Sermon Title: “’Becoming a Truthful People: The Integrity of (our) Words and the Imperative to Stay true to (our) Promises, Commitments, and Resolutions”

Sermon Notes

Sermon Title: “’Becoming a Truthful People: The Integrity of (our) Words and the Imperative to Stay true to (our) Promises, Commitments, and Resolutions”

Text:  Matthew 5:33-37

“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.’ 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.”

Date: Sunday, January 6, 2019

Speaker: Pastor Joseph

Introduction

This morning, I would like to speak with you about the importance of integrity, promise keeping, and faithfulness in the formation of the Christian character and committed biblical discipleship. These are necessary virtues in the life of the disciple of Christ and for the Christian to have a positive impact in society and the lives of other people. God’s desire, as expressed in the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:33-37, is to create a community of (positive) character and sustaining integrity by following the Jesus’s Way. The thrust of this passage is that Jesus is calling the church or his followers to become a fruitful people. Let us now turn our attention to the biblical passage.

What lies behind an oath, a vow, a promise, or a resolution? What is the common motive these things—an oath, a vow, commitment, a promise, and a resolution—share together? We live in a society based on a framework of lies. Our society is a network of fabrication, falsifications, half-truths, while lies, alternatives facts, fake news, or what we may call truth decay, the death of truth, or the war on truth claims. Parents break their promises to their children. Husbands break their promises to their wives, and wives break their marital vows to their husbands. Judges and politicians do not speak truthfully or make truth claims to protect their base and political ideologies. The so-called law-abiding citizens fall to attain the requirements and objectives of the law. In fact, we live in a virtual reality world where “Social networks give people news that is popular and trending rather than accurate or important.” It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of ‘knowing the truth.’ Yet, we are told that to “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.” Plato in Republic states that “And those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers” (Plato, Republic, 380BC).

Today, I want to encourage all of you to become a truthful people, whose life is patterned after God’s character and moral virtues; thus, I would like to emphasize “The Integrity of (our) Words and the Imperative to Stay true to (our) Promises, Commitments, and Resolutions.” Nonetheless, the text we read above bears various ideas and implications; for example, it speaks about credibility, the power of words, promises, the command to tell the truth, to keep your word, to say what you mean and mean what you say; it is also a call to maintain or keep integrity, to live a life of integrity, and it is a passable about the relationships between lying and truth, oaths and vows, honest communication, the relationship between yes or no. The underlying message of this message is this: Jesus has called his followers to be always truthful in their words, actions, and whatever commitments, vows, oaths, they make, God wants to stay true to their promises and commitments.  The disciple of Christ is an individual who lives a committed life to truth-telling, uncompromised life, and sustained faithfulness to God. Let us first look at the Old Testament background to this passage we cited above, especially the notion of oaths and vows:

I. On Oaths and Vows

 What is an oath?

  • “An oath is the strongest possible confirmation of the truthfulness of a statement about what has transpired (“assertive oaths”) or a promise about one’s future actions” (“promissory oaths”) –Joseph K. Kotva, Jr., “Oath,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, pp. 556-7
  • To swear means “To make a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God or a superhuman being, or to some sacred object, in confirmation of what is said” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary”)

***Oaths have to do with an individual’s loyalty and word. They associate with relationship-building, fostering stronger friendship, and maintaining our integrity through our words.

Examples of Promises, Vows, Swears, Commitments, and Oaths

  1. From the Preamble of “The Constitution of the United States of America “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Basic Protestant Vows

“I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you.”

Source : https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions

A. “Brand Promise Examples”

  • Geico: “15 minutes or less can save you 15% or more on car insurance.”
  • Coca-Cola: “To inspire moments of optimism and uplift.”
  • Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.”
  • Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
  • Walmart: “Save money. Live better.

Source : https://stellapulse.com/2018/09/12/the-best-brand-promise-examples-weve-seen/

  1. From the transcript of King’s speech (Martin Luther King Jr, 1963 “I Have a Dream):

“In a sense, we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.

This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So, we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Source: NPR

II. Old Testament Background

The Old Testament background to the passage of Matthew 5:33-38 include the following texts. These are the texts Jesus had in mind when he spoke these words about oaths, commitments, and promises.

  • Exodus 20:7

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

  • Leviticus 19:12

You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Deuteronomy 6:13

It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.

 

  • Ecclesiastes 5:4

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow.

