It’s been a long time, I think about eight weeks, since our last look at the epistle of James; and we’re going back tonight, chapter 5, verse 12. James writes this very direct and simple and clear statement: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment.”
Think back to your childhood. When you were a kid, did you ever try to convince somebody you were really telling the truth? Did you ever say, “I swear to God?” How about this one: “I swear on a stack of Bibles.” You said it, sure you did. How about this one: “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” I said that a few times.
Promising things and wanting people to believe we were really telling the truth sometimes demanded that we swear, because they were not used to us telling the truth. And all of that kind of swearing and giving oaths is really a device of man based upon his basic dishonesty. We invent those oaths, and even in some cases curses imposed upon ourselves before God if we lie, because basically, we have learned that man can’t be trusted to keep his word. Sometimes it’s as simple as those silly childlike oaths; or sometimes it’s as complex as things like swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God, which we’re required to say in a court of law. Those kinds of oaths were a part of the culture of biblical times, and they’re still with us.
I recently found some interesting oaths in a book I was reading, and let me give you just a few of them that comes from – that come, rather, from one particular group that we’re very familiar with. This is what one must say to belong.
“Binding myself under no less a penalty than that of having my throat cut, my tongue torn out by its roots, and buried in the rough sands of the sea at low water mark where the tide ebbs and flows twice in twenty-four hours, should I ever knowingly or willingly violate this my solemn oath and obligation as an entered apprentice Mason, so help me, God, and keep me steadfast in the due performance of the same. Binding myself under no less a penalty than that of having my left breast torn open, my heart plucked out and given as a prey to the wild beasts of the field and the fowls of the air; binding myself under no less a penalty than that of having my body severed in twain, my bowels taken from thence and burned to ashes, the ashes scattered to the four winds of heaven, so that no more trace or remembrance may be had of so vile and perjured a wretch as I; should I ever knowingly or willingly violate this my solemn obligation as a Master Mason, so help me, God, and keep me steadfast in the due performance of the same.”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? You just swore before God to kill yourself if you ever violated the vow you took to be a Mason. Why do the Masons make people who want to come into that organization take such an incredible vow, a vow of suicide? Can’t they just say, “Will you keep your promise to be a Mason?” and receive a simple, “Yes”?
Now, you see, they understand what everybody understands, and that is that people are basically inveterate liars. After all, unregenerate humanity is designated in Scripture as the children of the devil. And the devil is the father of what? Of lies. And men will go to unbelievable extremes to try to bind someone to the truth. The fact is that all such extremes are predicated on man’s basic dishonesty.
And I’ll tell you something else: oaths don’t change his heart. In fact, I sometimes think that the more passionately a person swears to tell the truth, the more revealing it is about their lack of credibility.
The issue of oaths and the issue of swearing was a major part of ancient life. It had become an issue in the church, significantly in the church to which James writes, because it was so much a part of historic Jewish culture. The Jews were into oaths. And when some of them came to name the name of Jesus Christ, they brought their oathing system right along with them into the church. And James says in verse 12, “Above all, my brethren,” – the Greek says – “stop swearing.”
“Stop that system. It is unnecessary. It should be superfluous. Your speech should always be so honest, you should have such integrity and credibility that all that people ever want is a yes or a no; and they never would ask for more, because your word they know to be your bond.” That’s the way it ought to be in the church, where we speak a word, and everyone knows that is absolutely true, and we will stand behind that word.
Of course, we live in a world of lies. It seems as though the whole of our system is built on lies; and if everybody started telling the truth, our system would disintegrate. It’s all built on lies. And, of course, that’s because it reflects its father who is Satan. And in general, what James is saying is, “Please be different. Please be a people whose simple yes and simple no is enough, enough.”
Now in calling for that distinctiveness in the church, James gives us four features in this command. We’ll call them the distinction, the restriction, the instruction, and the motivation. Let’s look, first of all, at the distinction.
