Swearing, Getting Even, & Love: What the Law Really Demands

Swearing, Getting Even, & Love: What the Law Really Demands

Text: Matthew 5:33-48

 

Teaching about Vows

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely”: The scribes and Pharisees had twisted the law You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain (Exodus 20:7) to permit taking virtually every other name in a false oath. Now, a false oath is not one where an unforeseen circumstance prevents you from fulfilling your oath; it is an oath that you never intended to keep in the first place. Even today, we have people give oaths that they never intend to keep and one of the most common issues that the courts have to decide is that of a breach of contract and in certain industries, a breach of your fiduciary, or good faith obligation, is grounds for loss of license, loss of job, and potentially even jail. Clearly our oaths are important.

 

So why the prohibition against taking oaths? Do not swear at all: Jesus reminds us that God is part of every oath anyway; if you swear by heavenearthJerusalem, or even your head, you swear by God – and your oath must be honored. But let your “Yes” be “Yes”: Having to swear or make oaths betrays the weakness of your word. It demonstrates that there is not enough weight in your own character to confirm your words.

Some have taken this word of Jesus as more than an emphasis on truth-telling and honesty as an absolute prohibition of all oaths. This is at best misguided and at worst ignorance of scripture because oaths are permitted under certain circumstances, as long as they are neither abused or used as a cover for deception.

  • God Himself swears oaths:Hebrews 6:13 and Luke 1:73.
  • Jesus spoke under oath in a court:Matthew 26:63-64.
  • Paul made oaths:Romans 1:9, 2 Corinthians 1:23, Galatians 1:20, 2 Thessalonians 2:5.

“The truly good man will never need to take an oath; the truth of his sayings and the reality of his promises need no such guarantee. But the fact that oaths are still sometimes necessary is the proof that men are not good men and that this is not a good world.” (Barclay)

Oaths and vows were not only permitted but, in certain circumstances, commanded in the Old Testament (Number 5:19.). Discussions of the relative validity of different forms of oath and vow occupied the Rabbis to the extent of filling several tractates of the Mishnah. But an oath is needed only if a person’s word alone is unreliable; it is an admission of failure in truthfulness. Of course we know that people lie because of the sinful flesh. Jesus therefore goes behind the whole structure of legislation on oaths to the ideal which it has replaced. The passage, while on the surface concerned with oaths, is actually on truthfulness, focusing on v. 37 rather than v. 34a (Jeremias, NTT, p. 220). As with divorce, the accommodating legislation, both in the Old Testament and in later Judaism, is bypassed to return to the ideal which makes it unnecessary.

“33. The two clauses summarize Old Testament teaching rather than quote it explicitly. You shall not swear falsely echoes Leviticus 19:12 (Exodus 20:7 may also be in mind); you shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn takes up the teaching of Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21; Psalm 50:14; Ecclesiastes 5:4. All these last are concerned with vows, but Numbers 30:2 mentions oaths as parallel, and the distinction between oaths and vows was generally not kept clear (see Davies, p. 240). The Old Testament thus prohibited both false oaths and unfulfilled oaths or vows.

34-36. Jesus’ total rejection of oaths (not … at all) is not paralleled even by the Qumran literature, strict as it was on this issue (Davies, pp. 241-244), and contrasts starkly with the Rabbinic casuistry which he goes on to expose in these verses (cf. 23:16-22). That this ideal should not be taken as a rigid rule, e.g. with reference to oaths in court, is suggested by Jesus’ own response when the High Priest ‘put him on oath’ (26:63-64), and by occasional ‘oaths’ in the New Testament (2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20; cf. 1 Thess. 5:27); even God can use an oath (Heb. 6:13-17). But Jesus goes on to repudiate the use of ‘second-class’ oaths which avoid the name of God (and therefore are not binding). First they do not in fact exclude God, as heaven, earth and Jerusalem are all inseparably linked with God (as Jesus shows by references to Isa. 66:1 and Ps. 48:2 (v. 3, Heb.), and even your head is God’s creation and under his control. And secondly, as v. 37 shows, they should be unnecessary.

