Promises, Promises

What is your reaction when you hear a promise that is prefaced by, “If I am elected, I shall…”? In Matthew 5:33–37 Jesus tells you what he thinks of promises casually made and lightly broken.

What was said long ago? God expects his people to keep their vows. Though he doesn’t quote exactly, he has passages such as Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 10:2; and Deuteronomy 23:21 om view. God generally did not require his people to make vows, but if they voluntarily made vows, they were required to keep them. The teachers of Israel recognized that vows made to the Lord were to be kept. Similarly, the ninth commandment forbids false witness. That opposes not only perjury, but any kind of lying.

People looked for “fine print” to escape the force of what was said or promised, Matthew 23:16–22. Sometimes people looked for loopholes to avoid giving to God what they had vowed. Other times oaths were taken because people couldn’t take one another at their word. An oath using God’s name was considered binding, but one by Jerusalem, or the heavens or earth was not. “God is awesome. Before him, all the empty words and false assurances of empty religion will melt away. Ananias and Sapphira discovered that to be the case when they promised God God one thing and then did another.” (Gordon Keddie, Ecclesiastes, p. 133). Apparently the problem was evident to the preacher in Ecclesiastes.

What does Jesus say? Do not swear at all. Jesus makes a statement that sounds absolute. Some Christians have taken this to mean that a Christian may not swear or take an oath under any circumstances. Thus they refuse to take an oath to serve in the military or hold public office. But as you look at the context of Scripture, Jesus himself made a statement under oath when on trial before the high priest. Paul takes an oath in Romans 9:1. God himself swore to Abraham, as Hebrews reminds you. What is Jesus prohibiting? “[A] fundamentally false approach to the divine law is in view and is being condemned, an approach which, through externalistic and casuistic interpretation of isolated passages resulted in the justification of frivolous oaths, oaths by heaven and earth, by Jerusalem, by one’s head, or the like. Jesus condemns such vain efforts to avoid a reckoning with God in all of one’s asservations, whether in the form of oaths or not, by the declaration that they were not to swear at all.” (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, p. 207).

Let your “yes” be “yes” and your ‘no,” “no.” God’s people ought to be so truthful that a simple “yes” or “no” ought to be as firm as a sworn testimony. Being honest in speech is difficult, whether is a child responding to “who broke my vase,” of a complex contract in a business setting. Parents, do you take seriously the promises you make to your children? We are tempted to take the easy way out. But that does not reflect the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. Take time to reflect, to weigh your words, before you open your mouth.

Why is truth important? Untruth comes from the evil one. Why are breaking of vows and promises wrong? What is the source of lying? Jesus describes Satan as the father of lies. His temptation of Eve began with a lie, “You will not surely die.” The next time you are tempted to break a promise or to tell a lie, remember the source of untruth. Who is it that would like you to think of an untruth as a little white lie? The sins of adultery and casual divorce that Jesus has just condemned involve broken promises. Be sure to keep the promises make, even in small steps. Jesus treats lying, not just as a matter of keeping some abstract rule, but as part of the great battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent.

God is the living and true God. Truth and faithfulness to promises are important because they characterize the God to whom you belong. If you belong to his kingdom, you speech needs to reflect his character. “When our Lord in his high priestly prayer says, ‘This is life eternal, that they may know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent’ (John 17:3), he is predicating of the Father the most ultimate and absolute in respect of deity that biblical language provides. . . . When we speak, therefore, of the sanctity of truth, we must recognize that underlies this concept is the sanctity of the being of God as the living and true God. He is the God of truth and all truth derives its sanctity from him.” “It is because untruth is the contradiction of the nature of God that it is wrong. Truth and untruth are antithetical because God is truth.” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, pp. 124–125, 148). That is why taking an oath or swearing by some substitute for God is not only wrong, but also foolish. People might swear by their head in an effort to avoid using God’s name—which they thought would make the oath binding. Jesus points out that you don’t control your head, not even in something as minor as to how many gray hairs you have! God is God, and you are not.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. If the Father is the only true God, as Jesus says he is, then the Son is also the truth. Take note of the context in which he uses the word truth to describe himself. It is part of his teaching his disciples in the upper room, the night of his betrayal. Peter is about to make a promise never to abandon Jesus—and you know how that went. Peter could be forgiven for that lie and restored, precisely because of what Jesus was doing. His death opened the way to the Father for Peter, who was about to make a false promise. He is the truth, truth itself, for you and me, and for all who have made promises to God that we have failed to keep. He is life itself, as he takes the penalty of death, which is the wages of the sin of lying as well as all other sin. He rising from the dead makes you alive. He not only calls you to speak truth. He gives you life as well.

You and I may not care for a politician who makes promises, only to forget them once in office. But Jesus reminds you that if your yes and no have not always meant yes or no, your mouth is speaking something that is evil and that comes from the evil one. Then, however, he gives you himself as the way, the truth, and the life.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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