There is a distinctiveness in this command, and it comes in that very first statement: “But above all, my brethren.” Now that takes this particular exhortation out from among the others and sets it in the primary place. It’s very interesting that he says, “above all, stop swearing,” as if this were the most important thing that he has mentioned. It’s a very, very significant beginning and has some crucial implications.
The word “but” provides a transition. It can refer to a contrast, which is within the same subject. But there is no contrast here between the subject of verse 11 and the subject of verse 12, so we take it that it’s not used in a contrasting way, but that it, perhaps, would be better translated by the word “now,” or the word “and,” transitioning to a whole new subject. Sometimes the word de is left untranslated in English, the Greek reader knows that it means he is now moving to a new subject. So because there is no contrast here between the subject of verses 7 through 11 and verse 12, there is not the same theme, but a different one, we assume that we would be best to translate it “now” as he moves on to the next subject.
There is obviously some connection in his thinking. At the end of verse 12 he talks about judgment, and he talked about that same judgment in verse 9. And so it may have been the judgment thought in verse 9 that triggered the new subject of verse 12; but it is indeed a new subject, and only for one verse. And most paragraphing will give you the indication that verse 12 is a paragraph, a thought unto itself that stands alone.
And so we assume then that James has moved to a new theme. It’s the beginning of several new themes that he wants to speak to as he closes out this epistle in a fashion that’s somewhat common to the New Testament writers. Coming to the very end, he wants to give a final wrap up and touch some very important related issues. This one has to do with the subject of swearing; and in verse 13, he will go on to another subject.
Because it occupies only one verse, the assumption might be that it’s not that important, and so James waylays that thought by saying, “above all, above all things,” pro pantōn, above or beyond all other considerations. Herein is the distinction of this command. It is a command with priority, it is a command with preeminence.
Now we shouldn’t be surprised at that, because it’s related to the subject of speech, isn’t it? It’s related to the subject of speech. And if you’ve been with us in our study of James, you know that James has dealt with speech in every chapter. May I review briefly?
Go back to chapter 1, verse 26: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” The word “religion” is a term used to refer to the outward liturgy and ceremony of religion. And he is saying you may go through some outward motions; but if you do not bridle your tongue, you give evidence of an unchanged heart. The heart has not been transformed.
And then again in chapter 2, you’ll notice verse 12: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” In other words, “Give evidence of your spiritual liberation in Christ through the way you speak, as well as the way you act.” And then, of course, we need not speak of chapter 3, but to call your attention to verses 2 through 11, the lengthy passage on the tongue, which we have studied in great detail.
We come to chapter 4, and verse 11, and you will remember our look at that verse: “Do not speak against one another, brothers. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you’re not a doer of the law but a judge of it.”
And now we come to chapter 5, verse 12, and again he refers to our speech. And so we’re not surprised that he says, “above all things,” because it is of grave concern to James how we speak, since it is a manifestation of what is in our hearts. It is a test of living faith.
All through this epistle, James is giving tests of living faith. One such test is our speech. Our speech should reflect and will reflect our hearts. And where the Spirit of God has transformed the heart, there will be honest speech. And that’s the essence of what he wants to say in chapter 5, verse 12. True believers can be tested by their speech. It’s a vital point of spiritual reality.
It’s also a vital point of spiritual control. It is an indicator of our spiritual state – the tongue. So when he uses the phrase “above all,” or we could translate it, “especially,” it is because he wants us to remember that the most revealing, the most revealing bodily member as to the reality of our spiritual state is our what? It’s our tongue. We sin more with our tongue than any other way, than any other way. You can’t do everything but you can say anything. Sin is more manifest out of the mouth than any other way; and Jesus says, “Out of the mouth the heart” – what? – “speaks.”
The phrase “my brethren” I find to be encouraging. He doesn’t condescend to them, he identifies with them. It indicates that James had compassion for them as one who also needed to guard his own mouth and speak truth. They had a common spiritual life that called for a common kind of speech that honored God. You see, the heart is the storehouse, and the mouth tells you what you have stored there.
