Life Upside Down
Truth by Nature
April 15, 2018
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 was so counter to the culture of His day, and frankly our day also, that it is like the norms of life being turned upside down.
The world tells us to find our joy and happiness in the fulfillment of things, pleasures, and the worldly desires of the heart. But Jesus says that genuine joy and happiness for the believer is found in:
~ mourning over sin
~ exemplifying meekness
~ hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God
~ being merciful to those who deserve no mercy
~ seeking purity of heart
~ being a peacemaker in our world
~ begin persecuted for being salt and light in our world
This is completely upside down to how the world understands the fulfillment of joy in life. Jesus continues in His sermon, by focusing more on the inward attitudes of the heart. He says for the believer it is a matter of the heart.
He tells us that our righteousness is never enough, we must stand in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We cannot be good enough, do enough, or live obedient enough to be accepted into His kingdom. It is really a matter of the heart.
Anger, slander, and insults of others is the same as committing murder against them. Confess and be reconciled to them, Jesus tells us. Lust in our heart for another person is like committing adultery. Jesus says that we need barriers that keep us from lusting. Then Jesus tells us that divorce is not the answer to your marital problems, in fact, divorce only accentuates the problem.
All of this is completely counter to what our culture tells us about these things. As we continue in the Sermon on the Mount at verses 33-37, we again find something that is counter to our culture. Speaking truth should be a natural outflow from our lips. Truth by Nature. Let’s begin by reading our text.
33 "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.'
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.
Truthfulness Validated by an Oath (v. 33)
So, Jesus begins in verse 33 with what is being commonly taught by the Scribes and Pharisees. This is the fourth time Jesus has used the phrase “You have heard that it was said.” Each time Jesus uses this phrase, He contrasts what the commonly held teaching of His day was with what He is teaching by saying, “but I say to you.” This is what you are being taught, Jesus says, but this is what I say to you. It is obvious that Jesus is purposely showing how a believer’s life is different from what is commonly held in our culture.
We need to understand that what Jesus is teaching is a standard of righteousness that is much higher than the world we live in and it has never changed since day one in the Garden of Eden. The Jewish religious leaders thought that they were keeping a standard of righteousness by the many traditions that they substituted as righteousness. But Jesus has already clearly told us that the standard of righteousness surpasses anything the Scribes and Pharisees have taught and that the only way to be righteous . . . is in Christ (v. 20). It comes back to the heart.
We still do the same thing today. We elevate the righteous things we do to a level of thinking we are right with God and that we have earned His favor with all the righteous things we do. But we must realize that God’s standard is perfection and none of us can reach that on our own. It is only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that we can be accepted into the family of God.
When we put our faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then He begins that transforming work in our hearts. It is no longer about whether we commit adultery, or whether we kill someone, it is about what is going on in our heart toward others with lust and anger. Jesus says, you have been taught that a certain level of righteousness is what is acceptable, you don’t kill someone and you don’t commit adultery, but He tells us that it goes much deeper than that. It is not about the actions you choose to commit toward another person, but your heart’s intention toward them. It is not about our self-righteous actions, it is about His righteousness that results in a transformed life.
For most in Jesus’ day, following the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees meant they were following God, but in reality, they were following a manmade system of righteousness. It is not hard to find these kind of people even today. They are very busy about trying to keep their rules and regulations that they have developed, and they develop an external façade of righteousness by the things they do and don’t do. Their separation from worldliness is outward and legalistic and genuine joy is sucked from their lives. Their list of righteousness deeds is more important than developing their relationship with the One who gives us righteousness and having their heart transformed.
When we look at verse 33, the commonly held teaching of Jesus day, we would say, “of course this is important.” Everyone should learn the integrity and honesty of what the Scribes and Pharisees are teaching here. Don’t swear falsely and perform what you have sworn to the Lord. It is about honesty and integrity. It is about doing what you say you will do, right? Well, kind of!
The terms “swear falsely” and “sworn to the Lord,” indicate that oaths are being made even in the name of the Lord to assure others of their truth. It is like when we take an oath in court. We lay our hands on the Bible and we say, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” The idea is that with my hand upon God’s Word and my oath to God, then everything I say will be truthful.
Of course, we all know that not every who testifies in court today takes that oath to heart? In fact, we know that it is a common practice to lie under oath if it benefits you as long as you can get away with it and not perjure yourself in court.
Well, the Scribes and Pharisees had established an elaborate system that would allow them to not be held accountable for what they said. The Scribes taught that only vows made in the name of the Lord were binding and so any other commitment they made . . . didn’t necessarily have to be kept. The idea is that if you wanted to be able to believe that someone would do what they said they would do, you would make sure they made an oath in the name of God.
Once again, Jesus goes well beyond the teaching of the Pharisees teaching of swearing an oath to the Lord to establish truthfulness to making it a matter of the heart.
Truthfulness is More Than an Oath (vv. 34-36)
When we come to verses 34-36, a person might think that Jesus is completely against making an oath whether in the name of God or anything else. Let’s read that again:
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Now we need to keep in mind that making an oath or vow is not wrong in itself. There are plenty of them found throughout Scripture and it is talked about often. In fact, even in the New Testament, listen to Hebrews 6:16
16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation.
Because man is sinful and what he says is often unreliable, an oath or vow was taken to give greater credibility to what was being said. It is as if the one being sworn by will witness to the truth of the matter or will invoke judgment on them for not being truthful. It was if the someone greater than you will hold you accountable. Oaths and vows were to be a confirmation of truth. Most oaths reference God, because there is nothing higher and surely no one would lie in the name of God, otherwise they would face the judgment of God.
