The Heart of the Law, part 3: Oaths & Vengeance

Posted: September 12, 2011 in Matthew

Matthew 5:33-42, “The Heart of the Law, part 3: Oaths & Vengeance”

Truth.  Our culture has a tough time dealing with the subject.  We’re caught up in all sorts of legalities & loopholes – at one point even famously debating the finer points of what the meaning of the word “is” is.  Even more famous than that is the question Pilate asked Jesus: “What is truth?”  Even beyond the abstract – sometimes when we know the truth we have a tough time knowing how to act regarding it.  10 years ago today, our nation came to grips with fact that we were at war (that was the truth), but debate raged then & continues to rage today about the best way of dealing with it.  What’s the right thing for a country to do when attacked?  Is it a just war or is it vengeance?  These are the issues Jesus deals with in the next section in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus has been teaching what it means to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  Obviously He is the King & He is our example.  He lives all of this out perfectly – if we’re going to look at what it means to be men & women of our word, and men & women of love/peace, we need to look first & foremost at our Lord & Savior.  Jesus keeps His promises & Jesus loves us sacrificially.  Because He did so, we ought to do the same.

Matthew 5:33–42 (NKJV)
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.’

  1. The 9th commandment explicitly prohibited bearing “false witness” against a neighbor.  Of course, this could include lying about them in a court of law, but also would include lying in general.  The commandment applied whether or not there was an actual oath taken.  The oath seemed to just add on to the commandment. The tradition Jesus is referring to is talking about oaths/vows.  The Law did make allowance for this – Numbers 30:1–2, "(1) Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, “This is the thing which the LORD has commanded: (2) 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." [] The rest of Num 30 goes into great detail of how vows made to God & vows made between people were to be governed.  The idea was that they were to be taken seriously.  The words someone spoke mattered & God’s people were to act with integrity.  Whether the vow had a religious significance (as Paul did, Acts 18:18), or it was a contractual agreement between two people, God is seen to govern the vows.  People were to honor their word.
  2. What’s the problem here?  People had taken what was good & like the good legalists they were, twisted & turned it into such loopholes that they could technically “swear” something, and leave themselves room to get out of the obligation.  Jesus directly confronts the practice when He’s chastising the Pharisees.  [BIBLE: Matt 23:16-23] They were taking the things that were holy (the temple, altar, etc.) and profaning them by using them to excuse their outright lies.  (Not unlike how some people take Scriptures & twist them to such an extent that it is unrecognizable from its original context.)  The other problem is that people might swear an oath in outright perjury – such as what Peter did the night of Jesus’ arrest.  They appear outwardly to forcibly tell the truth, when in actuality they just dig themselves deeper into a lie.
  3. Why is it that people swear at all?  To enforce the truth.  Witnesses place their hand on the Bible & swear in a courtroom to enforce the idea that they will be held accountable for their words, and if there’s any time they ought to be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, NOW is the time.  The underlying assumption in all of it is that our normal words are not enough.  People cannot be trusted to tell the full truth, so their words need to be somehow enforced.
    1. This ought to strike Christians to the heart.  Remember that Jesus is describing what it means to be one of His disciples – what it looks like to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.  The fullness of the kingdom won’t be seen until after Jesus’ 2nd coming, but we can live as its citizens today.  If a believer in Jesus Christ cannot be trusted to speak the truth in love, there’s a huge problem.  If a born-again Christian cannot be taken at his/her word, something’s wrong.
  4. Remember the character & nature of God in all of this.  Something is right or wrong not because it’s listed on paper; it’s listed on paper (the Scriptures) because it is right or wrong.  It goes straight to the character & nature of God.  Those who belong to Christ have the nature of Christ.  Those who are Jesus’ disciples in the kingdom ought to act like our King, because of the work He has done within us.  What’s the part of God’s character that’s being addressed here?  His truth & trustworthiness. 
    1. God never lies.  Interestingly enough, this is one of the things that God simply cannot do.  Titus 1:2 & Heb 6:18 tell us that it is impossible for God to lie – it simply goes against the core of who He is.  Jesus is the way, the TRUTH, and the life (John 14:6).  We can trust God to tell the truth because He IS truth.
    2. God is always trustworthy.  He is faithful to every promise, and whatever God has spoken, we can be assured that He will do.  Numbers 23:19, "God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" []
    3. Bottom line?  Living is wrong because God is truth.  Swearing is wrong because God is trustworthy.