So we’re not surprised that James says “especially,” another word about the tongue; for therein do we sin most readily as far as people are concerned, though obviously, secretly we can sin even more in the heart. From the standpoint of social contact, the mouth is our greatest offender.
And so we’re back then to a very familiar subject and one which we need constant exhortation on, and that is how we speak. From the distinction, James moves to the restriction, and it’s very, very important that we understand it. This is it: “Stop swearing, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.” Stop at that point. That’s the restriction. He focuses on that single issue of swearing.
Now when we think of the word “swearing,” if you’re like I am, you think of all kinds of illicit speech. You might think of what Paul, in writing to the Ephesians in chapter 4, verse 29, calls “filthy communication.” You might think of dirty talk, double entendre kind of talk, filthy puns, four-letter words. You might think of gross, uncouth talk. That would be in the category that we might call profanity. It’s a little different than this. He’s not talking here about dirty talk, filthy talk, talk with double meaning. He’s not talking about uncouth kind of gross, as the term today would be taught. He’s talking here about a very specific kind of speech that the Bible calls swearing; and it has to do with oaths.
There’s a lot of it in our speech today, people taking the Lord’s name in vain, “God this, God that; Christ this, Jesus Christ that.” You hear it all the time. Those are really oaths. I grew up being forbidden to use what my parents called “minced oaths;” that is substituting a word for another word, such as “gad” for God, or “criminy” for Christ. And although the speaker may not have had that in mind, it may just be force of habit. Some are greatly offended by that, because they see it as a substitute word for taking the name of God in vain. I hear people say, “Geez.” Do you ever hear people say that? Boy, if I ever said that in my house, I’d be knocked silly. I mean, we just weren’t allowed to say that.
Misuse of the name of God, profaning the name of God, blaspheming the name of God, dragging down the name of God, invoking the name of God illegitimately, all of that is, in a sense, related to the kind of swearing that James has in mind; but it’s a very specific thing that he’s after here that was a part of that Jewish culture. May I add to you, that it wasn’t only Jewish, it also belonged in the Greek culture. Have you ever heard anybody say, “By Jove”? Have you heard that? Jove was a Greek god; and when the Greeks wanted to swear, they swore by Zeus, or by Jove, or by somebody – J-O-V-E. But among the Jews, there had developed a very complex system of swearing, and it came into church life with these Jewish believers.
Now let’s talk about where it originated, all right? I’m going to give you a little bit of the theology of swearing. Where did it come from? Well, the oath, the word “oath” in the Hebrew is the word shebuah. It means “to swear.” The Greeks used the word horkos, which means “to bind or strengthen.” In other words, you strengthen your word by swearing by some higher authority.
And an oath, or swearing, had three parts. It was attesting to the truth, calling for God to witness, and thirdly, invoking God’s punishment if you violated your word. To say, “I swear to God,” meant, “I want you to know I’m telling the truth, I want God to witness I’m telling the truth, and I want God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth.” Very serious. You’re invoking the curse of God on you if you lie in an effort to try to convince somebody that you’re really telling the truth.
And in those days when there weren’t contracts and there weren’t the binding kinds of authoritative documents and court rooms to enforce them and all of that like there are today, it was very important that people be trusted. And if a person said, “Look, I promise you I will hold your money,” and the guy said, “Boy, I hope you do it. I want you to swear to do it.” “I swear by God. May God strike me dead if I don’t,” that was a way in which you bound your conscience to do what you were supposed to do. Now believe me, it was a solemn thing to call God to witness and invoke the judgment of God on you if you defaulted.
Now, frankly, those kinds of oaths were common in the Old Testament. I’m not going to take time, because it could take us a full evening just to track it all down. But if you study the Old Testament you will find many of the men and women of God who bound themselves by oaths before God. The Scripture does not tell us that all of it is wrong, only when it is misused and abused, as we shall see in a moment.
