Welcome to the official beginning of a new academic year. It’s terrific to see you here this afternoon and I hope you enjoy the celebrations. There is tremendous variety as I look around this room this afternoon. Most of us, from a wide range of backgrounds, are preparing for ministry in a church. Some of us have gifts and a passion for ministry among youth. Some of us are hoping to lead a church plant or play a part on a church ministry team. Some of us are preparing for ministry in a school or on a university campus. A significant number of us are looking towards ministry in another land and culture, where there is great gospel need. And some of us have given ourselves to providing the training for those various ministries. Some of us are employing different gifts behind the scenes so that the learning experience here might be the very best it can be. Yet with all that variety there is one thing that is the same: we all see the importance of passing on the words that God has given us. In whatever context we hope to serve, we are all about word-ministry in one form or another. We believe that words matter, and supremely that the words God has given us matter.
So it will be words, words about Jesus and the salvation he has won for us, that we will be sharing with others in the community as we seek to plant a church, with children and young adults in the youth group we lead, with children in school, students at the university, a whole range of people on the mission field. The work of God is real and powerful, creative and restorative. God doesn’t just talk about saving us, he actually saves us. He is spiritually and supernaturally active. Yet the means by which he does this work, the means by which he is spiritually and supernaturally active, is words — the word of the gospel, which is always and ever the powerful way God saves people; the word of God to his people, which is ‘living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow’; the word by which he created the world, brings faith where there was only hardheartedness, offers hope when there was only despair. The church is, as theologians often call it, a creature of the word. The sacraments are visible words which remain always dependent upon the written and spoken word.
We are deliberately and in principle committed to words. Evangelical ministry, in whatever context, and whatever precise form it takes, has this basic word-shape. We believe that the Spirit enables, directs and uses words. He inspired the words of the Bible, he writes those words on our hearts, he gives us the words to say when we find ourselves with the opportunity to testify to Jesus. So the words we use and how we use them are incredibly important to us.
Have you ever stopped to think how counter-cultural we are, just at that very basic point? Not that the community around us is about to give up on words any time soon. But we do find it hard to rely on any particular words, or the truthfulness of any particular speaker of words. There are some really easy targets, aren’t there? Politicians and the media. Truth is a very early casualty when there is a battle for political advantage. In the midst of an election, promises are made that not only aren’t kept but could not possibly be kept. One of the most notorious was made by Prime Minister Bob Hawke on 23 June 1987: ‘By 1990, no Australian child will be living in poverty’. 1990 passed, and then 2000, then 2010, and we are racing towards 2020, and there are still children living in poverty — 730,000 of them in 2016 according to the Australian Council of Social Service. The words of that promise were a grand but empty gesture meant to get people on side. And while they worked — Mr Hawke won the election — they still leave a bitter taste in the mouth more than 30 years later. And the Press have no better record. The bias in the press has become so extreme at points as to be almost laughable. The agenda of particular journalists, on the political right as well as the political left, is obvious to just about everybody. If you, or something you’ve been involved in, has ever been reported in the press, you will know how easily the truth is distorted in the interests of a lively story or in order to serve their own pet cause.
If we are going to be people of the word, then we need to stand out in the way we use words. Truthfulness, reliability, wisdom, humility and compassion ought to characterise the words of those who follow Christ. And the simple reason for that is that the God we serve, the one Jesus taught us to address as Father and to trust completely, is entirely reliable and entirely truthful: he is the God of truth (Is 65.16); his word is utterly reliable, it will accomplish what he intends for it (Is 55.10–11); and he cannot lie (Heb 6.18).
I think it is a good thing, right at the beginning of a new academic year to be reminded of the premium God puts on words, on truthful words, on reliable words. And in God’s providence, the passage we come to this evening, in our ongoing series of sermons on Matthew’s Gospel, addresses precisely this concern. Here is a word from God that we, in our time and space, need to hear again and take very seriously indeed.