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.

  1. Jesus says explicitly not to swear.  This does not mean that we are to never make promises, nor sign contracts (though historically, some Christians have interpreted Jesus’ words to mean exactly that).  Obviously, not every oath was wrong or God would not have given some practices that used them (the Nazrite vow, for instance).  Jesus is simply stating that the Jewish legalistic practice & the abuse of oaths was wrong.  They made oaths with the intention of finding ways to break them without (supposedly) breaking their word.  A promise with a loophole isn’t a promise at all.  Telling the apparent ‘truth’ while looking for a way to get out of it is in actuality telling a lie.
  2. Why not by heaven?  Because heaven doesn’t belong to us.  It’s far too holy. Keep in mind heaven is God’s throne room!  To put ourselves on that level as if we had any control over or ‘say’ in heaven is to have far too high a view of ourselves & far too low a view of God.
  3. Why not by earth?  Again, it doesn’t belong to us.  God created the world for His purposes.  To claim heaven and earth is to lose sight of the glory and majesty of God.  This is the whole of God’s creation – there’s no way man could lay claim to it.
  4. Why not by Jerusalem?  After all, this was a city men built & indwelt.  But even if you lived there, it wasn’t your city to control.  Jerusalem belonged to someone greater: the King – the Messiah.  This is Jesus’ city; He is the King!

36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.

  1. Not even by the hairs on our head.  Why?  Because we cannot even control our most basic biology, nor can we control aging. (Clairol only covers it; it doesn’t change it. J)
  2. Note the downward progression through it all, moving from the largest to the smallest.  Heaven – earth – city – self.  NONE of it belongs to us & none of it is ultimately in our control.  God controls it all.  Just as we cannot promise a friend that they can borrow a car that doesn’t belong to us, neither can we use a standard to swear by that we have no control over.  We cannot control our hair or heaven, but we CAN control our words.  Jesus already showed regarding hatred in our hearts that words matter (vs. 22).  That applies not only to how we treat others, but the commitments we make to them.
  3. The solution?  Simply don’t swear!  Don’t find external methods of attempting to enforce the truthfulness of your words.  Simply tell the simple truth.  That’s what Jesus gets to in verse 37. …

37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.

