Deception and Truth
In Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees were adept at using oaths and vows, though they refrained from making them in the Lord’s name, in keeping with the letter of the Law (Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23). However, they would swear by all manner of other things and people – like heaven, earth, Jerusalem – and count those as oaths and vows that were less binding. They would shrewdly break their vows as it suited them with the defense that they had not made the vow or oath in the name of the Lord. They believed this was in keeping with the Law and that they were free from judgment. Do you see why our righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20)?
Deception is a Tool for Selfish Gain
The craftiness of the Pharisees was disingenuous and dishonest. They knowingly made commitments they had no intention of keeping, or at least justified for themselves a means to break a promise if something better came up. Why would the Pharisees and others play so loosely with the truth? Why does anyone play loosely with the truth? Usually it is for selfish gain, or at least for self-preservation. We might speak falsely to evade an uncomfortable truth, especially if that truth has potential consequences. We often embellish the truth to garner trust, honor, or distinction in the eyes of others. We twist the truth in order to manipulate others for financial, social, or political gain. We frequently make commitments to others though inwardly we plan to keep our options open. We withhold the truth from those who have a right to it because we do not want to be vulnerable, desiring instead to give ourselves as much control in every situation as we can.
Every Word is Spoken before God
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their conniving and deceptive use of oaths and vows (see also Matthew 23:16-22), and called them to a deeper and more sincere honesty of heart, word, and action. He particularly attacked their concept of oaths that were less than binding, showing, for example, that an oath by heaven was still an oath by God, for heaven is His throne. Similarly, the earth is His footstool, and Jerusalem is the city of His anointed king (the Messiah!). Even to swear by one’s own head was to make an oath before the sovereign Lord, in whose image one is created and who determines the color of the hairs upon one’s head. In other words, what Jesus is telling us through His rebuke of the Pharisees is that every one of our words is spoken before God, who is sovereign over any and all by which we might swear and who knows the intent of our hearts even before we speak.
Because every word is spoken before God, every word should be true and honest. Jesus said it this way: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’…” This is especially true for Christians, for we are baptized in the name of Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. All of our words are in His presence! If, in Christ, we speak with true intentions and, by the Spirit, we keep our word, then there is no need in most circumstances to elevate the truth with an oath or vow. In fact, to use oaths in most situations might be an attempt to embellish, manipulate, or deceive. Such mistreatment of the truth, according to Jesus, comes from evil!
That being said, there are occasions for legal, civil, and even religious purposes when oaths and vows are Biblically appropriate because of the solemn nature of the matter at hand. Testifying in court, getting married, or being ordained are examples of occasions that Christians can, in good conscience, speak under oath or take vows.
Jesus is the Truth We Need
There are no falling words with God (Joshua 21:45). Everything He has said proves true (Proverbs 30:5). His word never returns to Him empty, but always accomplishes that which He intends for it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:10-11). This is most true of God the Son, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), who is the way and the TRUTH and the life (John 14:6). All of God’s promises find their Yes in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20).
In the flesh, our promises are easily broken because of sin and our words can fail us and others. Even when we have the best of intentions we cannot always carry out all that we hope to do. That is why we need to look to Jesus as the ultimate expression of truth and promise keeping. “The cross is God’s truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful. When we know the cross we are no longer afraid of the truth. We need no more oaths to confirm the truth of our utterances, for we live in the perfect truth of God,” (D. Bonhoeffer).
In Christ, we can be honest, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient, because He is our hope and peace. By the Spirit, we can be wise and humble in making commitments and promises because we know that God, not we ourselves, establishes our steps (Proverbs 16:9). In Christ alone, we can eschew deceit and craftiness, by speaking the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:14-15).
Discussion Questions and Application
- Proverbs 10:19 calls for discretion in our words, saying, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” Discuss the value of discretion as a companion to truth. What is the distinction between restraint in our speech and withholding the truth in order to deceive?
- What are some common ways that people today are disingenuous or dishonest, whether it be through embellishment, manipulation, or avoidance of truth?
- We live busy lives and overcommitment can be a problem for many of us. Discuss some of the reasons that we are prone to overcommitment. In what ways does dishonesty (with ourselves, with others) factor into our propensity for overcommitting? How can overcommitment lead to us breaking promises, oaths, or vows?
- Why is the Gospel the key to our willingness and ability to be honest with ourselves and to speak the truth in love to one another?
Pray for the Lord to show you ways in which you commonly “swear falsely”. Ask Him to shine the light of the Gospel in your heart where fear and deceit are birthed.