33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’
34 “But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
35 “nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 “Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
One of the things I have tried to teach young salespeople for many years is this simple axiom: “Under-promise, but over-deliver.” What does that mean? It simple says that we should not promise too much to a customer–especially when it involves things over which we have no control. A simple example would be when we tell a customer that we will get an out-of-stock product for them quickly. If we promise five days and then we get it in just two days, then the customer is very happy. If we promise two days and it takes a whole week, then we have failed in our promise. My grandmother put it this way: “Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.” It sure seems like common sense, but few of us really live by such a sensible commandment–and unfortunately, others often face the consequences for our inability to keep our promises.
In today’s verses, Jesus is harkening back to the law that was handed down through Moses:
“If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”
21 “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.
22 “But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you.
23 “That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.”
Those seem like simple enough statements, since they both say, essentially, “If you make a vow to the Lord, then you must keep it.” But the tendency in both ancient and modern society is to make vows or promises that we cannot keep–both vows to God and vows to men. To make things worse, people often will try to make their promises to men appear more solemn by swearing on a Bible or swearing by the name of the Lord or swearing, as the old phrase goes, “by all that’s holy.” Of course, that is exactly what Jesus is telling us NOT to do in today’s verses. Later, Jesus would deride the Pharisees for their laws concerning oaths:
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’
17 “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold?
18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’
19 “Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift?
20 “Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it.
21 “He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it.
22 “And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it.”
The fact is that there is very little in our lives over which we have absolute control other than our thoughts and our deeds. We live in a web of interdependency, and while we might have some influence over what others do, it really is just common sense that we should not make promises that depend on other people to be kept. And we only make it worse when we try to involve the One Person who truly IS able to keep all promises, the One whose word is better than gold, the One who alone is faithful and good. When we involve God in our promises and vows, then we are making HIM accountable for OUR actions. And when we ourselves fail to keep such vows, then our inability to keep promises tarnishes God’s holy name.
“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.”
We are all of us sinners, and not one of us is capable of keeping every promise we make to someone. (Ecclesiastes 7:20, Galatians 3:22) The simple thing, then, would be to never promise to do anything for anyone. In order to do that, we would probably have to live as hermits, because as human beings we rely on others to do things for us. We depend on dairy farmers for milk and manufacturers for cars and pens and computers. And even if we are not among those who simply must have what we want NOW, we still depend on people to deliver things, to have them available when we want them, and even to help us when we need help–e.g. having a doctor on call at the emergency room or a firefighter available to save our home. But how can we depend on such things if, as the Bible says, people are innately incapable of keeping all their promises? As Blanche DuBois says in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we must “rely on the kindness of strangers.”
When it comes to kindness, one might think that Christians have a corner on that market. But if you look at the attitude that many non-Christians have toward Christians today, you would see a common theme: Christians don’t live up to the name. We talk of being transformed in Christ, and then we go right on sinning and breaking vows and slandering the holy name of God. We might not have made any particular promise before anyone regarding our ability to keep promises, and we might never have told anyone, “I am a Christian, and therefore you can rely on me.” But the fact is that when we put on the name of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, when we let it be known we belong to Him, then ALL our behavior reflects back upon Him. Because we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, because we have put off the old man and put on the new, we ought to be able to live lives that are more honest and we ought to be able to make and keep sensible promises. But because we are still imperfect beings, we falter and stumble. We still slip back into doing things the old way, and we are constantly having to reexamine our lives to keep them more in keeping with God’s Word and God’s will. It is a constant process of learning to live up to the sanctification we have received in Christ Jesus, but it is that striving toward holiness that drives us to truly be better than we have ever been before.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
As Christians, we are called to live a different life, a life that involves more than just the day-to-day grind of work, family, and leisure. We are people called to fast and to pray and to give. (Matthew 6:1-18) We are called to go beyond people’s daily expectations and live lives that are glorifying to God. We are people who have surrendered our own will to the will of God, and as such, we have no word that is our own. We are ambassadors for God Himself and Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:20)
A wicked messenger falls into trouble,
But a faithful ambassador brings health.
God is faithful beyond what we could ever be in our own lives. He alone is good and just and utterly merciful and loving. The Lord God alone keeps the oath that He swore in His name, that we should be saved through the blessing of Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 6:13-18) If we are faithful to God, then we will not only have a better life ourselves–an eternal life!–but we will also bring life to others. Therefore, we should live our own lives with circumspection, never promising more than we can ourselves deliver, but we should also always be reminding others of the promises of the One who can deliver so much more. Our “Yes” should simply be “Yes,” our “No” be “No,” so that if we fail in our promises, then it reflects only upon us and our failings as sinful men and women. But when we do a good deed, let it come from a heart that loves God, so that it reflects goodness and honor upon Him and not ourselves. In short, when we fail, let it reflect upon ourselves, but when we succeed, let it reflect glory to God. And let our lives be seasoned with the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that people know the promises of God and how He can transform lives through the power of His Spirit.
2 Corinthians 1:19-20
19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us–by me, Silvanus, and Timothy–was not “Yes” and No, but in Him was Yes.
20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.
Shall I be saved by faith in Jesus? God answers, “Yes.” Shall I know eternal life by accepting Jesus as Lord? God’s answer again is “Yes.” And God’s “Yes” is more than a simple affirmation. In Jesus, God’s “Yes” is a resounding “Amen!”, a commandment from the Creator of the universe that what He says shall be done. But that “Yes” is His alone to speak, as He has done through His Word, and it is for us to repeat–not as our own promise, but as the promise of the holy and living God who alone can keep that promise. Therefore, as Jesus reminds us, let us not rely on God to keep our own promises, and let our “Yes” simply be our own, and our “No” be ours as well. But let us remind others that there is a promise from God that is so much more, an oath from God that will surely be kept for all who believe in Jesus Christ: the promise of salvation and eternal life.
Yes and Amen!