“Cultivating the Credibility and Character of Christ”
Scripture Text: Matthew 5:33-37
July 10, 2022 – 8:15, 11:00am Morning Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
With Pastor Nicoletti taking some well-deserved time off this month, I will pick back up again in the gospel of Matthew.
Matthew is quickly becoming yet another one of my favorite books of the Bible. It is here in Matthew that we see that Jesus opens our eyes to the OT Scriptures in a fresh way. He takes the OT Scriptures, and he shows us their fuller meaning. He elaborates and exegetes them. He does not teach something different than what we have been taught in the OT, but opens our minds to its meaning.
You see, it is not the case that God was a drastic God in the days of old and that Jesus is now a gracious God in the NT. No, and we see that because it is Jesus who brings the OT back before us with a fresh and deeper understanding. He has not come to abolish or get rid of the law. He has come to fulfill it! And he tells us that we are not to ignore or relax the commandments, but rather to revere them and make them part of our lives.
With that in mind, please open your Bible to Matthew chapter 5 starting in v. 17, as I would like to begin reading from earlier in the passage than what is printed in your order of service.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
And the passage we’ll focus on this morning:
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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God
Let’s pray together
You might remember that this passage is within the section of the book of Matthew that is called the “Sermon on the Mount.” And throughout this sermon we see several of the 10 commandments given in Exodus 20 brought into Jesus’ message.
And in those 10 commandments, freshly presented here in Matthew, we see who God wants us to be. The way God wants his family to live and be. The commandments drive us toward holy living.
Jesus says, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. [John 14:6]
When we consider who Jesus is as a person, it becomes absolutely clear that he is who he says he is. He is the truth, and he is opposed to falsehood. He cannot be caught in a lie, because he always tells the truth and lives out the truth. He is true to his word and is fully trustworthy. Jesus is the polar opposite of Satan, who is the father of lies.
And our Lord Jesus’ message in our passage this morning is straightforward and simple. He wants us to follow his footsteps. He wants us to live lives that are filled with the truth. Simply put, he wants us to be truthful in all our ways, even deep down into our inner being.
So in this passage, Jesus calls us to cultivate a life of truth in the inner being. That is the main point we will be looking at today.
Misunderstanding the Law
Why do we feel the need to say, “I promise” or “I swear”? Why do people need to swear by the Bible and with phrases like “With God as my witness” or “cross my heart, hope to die.”
John Stott says, “The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted. So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath” and oaths arise because men are so often liars. [John Stott, 102]
Well, it was no different in the days of the Pharisees. It was common practice to swear oaths, and in order to protect against using God’s name in vain in those oaths, the Jews introduced a practice where you could swear by substitute objects.
In ancient literature, commentator Craig Keener notes that “some people apparently thought it harmless to deceive if they swore oaths by something like their right hand. Others took all oaths more seriously, but specifically warned against using God’s name. …The further removed the oath was from the actual name of God, the less danger they faced for violating it [Keener, 195]
Knowing this historical practice of the Jews helps us understand why Jesus told the Pharisees that they had “neglected the weightier matters of the law” while focusing all their efforts on precise external compliance to the law.
Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus rebukes them saying,
“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? So…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. [Matt. 23:16-22]
While technically the Pharisees were not using God’s actual name while swearing, Jesus rebukes them saying that, they were swearing by God’s name every time they swore by the temple or by the earth, the heavens, Jerusalem and even their heads. For all these things are made by God. They are his footstool, his throne, and they are all his. God’s presence is everywhere. He sees all things and is witness to all things. Because of that, they were using his name in vain, and they were making a mock out of truthfulness. Jesus said they were “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” But the problem was that they thought they were well off religiously.
And that was because the Jews reduced these laws to a list of a specific set of oaths and regulations they had to follow. As long as those specific rules were not broken, they felt as though they had obeyed the law.