For those of us who are new, I’ve been working my way through Matthew’s Gospel in Friday morning chapel. Last year, though, there were so many visitors who preached for us on Fridays that we only inched forwards through the Matthew’s Gospel, and we were still in the Sermon on the Mount at the end of last year. The Sermon on the Mount is the first of the five great blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, interspersed with the narrative of Jesus’ public ministry. Within the sermon itself, Jesus, having explained what the blessed life actually looks like, made an astonishing claim:
I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5.20)
It’s astonishing because the Pharisees, unlike their modern caricatures, were the most serious and devout adherents to the Jewish Law. Their’s was a righteousness that ordinary people viewed with awe. They were the experts in devotion and the experts in radical holiness. But Jesus said ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. What a way to make your audience sit up and listen.
In the verses that follow in Matthew 5, Jesus gives 6 examples of how the Pharisees use the Law of God to avoid the Law of God. They might look holy and righteous from the outside, but the truth is the very opposite. It is possible to play a very convincing game as a religious person because all others can see is what is done out in the open. They don’t see what is happening on the inside, they don’t always see the motive or intention. But in the end, Jesus makes clear, the only way the Pharisees could present themselves as the pinnacle of righteousness, the most serious exponents of God’s Law, was by hedging in the Law, by interpreting it in a minimalist, superficial and purely external way, by looking for and making careful use of any loophole. So, they do not murder; there is no blood on their hands, not literally. But the anger in their heart was the same thing. They did not commit adultery; they had not had sex with anyone other than their spouse. But the lust of their eyes, cultivated carefully in their hearts, was in reality the same thing. They might have a conservative approach to divorce and remarriage, especially in the light of what was going on around them, but when these were about finding a loophole in the promises they had made rather than safeguarding marriage as God intended, it amounted to little more than legalised adultery. And now Jesus turns to our words, our promises, the things we say in the presence of God and he turns the screws again. Remember: ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.
So what does Jesus have to say? Take a look with me at Matthew 5, verses 33 to 37:
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’. But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
It’s not really surprising that Jesus should turn his attention to words, promises and oaths after having just spoken about adultery and divorce. After all, the issue there was faithfulness to God’s creational design and the promises made between a husband and a wife — the covenant of marriage if you like. And now Jesus broadens out to discuss any kind of promise and the integrity of our words more generally.
The passage conveniently divides into three parts:
- The false words of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 33)
- The true words of Jesus (v. 34–37a)
- The deceptive words of the evil one (v. 37b)
Let’s start with the false words of the Pharisees.
1. The false words of the scribes and Pharisees (v.33)
What Jesus quotes in verse 33 is in fact a summary of a number of passages in the Old Testament to do with keeping your word, and the making of oaths. Passages like Numbers 30.2: ‘If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth’. Or Leviticus 19.12: ‘You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord’. Or even Deuteronomy 23.21–23:
If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth.
From passages such as these, it is clear that God takes what his people say seriously. Especially when they promise. Especially when they acknowledge God as a witness to their promise. Now that’s quite bad news in one way, isn’t it? After all we are all chronic liars and we all break promises. None of us has a perfect record in this area. One survey done not so long ago suggested that the average person in the West lies around 80 times a day. Lies, it seems, are a normal part of life. And we start so early. One of our children, as a toddler, once broke something and immediately exclaimed to us ‘Anna did it!’ The problem was that Anna was still at school and had been since 9 o’clock that morning. We start early, but we don’t always start as experts. So if God takes our words seriously, and especially the promises we make to each other seriously, what hope do we have?
When it comes to our promises, we have neat ways of qualifying them after the act when we don’t want to keep them. ‘I didn’t really mean it’, or ‘It was aspirational’, or ‘I meant “If it was really possible …”’ Children learn to make promises with their fingers crossed. I remember one older man saying to those of us wondering whether we should assent to the 39 Articles as Anglicans, ‘Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye! Just sign.’ You don’t have to mean it. You can make those promises about what you believe and what you will teach and you don’t have to believe everything you’re saying. But the Old Testament Law said something very different: ‘you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth’. Your words count.