  1. There used to be a time in which a man’s word was his bond – sadly, it seems that day has passed in our culture.  Yet that’s exactly what our Lord Jesus tells us to do.  There’s no need for legalese & loopholes when it comes to our promises – there’s no need for excuses why we can or can’t.  We are to simply say “yes” or “no.”
  2. What freedom this gives!  Jesus doesn’t take away our rights; He simplifies the process.  It’s not that Jesus tells us to make promises we cannot keep; He tells us that if we cannot keep the promise not to make it in the first place.  We have that freedom! …
  3. What’s at the root of elaborate swearing?  Deception.  The devil is a deceiver & when we engage in the same thing, we’re following his lead.  There’s a bit of translation debate whether Jesus is referring to “evil” as a concept or the “evil one” as a person.  Yet any sort of deception finds its root in the devil as he is the father of lies (Jn 8:44).  Don’t miss the contrast here!  Those who tell the simple truth demonstrate the character of their Father in heaven; those who speak deceptively demonstrate the character of a different father altogether.  To whom do you belong?  Your actions & words will go a long way to demonstrate that fact.  Lying is absolutely serious – the Bible tell us that all liars will have their place in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8).  Those who lie share the same fate as the Liar who started it all.
    1. That’s not to say that Christians won’t sin from time to time (re: Peter).  Is there forgiveness?  Absolutely.  There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1) & we can be assured of God’s forgiveness & cleansing when we confess our sins through Christ (1 John 1:9).  Yet God’s promise of forgiveness is never an excuse for us to break our promises & tell a lie.  The promises we make are meant to be kept.  Marriage vows, financial commitments, family promises – these are all things that God takes very seriously, and we dare not enter into them if we’re not fully willing to do what it takes to see them through.
  4. Question: “So what happens if we make even a simple promise that we cannot keep?”  Do what you can to make it right.  If we’re going to let our “yes” be “yes,” then it actually needs to be a “yes.”  When we fail in that (for whatever reason), we need to do whatever we can in order to make it right again.  Examples:
    1. There are some people who have made financial promises they have no possible way of keeping.  The godly thing to do is to find some way of coming to an honorable reconciliation. 
    2. Sometimes parents make promises to their children they cannot keep.  Understand that of all the gifts you can give your children, “time” is one of the most treasured, and one of the hardest to replace.  Do what it takes for your children to understand their importance in your life.  God went to great lengths to demonstrate His love for us (the cross!) – we ought to do the same with our children.
  5. Remember that we as citizens of the kingdom of God are to act according to the character of our King.  He keeps His promises with us (praise the Lord!); we ought to keep our promises to one another. 

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

  1. Jesus moves the next subject: retaliation.  At this point, He’s not referencing anything from the 10 Commandments, but rather part of the civic code.  Keep in mind that “an eye for an eye, etc.” is not specific to the Hebrews (though it certainly is in the OT), but this was a common law in the Middle East at the time.  (Code of Hammurabi, 1700BC) The concept was repeated several times in the OT (Exo 21:24, Lev 24:20, Deut 19:21), with the circumstances ranging from the violent mistreatment of servants to criminal actions between regular citizen.  Overall, the idea was the limitation of retribution.  God’s law showed what was legally allowed, but moreover, showed what retribution could not go beyond.  The government was allowed to deal out punishment; not seek out overwhelming revenge.

39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.

  1. Out of all of the clarifications of the law that Jesus gives, this one might stand out the most.  Here, it seems that Jesus is absolutely contradicting what the word of God had already said multiple times.  This is where context becomes absolutely critical in our interpretation.  (As it always is.)  Please note the change of context from vs. 38 to vs. 39.  In vs. 38 Jesus is quoting from the civic laws of Israel – the laws that would govern the people of Israel as a nation.  Jesus is basically quoting the criminal statutes & the proper punishment that the government had the right (and the obligation) to execute as God’s minister of justice.  In vs. 39, Jesus has moved from civil justice to an individual response.  Verse 38 is totally within the context of a government; verse 39 is clearly within the context of an individual: “But I tell you…  But whoever slaps you”  The government has the right to seek retribution; the individual does not.
    1. Keep in mind that the government has the right to do many things that individuals do not.  The government has the right to engage in warfare (when it is just), yet if an individual killed someone else it would be murder.  The government has the right to engage in taxation; yet if an individual took 30% out of your back pocket it would be theft. (Of course, that may be the same, no matter what! J)  Likewise, the gov’t has the right to punish lawbreakers – this is actually an essential duty that God has entrusted to them (Rom 13).  Individual citizens have no such right.
    2. Again, take it back to the character & nature of God.  Why is individual retaliation wrong?  Because God is love. Love keeps no records of wrong & does not seek its own (1 Cor 13:5).  If we take it to the example of Jesus Christ, we find that love is willing to be wounded for the sake of someone else.  Jesus laid down His very life for the people who hated Him – He was willing to suffer loss for the love of God & us.  Do we love others enough to be willing to suffer loss for them? 
    3. Why is overall revenge wrong? Because vengeance belongs to the Lord.  Romans 12:17–21, "(17) Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. (18) If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. (19) Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (20) Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” (21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." []  Have faith that your Heavenly Father is just.  He knows your situation – He can be trusted to demonstrate justice in every situation.  Wait upon Him to act…we might just be surprised at the outcome.
  2. Objection: “I thought we WERE supposed to resist evil.  How can we resist evil if we do not resist an evil person?”  Notice that Jesus never shies away from labeling “evil” as evil.  He doesn’t turn a blind eye to it, nor does He try to appease or accommodate it.  In fact, if we look at the example of Jesus we find that He spent much of His ministry decrying evil – especially that which was found in the religious authorities of the day.  The context Jesus is referring to is personal retribution & revenge.  We can fight against evil by turning to God & the authorities without personally taking revenge upon someone who has committed evil against us.  We have the full right & blessing of God to call the police; we do not have the right to engage in road rage. (or whatever)
  3. Jesus gives 4 examples of what this might look like.  Example #1: Turning the cheek.  Question: “Is Jesus saying we have no right to self-defense?  What about in cases of abuse?”  The slap in question seems to have been a back-handed slap which culturally was seen as an insult.  In essence, Jesus is saying “When you’re insulted, don’t take revenge – just take the insult.”  If someone violently assaulted you, you have every right to flee the area & seek safety.  We do not have the right to personal revenge, but we do have a responsibility to recognize evil for what it is & respond appropriately. 
    1. It’s interesting that when Jesus was struck on His cheek during His trial, He did not literally offer the other, but rather responded with humility and convicting truth.  Yet at the same time (and this is the point Jesus was making), Jesus did not call down fire from heaven to consume the man who struck Him.  Did Jesus have the power to do so?  Without question!  As God, He even had the right to do so (whereas we don’t).  Yet He laid down His rights in willing sacrifice & took an unjust blow without retribution.  That’s our example.

