How many promises have you broken in your lifetime? More than you care to admit, and likely far too many to remember. But a few probably stick out in your memory and may even cause you grief. Why? Because a promise is meant to be important.
Very early in life, we learn the value of a promise. When you were young, maybe you remember making a promise with the following oath attached: “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Others make promises with oaths swearing on their parents or children’s lives, and in court a witness is directed to add “so help me God.” And, of course, most people have made some sort of promise to God about changing their lives if God will just get them out of a mess.
So, how many promises have you broken in your lifetime? How many oaths on top of the promise have you broken as well? It is one thing to break a promise, but the oath makes it worse because breaking the oath how insincere we really are. For instance, a person who swears on their child’s life is really saying that if they mess up, the child is the one who should be punished. What kind of sense does that make?
This week we will be talking about promises made. We do so as we continue to review Jesus’ commentary on certain commands. Last week’s message was entitled “Matters of the Heart.” The title was chosen because in God’s Kingdom, our life is not just about what we do, but what we think as well. This week’s could be the same, but because we are dealing with meaning what we say, I have chosen the title, “Matters of the Truth.” The reality is that we have all lied before, even George Washington, but Jesus spoke of our need to be faithful, to be truthful. He did so in a specific way regarding marriage, and then more generally regarding oaths. The people then, as well as those of us today should take heed to Jesus’ words because as He said at a later time, “I am the truth.”
I encourage you to read Matthew 5.31-37.
What Did the People Think?
Divorce – Jesus continued to challenge the thinking of the day, although a debate upon divorce was already ongoing. The debate about divorce during that time centered around the teachings of two prominent rabbis who lived just prior to Jesus. (I taught on this during our series through Mark, from Chapter 10). The essence was the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24.1-4. Moses gave a ruling which allowed for divorce, but a certificate was required. The certificate was required because the woman had very few legal rights and would not be able to prove she was no longer married without the certificate. Thus, if someone wanted to marry her, she needed the certificate to prove she was no longer married.
Over the years, the problem became one of what constitutes a “legitimate” cause for divorce. As I have shared in the past, a certificate could be given if the wife had a facial blemish or if she spoiled his dinner (literally, this was a written rule – Mishnah Giṭ. 9.10). So one of the prominent rabbis, Hillel, allowed for divorce in virtually any instance. The other rabbi, Shammai, taught that only when adultery is involved should a divorce be granted. Furthermore, some evidence shows that adultery was not only grounds for a divorce, but required it. Thus, Jesus words here turned their understanding upside-down.
Oaths – As for oaths, the people had developed an elaborate system to make their pledge more honorable. It was considered blasphemous for a Jew to incorporate God’s name into an oath so they would not “swear to God” as this is the true meaning of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Originally, it had nothing to do with our phraseology of invoking God’s damnation on someone or something. So, in order to avoid using God’s (Yahweh’s, Yeshua’s) name to make an oath binding, the people would swear by locations or items of varying degrees. Thus, swearing by heaven was considered to mean more than swearing by earth, which was above Jerusalem, which was more important than the hair on one’s head.
These oaths were a normal part of life and everyone who heard Jesus would have understood this fact well.
What Did Jesus Say?
Divorce – While Jesus’ spoke of adultery being a reason might divorce (like Shammai), His emphasis was different than the others. Jesus was not looking to provide escape clauses so people could justify their divorce; rather He was promoting the institution of marriage His Father created in the Garden. Although Jesus allowed for divorce in the instance of adultery, He did not say it was mandatory (like their customary law seems to have said). A divorce in 1st Century Palestine might seem beneficial for the man, but a woman did not have much hope to sustain herself if she did not remarry, which means she had now committed adultery, and was forced to by her former husband. (I should note here that a woman could not divorce a man – although she could ask the man for a divorce, or petition the court to force the man to divorce her, and if he didn’t comply, she might make his life miserable until it was granted).
Jesus point is this: A certificate of divorce given from a man to a woman may make matters legal in the eyes of man, but not in the eyes of God.
Oaths – Jesus then moves to the idea of swearing an oath. In order for us to better understand the elaborate Jewish system of swearing oaths, we must not overlook the beginning of Jesus statement. In verse 33, Jesus quotes those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” Again, the Jews had developed an elaborate system so as to convey their intent without defrauding God – or so they thought. In fact, by swearing on other items, they did not have to perform anything, because their oaths were not sworn to, or by, the Lord (thus not having to perform anything to anyone, let alone the Lord). Imagine how difficult this concept made their business dealings. You would never know if you could trust the person or not. And this is Jesus point exactly. Jesus wants His disciples to be known as honest and trustworthy. Their word should be true – whatever and whenever spoken.
Therefore, Jesus says not to swear by heaven (where God lives), or by earth (His footstool, Isaiah 66.1), or by Jerusalem (God’s holy city) or by the hair on one’s head (which God created). Jesus is making the point that nothing by which the people might swear was really theirs at all. Thus, they may attempt to avoid misusing God’s name, but their attempt to avoid God was futile. We might even consider these people should know better because of the reference to white hair. White hair typically denotes some aging, which means these individuals should have had enough maturity to see the foolishness of their ways. But hair color and age mean little when discussing the fallen nature of man. True wisdom comes from God, not from growing older.
What Does Our World Say?
