M. W. Bassford
At first glance, Matthew 5:34 appears to be a simple passage to interpret. Jesus says, “Don’t take an oath at all,” so Christians should. . . take no oath at all. Like the Quakers, when we are asked to swear to tell the truth in a court case, we should affirm instead.
However, this facial interpretation fails to take into account everything else we know about oath-swearing in Jewish society at the time of the New Testament. Jesus Himself gives us more insight into the matter in Matthew 23:16-22.
This passage says a great deal about the hearts of the Jews and their purposes in swearing different kinds of oaths. It invites us to consider the thought process of a “religious” Jew who has a deceitful heart. He wants to be able to lie when it’s advantageous to him, but he also wants others to accept his word sometimes.
As a result, he comes up with the idea of confirming his word with an oath when he wants to be believed. “I’ll swear by the holy temple of God! That’s what I’ll do!” However, this deceitful Jew discovers that he has a problem. Nobody believes him unless he swears an oath, and if he swears an oath, he doesn’t feel free to lie.
He still wants to be able to trick people sometimes, so he comes up with a hierarchy of non-binding and binding oaths. Now, he can swear by the temple and feel free to lie his head off, but if he wants people to believe him, he will swear by the gold in the temple. He can use the impressive-sounding but meaningless oath to deceive outsiders while still being able to show insiders his good faith.
Apparently, temple/gold wasn’t the only non-binding/binding pair. Crafty Jews would also use altar/gift and heaven/God’s throne, depending on whether they wanted to deceive or to be believed.
Jesus points out, though, that the whole enterprise is morally bankrupt. Regardless of whether they thought their oath by a holy thing was binding, they still were swearing by a holy thing. Failing to keep any such oath brought dishonor on the One who made the holy things holy in the first place.
It is this corrupt hierarchy of oaths that Jesus is condemning in Matthew 5. It’s the idea that sometimes, God’s people should feel bound to tell the truth, but at other times, they can feel free to lie. If that’s what you’re using oaths for, Jesus says, you need to quit swearing them.
Today, Christians must tell the truth at all times and in all circumstances. As a result, the whole question of oath/not-oath is meaningless to us, like circumcision/not-circumcision is meaningless to us (as per Paul’s point in Galatians 5:6). Oath-swearing and circumcision simply don’t have the same significance in our cultural context as they did 2000 years ago.
Certainly, we should examine our hearts if we find ourselves feeling the need to swear oaths on our own. I’m reminded here of a childhood acquaintance who was a notorious liar and so went around exclaiming, “I swear to God!” all the time. If we have to swear an oath before others will believe us, we’ve got a serious spiritual problem.
However, the Christian who is summoned to court need not feel a pang of conscience when they are asked to swear an oath (though if they do and ask to affirm instead, that’s acceptable too). I’m going to tell the truth if asked to swear, and I’m going to tell the truth if not asked to swear. It makes no difference to me. The truth is what matters, and only when we speak truly is God glorified.
Some brethren are allergic to slippery-slope arguments. Whenever they see someone arguing that departing from the pattern in one area will lead to apostasy in everything, they link to the Wikipedia page about logical fallacies, which does describe a slippery-slope argument as an informal logical fallacy.
However, we need to understand the limits of this counter-argument. All Wikipedia, etc., are saying is that a slippery-slope argument proves nothing by itself. It does not necessarily follow that because things have gotten this bad, they will continue to get worse. Sometimes, they stay the same. Sometimes, they do get worse.
Sadly, experience has taught us that the latter tends to be true when it comes to matters of Scriptural authority. Indifference to the silence of the Scriptures naturally leads to indifference to isolated commandments. That in turn naturally leads to indifference to the most important commandments of the Bible.
Over the past 75 years, we’ve seen congregations make this sad journey. They began by embracing church support of colleges and fellowship halls, even though we read nothing of such things in the word. Increasingly, such churches are now in the midst of rejecting Bible teaching on a-cappella worship and women in positions of authority. The conclusion of this process seems to be denial of the necessity of baptism for salvation.
As evidence for this proposition, consider this pamphlet produced by the Oak Hills Church of San Antonio, formerly the Oak Hills Church of Christ. I would describe this pamphlet as a model of obfuscation, designed to offer just enough to appease both those who believe that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins and those who do not. Though offered the opportunity to stand either with the first-century church or with the denominational world, Oak Hills appears to be doing its best to choose C) None of the Above.
However, there are a couple of sections in this pamphlet that give the game away. The first is its analysis of 1 Peter 3:21 on Page 6 (there are no page numbers; you’ll have to count). According to Oak Hills, the passage teaches that baptism is important because it shows commitment to God. Well, yes, I guess you can get that out of 1 Peter 3:21, but it is hardly the core teaching of the text!