It’s very much like the commandment that says, “Thou shalt not kill.” We understand that, but we also understand that God designed capital punishment, and God said, “By whom man’s blood is shed” – or rather – “who sheds man’s blood, by him shall man’s blood be shed.” In other words, if you kill somebody, you pay with your life. Jesus said it. He said, “If you live by the sword, you die by it.” In other words, He said, “Peter, you kill somebody, and they have every right to take your life.” That’s capital punishment.
And the Bible also indicates that God advocated that Israel’s army take the life of enemies to the kingdom of God. So we understand also in Romans 13 that those who are the police and the army who protect the righteous are not bearing the sword for nothing. They have a right to use it, to take a life in defense of what is right. So we understand “thou shalt not kill” then in a context. It means “to illegitimately take a life without justification given by God.”
So in the Old Testament there were some oaths which were taken by men of God. In Genesis 24, verses 2 and 3, Abraham swore before God to keep his word. In Genesis 26:26 to 31, Isaac did the same. In Genesis 31:44 to 50, Jacob did the same. In 2 Samuel 19:23, David did. In 2 Chronicles 15, verses 14 and 15, Israel, and also in Nehemiah 10:29, as a people vowed before God. In 2 Corinthians 11:31, Paul himself took a vow before God, a vow of integrity that he would do what he said.
You even have in the Old Testament occasions when God called for this. Let me just share a couple of scriptures. Exodus 22, and verse – I think it’s verse 11. Yes, verse 10 says, “If a man give his neighbor a donkey, an ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep for him, and it dies or is hurt or is driven away while no one is looking, an oath before the Lord shall be made by the two of them that he has not laid hands on his neighbor’s property, and its owner shall accept it, and he shall not make restitution.” In other words, if you give an animal to someone, and due to no fault of that someone the animal is lost, you have to swear before God that you’ll require nothing back from that man. And there is God actually instituting an oath.
In Numbers chapter 5, and another occasion in verse 19, we read, “And the priests shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, ‘If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse.’” An accused woman could take an oath before God and so forth.
Now those are just a couple of illustrations. One more might be helpful. It’s in the sixth of Deuteronomy, and verse 13: “You shall fear only the Lord your God;” – listen to this – “and you shall worship Him and swear by His name.” Now listen, here is the real issue. All those oaths in the Old Testament that were legitimate were men at very solemn occasions, not every day and not every week and not every month, but at very solemn occasions in their life, wanting to confirm their word to people who basically didn’t trust other people. They invoked the name of God as a witness to the truthfulness of their word, and to stand in judgment on them should they not uphold it. And God says in Deuteronomy 6:13, “If you ever do swear, swear by My name.”
The Old Testament also gives us some tremendous illustrations of people – do you remember? – who took very, very rash vows – do you remember that? – and swore before God to do certain things, and then had to live with the ridiculous consequence of their vow. Now a legitimate Old Testament vow then was for a very solemn occasion, and invoked the name of God and the name of God alone. And God demanded that when such a vow was made there be complete honesty; or indeed, if God’s name had been invoked, He had a right to respond.
In Numbers 30 verse 2, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” So if you vow, you keep your vow. In the next verse it speaks of a woman doing the same.
“Man or woman, you make a vow in order to prove your truthfulness, you invoke the name of God; you are bound to keep that vow. You better be serious. If you broke it, you have violated the third command, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God’ – what? – ‘in vain.’” You don’t throw God’s name around flippantly. You don’t invoke the name of God to bind yourself to truthfulness to convince someone else you’re telling the truth and then violate that vow.
Can you imagine that if in your heart you were really a dishonest person and in the Jewish society someone came to you and entrusted with you some kind of thing, made some kind of arrangement with you, some contract, some relationship, and you said, “I swear before God that I will keep my word,” because that person understands the seriousness of that vow; they would take your word for it and entrust whatever it was to you. And if you were dishonest with the name of God, you could easily get what you wanted, abscond with whatever it was, and violate your vow. And Scripture says you better not do that; that is a serious violation of the law of God.
