Your Word is Your Bond - Matthew 5:33–37
A couple years ago, shortly before moving back to Florence to begin church planting, the pastor of Hartsville Presbyterian Church, David McIntosh, asked me to fill the pulpit for him during their Sunday evening services while he was on a six-week sabbatical.
Naturally, I was excited to preach a series of sermons and it seemed like a great way for people already interesting in the church to come over from Florence to hear me preach, so, I agreed to preach all six Sunday evenings in a row for him.
[Approximately the first 5 minutes of the sermon was not recorded.]
This was during the time when I was preparing to move my family from Charlotte while also completing the requirements for ordination as a minister, while also doing the initial work of starting the church.After making the verbal commitment, I started to get worried that it would be too much and that these others things would suffer.
I would have to travel from Charlotte each Sunday, and I would have to prepare to preach each week, and so, I began to think maybe it was not a good idea, because a pastoral mentor of mine – a church planting mentor – had previously told me to be careful not to overcommit to outside things while laboring to begin the church.
And when I met for lunch with my mentor, I told him about this situation. I sort of expected him to tell me to de-commit from my six-week obligation. But he did not. Instead, he said, “Are you familiar with Psalm 15:4?” And I said “No, not off the top of my head.” He said, “It describes a godly man, and says that the godly man ‘swears to his own hurt and does not change.’” I didn’t back out of my commitment to fill in for David. Isn’t it true that we don’t naturally speak or behave with complete integrity at all times?
Especially when it is problematic or bothersome for us, we look for a way out. Leadership author Michael Hyatt notices this trend among people today. He writes, “Over the last several years I’ve noticed a change in the way we use the word ‘integrity.’ Having integrity requires staying true to your word—even if it’s difficult, inconvenient, or expensive. But today I hear more and more people using the word as if it means being true to themselves—even if that means leaving someone else to clean up the mess.”
We may think that our words only carry weight if given under oath or as a promise. But should an oath or a promise be necessary to bind us to our word? What if I had gone to my brother David, and told him I changed my mind, I couldn’t fill in? What if he replied, “But Stacey, I’m depending on you,” and I countered by saying, “But David, it’s not like I took an oath that I would be there. I didn’t swear that I would do it.” That wouldn’t have been right, would it? Why? Because when I gave my word; that was enough. To say I would do it and then back out would’ve been untruthful.
Fortunately for us, God does not operate as we sometimes do. He always speaks and acts with complete integrity. He keeps his word and honors his commitments but above all, God is committed to the truth. And since that is how God operates, our desire should be to operate that way as well.
Your word is your bond, even when it is difficult or inconvenient. Incidentally, keeping my word to David and the Hartsville church turned out great for me. Many people from here in Florence came to hear me preach and afterwards, over many dinners at a local Mexican restaurant, I laid out for them the vision for this church. Extra labor was involved to honor the commitment, but it was the best thing I could’ve done. And yet, things working out great is not the primary reason why we should keep our word.
So then, why should we? Jesus helps us understand here in Matthew 5. In the previous verses, Jesus has reminded us that faithfulness, particularly in marriage, is woven into the fabric of society. Here, he reminds us that truthfulness is woven into that fabric as well. Truthfulness is essential is relationships. Without an allegiance to the truth, a society cannot stand. It cannot hold together. In the church, in the kingdom of God, among the people of God connected to one another in community, truth must reign. Ephesians 4 says,  “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
So, looking at Jesus’ words here, along with some other passages of Scripture, we are reminded of two reasons why we should keep our word and honor our commitments:
First, because God weighs every word we speak as if it was spoken directly to Him.
And secondly, because God recognizes every commitment we make as if it was made directly to Him.
Look again at verse . Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said to those of old,
‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ This is not an exact quote from the OT. It’s a summary from Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The general idea was that people should not flippantly make commitments using God’s name.
If you swear before God to do something, you were in debt to him to do what you said you would do because you invoked God’s name. God’s name was to be treated with the utmost respect, not thrown out in a casual way. The writings of Jewish rabbis from the time during the earthly life of Jesus reveal that among the Jews a system had developed where oaths would be more or less binding based on how closely the oath was related to the name of Yahweh, the covenant God – the LORD. This basically served as a back door out of their commitments.
For some of us who are adults, when we were kids, we might have told a friend
that we would or would not do something. And the friend might say, “But do you promise?” And we would reply, “Yes I promise.” But the friend might say, “Ok. But do you pinky promise?”
If you pinky promised, that was considered a more-trustworthy promise than just your normal, run-of-the-mill promise. But what if your friend said, “Ok. But do you swear? In fact, do you swear on your mama’s life?” You get the idea. It’s assumed that the more serious the oath, the more bound you are to keep it. That was the case in the first century when Jesus came on the scene. This was yet another case of the OT moral law being twisted and misrepresented. The obligation the keep your word depended on the exact language of your oath rather than upon simply being truthful, having integrity, and keeping your word for the glory of God.