But as JC Ryle explains, “[Jesus] shows us that the Law, as expounded by Him, was a far more spiritual and heart-searching rule than most of the Jews supposed” [JC Ryle, 40]
We know this to be the case because the gospels give us an account within the gospel of a man known as the rich young ruler. Coming to Jesus thinking highly of himself, he asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved.
Jesus, knowing what the man needed to hear, responded, “‘You know the commandments: Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” [Luke 18:20-22]
The young man believed that he was a good man. That he was following the commandments of God. But when Jesus told him to give up his idol of riches, the young man left sad for he was very rich and loved his riches.
For the young ruler, he might not have bowed down to his riches in worship, but Jesus knew that he was in effect worshipping this god of money and thus was breaking the commandment he claimed to have kept
See the Jews had a common and reductionistic way of interpreting these passages. They also believed that they were keeping all the commandments and they never would have imagined that they were so guilty. [Matthew 19:20]
See, they did not understand the law.
The Letter Over the Spirit
Martin Llyod Jones notes that the trouble with the Pharisees and Sadducees was that their attitude was legalistic. In other words, “They were more concerned with keeping the letter of the law than the spirit.” They believed that following the specific rules was enough, and did not focus on the spirit or the intention of the law. That means that as long as they could persuade themselves that they were keeping the letter of the law they were perfectly happy.” [Martin Lloyd Jones, 264]
Jones continues saying that, “By reducing the meaning of the law to something specific, they opened the door to do many things that were utterly contradictory to the spirit of the law yet they felt they were free because they had not actually broken the letter.
To commit perjury was to them a very serious and solemn matter; it was a terrible sin and they denounced it. You could, however, take all kinds of oaths, and do all sorts of things, but as long as you never committed [actual] perjury you were not guilty before the law. [Jones, 264-265]
Again, they were making a joke out of integrity. Jesus said they were “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” But the problem was they thought they were doing the right thing.
The commandment stated they were not to swear falsely to the Lord, but the commandment also taught not to be false in speech. The Pharisees were not using God’s name falsely on a technicality, but in a much greater sense, they were profaning God’s name by being false in their conduct and speech. They were not trustworthy. Their word was not credible. They were whitewashed liars.
They were like the kids from my neighborhood growing up who would cross their fingers behind their back while claiming to be honest. The Pharisees were evading having to speak the truth, by the use of oaths. This is why Jesus ends this section telling them not to take oaths at all.
Note: Jesus doesn’t say we should never take oaths. No, we see that the earliest Christians still took oaths. Paul calls God as his witness on several occasions in the epistles (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23; 1 Thess 2:5, 10; cf. Phil 1:8). Jesus also testified under oath (Matthew 26:63-64). [Carson, 154] In addition Hebrews 6 tells us that God swore by himself when he made a promise to Abraham.
Oaths and vows were not the problem. It was the misuse of oaths and vows to allow falsehood.
This is why Jesus brings his sermon back to the bedrock issue. Live truthfully – be trustworthy. Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” And remember that anything more than this comes from evil.
This sort of legalism baffles us. How could they be so foolish to live this way? How could the Pharisees focus on one thing while allowing all sorts of evils fly past them?
And yet this sort of legalism lives in us today; these issues are still highly relevant to us.
And just like the Pharisees, we don’t even realize how legalistic we have become.
We read Jesus’ teaching here, and we think, we know better than to swear as they did. “No, we won’t fall into that type of sin! We’ll just focus on making sure we don’t swear and only say “yes” or “no” that way we won’t run into any issues.”
Could we be missing Jesus’ teaching of, “let your yes be yes and your no be no?”
How might we have lowered the standard of truth to such a low threshold that we can technically be fulfilling the commandment “do not lie” while permitting all sorts of falsehood in our lives?
We do this in so many ways. Let’s bring Jesus’ teaching in a little closer to our lives. Let’s make it personal to us specifically for a few moments.
And frankly, I think this might be difficult for us in some ways, because it is not immediately obvious. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have had to preach this message and we probably would have already dealt with it.
I’ll highlight a few that I’ve seen or heard, and Lord willing, some of these might hit close to home.
