The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost July 20, 2008
1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1
31, 381, 395(1-5), 179
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
[Jesus said], “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.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.
Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus who has given us God’s Name:
It is often said that the Jews of medieval times had such a great respect for God’s name that they refused to pronounce that name when they came across it in written form. Instead of saying the holy name, they would say Adonai which means “Lord.” Since in written Hebrew there were consonants but almost no vowels, eventually it became impossible to know exactly how the actual name was originally pronounced.
Just because these Jews made a great display of their piety, that didn’t mean that they were generally righteous and pure themselves. Jesus shows us many ways in which the outward piety of the Jews failed to cover up the great swelling pride and self-righteousness that they carried around in their hearts.
From Jesus’ words in His Sermon on the Mount it becomes apparent that He taught His disciples to see to the heart of the matter. In this sermon He shows that murder includes hatred and that adultery includes lust. But now, what does He have to say about swearing and oath-taking?
Adultery, murder, and stealing—these are clearly serious things because they bring all sorts of harm to self and others. But is worrying swearing really all that important? And what are we to make of Jesus’ comments here? Is Jesus for it, or against it? What we’ll see is that Jesus calls for true respect for God’s name. I. Jesus warns against every kind of false swearing, and II. Jesus teaches a true respect for God’s Name.
As Jesus speaks to His disciples, He warns against every kind of false swearing, and sometimes it was the most righteous people who were guilty of the most malicious oaths. Swearing, or taking an oath, is a means of bringing God into our human disputes. It is a means of backing up a statement by calling upon God to support what you say if it is the truth, but to punish you if you’re telling a lie.
There are occasions when an oath is necessary as in serious matters in which people’s lives and welfare are at stake. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised land, Moses told them, “You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name” (Deuteronomy 6:13). They were to swear by God’s name, as opposed to swearing by some other god. Jesus knew that there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to take an oath.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘you shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’” [v.33] This is what the people had been taught for generations, and it was straight from the Bible, so you couldn’t really argue with it. Don’t make false oaths—don’t swear that what you’re saying is the truth while knowing that you aren’t really certain of what the truth is or will be, or you are really going to lie or distort the truth. Secondly, don’t make vows—promises before God—you don’t intend to keep. If you make a vow to the Lord, you are bound to fulfill it whatever the personal cost.
So the people were taught to be honest and forthright about their vows, right? Not exactly. When Moses said “you shall perform your oaths to the Lord,” there were those who with evil reasoning proposed that if you didn’t actually make the vow to the Lord, or swear by the Lord to the truth of your statements, it wasn’t completely binding. The rabbis developed a sort of tiered system by which oaths were more or less binding depending on the supposed sanctity of the thing you were swearing upon. Only vows to God were fully binding. Swearing “by heaven” was a little less binding, “by earth” was even more wishy-washy and so on.
Jesus spotted the diabolical twist in all of this. It was just an excuse to get out from under the obligation of keeping one’s own word. An oath under those circumstances no longer prevented a criminal from going free or an innocent man from being cheated. It no longer protected the public good since the person entrusted with its care was bound to no more noble ideal than his own ambitions.
It wasn’t just the ancient Jews that needed to be concerned about this. The idea of being accountable to a higher power is a big part of the glue that binds our society together and protects us from the evil inclinations that we all harbor. This is true for the President’s oath of office binding him to uphold the constitution, to the soldier’s or policeman’s oath to serve and protect, to the witness’s readiness to bring out the truth of a matter in court, to the vow we make to be husband or wife. The quality of all such oaths is of great concern and of vital importance especially considering that our sinful nature fears all truth.
Jesus showed true respect for God’s name, not just on this mountainside, but throughout His whole ministry. For one thing, He showed how false all those Jewish distinctions were. Heaven is God’s throne so an oath on heaven still drew the Almighty into the matter. The case was the same with the earth as God’s footstool, or Jerusalem where the everlasting King ruled over His people. As for swearing upon yourself, Jesus points out just how impotent we are to back up our own words. Maybe today we can change our hair color but it’s only temporary, and we can’t make ourselves grow an inch or extend our lives beyond our time of grace. God’s name involves everything God reveals to us about Himself. The Jews were not gaining much with their little customs and devices about not pronouncing God’s name. They surely weren’t defending its power or holiness.
In Isaiah God speaks to the people of Judah as they were becoming more and more disobedient to Him. Enemy empires were gathering like clouds and the Jews were trying to make alliances with neighboring nations, even participating in their pagan religions, in the hopes of staving off the armies that God had permitted to rise up against them. No one berates idol worship more than Isaiah who quotes the Lord when he says, “I am the Lord, that is my name, and besides me there is no other savior” (Isaiah 43:11). The Lord God who came to Adam and Eve, and who made a covenant with Abraham is the only living God and only through the worship of Him will any person find salvation from sin and from the power of the evil one.
When this Lord God gathered the Israelites, newly freed from slavery in Egypt, He told them: “Wherever I record My name, I will come to you and I will bless you” (Exodus 20:24). God made it clear that their greatest asset, their greatest virtue, their most precious treasure, was that they possessed the Name, that is, the knowledge of the only true God. Without Him they were helpless; with Him they were invincible. Were they to use His name for their oaths, they would definitely get results. He would certainly protect them in their truthfulness. He would absolutely punish them in a lie!
God’s name has been preserved to us, this very day, and with the same results. Jesus, toward the end of His ministry, prayed to the Father in the hearing of His disciples: “I have manifested Your name to the men You have given me out of this world” (John 17:5). It is clear that Jesus did more than give them a few proper names for the true God, or teach them a mysterious pronunciation that is now lost to us again. No, Jesus taught them and showed them the very identity of God, His Father, by proclaiming His kingdom, by calling people to enter it though faith, by laying down His life in obedience to the Father’s will. Everyone who possesses the Word of God has that very name of God.
We who possess God by faith in Jesus have come out of darkness and come into the light. We’re no longer slaves to sin, we’re no longer laboring under the terror of a God of judgment. We have come into the presence of a God of grace and forgiveness. Jesus’ Father from eternity has become our Father to be there for all eternity. This is a faith so rich and dynamic that we speak of ‘walking’ in it. Our faith touches, not only our intellect, but our heart and being. As children of God we join Him in a loathing of all deception, dishonesty, and perjury on the part of ourselves and others.
There is no question that all deception is a sin. But as children of the truth Jesus causes us to see that to use God’s name to prop up our own weak reputation—to call on the Lord to make ourselves appear more virtuous and trustworthy—is nothing short of the work of the “Evil One.” Our love for the truth will cause us to search the Word of God and seek to hallow God’s name among us. Our love for God’s truth will make of us such trustworthy and honest citizens and neighbors that our “yes” can stand as “yes,” or our “no” as “no” without bringing God into our statements to prop up our own questionable integrity.
It is no great honor to say that you’ve never pronounced God’s name, that is a great dishonor. The Lord says “Call upon Me in every trouble, I will deliver you, and you will glorify me” (Psalm 37:5)
May the Lord Jesus create a true respect for God’s name in each of our hearts. Amen
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.