God knew that men were liars, of course. God allowed them on those special occasions to swear to truthfulness and invoke His witness and His punishment if they broke it. And then God said, “You had better not do it in vain. You better not use My name and then violate it.” Very serious.
And so, in a sense the Old Testament acknowledges that in a world full of liars there are times when an oath is necessary. In fact, even God Himself adopts that means of convincing skeptical, unbelieving men of His own truthfulness, and we read in Hebrews 6:13, “For when God made promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no greater,” – I love this – “He swore by Himself.” And what was the phrase God used over and over in the Old Testament? “As I live,” saith the Lord. That is God swearing by Himself. “As I live,” saith the Lord.
In Acts 2, verses 20 and 23, Peter refers to an oath God made before David. God made a covenant and an oath and a promise with Abraham. Read Genesis 15, then again Genesis 22:16. In the New Testament even, it’s the first chapter of Luke. In verse 73, it says, “The oath which God swore to Abraham.” So God swore by Himself, because there was no greater.
You say, “Why did God do that? In order that He would be bound to keep His word?” No. Because He condescended to men who were liars, and used a means that they understood to bind Himself to truth in their eyes, so they would know He was serious about what He said. God made oaths not because He needed to, but because He knew how man depended on it. He condescended in grace to set an example of integrity on their terms.
God took oaths on several occasions. Genesis 9, He took an oath never again to destroy the world by water. In Luke 1, He took an oath to send a Redeemer. In Psalm 16, verse 10, He took an oath to raise His Son from the dead. In Isaiah 49 – read that – verses 15 to 18, God took an oath to bless and preserve the nation Israel. Wonderful. He did it not because He needed something to hold Himself to truth, but He wanted men to understand what an oath meant, and how it was to be kept.
Do you remember Matthew 26? Listen to verse 63 and 64: “But Jesus kept silent. The high priest said to Him, ‘I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are Christ the Son of God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it.’” In other words, Jesus took an oath by the living God and spoke the truth. When called to say the truth before the living God, He took the oath.
So we conclude then from this – and had we time, we could look at many other passages. I’m thinking of 2 Corinthians 1, I think it’s verse 23, where Paul says, “I call God as witness to my soul,” – and then goes on to say – “that to spare you I came no more to Corinth,” and so forth. So Paul took those kind of oaths.
We conclude then that at a serious point in time, a serious moment, invoking the name of God to affirm your truthfulness was allowed. All oaths were only for serious occasions, and only in the name of God; and they were to be kept, they were to be kept.
Psalm 15, verses 1 and 4 says, “Who may abide in Thy tent? Who may dwell on Thy holy hill?” Then it gives a list of qualifications of the godly, and one of them is this: “He who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In other words, he keeps his word, even if it brings his own pain. And it says in Exodus 20, “God will not hold him guiltless who takes His name” – what? – “in vain.”
If on some serious occasion when you sit in a courtroom and they say, “Tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God,” you better do that. If you stand at the altar and commit yourself to that partner for life and you say, “I promise before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful husband in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, as long as we both shall live,” and you have invoked the name of God, you better keep that vow. That is a serious occasion that calls for the invoking of God’s name.
Well, what in the world is James talking about? Look back at verse 12. I don’t know where you are in your Bible, but go back to James 5. I got a little wound up there.
He says, “Above all, my brethren, do not swear” – notice what he doesn’t say: “in the name of the Lord.” He doesn’t say that, does he? That’s not forbidden. He says, “Do not swear by heaven or by earth or with any other allos, any other of that kind of oath.” Well, what in the world does that mean? What is he prohibiting here? What does he have in mind? To understand this, let’s go back to the source of James’ teaching, Matthew chapter 5; Matthew chapter 5 and verse 33.