III. The Practice and Examples of Oaths and Oath-Making

 Generally, there are three ways the Bible talks about oaths and oath making: (1) God’s oaths to his people, (2) Humans’ oaths to God, and (3) people who make oaths and promises to each other. Although the Hebrew Bible is full of oaths and vows within these three broad categories we just described, there is a distinction between an oath and a vow; in fact, in rabbinic literature, the Jewish theologians make such a distinction between oaths and vows. For example, some of the prominent figures in the Old Testament swear oaths such as Abraham (Gen. 21:22-34), Jacob (Gen. 25:33), Joseph (Gen. 50:5), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11), Ezra (Ezra 10:5), and Nehemiah (Neh. 13:25). We will look at some of these oaths momentarily. Some of the common expressions or formulations associating with oaths and oath-making include: “As the Lord lives” (Ruth 3:13); “The Lord shall be between me and you” (1 Sam. 20:42) (See, Joseph K. Kotva, Jr., “Oath,” in Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, pp. 556-7).

Individuals in the Old Testament swear by God’s name, by the name of a famous ancestor figure, or some individuals swear by the name of other deities, a practice God forbids through the words of the Hebrew prophets. In the Ancient Near East (ANE), when someone made an oath to God or to someone, that person’s word bore both legal and moral implications.  The cultural belief was this: Breaking an oath was dangerous, for in all societies oaths contained curses that deities would avenge if the person who swore by them broke the oath” (Keener, Matthew, p. 124). The word that person spoke was morally and legally binding for it communicated his or her commitment to fulfill the promise made to God or to another individual; the word was associated with that person’s integrity, personality, and moral vision in life. Let us look at some of the examples of human oaths in the Hebrew Bible:

Examples of Human oaths

  • Genesis 47:28-31

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So, the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. And when the time drew near that Israel must die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh and promise to deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt but let me lie with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.” He answered, “I will do as you have said.” And he said, “Swear to me”; and he swore to him. Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.

  • Genesis 50:25

Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.”

  • Genesis 21:23

Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.”

  • Jeremiah 38:16

Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the Lord lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

  • Ezra 10:5

Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take oath that they would do as had been said. So, they took the oath.

**** The Bible condemns the people of God and Christians not to make false oaths and promises to God and other individuals in reference to business, civil, and interpersonal matters (Lev. 6:3; Jer. 5:2; Mal. 3:5). If you know you are not going to keep your promises, do not make one. To fulfill one’s promise is connected to one’s character; not to be able to fulfill one’s vow is also associated with one’s integrity and personality.

Example of Divine oaths

In the same way, there are many examples of what we might call “divine oaths” or “divine swearing” in the Hebrew Bible. There is no greater name and name above God that God himself swears by; there are many instances in the Hebrew Bible that portray God to swear by his own name and eternal existence, by his own attributes such as his holiness, love, compassion, anger/wrath. God makes oaths or swears to some of the Jewish Patriarchs such as Abraham, David (Ps. 89:3; 132:11), or to his people that he will give them rest and freedom from their enemies.

  • Isaiah 45:23

By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’

  • Psalm 95:11

Therefore, I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”

  • Hebrews 6:13

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself

  • Luke 1:73

The oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

***Through these texts that communicate divine oaths or God’s swearing to various individuals, God himself models personal faithfulness and integrity through these various relationships and interplays. This is an example, we should imitate.  We should be like God by patterning our life, thoughts and actions after his. We should be holy and perfect in our words and actions just like God and in the same manner Jesus has called us his disciples to faithfulness: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Evidently, an oath has to do with promise keeping and truth telling.

 The Notion of Truth and Truth-Telling

  1. “On Truth” (2006) by Harry G. Frankfurt

In 2006, Harry G. Frankfurt, who currently serves as professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University, wrote a book entitled “On Truth.” The summary of the book is in follows: “Frankfurt takes the position that a “deplorable mistake” would be unleashed abroad if there should develop in today’s world a widespread lack of caring for the “value and importance” of truth. He finds a disregard for truth “endemic” among publicists and politicians, but he has discovered a similar attitude growing among authors. Frankfurt works with a broad canvas here, averring, “A society that is recklessly and persistently remiss in [supporting and encouraging truth] is bound to decline.” Without an appreciation for truth, humans can not consider themselves–take pride in themselves–as rational animals, separate from other animals in that regard.” In fact, let me share with you some of the important quotes on truth that he makes in this book:

Frankfurt on Truth

  • “Is truth something that in fact we do—and should—especially care about? Or is the love of truth, as professed by so many distinguished thinkers and writers, itself merely another example of bullshit?”
  • “To establish and to sustain an advanced culture, we need to avoid being debilitated either by error or by ignorance. We need to know—and, of course, we must also understand how to make productive use of—a great many truths.”
  • “Civilizations… cannot flourish if they are beset with troublesome infections of mistaken
  • “We cannot think of ourselves as creatures whose rationality endows us with an especially significant advantage over others—indeed, we cannot think of ourselves as rational creatures at all—unless we think of ourselves as creatures who recognize that facts, and true statements about the facts, are indispensable in providing us with reasons for believing (or for not believing) various things and for taking (or for not taking) various actions. If we have no respect for the distinction between true and false, we may as well kiss our much-vaunted “rationality” good-bye.”