Divorce – We could spend the rest of today here. First, many today suggest just not getting married. What is interesting about Jesus word choice here is that Matthew records the word as porneia, instead of moicheia. Moicheia is the word used for adultery. Porneia is a broader term meaning fornication (and from which the word pornography is derived). Thus, Jesus words here refute any option of living together outside of marriage as well as being in an extra-marital relationship.
It is very common today for wedding couples to express their own vows. Some change their vows, and/or location (such as being married at the courthouse) so as not to be married before God or be bound by certain terms. Please don’t misunderstand me. Neither a change of vows or of venue is reason to suspect that a couple does not intend to honor the Lord with their marriage, but some couples have certainly use the changes as a “loophole.”
Of course, no-fault divorce and same-sex marriage are prevalent throughout the western world today. As of the end of 2017, many cultures (including those who are not Christian nations) still reject these ideas such as it being illegal to get divorced in the Philippines and only 26 countries allowing couples of the same gender to be wed.
The world may make its claims, but only the words of Jesus will stand in the end.
Oaths – From pinky-swears to clever sayings about sticking needles in our eyes, children quickly learn the value of a promise. Of course, I don’t know of anyone who has stuck a needle in their eye for breaking a promise, nor is it likely that anyone has cut off their pinky recently for breaking a promise (unless you were involved with the Japanese mafia).
But just as making oaths is learned early, so are ways around keeping them. Again, the Jews may have had elaborate schemes, but even children know that if you “cross your fingers” whatever you vow to do does not really count. Contracts have “fine print” that is rarely read. The truth is that it is hard to know what is true. A person’s word used to be their bond, but people do not care about bonds anymore, they only care about themselves or their companies.
How Would Having a Knowledge of the Glory of the Lord Affect This Teaching?
Divorce – Being married is like being a marine. I recently introduced a friend of mine who had served in the marines. I introduced him as a former marine, until I was reminded that “once a marine, always a marine.” Thankfully, he did not hurt me for my mistake. But the same is true for marriage. Once married, always married – that’s what it means to say “till death do us part.” And even if we do not say it, then God says what He brings together, no one should tear apart.
That does not mean that someone who is divorced and remarries should get divorced again. Two wrongs do not make a right. This is a situation where the new couple should go before God, ask for forgiveness and pledge faithfulness to one another from that point forward.
As a church, we must love, not condemn people for their past. We should help people to make the most of their current marriage, not beat them down because of a prior relationship. But we must also help to preserve any marriage that we can. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 7, and we must recognize that God used the idea of Himself as a spouse to an unfaithful bride in the OT (see Hosea 1-3 and the story of Hosea and Gomer). Likewise, we are not always faithful as the Bride of Christ, but the love of our Bridegroom was enough to die for us to make us perfect for Him.
Oaths – This is simple in concept, yet for some it may be quite challenging to do. Simply tell the truth and mean what you say. Let your yes and no mean yes and no. Jesus wants His people to be known for their word. We should not need to swear by, or on, anything. So let our words honor Jesus, and in so doing, let others begin to know our word is our honor as well.
I began by asking you to consider how many promises you may have broken in this life. Now, consider how many promises God has broken. The reason Jesus can be so bold in His demands for our allegiance is He is seeking for us to be like Him – that is, to be like God. Jesus is not teaching us how to live by earthly standards, but to live on earth as it is in heaven.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus unpacks what Kingdom living truly is. Jesus clearly states what God’s expectations for His people living in His Kingdom are. His teachings were counter-cultural then, and they certainly are now as well. If we want to live in our kingdom, we can do what we want. But if we desire to be a part of God’s Kingdom, then we must think, and act, radically different.
What we cannot miss is the tie between these topics. Thinking back to last week, Jesus began with anger and said we should seek reconciliation with others presumably because some expectation (an oath?) has not been met. The idea of lust and marriage are perfectly intertwined because another of the reasons for a “legitimate” divorce, according to the Hillel, was finding someone fairer than your current wife. Thus, the lust for another led to adultery (in the mind, if not in the heart), which means the marriage vow (oath) has been violated. As we will see next week, the idea continues, and circles back to anger as Jesus next covered the idea of retaliation versus that of love. Jesus is concerned with one thing here – righteousness according to God. And as He said earlier in His sermon, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, will be satisfied, even though it is impossible to achieve on our own.
So, with that said, our JOURNEY letter for today is: J – JESUS
It is the righteousness of Jesus that makes Kingdom-living possible. His teachings may seem impossible at first, but that is because our worldview has been tainted. Jesus lived His life in perfect accord with these teachings and, thus, we can too. But only if we seek to do so through Him and not on our own.
Based upon today’s message, how can we raise the bar and live on earth as it is in heaven?
NEXT LEVEL STEP(S): LIVE.
Choose one of these two issues to focus on this week.
Marriage: If you are married or are a widow/widower, thank God for the partner you had. Life may not have been perfect, but God provided someone for you to share your life. Perhaps you can find a couple to give guidance to their marriage.
If you are not married, ask God to begin preparing you and your future spouse (if He desires you to be married) for your future relationship. Pray for purity of heart and body for both of you until He has joined you together in marriage.
Oaths/Vows: Ask God to make you known for the integrity of your word. Then, begin to simply let your “Yes” mean yes, and your “No” mean no.