Now here on the Sermon on the Mount our Lord is confronting the Jews as to their sinfulness. It’s the greatest evangelistic sermon, I think, ever recorded in Scripture. He is literally slicing up into little pieces their supposed spirituality. He is disintegrating their self-confidence and their hope of self-righteousness. And one of the things that He speaks to them about is this matter of swearing or making oaths.
Verse 33: “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told,” – now that is a formula for rabbinic teaching and tradition. That’s not referring to the Old Testament, that’s referring to rabbinic tradition. In other words, “Your tradition says, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’”
That’s what their tradition said. And, boy, that sounds so good. But there’s something hidden in it. “Fulfill your vows to the Lord.” Ah, there’s the point: “If I make a vow and I swear to something other than the Lord, I can break it.” See?
That’s how liars think. You’ve done it. You didn’t keep your word, and you say, “Yeah, but my vow didn’t count; I had my fingers crossed.” You see, if you want to lie, but you want to convince people you’re telling the truth, then you make a vow. It may be a vow to cut your throat, rip your chest open, take your heart out, pull your tongue out and bury it at low tide, all of that stuff.
Now the Jews figured, “Well fulfill your vows to the Lord.” So in daily conversation they swear by heaven: “I swear by heaven.” I heard a man on television the other night say, “I swear by my children.” I’ve heard people say, “I swear by everything that I possess.”
Well, the Jews say, “I swear by Jerusalem. I swear by the temple. I swear by the altar in the temple. I swear by the veil. I swear by my own head.” That was evasive swearing; it was intended to hide their lying hearts.
Go over to Matthew 23 for a moment. And in Matthew 23 and verse 16, Jesus, in this diatribe against the Pharisees and religious leaders who were hypocrites, says, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing;’ – that doesn’t count, that’s King’s X – ‘whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he’s obligated.’” Well, now who ever made that distinction?
“You fools and blind men, which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing. But whoever swears by the offering on the altar, he’s obligated. You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, he who swears, swears both by the altar by everything on it. He who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells” – what? – “in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and Him who sits on it.” “Boy, you better stay away from the temple all together; you’re getting too close to God.” But, you see, the Jew wanted the person that he was about to defraud to believe him, so he swore by the temple, or he swore by the gold in the temple, or he swore by the altar, or he swore by Jerusalem, or some such thing.
Now go back to Matthew 5, and we’ll pick that up, verse 34: “I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you can’t make one hair white or black.” You don’t control your own head. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes,’ or, “No, no;’ and anything beyond these is of the Evil One.” This is evasive swearing.
They had this incredible way of meandering all over everywhere, getting close to things that related to God, and thinking because they swore by heaven, by earth, by the temple, by whatever, that they could break it because they didn’t use the name of God. And God says, “You touch anything and you swear, and you’ve touched Me.” It’s very much like saying, “I swear on a stack of Bibles,” and walking away and saying, “I don’t have to keep that promise, I didn’t swear on the name of God.”
You see, their thinking was so perverted. It was the idea that if God’s name was used, then God became a partner in the transaction; whereas, if God’s name was not used, then God had nothing to do with it. And Jesus is saying, “You bring God in to that transaction when you swear by anything that touches His dominion.” The heaven is His throne; the earth is His footstool; Jerusalem is His city. A man’s head belongs to Him, not the man. Nothing in the world you can touch that doesn’t belong to God.
So the Lord says, “Look, stop making those oaths by all those things.” It became a matter of daily course , they made them all the time. Read Thomson’s book land of the Bible, and you’ll read a whole lot of the typical, routine, daily vows that Jews were accustomed to make in order to get people to believe they were telling the truth, when the truth was they weren’t, they weren’t. That’s the restriction.
