Ostentatious Profanity – Matthew 23:16-22 

This is a complicated paragraph. I don’t think that I understand it very well, partially because of my limited knowledge of those customs. The subject is further complicated by the mixed definitions of some of the related words. Take the word “swear” for instance – the word which we have in this paragraph. To “swear” might mean to promise, vow or pledge – which is a good thing, but perhaps unnecessary. I don’t believe that the Bible condemns someone for swearing to tell the truth in court. But the Lord Jesus does appear to discourage it – I will come back to this in a minute. On the other hand to “swear” could also mean to curse or blaspheme, which is clearly forbidden by the Word of God in every circumstance. To “curse,” at least in my mind, is always negative. It is to utter an obscenity or explicative. It is dirty, useless language, spoken by someone without brains enough to use a more appropriate word. Another definition of the word is to invoke the intervention of God in some way – as to utter a curse upon someone. A third, related word is “oath” which often speaks of a solemn vow, but can also be utterly profane. Two of these words could be used positively, but all three could also be wicked.

I have read these verses many, many times, and several times in the last few days. I come away with the impression that Christ generally-speaking doesn’t forbid swearing, but He was certainly displeased with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ practices in this regard. As they did with things “corban” – they would swear to certain truths, or do things, citing, for example, the “temple” as the thing which sanctified the oath. But then when they wanted to break their word, they would say that they didn’t swear by the gold in the temple. “Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!” It’s as childish as the nine-year-old who made a promise, but crossed his fingers rather than his heart. The promise dissolved away because they were deceivers and liars at heart anyway.

Let’s consider some general principles about swearing, and hopefully in the process illustrate some of the things to which our Saviour refers.

Principle number One – swearing implies the existence of falsehood.

Why does the bailiff in the courtroom ask the witness to put his hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth – the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Isn’t because we live in a world where general honesty is hard to find? The world is filled with lies and half-truths – probably more of the latter than the former. The advertisement makes some bold claims about a product, but neglects to mention other facts which should discourage people from buying that item. The politician does the same. And here is a man under the spot-light in a court of law. Some people hate him and want him locked away, while others earnestly desire to see him released. And the man himself, with his hand still in the cookie jar, wants to go home to steal again. Anyone of the people called to the witness stand may lie or withhold the truth in order to accomplish his desire. But that oath as he takes the stand is supposed to guarantee the truth. Right! That oath is only for the honest people; the liars will continue in their lies.

For the child of God – the servant of Jehovah – there should be no other option but the truth. And not just a part of the truth, which could involve deliberate deception. For the Christian, a simple assertion, the word out of his mouth should be, must be honest – the truth. When the Pharisee said, “by the gold in the temple, I am telling the truth,” he was casting a shadow on his own honor. He was implying that when he didn’t swear by the temple or its gold, he might not have been telling the truth. The honest man doesn’t need to volunteer anything more than his word. And when someone requires another person to swear on the altar, or the Bible, or his mother’s grave, that man is saying that he doesn’t trust the character of his neighbor.

But obviously, an oath is no increased guarantee for truth. If the man is a liar, he can utter all the oaths and promises in the world, but he’s still prone to deceive or dissemble. Any child of the Devil – the vast majority of people in the world – the unredeemed.... Any child of the Devil is not only capable of lying, but is prone to lie, as water flows downward. “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” What the Lord suggests in this scripture is that the human spirit of falsehood will make lies as black as possible by calling in sacred things to witness them. He who calls on God as his witness, is asking for the judgment of God.

Principle number Two – swearing actually tends toward equivocation and deception.

“Equivocation” is the use of ambiguous language to conceal the truth or to avoid committing oneself. Be cautious of the man who says "I say this without equivocation." He might be telling you the truth, but even his promise might be unfaithful. Do you remember that famous line from Hamlet "The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It has become a figure of speech to indicate that a person's vehement attempts to convince others of something have done just the opposite. Ironically, the protest has helped to convince others that the opposite is true. All the extra promises and oaths have made the person look insincere and defensive.