1 Peter 3:21 is important because it says, in so many words, that baptism saves. If Oak Hills acknowledges that, they can’t say, as they do at the bottom of the page, “Please understand; it is not the act that saves us.” Of course, if you repeat Bible teaching on the saving effect of baptism, you also put a stumbling block in the way of those who don’t believe it’s important.
I was also struck by Oak Hills’ message to those who were sprinkled as infants and see no need to be immersed. They say, “If you choose not to be immersed at this time, we still welcome you as a member. We ask only that you respect our teaching position and not be divisive.” They go on to say that members who teach have to accept the church’s position on immersion. Presumably, others do not.
As I understand this, you can be somebody who was sprinkled as an infant, go to Oak Hills, be received as a member, appear in the church directory, be in the church band, and lead prayers, all without ever being immersed, period, let alone for the forgiveness of your sins. In other words, Oak Hills does not view Bible baptism as a necessary part of being made right with God and being added to His church. They may talk a big game about the importance of Bible baptism, but when you get right down to it, they think baptism is an extra.
In Luke 16:10, Jesus notes that he who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. Concerns about fellowship halls and orphans’ homes may strike some as rampant legalism, but ultimately, it’s about respect for the authority of the King. We can’t shrug our shoulders at that authority when it comes to matters that seem unimportant to us while still honoring it in things that we think are essential. As Oak Hills’ example proves, such a spirit easily can lead to unconcern with the things that we used to think were essential too.
It seems like I’ve spent a fair amount of time these past couple weeks reading critiques of the churches of Christ from various sources. These critiques, usually written by former members, tend to have a common theme. The churches of Christ would be better off, they opine, if they stopped being so narrow and legalistic and focused instead on mercy and grace.
That’s a fascinating claim, and it even has a certain amount of Biblical resonance. Did not Paul argue, for instance, that the grace of Christ set him free from the law of sin and death. Poor members of churches of Christ! They don’t see that they’ve been set free already!
However, as I've written before, it doesn’t make much sense. Logically speaking, law and grace are positively correlated, not inversely correlated. The greater my respect for God’s law, the more my consciousness of my own sin should grow, along with my awareness of my desperate need for grace.
Things move in the opposite direction when concern for lawkeeping diminishes. If following God’s law isn’t very important, then breaking it isn’t very important either. At that point, grace stops looking like grace and starts looking more like apathy. I really don’t need God’s mercy anymore because my sin is no biggie.
There’s another problem too. As my respect for divine law and my desire for mercy diminish, so too will my willingness to show mercy. Good Bible students know that one of the most sobering passages in the entire volume is the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.
Most Christians are aware that if you live a life of sin, you will not inherit the kingdom of God. In this parable, Jesus points out that if you are unmerciful, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God either. In fact, your failure to show mercy to others will drown out your pleas for mercy to God.
Christians who honor the law of God, then, should be the most merciful people on earth, both because they have been taught by Christ to show mercy and because they know what will happen to them if they don’t. I am constantly aware of the gulf between God’s perfect law and my own obedience. Without His mercy to bear me up, I surely will plunge into the abyss. For me to be merciless, then, is an act of spiritual suicide.
Without an emphasis on law, though, all this falls apart. If I violate a law I think is unimportant and indifferently accept God’s apathetic grace, that gives me zero incentive to change my conduct toward those who have wronged me. God’s law might not matter much, but the offenses of others against me sure do! We don’t need the law to teach us vengefulness; it’s imbedded in every one of our selfish little hearts.
When I have been forgiven little (I think), I will love little, and I will be little inclined to show mercy. Not surprisingly, people who accept the first part of this statement end up living out the second two. As I wrote about a year ago, some of the most vicious, unforgiving people on earth are “tolerant” secular progressives. Because they do not acknowledge God’s law, they do not admit their need for grace, so they see no reason to extend it to others.
I certainly hope that in the years and decades to come, brethren will be more grace-centric and more conscious of their need to receive and show mercy. However, trying to get there by downplaying the importance of the law of God (all of it) is going in exactly the wrong direction. Paul does not free us from the law. He frees us from the illusion that we can justify ourselves, which is the very illusion that minimizing law creates.
We often don’t realize it, but one of the main themes of the gospels is the interaction between Jesus and people who ask Him questions. If we considered Jesus’ replies to those questions in isolation, His replies would seem so divergent as to be irrational. In Matthew 13:16, He calls one set of questioners blessed. In Matthew 13:7, He condemns another set as a bunch of hypocrites.
What gives? It’s just a question, right?