But let me clarify again, several old Testament passages talk about swearing to something by God’s name. God told them that swearing an oath by God’s name was good (Deuteronomy 6:13, 10:20). They were even warned to not swear by the name of Baal because that built up Baal to being something greater than God (Jeremiah 12:16). Making an oath was not sinful or wrong. So what is Jesus saying to us.
Verses 34-36 give us an indication of the twisted nature of the oaths and vows used by the Scribes and Pharisees. They would use several different things by which to swear truth. They would swear by heaven (v. 34), by earth (v. 35), by Jerusalem (v. 35), and by their own heads (v. 36). Turn with me for a moment to Matthew 23:16-22. This will give us a little more insight to the problem.
16 "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.' 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?
18 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.' 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
Do you see what is going on here? The Scribes and Pharisees knew that they could not make false oaths and vows in the name of the Lord and not be held accountable. So, in their twisted way, they tried to distinguish between what would be of the Lord and what would not. They could swear by the temple or the altar and it meant nothing, but if they swore by the gold of the temple or the gift on the altar, they were bound to what they said. Jesus calls this kind of leadership “blind guides.” They were blind because God does not distinguish between these things as some being sacred and some not. You are either making a vow of truth or you are not.
Pastor Scott Harris summarizes this well, “In Matthew 5 Jesus points out that Heaven is God’s throne, Earth is His footstool, and 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 out 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.”
I do not believe that Jesus is saying we can’t take an oath or that we shouldn’t take an oath. Once again Jesus takes the matter at hand beyond the legalist tendencies in taking an oath for truthfulness to the heart. It is a matter of the integrity of our character. It is a matter of truth by nature.
Truthfulness is From a Heart of Integrity (v. 37)
Look at Jesus’ simple and yet profound statement in verse 37:
37 Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil.
This is so profoundly simple, let what ever comes from your mouth be truthful. The whole system of oaths and vows set up by the Scribes and Pharisees became a way for people to deceive others and not keep their word to one another. This devious system that was designed to manipulate people was what Jesus said should stop. Righteous people are honest people and it should make no difference whether you are swearing an oath to the matter or not. You should be good for what you say. As followers of Christ, this should be one of the most notable differences between us and the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, even among Christians today, the idea that “our bond is our word” is not something many live by. We should be able to live by a verbal contract and a handshake, but unfortunately, you will be taken advantage of it if you try that today. Today we have contracts, legal paperwork defining exactly what we want to happen and even then, lawyers will find loopholes for their clients. It is just a legal form of lying and that is exactly what the Scribes and Pharisees where doing.
One thing I find interesting in Matthew 5 is the connections you see in some of these countercultural ideas. For instance, Jesus talks about anger in the heart being like murder, then he talks about lust in the heart being like adultery. As He continues, Jesus goes from adultery to marriage and divorce and the comparison He makes of adultery to divorce. Divorce is a covenant agreement that has been broken between two people, they have broken their vows to one another. Now Jesus talks about the truthfulness of the things we agree to do. Its like Jesus is purposefully tying He teaching to each other. It is like one leads to another.
The story is told of Immanuel Kant’s father who while riding through the forests of Poland encountered a band of robbers. They demanded all his valuables and asked him “Have you given us all?” They only let 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 for the robbers knew that because of his honesty, they were in the presence of a godly man.
Now I couldn’t verify this story, but even if it didn’t happen, the story makes a great illustration of the extent we need to go in being truthful and honest. I wonder about you and me today. As Christians, do we keep our word? Are we honest with people?
I have heard too many stories about Christian individuals who cannot be trusted. They lack integrity and cannot be trusted with what they say. When there is no integrity in our work, our businesses, our families, and our personal lives, we cast shame on the name of Christ. This should grieve our hearts.
The integrity of truth should be the hallmark of the Christian. Truth should come out from us as though it were a part of our very nature.
I hope no one here is untruthful on purpose. I hope that you are not the kind of person that manipulates the things a person says so that it benefits you. My prayer is that we are not like the little boy who says he promises to do something, but has his fingers crossed behind his back because he knows he is not going to do it.
I hope that we never gossip and spread untruthful lies about someone because we think it makes us look better. I pray that we teach our children and grandchildren that it is never right to be untruthful in order to climb the ladder of success or to get financial gain at someone else’s expense.
I think you get the idea here. Every follower of Christ should be able to be trusted by their word, whether it is “yes” or “no.” Let what you say be simple truth and not manipulative, because anything else is coming from a heart of evil. We need to be careful about embellishing the truth to make it look like something it isn’t. We need to be careful about leaving out certain aspects of the truth when we know that the whole truth is demanded.
There are so many ways we can be untruthful and not feel bad about it because it is considered acceptable. This is so prevalent in politics today and we criticize our governing leaders for it. But are we any better in our dealing with one another? Our pursuit to get things our way often leads to what we call stretching the truth, but in reality, this is exactly what Jesus is talking about. We need our lives to be lived by truth every day.
The great deceiver, Satan, wants us to twist truth for our own benefit. Remember what he said to Adam and Eve in the garden. He cast doubt on what God said to them and they followed the lead of his lie. When we put our faith and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, He begins a mighty work of transformation in our hearts. Truth becomes an important part of who we are. When we are untruthful, God’s Spirit will convict us. We need to go to the one we have been untruthful with and confess, make it right with them. Truth by nature.
Does truth matter to you? Do you since the Spirit’s conviction when you are not truthful? Do you try to manipulate by using only partial truths? Jesus is telling us that this is a matter of the heart. Do you know Him as your Lord and Savior? Has He begun a transforming work in your heart?