It may have been common in the Pharisee’s day to emphasize a statement by appealing to the Temple. That was a just one step off from calling on the name of Jehovah, which they would never do because it was too holy a word to be spoken by those “humble” people. So they highlighted, or authenticated, their promise by referring to the Temple of God. However, if they kept from referring to the gold of the temple, then the promise wasn’t as guaranteed as if they had. If they asserted their honesty based upon the altar in the temple, as far as they were concerned it meant nothing at all because they omitted reference to the sacrifice upon the altar. In other words, their swearing was equivalent to lying – to outright prevarication.

I may come back to this subject next Sunday in a more evangelical fashion, but I haven’t decided yet. The Pharisees preferred his gifts over God’s altar, and the gold over the temple. They preferred their own righteousness to the righteousness of God. They believed that their sacrifices to God were more important than God's provision for their gifts or His acceptation of their gifts. Christ tells us that the altar which sanctifies the gift is greater than the gift, and the for the same reason is the temple greater than the gold.

Principle number Three – Swearing injures the soul.

These Pharisees had thrown themselves into a slimy pit, from which they could not get out. They should have known the words of Deuteronomy 6:13 “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.” And how does the Decalogue begin? “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” If God provided for promising to tell the truth based upon His Name alone, what were these Pharisees doing by swearing based on the Temple, the gold of the Temple, the Altar or even Heaven itself. Leviticus 19:12 – “Ye shall not swear by my name FALSELY, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.” Were these Pharisees using the name of God properly, or were they on the verge of idolatry? He who swears by any person or thing, attributes to it a knowledge of the man’s heart and secret ambition. He who calls on someone to be his judge, or to take revenge upon if he fails to keep his promise is standing on the edge of idolatry.

As I said at the outset, this is a complicated subject. Some aspects of it are left open to debate, and each Christian is going to have to reach his own conclusions. To add another twist to the cat’s tail, what should we do with the words of Paul? Romans 9:1 – “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost....” Doesn’t Paul come within inches of swearing in God’s Name that he’s telling the truth? II Corinthians 11:31 – “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.” Galatians 1:20 “Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.” One of the things which we do see in these three verses is that Paul’s appeal to truth was based on nothing and no one but the Lord.

But what do we do with Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount? Matthew 5:33-36 – “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” Obviously, the Lord wants us to always speak the truth. I think that honesty and truthfulness should be so common in our lives that no one should ever doubt that we are telling the truth. It should not be necessary, especially when we are among the brethren, to be appealing to God as our witness. But what about that day when we are surrounded by people who don’t know us, and where dishonesty is as common as the air?

Most of you have heard this before, but in the context I must repeat the story. There was once a day when I was asked to testify in court. When I was offered the Bible and asked to swear to the truth, I turned to the judge and told him that I was a Christian and that it was my practice to always tell the truth. He accepted my statement, and I gave my evidence. But if he had insisted that I make the oath as it is generally done, I would have done it and not felt the least bit guilty about it. I had already given my testimony as a Christian.

The problem with these Pharisees was rooted in their desire to deceive, despite their oaths to honesty.

They deliberately twisted the truth and even twisted their oaths in order to hide the truth or to get their way. There was small print in every one of their verbal contracts, which non-Pharisees might never read. The temple versus the gold of the temple; God’s altar versus their sacrifices on that altar. They taught these things among their own people, but they withheld the same from everyone else. Christ calls them “blind guides.” Their blindness was worse than ignorance – it was the blindness of a wilful perversion.

But God is not deceived. Jehovah will not be a party to the deceptions of these religious leaders. There is no release from promises, whether there are oaths involved or not. And, when God’s name is attached, or even with the sophistry and verbal shenanigans of these Pharisees, God will not be mocked. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”

“Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.” As James will tell us later in 5:12 – “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”

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