Hence, what does the Scripture say exactly about truth telling, promise making, and promise keeping, as they relate to Christian discipleship, Christian commitment, and Christian character? The Bible says many things regarding this topic and provides different perspectives on this issue. Let’s look at some passages relating to bearing witness and telling the truth:

III. Scriptural References

  • Exodus 20:16

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  • 1 John 1:8

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

  • 1 John 3:18

Little children let us not love in word or talk but indeed and in truth.

  • Psalm 25:5

Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.

  • Psalm 15:2-3

He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend;

  • James 5

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

  • Psalm 34:13

Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

***These passages, collectively, urge us to become a people of promise, people of integrity, and of course, a truthful people.

IV. Exposition: Matthew 5:33-37

“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.’ 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.”

In this passage, Jesus communicates the fourth antithesis associating with the Sermon on the Mount: Oaths. He references four general oaths that were familiar to the people of his day, and that which they also practiced. These oaths were integral to daily interactions between individuals, especially the Jewish people. These four categories of oath relate to heaven, the earth, Jerusalem, and a person’s/ or disciple’s bodily anatomy, especially one’s head—in other words one’s own existence. Those were the common appellations the Jewish people would make in oath-making and promise making transactions. Jesus wants to provide an alternative way to his disciples, it is the Jesus’ Way to the Christian life and the way to the Kingdom of God.  Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they are a new community; since they are a new people redeemed by God through the blood and life of the Messiah, Jesus himself, they are called to live to a higher ethical system associating not with the moral principles and ethical virtues of their current day, but an ethical system and moral life patterned after the very life of God who always tells the truth, keeps his promises, fulfills his vows, and remains faithful at all times. (Jesus wants his followers to be like God: to be a community and people who always tell the truth, to be promise keepers, to be people of conviction and commitment. In other words, he is calling you and I to be faithful at all times, whether to God or to people in our life.) It is the reason Jesus could end the first segment of his long speech (the six antitheses of the Sermon) with this closing, but powerful command: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). For each one of the categories, Jesus supplies a reason why the oath is forbidden.

 

Categories of Oath Texts: Matthew 5:33-37 Reason for Prohibition References in the Hebrew Bible
Oaths relating to heaven:

 

v. 34: “Do not take an oath all, either by heaven” “for it is the throne of God” Isaiah 66:1: Thus, says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?”
Oaths relating to the earth:

 

v. 35: “Do not take an oath at all, either by the earth” “for it is his footstool” Ps. 24:1: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”
Oaths relating to the city of Jerusalem v. 36: “Do not take an oath at all, either by Jerusalem” “for it is the city of the great King” Ps: 48:2, “Beautiful in its loftiness, the joy of the whole earth, like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion, the city of the Great King.”
Oaths relating to an individual’s head/life:

 

v. 36: “And do not take an oath by your head” “for you cannot make one hair white or black” Matthew 6:25-34

Oath makings, according to Jesus, are more theocentric than anthropocentric. Pay attention how these four general oaths relate to God himself: his creation (the heavens and the city) and Jerusalem as a symbolic place for God’s kingdom itself.  Since both the heavens and the earth are God’s and since God is the one who sustains human life and existence, according to Isaiah 66:1, no distinction shall be made. God is the sovereign Lord over all life and cosmic ruler over all human forces. Jesus’ thesis in this passage is for his new community and followers to have and maintain integrity. All human oaths, directly or indirectly made by people, inevitably invoke the divine witness. God is creator of everything that exists, and everything that has breath is called to praise God (Ps. 150). Jesus did not differentiate the secular world and the world of the sacred. God is not absent in the affairs of human beings. Jesus wants his followers today as and when they speak, they make promises or commitments, to take account about the blessedness and sanctification of God’s name, as well as his holiness and moral virtues.

The Power of Words and Truth Telling: from the book of Proverbs

Proverbs Godly Words/Words of Integrity Ungodly Words/Words of Dishonor or Shame
10:32 The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.
12:18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
13:1 A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.
13:3 Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.
13:10 By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom.
13:18 Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored.
14:3 By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.
14:25 A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.
15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Conclusion

The underlying issue about this passage Matthew 5:33-37 is not about the centrality of oaths or oath making, to put it simply, Jesus is calling his followers to become a truthful people, a committed disciple, and Christians of integrity. He is emphasizing that because God witnesses every word we speak, we are accountable to God for every promise we make and every commitment we break. He wants his followers to embody God’s moral character and his holy virtues. God wants to raise up a community of followers of Christ who are people of positive character, individuals who keep their commitment, and Christians who are faithful in both actions and words and followers of Christ who will have a positive influence on the culture and in the lives of people God puts on their way.

Amen!


Watch it online: