he is faithful and can be trusted always to be true to himself.

A Few Practical Questions

Hearty brothers: Jesus emphasized in his teaching that honest people do not need to resort to oaths. How do you answer these three questions today?

  1. The Pharisees had elaborate formulas for oaths: some binding; some not (see Matthew 23:16–22). Why is Jesus opposed to oaths?
  2. With Jesus' opposition to oaths, should we refuse to give evidence under oath in a court of law?
  3. Why should oaths be unnecessary for Jesus' followers?

The real implication of the law in verse 33 is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Then, vows become unnecessary.

As Christians, our simple answers should carry all the weight needed to convince people that we're honest and reliable, that we follow through on what we promise. People should be able to trust us because of our character that's rooted in Christ.

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