  1. 37. Simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is literally ‘Yes yes, no no’. The repetition is not a new formula, but a Semitic way of indicating that ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are to be used (alone) on each occasion. (‘two two’ in Mark 6:7 for ‘two at a time’.) James 5:12, which is clearly based on this passage, has correctly interpreted the meaning: ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’ All words are binding, and the Christian’s word should need no buttressing. Any addition comes from evil, or the evil one: The Greek genitive ponērou could be either masculine or neuter, here as often; it makes little difference to the general sense whether the need for safeguards against falsehood is traced to the wickedness of the world in general or to the ‘Father of lies’.”

Tyndale Commentaries – Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Matthew.

 

 

So, in accordance with the Old Testament standard, we are to swear by no other name but God’s—not by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Appealing to heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and other such things was considered by most Jews to make their oaths less binding. Those were grand and great things, things that gave an aura of power, importance, and veracity to what was said or promised in their name. But because those things were far less than God, they made oaths given in their names far less binding than an oath made in His name. Still less binding would be an oath made merely by your head.

 

Any oath sworn is binding and should not be entered into lightly. How you deal with oaths and promises are a good indicator of your character.

 

 

Teaching about Revenge

The Mosaic law did teach an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:24). But over time religious teachers moved this command out of its proper sphere (a principle limiting retribution for the civil government) and put it in the wrong sphere (as an obligation in personal relationships). Retribution for a wrong done to you is no more obligated than a pancake breakfast. Like a pancake breakfast, vindication and retribution are nice but if you do not receive it, you need not be disappointed.

 

But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also: Here, Jesus presents the fullness of the eye for an eye law, and how its idea of limiting revenge extends into the principle of accepting certain evils against one’s self. Many times, I have heard the somewhat cliche comment, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” There is truth in that, though. A desire for retribution invariably leads to destruction.

 

Even today, in parts of the world, slapping the face and especially what we call backhanding a person is a horrible insult. When a person insults us (slaps you on the right cheek), we want to give them back what they gave to us, plus more. Jesus said we should patiently bear such insults and offences, and not resist an evil person who insults us this way. Instead, we trust God to defend us. (Deuteronomy 32:35)

It is wrong to think Jesus means evil should never be resisted. Jesus demonstrated with His life that evil should and must be resisted, such as when He turned tables in the temple. “Jesus is here saying that the true Christian has learned to resent no insult and to seek retaliation for no slight.” (Barclay) When we think how Jesus Himself as insulted and spoken against (as a glutton, a drunk, an illegitimate child, a blasphemer, a madman, and so forth) we see how He lived this principle Himself.

 

Remember that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is giving us a correct understanding of the Law so…

 

It is wrong to think that Jesus means a physical attack cannot be resisted or defended against. When Jesus speaks of a slap on your right cheek, it was culturally understood as a deep insult, not a physical attack. Jesus does not mean that if someone hits across the right side of our head with a baseball bat, we should allow them to then hit the left side. “If a right-handed person strikes someone’s right cheek, presumably it is a slap by the back of the hand, probably considered more insulting than a slap by the open palm.” (Carson) 2 Corinthians 11:20 probably has in mind this kind of “insult slap.”

 

It is also wrong to think Jesus means that there is no place for punishment or retribution in society. Jesus here speaks to personal relationships, and not to the proper functions of government in restraining evil (Romans 13:1-4). I must turn my cheek when I am personally insulted, but the government has a responsibility to restrain the evil man from physical assault.

 

If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also: Under the Law of Moses, the outer cloak could not be taken from someone (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:13).

“Jesus’ disciples, if sued for their tunics, far from seeking satisfaction, will gladly part with what they may legally keep.” (Carson)

“Yet even in a country where justice can be had, we are not to resort to law for every personal wrong. We should rather endure to be put upon than be forever crying out, ‘I’ll bring an action.’” (Spurgeon)

Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two: Positively, we are told to take command of evil impositions by making a deliberate choice to give more than we are required. At that time, Judea was under Roman military occupation. Under military law, any Roman soldier might command a Jew to carry his soldier’s pack for one mile – but only one mile. Jesus here says, “Go beyond the one mile required by law and give another mile out of a free choice of love.” This is how we transform an attempt to manipulate us into a free act of love.

