Jan. 25, 09 INTRODUCTION – I know some of you are deeply concerned about some of the decisions President Obama has made in the first three days of his first week as our President. I have sought to pray for him every day since he was elected, and have already written him two letters. But for you and I to be of any use to him and to our country, we need to make our priority to become more like Jesus, and to truly be “wholly His”. You and I cannot control President Obama’s decisions. We CAN control our own.
When Jesus Christ was building His church from ground zero, He spent a lot of time early on helping His disciples catch this truth. Was He concerned about the unrighteous policies and rule of King Herod and other political leaders in His day? You bet He was. But He knew only disciples change the world. And He knew one of the best ways to make disciples was to create a kingdom culture or a standard of ethics and values that would radically set apart His people from those of the world – – and that would give them moral and spiritual authority to expose the darkness and proclaim the truth.
Thus He gathered His disciples upon a mountain – soon after He began His ministry, and began to teach them what we typically call “the sermon on the mount.” The overwhelming emphasis in this 3 chapter teaching is the growth and transformation of His disciples. Were there ungodly political leaders and structures that desperately needed to be cleaned up and reformed in that day? Yes! But that much needed reformation would only happen if the church was pursuing its own transformation, and learning in the process – to use spiritual weapons to bring down spiritual strongholds – – that are the real reason behind why we have so many ungodly political leaders and unrighteous structures, organizations or ideologies in our nation today.
As we have slowly walked our way through the first chapter of this 3 chapter teaching, it has become clear that one of the primary things Jesus Christ was after with His disciples then, and with us today – is that we pursue and grow in true righteousness. He said early on that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied people. He said those who are persecuted because of their righteous living in an unrighteous world are truly blessed. And then He said in vs. 20 that “unless the righteousness of His disciples surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees – – the top religious leaders of His day – -we will not even enter the kingdom of heaven.” This was a pivotal statement, and an interpretive landmark for the rest of this long teaching.
There are two ways to understand what true righteousness is and how to apprehend it. The first is to study Jesus’s teaching and examples of it. The second is to learn from the negative example of the Pharisees and Scribes. As we pursue righteousness in our lives individually and corporately today, beyond the challenge we have of walking this out in an increasingly postmodern, secular, hedonistic society; we also have the very real snare of being drawn into the hypocrisy and empty religion of those who claim to represent God, but in fact are whitewashed tombs as Jesus put it.
So to help us with this challenge – Jesus – starting in vs. 21 – began to give us a series of six examples of teachings or sayings of the scribes and Pharisees that seemed righteous and based on scripture, but in fact were diversions from the real thing.
As you go through these examples – you learn that they had a propensity to dwell on the letter of the law, but miss the spirit or the heart behind the letter. Thus with the first one, they taught that God’s command to not murder merely spoke to those who actually physically murdered someone – – never dealing with the inner attitudes that eventually led to the murder, that most of us are guilty of. When they expounded on God’s command against adultery, they merely dealt with those men or women who physically committed the act of adultery with someone of the opposite sex – – never dealing with the lust issue, which all of us are guilty of, and which is what eventually breaks down one’s defenses, and leads him or her into the vicious trap of adultery. When they expounded on God’s commands regarding divorce, they watered it down, not dealing with how God truly feels about us bouncing from one relationship to another, and the consequences of such on both parties. And that brings us to our passage for today, which starts in vs. 33 and goes through vs. 37. In each of these six examples of true righteousness based on the Old Testament law, Jesus Christ first quotes the Pharisees and Scribes – – as they sought to expound this same law. Typically they latched on to a segment of the law that they then put their own spin on, so they could create a righteousness that did not require internal change and the breaking of one’s will, but rather outward conformity to a religiously cloaked – man made law.
Please note that when Jesus says in each of these examples, “You have heard that it was said…. But I say to you..” He is not trumping or dissing the Old Testament law. He has already said in Matt. 5:17 that He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill the law. He is rather giving us the true intent or meaning of that particular law.