There are times when invoking the name of God in a covenant is good; and it is always binding. I stood before the Lord one day and vowed to preach faithfully His Word at an ordination. That was a solemn occasion. And to this day I stand, as it were, under the judgment of God if I default. I stood at an altar one day and promised before the living God my commitment to my wife, Patricia; and I stand under a just judgment of God should I break that vow. That’s the restriction: don’t make foolish vows invoking the name of God. Now how foolish is it when people just say, “For God’s sake this,” and “for Christ’s sake that,” and throw the name around as if it meant nothing?
Well, from the restriction comes the instruction, and it’s really the flipside of the restriction. Again in James chapter 5, turning it around the other way, he simply says, “But let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” What does that mean? It’s enough if you say yes; it’s enough if you say no. Simple, straightforward, honest speech. And he’s really just reiterating what Jesus said, as I read you a moment ago: “Anything beyond that is from the Evil One.” Why does it say that? Because the Evil One is the source of lies.
Jesus, you see, lifted all conversation in His church to the level of sacredness. Everything I say out of my mouth should be a promise of truth that will never be violated. You should have such integrity that it’s enough for people to hear you say, “Yes,” one time, and know you’ll never violate your word, or, “No,” one time. Everything you say, everything you say, simple, straightforward, honest speech.
Can we speak the truth in every situation? That will set us apart from the world, will it not? The world, I say it again, the system is built on lies. The church must be different.
And finally, the motivation. What’s the motivation? Verse 12 says, “So that” – consequence here – “you may not fall under” – what? – “judgment.”
Now listen to this. What does he mean by that? What does he mean? Well, it’s another way of saying, “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain,” Exodus 20, verse 7. Jesus called for judgment on the Pharisees in Matthew 22. He said, “Woe unto you,” and then He went through chapter 23 telling them why; and part of it, as I just read, was because of their lying oaths.
But what does he mean here? Is he talking about chastening of a Christian? Is he saying if you do this you’re going to get chastened?
Well, I may have thought that that was what he had in mind, until I took the word “judgment” and began to study it. It’s the word krisis, from which we get the word “crisis.” It basically means “a point of decision.” In the New Testament – and I looked up every single usage in the New Testament in the Greek text – it always refers to the decision of the judge who passes sentence. It is never used of chastening a believer.
The word for “discipline,” or “chastening,” is paideuō, paideias, the root word having to do with training a child. It is never used of the judgment of believers; that’s a word “bema” that we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This word in every single usage refers to the decision of the judge to pass sentence, a penal sentence.
In fact, James only uses it in one other place, chapter 2 and verse 13, and it’s a good parallel. Here it says judgment or the verdict of the judge will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. And there it’s talking about the merciless condemning sentencing to hell that God will render to those who have demonstrated no mercy, and therefore demonstrated an unchanged heart. It is always used with reference to the final penal sentencing.
Peter used it for condemning sentence on sinners at the day of judgment, 2 Peter 2, verses 4, 9 and 11. John uses it for the day of final judgment, sentencing men to hell, 1 John 4:17. Jude uses it to refer to the sentence that falls on sinners in the judgment of what he calls “that great day,” Jude 6, Jude 9, and again, I think, in verse 15. The writer of Hebrews uses it twice, both times referring to the terrifying, final judgment of God on sinners, chapter 9, verse 27; chapter 10 verse 27.
Paul uses it twice, and both times it relates to righteous sentencing of sinners to hell by God – once in 2 Thessalonians 1:5, and again in 1 Timothy chapter 5. Luke uses it once in Acts with reference to the lack of a fair sentence given to Jesus Christ in His trial, Acts 8:23. John uses it over and over again, particularly in chapter 5, for the judgment of the ungodly world. And the Gospels use it twenty-five times, always with the idea of passing final sentence.
You say, “What does that mean?” It means, beloved, that James is saying this – and listen carefully: “Don’t be continuing to blaspheme God’s holy name by your lying oaths, or you will be sentenced by God to hell.” That’s what it says. It’s a warning about hell; very strong.
