What’s in a Promise?

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

November 1, 1998

What’s in a Promise?

Matthew 5:33-37

There are many attacks against the Bible today. One of them is that the Bible is not relevant to our time. I think we have all seen the foolishness of such an argument as we have been studying the Sermon on the Mount. One might think that a sermon delivered close to 2,000 years ago would be at least a little archaic to modern society we have found that what Jesus says applies just as directly to today’s situations as they did then. This is evidence that we are dealing with the Word of God and not just a nice speech by a good man. God’s standard of righteousness has never changed. He is holy and nothing flawed with sin can stand before Him. This perfection requires that we must be made perfectly righteous if we are to spend eternity with Him and that cannot happen unless someone who is perfect both takes away our sin and makes us righteousness. This is what Jesus offers man by His sacrificial death on the cross. It has always been true that those that God regards as righteous are those that look to Him in faith to provide for them a righteousness they cannot attain for themselves. Scripture tells us that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. God’s standard has never changed.

Jesus tells us that those who would enter heaven must have a righteousness surpassing the scribes and pharisees (5:20) and that the truly righteous would display certain character qualities. They will be poor in spirit – humble people know that they have nothing and in fact are nothing before God. They come to God as beggars asking for His grace and mercy upon them. They know their own sinfulness and so they mourn. They rely upon God alone and so they are meek. The desire of their hearts is to be righteous. It is a hunger and thirst within their souls. They understand the mercy God has given to them and so they are merciful to others. They strive to be not only holy in what they do but also pure in heart. They want other to know the peace they have with God and so they are true peacemakers (5:3-9).

Jesus also said that the truly righteous are, by their very lives, the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They would have to be careful not to become contaminated or let their lights be hidden. They can rejoice even when facing those that love darkness and resist the light – men and women of evil hearts that would persecute them. Such is the way it has always been for the righteous (Mt. 5:10-16).

Ever since Adam took of the forbidden fruit and sinned against God’s direct commandment to him, men have been evil of heart. Some are openly evil – they are the immoral unrighteous. Others give a pretense of morality but still practice evil – the moral unrighteous. Then there are those Jesus speaks against so strongly in this sermon. Those that give illusion that they are following God – the religious unrighteous. The world is still filled with all three types of unrighteous people. The church still has many within her that fit the mold of the scribes and pharisees.

It does not take much effort to find these folks. They are very busy trying to keep their rules and regulations. They have the external facade of righteousness of doing certain good things and avoiding certain evil things, but their attitude and their particular lists give them away. Their list of what is good and what is evil concentrate on externals – I do this, I do not do that – rather than what reveals the heart. They lack joy in what they do and when they fail to keep their list of right and wrongs there is anger that they have failed rather than sorrow that they have displeased God. Their self righteousness is more important than having true righteousness.

We have already looked at several specific examples Jesus gives of this as demonstrated by the teaching and practice of the scribes and pharisees. They taught that murder was only committed if you physically caused the death of someone else. But Jesus says that murder begins in the heart. If you are angry with someone, you are guilty before the court (the same punishment the Scribes taught for murder). If your anger was expressed by calling someone a name, then you were guilty before the supreme court. And if that anger was expressed by slandering the persons character, you were guilty enough for hell. True righteousness is not just avoiding killing someone, it is dealing with people in a loving manner so that anger does not break relationships, and when anger does occur it seeks to be corrected quickly and the relationship reconciled.

Jesus has also exposed the wickedness of the hearts of these self righteous people by showing that adultery is not just the physical act, but also occurs in the heart whenever you look lustfully at someone other than your spouse. The self-righteous cry out against adultery while proclaiming themselves good. They fail to see the evil of their pornography or girl or guy watching or allowing themselves to be enticed by the trash that is so often on television. Jimmy Swaggart became a prime example of this a decade ago by castigating Jim Baker, yet the whole time he was using pornography and being lewd with prostitutes.

The last two weeks we have seen the contrast between the self righteous Scribes and Pharisees and Jesus concerning divorce. They practiced divorce for nearly any reason and thought all was fine as long as the legal paper work was done. Jesus restricted them to only one exception allowing for divorce – only if there was sexual sin – and this did not demand or even advocate it then. Jesus said that divorce for cause other than sexual immorality leads to increased adultery. But we also pointed out last week that divorce is not the unforgivable sin even when done without proper cause. The issue is true righteousness which comes from a change in heart and God’s forgiveness. No one has ever been made righteous by keeping a list of do’s and don’t’s.

This morning as we continue our examination of Matt. 5 and find yet another area of sin that is still as rampant today as it was then. Look at vs 33-37

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’; and anything beyond these is of evil.