Twisting The Truth
Not too long ago, I remember a time I was driving to meet someone. I left maybe 10 minutes later than I should have, and felt terribly for it. On the drive over I was rehearsing my excuse-apology. I’m so sorry….but for X reason I am late. Problem was, nothing great was coming to mind.
And then the most wonderful thing happened. I got lost. “YES!!!” I thought to myself, now I can say I got “turned around” and I don’t have to say I left late! But then again, it also wasn’t the truth, at least not the whole truth. I was late not primarily because I got turned around, but mainly because I had managed my time poorly.
So, what do you think I did? Well, I sort of want to skip this part, but given that this is a sermon on telling and cultivating the truth in our lives, I feel the need to finish the story, even if it doesn’t make me look great.
The fact is, I threw both of my reasons out there for them to hear. I think I thought that doing so could make them think I was mainly late because I got lost. And if they did, then it would be a win-win, I’m not the one lying, and no one is hurt in the process.
Brothers and sisters, what an embarrassing story! I have discovered some areas I need to repent in! I was twisting and exaggerating parts of the story (all of which were technically true) in order to shape people’s perspective of me in a way that was false.
My fear of their reaction to my tardiness tempted me to twist the truth in order to be seen in a better light.
Now, maybe you are sitting there judging me, or more likely you can identify with something similar. A moment where you messed up, and rather than simply acknowledging your mistake, you painted a scenario that put you in a better light. You came up with a reason or an excuse that, while true, was not the whole truth.
If we analyze why we do this, I think we’ll find it can always come back to fear.
I think a significant reason for why we are not as honest as we should be is due to a fear of man that consumes us.
See, speaking the truth has consequences. That is why it is hard to do. Think of your workplace, your school, your team, your neighbors. How many of them know you are a Christian? Do you talk to them about Jesus? Do you witness to them? Or do you prefer to keep your faith to yourself and hide your beliefs in order to preserve your job, your position among friends, or your status?
One way we can deflect conviction is by believing that Jesus’ teaching was merely to call us to avoiding bold lies.
But part of not lying means we must speak the truth. And when it comes to speaking the truth, don’t we sometimes keep silent? If we know our answer might appear foolish, or not be accepted, do we ever exaggerate it in such a way as to make us look better?
Much of this, again, comes back to a basic fear of man.
What about this one? When making an argument or trying to convince someone of your position, you hide behind the numbers.
For example, you expect someone to disagree with your idea about Reid playing the drum in worship, so you might find yourself making statements like this “Reid, many people at church have commented that they would like you to play the drum more during those hymns.” When the truth is that it may have only been my son, someone else in the church and myself.
Of course, “many people” could be 40-50 in Reid’s mind, or it could be 3 people – maybe. Since saying “many people” is intentionally vague, it is far more advantageous to let the hearer’s imagination create the number, giving yourself the advantage, thus controlling the perspective and getting your way.
Youth and young children, you might struggle with this one. Your mom or dad ask you if you’ve done the thing they’ve asked you to, and you know that if you say you didn’t, you’ll be in trouble. So you respond, “I didn’t know how to” or “I didn’t feel good” or “I was tired” or “I forgot.” There are many ways to lie without explicitly lying. Aren’t there?
I’ve also seen people twist the truth by acting like everything is ok with their lives, your family, your business and your health. Fearing judgment from others, you might keep your struggles to yourself.
What about gossiping? Do you get an adrenaline rush when you see someone’s face go from calm to utter disbelief when you share that juicy morsel of gossip? Do you love it when people burst out with a “No!!! Are you kidding me?! What?!” If so, you may be speaking in such a way to lift yourself up and push others down. Everyone want to be liked, but sometimes it can be at the expense of others. Making others think highly of you while poorly of others, is another way fear and deceit expresses itself.
I want to encourage you to think about this more this afternoon. Who do you fear? Who do you want to impress? Often it is those exact people who we fear that tempt us to shape our stories and truth in such a way that we slip into deceit.