I. The Old Testament Background – – In this case, there is no quote in the Old Testament that word for word says, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” We believe several passages are probably being referenced here. Lev. 19:12; Numb. 30:12 & Deut. 23:21 Evidently the Hebrews or Israelites had a tendency to try to bolster their sincerity and influence and authority by resorting to vows and oaths. Thus the prophet Hosea said of them in the 10th chapter of his book, “They speak mere words, with worthless oaths they make covenants.”
Worthless oaths are oaths that people do not keep. And as I have surveyed many passages in the Old testament about oaths and vows, it seems to me one of God’s main concerns is that if we make a vow or an oath – we keep them. And that we not use them to manipulate a desired result. If there is anything that should characterize a person who walks with the Living God who never changes, and who does not and cannot lie – – it is that we are a people whose word is our bond; and whose reputation and influence does not need constantly reinforced by many words.
Well the Jewish leaders found a way to get around this. Barclay in his commentary says they often taught and practiced the law that if you swore an oath or vow using God’s name, you had to fulfill that vow. But if you swore an oath or a vow by something other than God, like heaven, or by the earth, or by Jerusalem, then it sounded spiritual, which might give you weight in getting the agreement or trust you are after, but it is no big deal if you have to break it down the road, because you did not swear by God’s name.
Jesus’s rebuttal to that was – – it is all owned or made or inhabited by God, and thus cannot be compartmentalized.
God has always been intensely interested in the words that come out of our mouths. Much of the book of Proverbs deals with righteous vs. unrighteous speech. God commands us early on in that book to “Put away from you a deceitful mouth, And put devious lips far from you.” 4:24 So why do people tend to get in trouble with oaths and vows? Why do we resort to such things in our interactions with one another? Why in our culture do people still say things like, “I swear to God”, or “I swear on a stack of Bibles”, or “God is my witness”, or “God as my witness” or “I guarantee you such and such is true”, or “If such and such doesn’t happen, I will kiss your foot”, etc.? Let me give you a couple of reasons.
1. Because we often speak out of our emotion or passion. Numb. 30:2f (read through vs. 8) Ex. Of King Herod with his daughter – She danced for his dinner party and did such an impressive job, that out of the emotion of the moment – King Herod made an oath – that he would give her whatever she wanted. She then consulted with her wicked mother – – who said – tell the King you want the head of John the Baptist – – she did that – – and King Herod felt he had no choice, but to fulfill his oath or vow. The scripture said, he was grieved, but went on with it anyways. Prov. 20:25 “It is a snare for a man to say rashly, “It is holy!” And after the vows to make inquiry.” In other words – vows made rashly – out of emotion and not a deep thought through conviction – trip us up and only make things worse – whether it is in our homes, businesses or wherever.
Prov. 29:20 “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Rash and hasty words, oaths or vows are snares that will trip us up, and cause pain and heartache time after time.
Do you know what Jesus said when He heard that King Herod had impulsively and unjustly murdered and decapitated his cousin and co-laborer in the gospel? Nothing. If I were Jesus, I probably would have said something like, “ Before my dying day, I am going to make sure King Herod pays for this.” Or “You let King Herod know that I will never let him hear the end of this.”
The scripture says in Matt. 14:13, “Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself” Jesus Christ did not fall into the snare of speaking out of his emotion and pain. He sought time alone with His Father, who alone could deal with that pain, and help Him see clearly what to do about it. One of the reasons we sometimes resort to oaths, vows and swearing is because someone just did it toward us….
The second reason why I think we resort to vows, oaths and swearing is… 2. Because we are weak in character. Because our word hasn’t been our bond, and thus our yes or no alone will not get the job done – we resort to manipulation with our words, expressions and tone of voice.
The problem often in our society is we do not have the integrity capital that comes from a lifestyle of meaning what we say, and only saying what we mean. If we have to bolster our responses or commitments with some vow or oath, it is because we are not known to be trustworthy, and/or we haven’t developed the faith and trust in the Lord to let Him deal with what people think of us, or how they respond to us.