In one of my illustration books there is the story of a widow that had become a Christian but was in a hard financial position because a friend had borrowed some money from her and then left without every repaying it. She wanted everything in her life to be right for Christ and she owed money to a Jewish lawyer. She went to him and told him of the circumstances and promised to pay the fellow each week as she earned the money. She also told him that she had just accepted Jesus as her Savior and that she wanted her life to shine for Jesus Christ. When the last installment of that money was paid, the Jewish man responded, “I have had much dealing with people who said they were followers of Christ. Until now, I have never been much impressed.”

Too often those claiming to be Christians are no different – and sometimes even worse – than non-Christians simply because they do not keep their word. Many supposed Christians cannot be trusted to keep their promises. How many have been kept from the Savior because of that kind of testimony. When someone says they are a Christian and yet is a poor worker, or cannot be trusted or lies, then the name of Christ is brought to shame. That should grieve our hearts. The same was true in the time of Christ. The Jews were not to steal, deal falsely or lie to one another (Lev. 19:11), yet these were so common by those claiming to follow God that an elaborate system of vows was developed. Vows were used to try and convince a person they were telling the truth – and yet they would leave an out in case they changed their mind later.

Now making vows was not wrong in itself. In fact we find properly made vows throughout Scripture. Proverbs 6:16 says, “For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.” The name of something or someone greater than the person making the vow was invoked to give greater credibility to what was said. The idea behind a vow is that the one called on in the vow was witness to what was said and was to avenge if what was said turned out to be a lie. Oaths were therefore taken to be the absolute truth. It ended a dispute because it invited judgement on the one that did not keep his word.

To swear effectively then, there must be some reference to God. Imagine an atheistic evolutionist trying to make some strong oath and swear in the name of natural selection or some extinct animal they think was their ancestor. “I swear by Homo habilus I am telling the truth.” What do they think will happen if they lie – their offspring will degenerate into the missing link in a million years?

God specifically provided that oaths made by the children of Israel were to be made in His name. Dt. 6:13 says, “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name.” Dt 10:20 adds, “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and shall swear by His name.” Swearing by the name of the Lord was even seen as a mark of a gentile that was following God. Jer. 12:16 says, “Then it will come about that if they will really learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the LORD lives,’ even as they taught My people to swear by Baal, then they will be built up in the midst of My people.” Notice as well here that swearing by the name of Baal was seen as a negative. The oath proclaimed that God was greater and that He would take revenge on the one that did not keep their vow.

But vows were only to be for serious matters of special importance. In fact the real significance of a vow was that it emphatically marked a matter a being of was of great importance. Lev. 5:4-6 established the serious nature of the vow in requiring a confession and a guilt offering to the Lord for the sin of the man who made an oath – no matter how thoughtlessly the vow was made – if it was not kept.

But the Scribes had twisted the meaning and importance of oaths. For them it became a means of manipulation. They made some oaths binding oaths and others were not. In Matthew 5:33 Jesus quotes the common teaching given by the Scribes. The quotation does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament but is a compilation of several Scriptures – which the Scribes twisted to into their own interpretation. The last part, “but you shall fulfill your vows to the Lord” comes from Numbers 30:2 and Dt. 23:21 which says, “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.” Again, a passage that should demonstrate the serious nature of making a vow. But the scribes twisted used it for their own purposes. The first part of the Rabbinic saying comes from Lev 19:12 which warns not to, “swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.” The Scribes taught that this meant that only vows made in the name of the Lord were binding – anything else was not binding and did not have to be kept. It was on this basis they built an elaborate system of what oaths were binding and what were not.

The essence of the purpose of this system is seen in the Yiddish proverb, “He who tells the truth saves himself the trouble of swearing.”

The same thing still is around today. Children cross their fingers and make a promise thinking they then do not have to keep the promise. Same thing with what was called “king’s X’s.” Modern lawyers understand this concept very well because they earn their living pouring over documents trying to either find a way out of keeping a contract or making the other party keep the contract. The intent of the parties making the contract to begin with is without much concern. Only the specific language of the fine print really matters in the final analysis. It is a system to manipulate things to your own advantage. You can say all sorts of things – but you do not have to do any of them because you have some sort of clause that makes your word non binding. Essential it is lying legally. Long gone are the days when agreements where made between honest men with just a verbal agreement and a handshake.

We get some insight into the complex system of vows used by the Scribes and Pharisees within our text. They would swear by heaven (vs 34), by earth (vs 35), by Jerusalem (vs 35) and by their own heads (vs 36). Over in Matthew 23 we get additional insight when Jesus pronounces His woes upon them for it. Matthew 23:16-22, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.”

Jesus completely destroys their line of self righteous thinking in just a few lines by completely refuting the basis of their belief. They knew they could not make false vows to the Lord, so in their perverted thinking they tried to distinguish between what would be of the Lord and what would not. They were mistaken in the first part in that God does not distinguish between secular and sacred. We need to remember that too.