We all do this in many different ways. And I believe that we do it because we fear. The truth brings consequences. That is why we avoid it and prefer to control and shape our world by painting how people see us our way, avoiding conflict.
An article I read showed that we are shaped by people more than we realize. The presence of someone watching you literally changes how you do different tasks throughout the day. And it turns out that even the thought that someone might be watching you is enough to completely alter your behavior.
A study “discovered that putting posters of glaring eyes above bike racks seemed to ward off thieves….In the three racks they monitored, the number of stolen cycles went down by an incredible 62 percent.
Daniel Nettle, lead author of the new study….’Cycle Thieves, We Are Watching You,’ has been investigating the curiously potent effect of eyes for a while. In 2010, he found that posters of eyes reduced littering inside a university cafeteria. More recently, he helped uncover a link between eye images and charity. [He writes,] ‘Confronted with a pair of peepers staring in their general direction, people dumped nearly twice as many donations into a supermarket alms box than with control images.’” [John Metcalfe – Bloomberg]
Though we are already probably very aware that being watched changes us in some way, the research shows that people can alter their moral behavior entirely if they suspect people are watching.
It is common for people to want to fit in, blend in and be accepted. For many of us, we would be mortified if we ever tripped in front of a large group, or made any embarrassing mistakes.
Like a chameleon, we would rather blend in and imitate the people around us out of fear. We camouflage who we are, to transform and conform to the people around us so as not to stand out, and to be accepted.
Brothers and sisters, how easily we can become consumed with what people think about us and how quickly we can resort to stretching or twisting the truth in order to be accepted by others.
The temptation is great to fear others and to change our conduct and words because of a watching world.
But God’s word teaches us that we cannot please two masters. We cannot please man and God at the same time. If we are pleasing God, we will not please man. And if we are pleasing man, we will not be pleasing God.
God isn’t just concerned that you avoid telling bold-faced lies, as much as he wants truth to reign in your inner man. For Psalm 51:6 tells us that God “desires truth in the inward parts.”
He wants us to love truth inside and out. He wants us to live in such a way that we do not fear man, but live out every promise we give, every word we speak, before his face. [Sinclair Ferguson, 134-135]
And as we grow in truth and trust in God’s perfect provision, he will provide for our every need. He will preserve us and protect us. He will watch over us as we endure hardship.
Since the foundation of this world, Satan has been working at deceiving mankind. He deceived Eve and through that deception death came to mankind. But in Christ that death and deception has been conquered by the truth of the gospel which we have in Jesus.
See, Jesus came to rescue us out of darkness and lies in order to establish us in the light and truth of his glorious presence. And he came that we would also be messengers of that same truth to a lost and deceived world. That we might speak and live the truth and we might be bearers of the truth, not in part, but the whole “full measure, good weight and sixteen ounces to the pound.” [JC Ryle, Holiness]
And Jesus knows the consequences of truth. He himself stood for the truth before the Chief Priests or Pilate. He did not lie, nor did he rain down judgment on them, instead he showed us by example how to live the life of truth with all of its consequences. Suffering abuse on our behalf, dying so that we might be reconciled to him, the way, the truth and the life.
Brothers and Sisters,
May it be our prayer and our earnest desire to pursue truth more than we pursue the approval of the world. And may Christ’s truth fill the depths of our hearts and spill over into the lives of others.
I will close by reading Psalm 15, a Psalm that reminds us that he who calls us to be holy and true will never let us be shaken.
Psa. 15:1 LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbor,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honors those who fear the LORD;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
This sermon series draws on material from:
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2007.
Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, Illinois. InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, Reprinted 1991.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. PNTC, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Eerdmans Company, 1992.
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. William B. Eerdmans Company, 2005.
Ferguson, Sinclair. Living Out the Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Life in A Fallen World. Colorado Springs, Colorado. NavPress, 1986.
Sproul, R.C. Matthew: An Expositional Commentary. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2019.
Stott, John R. W. Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978.
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