 

“The Jews fiercely resented such impositions, and Jesus’ choice of this example deliberately dissociates him from militant nationalists. Rather than resisting, or even resenting, the disciple should volunteer for a further mile.” (France)”

“The old said, ‘insist on your own right, and loving your neighbor, hate your enemy, and so secure your safety.’ The new says, ‘suffer wrong, and lavish your love on all.” (Morgan)

I know good and well how hard it is not to return wrong for wrong. I am half Italian and, the joke among many of my kinsmen, is that getting even is the family business. It is tough to turn the other cheek, very tough indeed.

 

This idea of turning the other cheek takes me to research I was doing for this sermon and arriving at Lamentations 3:30. I would like to consider some things my colleague, Rev. Matt Bassford had to say

 

“That aside, the truly interesting translation in Lamentations 3:30 in the NLT is “turn the other cheek”.  This is certainly an interpretive reading, but the passage that it’s interpreting isn’t Lamentations 3:30.  Instead, it’s interpreting Matthew 5:39.  In fact, the NLT uses language from Matthew 5:39 to translate Lamentations 3:30, even though the latter is hundreds of years older.  It makes this choice to imply that Jesus in Matthew 5:39 is quoting Lamentations 3:30.

 

If indeed Jesus is citing Lamentations 3:30 as a signpost to an Old-Testament context and speaking to an angry Jewish audience that is considering rebellion against Rome, that dramatically changes the meaning of “turn the other cheek.”  The context of Lamentations 3:30 is clearly about how the defeated Jews ought to behave after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 589 BC.  Here’s Jeremiah’s prescription:

 

It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope. Let him give his cheek to the smiter, let him be filled with reproach.  For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, Then He will have compassion according to His abundant loving kindness. 

 

(Lamentations 3:27-32 NASB)

 

In other words, Jeremiah is saying to the Jews of his day, “You’re in this fix because you sinned and God punished you.  In these circumstances, rather than fighting back, you should submit to your oppressors until God rescues you in His compassion.”

 

It makes perfect sense for Jesus to be saying exactly the same thing to the Jews of His day.  Like the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, first-century Jews were suffering under the boot of the oppressor, albeit a Roman rather than a Babylonian overlord.  In using Lamentations 3, Jesus is arguing that the Romans are over the Jews because of divine punishment for Jewish sins.  The Jews need to solve their Roman problem not by rebelling against their conquerors (because fighting against God’s will is pointless) but by repairing their relationship with God—doing everything else that Jesus tells them to do in the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Once the Jewish nation is righteous, God will deliver them from the Romans.  Until then, they need to meekly submit to the oppression that they brought on themselves.  Note that this reading dovetails with Matthew 5:41 (the “second mile” text) which is also about Roman-Jewish relations.

 

If this reading is correct, Matthew 5:39 is not a general call to personal pacifism.  Instead, just as Christians in the seven churches would have understood Revelation 4 in the light of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, Jesus’ Jewish audience would have understood “turn the other cheek” in the light of Lamentations 3, as a primarily political rather than personal instruction.

 

This is not the way you treat the robber who breaks into your house in the middle of the night.  This is the way you treat the Roman soldier who abuses and oppresses you.  The point is not that violence is wrong per se, even in self-defense.  It is that violence is wrong when the object of your violence is somebody whom God has set over you.  Rebellion, not self-defense, is the spiritual problem.”

 

Like Matt, I find myself saying this is very, very different from the way that I’ve ever read Matthew 5:39 before. I’ve always only heard it relating to personal insult but I can most definitely see the case for it also being a rebuke to people who don’t want to submit to judgment.

 

 

Give to him who asks of you: The only limit to this kind of sacrifice is the limit that love itself will impose. It isn’t loving to give in to someone’s manipulation without our transforming it into a free act of love. It isn’t always loving to give or to not resist.