When I was in my late elementary and middle school years we had a gang of boys that ran around together and often spent the night together. One of the members of our gang of six or so was a guy named Spiff (not really his name). For whatever reasons, Spiff learned early to lie, and to try to convince people of his honesty and earnestness by swearing and taking oaths and vows. Over time the rest of us guys would literally form a huddle after one of Spiff’s classic lies and make a judgment on whether we believed it, which almost always was a negative judgment. Then we would cry out in unison “Check”, which meant we all agreed Spiff was lying again. Because we grew more and more skeptical of his integrity, he grew more and more adamant and creative with his ways and means to convince us that this time he was being honest and sincere, and really would fulfill his vow or intention.
The reality is – if you are born again – you have a new self or a new nature that at its core is honest and forthright. This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 4:24, where he says, “and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” “Therefore” he says in vs. 25, “having put away falsehood (or the lifestyle of falsehood), let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
Two reasons given here for speaking truth and not falsehood.
First because the new nature we received when we asked Christ to come into our lives has given us the capacity and resources to be honest and truthful.
Second, because we are now a member of the people of God – the body of Christ – – we no longer need to control and manipulate to get our way and make a name for ourselves. We can’t get a higher name than being a child of God and a son or daughter of the King! There is nothing on earth that we can belong to that gives us more purpose and importance than being a member of the body of Christ or the household of God. Listen folks – for us to have a crack at being “Wholly His”, we have to allow the Holy Spirit to clean up our speech; and for the Holy Spirit to clean up our speech, we have to allow Him to clean up our inner attitudes and mindsets that cause us to manipulate with our speech. Jesus made it very clear in His teaching that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. It is our insecurity and lack of integrity that cause us to speak as we do. It is our lack of faith and trust in the Lord for all that we need that causes us to try to get what we think we must have – by saying things that really are not true.
If I understand Paul correctly, the very thing that opens the door for us to be “Wholly His” is our speaking the truth in love to one another in the body of Christ. Listen to Ephesians 4:15, “but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…” We cannot get there unless we are learning to speak the truth in love to one another.
Jesus says, “let your yes, be yes, or No, no – – anything beyond these is of evil”. For far too long we have coddled our fleshly speech patterns, and the body of Christ has continued to languish as a result; and Jesus calls it evil. Or this could be translated “of the evil one.” Which makes sense, because the devil is the father of lies, that is how he operates, and that is what he seeks to produce in those he controls. James, the brother of Jesus, and one of those early apostles, devoted much of his short epistle to what righteousness looks like in the trenches of every day life; and the theme of our words or speech runs throughout his fiery message. He knew the tongue could be a source of great blessing or a source of great cursing. In chapter 5 vs. 12, he almost quotes Matt. 5:37, when he says, “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.”
Do you know what one of the greatest contrasts of influence and authority or the means to having that in human history is? Have you ever thought of how many thousands if not millions of words were spoken by the presidential candidates in the year leading up to last Nov. 4th to try to convince us that they were the man for the job?? I mean it was absolutely relentless! Everything imaginable was promised to get votes.
Contrast that with Jesus Christ when He set about to establish His ministry and following. Here He goes walking down main street in Jerusalem. And he sees Matthew – the unscrupulous tax collector in his office – and Jesus opens the door – looks Matthew in the eye – says, “Follow Me” – – and walks off. Matthew – leaves his pile of work and messages, and follows Jesus immediately – not knowing where he is going or when he will be able to return. That’s true authority! And words were hardly necessary.
CONCLUSION – You and I have the very life of the Creator of the Universe within us! If we are abiding in Him; if we are seeking to daily spend time with Him and submit to Him – – we really don’t need many words to fulfill our callings and destiny. Our authority and influence is a result of who we have been with – – who we know. Very few words – – certainly no vows, oaths or embellishments are necessary.