So how could the Pharisees get around this law and still come out smelling like roses? Well, they carefully qualified what it mean to make a vow to God. In fact, the Jewish rabbis produced a whole tract on oaths in the books we know as the Mishnah. They distinguished what was a binding vow and what was not. Jesus directly confronted the Pharisees about this in Matthew 23:
‘Woe to you’ Jesus said to them, ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath” … And you say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath”.
Can you see what they were doing? They thought they had found a neat way of limiting God’s interest in the words we speak to one another. These are the kind of promises that matter; the others don’t really count. And so of course they were blameless: they had never reneged on the promises that count, just the ones that don’t. There are times when God is interested in us speaking the truth; but there are other times where it doesn’t really matter. That’s the way they thought about it. It’s the same pattern we have seen throughout this section of the Sermon on the Mount: looking for a loophole, creating a loophole, so that they can parade their righteousness while doing what they want. They convinced themselves that God wasn’t interested in ordinary truth-telling, just in the explicit oath made to God. Small, idle promises don’t matter. Little white lies don’t matter.
Sound familiar? We can be very good at rationalising our behaviour and especially that behaviour that, without a rationalisation, would look deeply suspect. ‘It was well intentioned. Life just got in the way.’ ‘Not keeping that promise is really the best thing in the end. They’ll realise that one day.’ ‘God knew I didn’t really mean it. He wouldn’t hold me to that.’ ‘I’m not really a liar. I just try to judge when the truth is most needed.’
Friends, It’s easy to see the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the emptiness of the words of politicians, the agenda bias of the press. But what about in our own use of words — even us, who are supposed to take words so seriously? Even us, who know the importance that God places on words?
Well, Jesus cuts right through the fog and mist, the charade and confusion, with his response in verse 34, doesn’t he?
2. The true words of Jesus (vv.34–37a)
You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’. But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great king. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
It’s very simple. There is no neutral area in which God is not interested in how we behave and in the words we say. So ‘don’t take an oath at all’! Do you think it is only a direct appeal to God’s name that involves him in what you are saying? Think again. Every word we utter is uttered in the sight and hearing of God. You just can’t quarantine your promises from God.
- Swear by heaven: well, it is his throne
- Swear by earth: well its his footstool
- Swear by Jerusalem: it’s the place where he has installed the great King
- Swear by your head — ‘on my head be it’ — well, despite what Loreal might tell you, you can’t change the colour of your hair, you can only cover it
You see, you can’t avoid God and God takes your words seriously – all of them. Words matter to him. What is more, you can’t suggest God is involved here but he is not involved there; that he is interested in your religious vows but not the words you say to your neighbour, the promises you make to your family, or the lies you tell to protect yourself. None of those things happen behind God’s back or somehow away from his presence.
Why do we make oaths in the first place? Why do we promise ‘on my mother’s grave’, or ‘on my life’ or ‘on pain of death’? Why do we feel the need to reinforce our words in this way? Quite clearly, we add these phrases to our promises because we want to emphasise our commitment to keep them. And underlying that is the reality that our promises, on their own, are so often not kept, and our words, on their own, are so often not reliable. It is because we so often don’t take our words seriously — and others know it — that we feel obliged to add some gravity, some seriousness, by turning them into an oath.
And Jesus’ answer is: ‘Just speak the truth’. Be a straight talker. Be a person of your word who doesn’t need it reinforced by anything else. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. It’s precisely because your yes hasn’t always been yes, and your no hasn’t always been no, that you’ve added all the other stuff. Don’t go down that road. Its just a variant of what the Pharisees were doing in quarantining the oaths that matter from the oaths that don’t, and so justifying themselves though they lied and deceived and broke their word at point after point. The giving of an oath should create no greater certainty than when you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
What Jesus does in these verses is contrast the behaviour of the Pharisees, with their use of the Law in order to cover their continued disobedience to the Law, with that of the disciple who knows that ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. You don’t need to take an oath. Our word should be enough.