Teaching about Love for Enemies

 

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”: The Mosaic Law commanded you shall love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Yet some teachers in the days of Jesus added an opposite – and evil – misapplication: an equal obligation to hate your enemy. “They generally looked upon all the uncircumcised as not their neighbors, but their enemies, whom the precept did not oblige them to love.” (Poole)

 

But I say to you, love your enemies: Instead, Jesus reminds that in the sense God means it, all people are our neighbors, even our enemies. To truly fulfill this law, we must loveblessdo good and pray for our enemies – not only our friends. Most people have no idea how truly scandalous this idea is. Revenge comes naturally to us but vengeance is the Lord’s (Deuteronomy 32:35) but to show love and grace is to demonstrate the Holy Spirit working in us.

 

Jesus understood we will have enemies (it goes hand in hand with John 16:33, In the world ye shall have tribulation), yet we are to respond to them in love, trusting that God will protect our cause and destroy our enemies in the best way possible, by transforming them into our friends.

 

That you may be sons of your Father in heaven: In doing this, we are imitating God, who shows love towards His enemies, by sending rain on the just and on the unjust.

“You see our Lord Jesus Christ’s philosophy of nature. He believed in the immediate presence and working of God. As the great Son of God he had a very sensitive perception of the presence of his Father in all the scenes around him, and hence he calls the sun God’s sun- ‘He maketh his sun to rise.’” (Spurgeon)

“As though he did not regard human character at all, God bids his sun shine on good and bad. As though he did not know that any men were vile, he bids the shower descend on just and unjust. Yet he does know, for he is no blind deity. He does know; and he knows when his sun shines on yonder miser’s acres that it is bringing forth a harvest for a churl. He does it deliberately. When the rain is falling yonder upon the oppressor’s crops, he knows that the oppressor will be the richer for it, and means that he should be; he is doing nothing by mistake and nothing without a purpose.” (Spurgeon)

“What does God say to us when he acts thus? I believe that he says this: ‘This is the day of free grace; this is the time of mercy.’ The hour for judgment is not yet, when he will separate between the good and the bad; when he will mount the judgment seat and award different portions to the righteous and to the wicked.” (Spurgeon)

This is an example – that we also are to love our enemies and bless them if we can. In doing so, we show ourselves to sons of our Father in heaven. “We are made sons by regeneration, through faith in the Son; but we are called to make our calling and election sure – to approve and vindicate our right to that sacred name. We can only do this by showing in word and act that the divine life and principles animate us.” (Meyer)

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you: What do you do more than the sinner? We should regard it as no matter of virtue if we merely return the love that is given to us.

 

Remember, Jesus here taught the character of the citizens of His kingdom. We should expect that character to be different from the character seen in the world. There are many good reasons why more should be expected from Christians than others:

  • They claim to have something that others do not have; they claim to be renewed, repentant, and redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  • They do in fact have something that others do not have; they are in fact renewed, repentant, and redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  • They have a power that others do not have; they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them.
  • They have the Spirit of God dwelling within them.
  • They have a better future than others do.

Therefore, you shall be perfect: If a man could live the way Jesus has told us to in this chapter, he would truly be perfect.

  • He would never hate, slander or speak evil of another person.
  • He would never lust in his heart or mind, and not covet anything.
  • He would never make a false oath, and always be completely truthful.
  • He would let God defend his personal rights, and not take it upon himself to defend those rights.
  • He would always love his neighbors, and even his enemies.

 

Do you see? Do you get it? The Law demands, “Be perfect.” It must demand this because the Law testifies to God’s holiness and God’s holiness demands our perfection. We cannot, however, be perfect. That has been the entire point of the Sermon on the Mount thus far. You, on your own, cannot be perfect. However, you can, through the power of the Holy Spirit living in you, fulfill the law.

 

So many people get it wrong: they over emphasize the law or they over emphasize grace and liberty and miss the point of the Law, to point us to Christ. The Law shows us our sin and it must condemn for without that condemnation we would never seek a savior. The Law, beloved, is itself a Means of Grace because it is how God ordained us to seek a savior, in fleeing to Christ our sweet savior from Law’s damnation.

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