How Good Is Your Word?
Read James 5:12 (ESV)
But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Is your word your bond? Can people trust you to do what you say?
Is a man’s handshake still his word? Well, not really anymore. We live in a world where you need everything in writing. But even when we have legal contracts in place, the Washington Post reported that almost half of all civil lawsuits are breach-of-contract cases. So what does this all mean for our society? It means that we have trouble keeping our word and following through with our commitments.
If you’ve been following along with us, you know that James has been writing about living out our faith in real life. He has been telling us how to live godly lives that glorify Christ. Today, James’ words address the issue of keeping our word. He says that we shouldn’t swear an oath. Instead, our word should be our bond. At first glance, it seems like James is prohibiting any oath which would naturally lead us to wonder about things like marriage vows, oaths of office, etc. Is James making a blanket condemnation of any oath under any circumstance?
This is where some historical context is helpful. Under the Old Testament Levitical law, Jews were allowed to swear oaths but they were expected to keep their word. Oaths were not taken lightly because oftentimes, the oaths were sworn in the very name of God. Leviticus 19:12 records a law regarding swearing an oath: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” God’s name is holy and He is truth. If we make promises invoking His name, we are bound to keep our word or face serious consequences.
In today’s verses, James was referencing a teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Again 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.’ 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. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37). Just as Jesus did several times throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus took the law deeper to the heart of the matter.
Apparently, in Jesus’ time, there were some Jews who would swear falsely. That is, they would make an oath with no intention of keeping it. It was just a fraud tactic. But they didn’t want to fall into condemnation for swearing falsely by using the Lord’s name so they’d swear by heaven instead or even by the hair on their heads. They were keeping the “letter of the law” but ignoring the spirit of the law. Just as modern-day lawyers look for loopholes, so were they.
But Jesus wasn’t having any of that. He pointed out that heaven is where God reigns so they shouldn’t swear by that. Jerusalem is His holy city, so they shouldn’t swear by that. All of the earth is His creation and under His rule and reign, so if they swear falsely by anything on earth, even if they don’t use God’s name, they are still bringing God into their deception.
The point of the law was to mean what you say. God is truth, so His name should never be associated with the lies and broken promises of mankind. That’s why Jesus says swearing oaths shouldn’t even be necessary. If we say yes, that means yes. If we say no, that means no.
Friends, believers in Christ should lead lives of such integrity that people know we are good for what we say. We shouldn’t have to swear to God, on any beloved family member’s grave, or by anything God created in order for someone to trust us. We bear the name of Christ, who is the Truth, so we should be good for our word.
Jesus, You said that You are the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Because I represent You, I want to be trustworthy. I want to live a life of integrity that glorifies and honors You. Keep me from swearing falsely or being dishonest and misrepresenting Your Holy Name. Help me keep my word. Amen.
~ Pastor Nat Crawford
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