There are a few people I know, who are well-known as men (or women) of their word. When they tell you they’ll do something, you can count on it. They will do it, as they said, when they said. Everytime. But they stand out because so many of us do not take seriously these words that Jesus taught his disciples. And, like the Pharisees, we look for ways to excuse ourselves, to differentiate the promises that count from those that don’t, the words that define us from those that don’t.
When an oath is a mask for our own general untruthfulness, or a means of seeking our own advantage, we need to face up to what we’re doing. Jesus said to his disciples in the hill country, ‘Don’t take an oath at all’. Just be a person of your word, so reliable that your ‘yes’ is enough; so reliable that your ‘no’ is enough.
Of course God himself takes oaths in the Bible — ‘the oath he swore to our Father Abraham’ Zechariah praised in Luke 1 — but his oaths are never for his sake, they are not a cover for general untruthfulness as though we can count on this word but not the other things he has said, And on a similar ground, arguably, oaths taken in court are given, not for the sake of the person giving them but for the sake of those who hear. They are not a device for avoiding truthfulness or securing our own advantage. These words of Jesus do not necessarily bar us from the requirements of the court or the requirements of a denominational body for that matter.
So Jesus has countered the Pharisees’ use of oaths, as a way of covering their faithless use of words in ordinary life, with simple and straightforward honesty and integrity: ‘let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and let your ‘no’ be ‘no’. For people like us, committed to the importance of words, who handle God’s own words and want to do that with scrupulous truthfulness, humility and submission of our will and reason to what God has to say, this is something we cannot pretend we have not heard. We need to face up to our inclination to lie and to break our promises and to trust in the one whose promises are always reliable and whose word is always true. In the end it is only from him and through him that we can have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
But as with so many messages of Jesus, the sting is in the tail. So in the very last words of this paragraph Jesus warns of the lies of the evil one.
3. The deceptive words of the evil one (v. 37b)
Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Right from the beginning the true words spoken by God were countered by lies spoken by the evil one. ‘In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die’, God had told the man and the woman. ‘You will not surely die’, said the serpent. He was a murderer from the beginning, Jesus told the Jews who were challenging him in John 8. He is a liar and the father of lies. And by playing fast and loose with words, breaking our promises, telling lies, twisting the words of the Scripture that has been given to us, we are following the pattern he set.
It’s that serious. There are only two categories in the end: truth or lies. The great opposition to God and his purposes waged by the Satan is prosecuted by lies. That is the only power he has had from the beginning, the power of the lie. He is working hard to undermine words. He’ll work hard to undermine yours. Because ultimately he wants to undermine the words that God himself has given and which you are called to pass on to others.
Be scrupulous about the truth. That’s something that goes beyond the pretended righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Remember every word, every word, is spoken in the presence of God and he takes words very seriously indeed. Keep your promises. Be reliable and faithful and more like the God you serve — who never lies and never breaks his promises — than like the evil one who has told lies from the beginning.
These are words we need to be reminded of and take seriously at the beginning of a new academic year. If we want people to trust the words we speak — the words of the gospel we have heard from the lips of Jesus and his apostles — then we can’t afford to separate out what matters from what does not. We can’t afford any strategy, no matter how clothed with biblical language, which gives us room to blend truth with untruth, or faithfulness with unfaithfulness. We need to speak the truth to each other. We need to pursue the truth in our studies — recognising that every word we speak or write is uttered in the presence of God. And our words matter to God: how we speak generally provides the context in which people hear how we speak the word of God.
The apostle Paul knew what it meant to put this into practice. He wrote, in 2 Corinthians 4,
We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
So let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’; and let your ‘no’ be ‘no’. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.