40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.  41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.

  1. Example #2: lawsuits.  It seems that lawsuits were as common in Jesus’ day as they are in ours.  People could literally be sued for the clothes off their back – which might make sense for the time, considering that someone’s clothes may have been their only possession of any value.  Jesus’ example shows a lawsuit that has gone to the utter end – and Jesus teaches us to go even further.  Keep in mind that the courts were forbidden from commanding that a person’s cloak be taken overnight.  (Humanitarian reasons – it may be a person’s only source of warmth at night.  Deut 24:12-13)  Yet that did not mean that person could not offer up his cloak as a sign of good faith & trust in the Lord.  If someone demanded all, the idea is to give up more in sacrifice.
    1. There’s an interesting contrast between this example & the others.  When being slapped by someone, presumably they are in the wrong & the one who had been slapped is innocent.  In this case, the court in question found the person guilty of whatever the lawsuit was, and the tunic was actually ordered to be given over.  IOW, they were in the wrong.  Sacrificial love can be demonstrated in whatever situation we find ourselves.  Perhaps we have been wronged – perhaps we are the ones who have done wrong.  Either way, we are to go beyond the expected to demonstrate the love & character of Christ.
  2. Example #3: oppression.  Apparently the Romans had adapted a practice from the Persians of giving the military the right to temporarily pull someone aside & compel them to carry some sort of load or do some sort of menial service.  (Demonstrated with Simon of Cyrene…)  In Jesus’ example, the burden is demanded for one mile.  The man or woman who lives as a citizen of the kingdom of God will carry it two.  To go the extra mile is an unexpected act of service, and sacrificial love.  Imagine living in an occupied country & a citizen not only follows the commands of the one who oppressed them, but does it joyfully & even goes the extra mile!
    1. This is especially practical when it comes to evangelism.  What is likely to make more of an impression on someone?  The person wearing a Christian t-shirt who moans and complains about some expectation laid upon him – or the person who hasn’t even advertised his faith, yet goes up & beyond any expectation even to the surprise of the other party?  Our words are incredibly important when it comes to sharing the good news of the gospel, but our actions sometimes speak far louder in demonstration of the gospel.
  3. Keep in mind the greatest two commandments: we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Love is not given under compulsion, by looking for the least in which we can get by with.  Love is sacrificial.  Loves gives beyond what is expected.