In reality, of course, Jesus’ answers are so different because He is responding to different motivations and positions. The disciples of Matthew 13 get a commendation and a straight answer because they are seeking truth. So does the woman at the well in John 4 (who is so deferential that she only hints at her questions).
Nicodemus, interested in the truth but full of himself, gets an answer but also gets taken down a peg in John 3. The lawyer of Luke 10:25, who thought to set himself up as Jesus’ schoolteacher, ended up getting schooled instead. Finally, of course, the parade of Pharisees with their trap questions uniformly found out that Jesus was smarter than they were.
Today, the motivations of questioners are every bit as diverse. Some still want to know truth. Others think they know it and hope to use their questions to lead you down the primrose path. Still others ask questions not because they want an answer, but because they believe the question won’t have an answer. They think this will embarrass you or perhaps justify their unbelief.
This is important for us to remember as we consider both others and ourselves. Though we can’t see hearts as Jesus could, it’s still possible to discern someone’s intent by considering their words. I’m perfectly willing to answer questions for hours if the questioner is hungry for the gospel. On the other hand, I’m not interested in patiently answering objection after objection, only to be met with a haughty “That’s not good enough!” One suspects that for some, an answer from the Lord Himself would not be good enough.
It’s important too, though, to be honest about our own motivations when we ask questions. Wanting to learn more about spiritual things is wonderful! I think the same is true of using questions to teach. When somebody figures out the answer for themselves rather than the teacher figuring it out for them, the lesson tends to stick longer.
However, we should be wary of questions that are designed to trap others or to justify a conclusion we already have reached. Jesus used the former tactic, but He only did it to embarrass hard-hearted religious elites who were trying to embarrass Him first. Unless we are sure that someone is acting in bad faith and needs to be humiliated for the benefit of third parties, it’s not wise and probably not godly to make them the target of our Perry Mason impression.
Similarly, it is better to own our convictions directly, whatever they may be, rather than hedging them around with disingenuous questions designed to make our conclusion seem reasonable. If there is no answer to a question that will satisfy us, we should save everyone time and not ask it. There is no value to the smugness that comes from winning a debate when we are the self-appointed judge.
Truth only can be found in God, and questions are the means by which we seek it. However, as with everything else, the devil is capable of twisting questions to his ends. May the questions we ask always serve truth and not him!
I’ve read the Beatitudes a time or two, but as I visited them again as part of our Bible-reading plan this year (it’s tough to write the bulletin article if you’re not a week ahead!), the one that jumped out at me was Matthew 5:9. We don’t live in a very peacemaker-y time. The political polarization in our country has become so obvious that mentioning it is nearly a cliché. On both sides, increasing numbers of people believe that the other side is The Enemy, to be defeated by any means necessary, even at the cost of the dearly held principles of 20 years ago.
Of course, we are not the first to live in a time that is not very peacemaker-y. Jesus did too. Indeed, anger and conflict are the backdrop of the gospels. The Jewish community of AD 30 was deeply divided by the presence of the occupying Romans. Some, from the tax collectors to the chief priests, collaborated with them, generally as a way of acquiring wealth and power.
Reacting to this corrupt bargain, the Pharisees demanded fidelity to a body of religious tradition that they claimed came from God but really came from them. Still farther along the political spectrum, the Essenes withdrew from a society that they considered irredeemably wicked. The Zealots plotted to overthrow it.
To them all, Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed and are sons of God. Not the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Essenes, or the Zealots. The peacemakers.
In Jesus’ view, the peacemakers need first of all to seek peace with God, but secondarily, they need to seek peace with one another. What matters is not somebody else’s privileged position or nit-picky moral code or contempt for the world or desire to burn it all down. What matters is whether they have a soul. Of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, one was a tax collector and another was a Zealot. Hint, hint.
2000 years ago, the vast majority of Jewish society didn’t listen to Jesus. The power brokers had Him killed because they thought He was a threat to their position, not realizing that their own actions were the greatest threat. Over the next 35 years, tensions between Jews and Romans, and indeed between Jews and Jews, increased until they exploded in the catastrophe of the Great Jewish Revolt.
Nobody won the Great Revolt. Not the Romans, who had an entire legion massacred by the rebels and only were able to put down the rebellion at an immense cost in treasure and blood. Not the Jewish factions, who spilled blood in the courts of the Temple as they battled each other for dominance until the Romans arrived and killed them all. Not the common folk of Galilee and Judea, countless thousands of whom were butchered by the contending forces. Nobody emerged from the cataclysm better off.
Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who love their enemies. Blessed are those who are able to find value and worth in the most obnoxious proclaimers of an opposing viewpoint.
Blessed are those in our time who are willing to hear the voice of Jesus.