The heart of the OT is that we should always be truthful and faithful. An oath is not necessary to bind us to our word. All of our words are binding, because everything we say, we say before the living God. If you think a certain kind of oath or promise is necessary to bind you to your word, then either you don’t understand the truth, or you just don’t really care about it. God places tremendous value on truth. There is nothing more central to the being of the living God than this: he is truth. And as beings created in his image, whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or not, God weighs every word you speak as if you spoke it to Him directly. And God requires truthfulness.
Do you think or live as though there are things you say out of earshot of the living God? Have you given your word, created an expectation, but you aren’t keeping your word? Have you taken vows that you don’t consistently keep? Or do you consistently say things, even in joking, that are false? If so, you are presenting yourself as someone whose words are unreliable.
This goes for the commitments that we make as well.
Look at verses 34-36. Jesus states,  But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,  or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Jesus wants them to know that if they are going to abuse oaths, then they shouldn’t take them at all when giving their word. It kind of sounds like Jesus is saying that all oaths are bad. Never take one. But Jesus was clear that he is not abolishing the OT law, which included oath-taking. Later, in Matthew 26, Jesus testifies under oath before the Jewish council of elders.
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul begins a statement by saying, “for God is my witness.” Hebrews 6 tells us that even God took an oath before Abraham. In each of those cases, the oath was not taken to bind the individual to tell the truth. The oath is taken to encourage the hearer – the listener.
Odds are you have taken an oath or you will at some point in your life. If you ever testify in a deposition or in court, you’ll have to, by law, do so under oath. If you’re married, you took vows. Vows are an oath. Our members here at Good Shepherd take vows when joining the congregation. When I baptize a small child, their parents and the congregation take vows. So, is Jesus’ point that we should absolutely never take vows? It doesn’t seem so. Again, Jesus has already stated that he is not doing away with the OT law, part of which called for oaths and vows on occasion.
What Jesus says here gives us insight into his main point. In God’s eyes, you are not bound to your word by swearing on a Bible or swearing by something higher than yourself, such as heaven or earth, or in their case, the holy city of Jerusalem. Jesus reminds them that anything you might swear on was created by God and belongs to him, so ultimately, you would always be swearing to God. Even if you swore by your head (verse 36).
One thing you’ll notice about the vows we take in marriage or becoming church members is that everything in the vows are things that God requires of us anyway, whether we take the vows or not. For instance, when I perform a wedding, I have multiple examples of vows that people can choose from. There are set vows for marriage in the Bible. What is key is entering into covenant before God. The vows can vary. Same with joining the church. Our membership vows summarize what we see in the Bible. In other words, they summarize what God already expects from a believer. A member wouldn’t be less-bound to the expectations in God’s eyes if they didn’t take the vows. What if I messed up or left one out by accident?
Ultimately, that wouldn’t matter. The responsibility of the person is not dependent on me getting all the words right. And note this also: we take oath because truthfulness does not come naturally to us, because we don’t naturally trust each other and we are not naturally forthcoming in every single situation. Oaths help us to resist that, because we should be. This is why it isn’t out of place for Jesus to conclude Ch.6 by saying, “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So look at verse 37, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” That could also be translated “comes from the evil one.”
If you say you will do something, do it. If you say you won’t, then don’t. Anything other than that is a lie. It comes from Satan, the father of lies.
Do you think that people today place less importance on keeping their word and commitments than in generations past? Perhaps, in some ways. But obviously, it was an issue 2000 years ago among a people group with a very sound moral foundation.
But they had wandered. They strayed and they were cutting corners with the truth.
They were spiraling in self-centeredness. They had no grand vision of the one true God, of his great holiness, his impeccable character, his flawless allegiance to the truth. We often refer to the Bible as the Scriptures. It calls itself the Scriptures.
But also, it calls itself God’s Word.
If God would create people, and desire to be involved in his creation, and if he would have great plans for his creation and certain holy purposes, why would he not provide trustworthy documentation of his own word? That is what we have here in the Bible.
We have trustworthy documentation of how God addresses our greatest problem.
We are sinners. We are unfaithful and, at various times in various ways, we are untruthful. How can we say we love truth, but consistently fail to arrive on time for our commitments or fail to give our absolute best toward those commitments?
How can we say we love truth, and then leave someone else holding the bag because we failed to do what we say we will do? Because we backed out? What about your commitments that you’ve made as a spouse? What your commitments as a parent, a friend, an employee, a member of your church? Every commitment made is, ultimately, a commitment before God. Do you keep your commitments as unto the Lord? Colossians 3 says, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Do everything as if you’ve given your word to God himself. That is the standard. And obviously, we all fall short. But always, with the God of grace, there is the good news.
As we go to this table today, we remember that God keeps his word and honors his commitment. His ‘yes’ is always ‘yes.’ His ‘no’ is always ‘no.’ Earlier I mentioned Psalm 15. God swore to his own hurt – to his own death on the cross – and did not change. Jesus died a sinner’s death, but let’s be a bit more specific. He died a liar’s death. He died the death of one with no integrity. He died the death of an untrustworthy, undependable, self-centered person. That was our sin. And he bore the weight of that sin for us, so that we could be saved from its power and penalty and saved to eternal life in God by faith in his worthiness and ability as our Savior. Do you know him in this way? Would you utter a prayer to God and receive him today by faith? You can trust him completely, because his word is his bond.
Let’s pray together.