Back in that passage which speaks so devastatingly to the Pharisees and the religious leaders, where Jesus condemns them, in Matthew 23, for their swearing, He concludes it in verse 33 by saying, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell?” That’s the idea.
You say, “Well, why in the world is James saying this to a church?” Because, beloved, it’s the same thing we’ve seen from the beginning to the end of James. These are all tests of what? Living faith. Look at your life. If your life is characterized by a pattern of lying, if you are constantly invoking God’s name directly or indirectly through oaths to convince people you are telling the truth when your heart is filled with lies, then you give evidence of an unregenerate heart, and you’re sentenced to hell.
Do the inventory. James has been saying it all along. “Look at your life,” chapter 1. “How do you respond to trials? How do you respond to temptation? How do you respond to the Word of God?” Look at chapter 2: “How do you respond to the poor? Is your life filled with works or is your faith a dead claim?” Look at chapter 3: “What’s your speech like? A sweet fountain can’t bring forth bitter water.” It’s just a long series of tests of living faith.
And here’s another one, and he’s saying, in effect, “If you look at your life and it’s a continual invoking of the name of God to cover your lies, you give evidence of an untransformed heart.” I’ll say it again. Your heart is a storehouse, and your mouth will tell us what is stored there. That’s the issue.
To bring that in to even more clear focus, to conclude tonight, open to Revelation chapter 21. In Revelation chapter 21, we read in verse 8 – well, we ought to back up to verse 7. Here the Scripture says – and, of course, this is Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, “He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. He who overcomes,” – and what is it that overcomes? – “even our faith in Christ. But” – verse 8 – “for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all” – what? – “liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
And just in case someone may miss that, go to verse 27, and he’s speaking about heaven here and who will enter, and he says in verse 27, “Nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”
Now listen; listen very carefully, one more time, chapter 22, verse 15: “Outside” – outside the kingdom, outside heaven – “are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices” – what? – “lying.” Saying the same thing.
Now, beloved, listen to me. This doesn’t mean that in our entire life we’ll never say anything that isn’t absolutely true, because James also said, “The one who has perfect control of his tongue,” – chapter 3 – “the same is a perfect man.” We will err with our tongue. There are times when we will speak untruth, but it is not the way of our hearts. It is not the unbroken pattern of our lives. It is the exception rather than the rule. God is truth; God cannot lie. And we who are His children reflect His nature. Is that not so? We love truth; we speak truth.
James again is giving us this rich, clear characterization: if your life is marked by swearing, invoking the name of God to convince people you speak truth, when your heart is filled with lies, and that’s the pattern, you stand ready to be sentenced to hell, and you will never enter the kingdom of God. On the other hand, when the Lord Jesus Christ comes into our lives and totally makes us new, there is the love of truth; and the pattern of a believer is a pattern of truth – not a perfect life with no lie, no untruth; but that is the exception, not the rule.
And so James, consistent with the pattern of the whole epistle, calls us to look into our hearts and see if we have a living faith. Let’s bow together in prayer.
Take just a few moments silently in your own heart; ask the Spirit of God to point out areas of your life where this might apply. Ask Him to seal the truth of God’s Word to your heart, that you might be able to use it wisely among those who need to much to speak truth, the truth that comes through faith in Christ. Just a few moments in silent prayer.
Father, we ask that You might cause us to speak truth. May there never be a question about our integrity. May it be that our yes is yes, our no is no, and everything we say reflects a transformed heart. Fill our mouths with Your words, that we may speak as Christ spoke with complete honesty. May we be trustworthy.
Father, I pray for those with us tonight who may be struggling, looking now and through the eyes of this passage they see a life of untruth, a life of lies, patterns of deception, promising that they’re speaking the truth when they’re living a lie, trying to cover their sin. Father, may they see that they stand in danger of eternal judgment. Awaken their hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ. The prayer that all of us should have is that we might be like Him, that we might speak as He spoke, the wonderful Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.
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