Our government may separate church and state but God does not. In Romans 13 Paul even calls the sword government officials bear “a minister of God” and he calls the officials themselves, “servants of God.” What you do at work or at play or at home doing whatever – that is as important to God as your being here today. There is no secular job as compared to a sacred job. Regardless of whom signs your paycheck, your employer is really the Lord and that is who you work for.

So the their first error was distinguishing between secular and sacred – because there is no difference in God’s eyes. Their second error is illogical way they tried to distinguish between the two – and maybe that just reinforces the point that everything belongs to God and reflects of Him. In Matthew 5 Jesus points out that Heaven is God’s throne, Earth is His footstool, Jerusalem is His city. In Matthew 23 Jesus points out the temple as well as the gold in it, the altar and the sacrifice upon it all belong to God. Jesus also pointed the foolishness of swearing by your head because you cannot even control that. It all belongs to God so no matter what you swear by you are invoking God into the picture and He will require the vow of you.

-The whole system was an effort to escape having to tell the truth. That is why Jesus says to stop the practice and let your word alone be know as being truthful. Making vows should make no difference in telling the truth. We need to be like the man who was asked by a potential employer if he would be honest with him if he was hired. The man looked at the employer and said, “It doesn’t matter if you hire me or not, I will be honest.” Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything beyond is of evil because it speaks of an underlying dishonesty which is trying to be hidden.

Those who are truly righteous need to stand out as different from everyone else. Winston Churchill once quipped that “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.” That should not be true of the Christian.

Let me add here a footnote. Jesus is not making a blanket statement excluding all vows for A) God instituted making vows by His name in the Old Testament and Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament. B) Jesus Himself commonly used the phrases “truly I say” and “truly, truly I say . . . ” which are forms of vows. In addition He responded to vows placed upon Him by others. At His trial Jesus did not respond until Caiaphas said, “I adjure you by the living God . . . “ (Mt. 26:63) and Jesus then replied without a rebuke to Caiaphas for the vow. C) The apostle Paul made vows (Romans 9:1 & 2 Cor. 1:23). D) God made vows unto Abraham (Lk 1:73) and David (Acts 2:30) and in fact swore by Himself since there is none greater (Heb 6:13) and demonstrated to men the unchangeableness of His purpose (Heb 6:17). The prohibition Jesus gives here is not against all vows, but it is against the flippant, profane, uncalled for, and often hypocritical oaths used in order to make an impression or to spice daily conversation (Hendriksen).

And that my friends is where we live. One of the most horrible stains on Christ are the many who profess to know Him and lack honesty. Being a Christian should immediately invoke in other people the sense that you can be completely trusted. Instead it is almost the opposite in many circles. One person put it this way – “You can’t believe some people even when they swear they are lying.”

We talked about divorce last week and the sad fact is that there is no noticeable difference in the divorce rate between unbelievers and those professing to be Christians. All divorces break the vows two people made to each other.

Do you keep your vows? Are you like the man described in Psalm 15 who walks in integrity and will swear to his own hurt and will not change. Do you keep your promises? Honesty should be the hallmark of the Christian – not only in keeping promises, but even in routine conversations.

(The story is told of Immanuel Kant’s father who while riding through the forests of Poland encountered a band of robbers. The demanded all his valuables and asking him “Have you given us all?” and only letting him go when he answered, “All.” When he was safely out of their sight, his hand touched something in the hem of his robe. It was his gold, sewn there for safety and quite forgotten by him in his fear and confusion. At once he hurried back to find the robbers and having found them, he said meekly, “I have told you what was not true; it was unintentional. I was too terrified to think. Here, take the gold in my robes.” Then to the old man’s astonishment, nobody offered to take his gold. Presently one went and brought back his purse. Another restored his book of prayer, while still another led his horse toward him and helped him to mount. They then unitedly entreated his blessing and watched him slowly ride away. Goodness had triumphed over evil.)

The Christian is to be controlled by truth – are you known to be truthful? Scripture is full of admonitions against lying – Prov 19:5 A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who tells lies will not escape. Rev. 21:8 tells us that all liars – along with the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death. We are to be truthful in everything – from what you put down on your income tax forms to your phone manners. Do you ever say that so and so is not there when they are right there? That is a lie and it is dishonoring to God. No lie, no matter what it is will ever be justified before God, and a half truth is a whole lie.

In ancient Greece, Diogenes supposedly went around with a lantern even during the day and tell people he was looking for an honest man. He never found one. I pray that were he here today he would find each of us here that name the name of Christ to be honest and true to our word. People who can be trusted and do not need to swear because our yes means yes and no means no. People that do not profane the name of God but instead bring glory to it because they reflect Him.

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