42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

  1. Example #4: financial giving.  If the 1st few examples didn’t hit home for very many modern evangelical Christians living in the USA, the last example certainly does.  We may not have too many people hitting us on the cheek or forcing us to carry military gear, but we certainly have people hitting us up for money.  The sacrificial love of Christ tells us that we are to give sacrificially.  Don’t turn away & hide from those who need help – instead, offer what you can.
    1. That’s not say that we always have the money to be able to give.  Even the disciples experienced this.  When Peter & John came across the crippled man in the temple, they told him they didn’t have silver or gold to give, but they did have the power of the gospel (Acts 3:6).  But be careful not to look for an excuse NOT to give.  It’s one thing to give only the gospel when we have nothing else; it’s another thing to believe that a gospel presentation is our only responsibility.  As James wrote, we’re to beware of telling someone to be warm & filled without doing something about it; faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17).
  2. Question: “What about the ones who never stop asking?  Wouldn’t we be enabling their sin?” … Whenever we start the process of Biblical interpretation, we need to keep the context in mind – including the context of the rest of the Scripture.  We know that the Bible places a high value on a solid work ethic as a Christian.  We are to do our work as unto the Lord (Col 3:23) – we are to provide for our families, and those who don’t are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim 5:8).  Although the body of Christ is supposed to help those in need, the Church is not obligated to help those who are willingly lazy – the ones who work are the ones who eat (2 Ths 3:10).  Does Paul contradict Jesus?  Absolutely not.  Jesus is referring to need & sacrificial love to help our neighbors; Paul is referring to good stewardship over the resources God provides.  In order to be able to help the truly needy, we need discernment regarding those who would simply take advantage of the system.  We cannot help the hungry if we’ve been taken in by a scam.
    1. At the same time, be careful of looking for a way around Jesus’ words.  It’s easy to think of examples where this may/may not apply – yet Jesus’ point is clear & simple: be willing to give sacrificially.  Ultimately, you are responsible to follow the leading of the Lord.  When He gives us an opportunity to give & the urging to do so, we do it.

To look at some of these statements of Jesus Christ, some people might be left wondering how exactly Jesus expected anyone to live this way.  Does this mean that we are never to swear oaths in the court of law (as the Anabaptists interpreted it)?  Does this mean that if we see our children being beaten that we are never to defend them?  The standard Jesus proposes might seem more legalistic than the one the Pharisees imposed upon the Jews.  There are two answers to that:

First, we need to understand that Jesus’ standard IS impossible: perfection.  As He makes plain in verse 48, we’re to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  When Jesus describes the life and attitudes of a disciple of the kingdom of heaven, He describes the life of someone who has been perfectly transformed by the Spirit of God.  Of course practically speaking, we understand that there’s no possible way any of us can achieve that on our own.  But theologically speaking, we know by faith that this is exactly what Jesus does on our behalf.  Through His death and resurrection – by His grace – we are given the perfection that we never had when we come to faith in Christ as Lord.

Secondly, we need to understand that Jesus does not bring a new legalism, but instead is showing us the heart of God.  We’ve already seen Jesus use extreme hyperbolic language to make a point (pluck out an eye, cut off a hand) – contextually speaking we need to interpret some of our extreme situations in the same way.  Jesus is not laying down a legalistic bond upon a father never to protect his children – after all, our Heavenly Father protects us.  Jesus is not forbidding us from entering into legally binding oaths – even God swore by an oath when it came to our own salvation in making Jesus our High Priest (Heb 7:21).  What Jesus IS doing is calling His disciples to some basic principles: truth & sacrifice.  Simply tell the simple truth.  Love is demonstrated when it’s sacrificial.

Keep in mind that God does not merely teach us to do this, He modeled it.  God told us the simple truth when He made & kept His promises to send us a Savior.  God modeled sacrificial love when Jesus became the sacrifice in our place as He hung upon the cross.


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