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Study Notes:

Matthew 5:31-37

Keep Your Word

Summary: Whether it comes to marriage vows or swearing oaths, Jesus cuts right to the heart and insists that we mean what we say.

This morning we find Jesus talking about the institution of marriage and the habit some people have of swearing oaths. We’ll cover some very interesting stuff this morning, but let me give away the surprise before we even get started, this really isn’t about divorce and marriage and what you can and can’t say, it’s an attempt to expose what’s going on in your heart that would lead to these outcomes. It’s about the disease that produces the symptoms, not just the symptoms themselves.

So we read in

Matthew 5:31 “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
33 “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.

Now, at first glance you might read these and think they don’t have anything to do with each other. But I would argue they do, they absolutely do. Because both deal with making a promise and the question: what will I do when keeping that promise is no longer fun, fulfilling, easy, or interesting to me?

We’re going to deal with them in reverse order this morning.

So first, let’s talk about oaths. When you swear an oath, you are promising to do whatever you’re agreeing on and you’re often calling on someone or something else to back that promise up. So you swear to tell truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. Or you “solemnly swear.”

You’re trying to say: I really mean what I’m saying right now and people should trust me. But trust is a hard thing to find, isn’t it?

Listen to kids talking to one another and it’s easy to pick it out. They’ll insist to each other, “I promise!” Or, they’ll put something on the line – “if I’m lying I’ll _____________” and then you fill in the blank with something horrible. How of many of you know the old oath “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a need in my eye”?

But sometimes they try to leave a back door in there, right? So after working so hard to get someone to believe them they’ll say, “Oh, but I had my fingers crossed.” Or “I had my toes crossed” I’ve even heard, “My shoelaces were crossed!”

Why do that? Because, we want to be trusted but, we want an escape hatch too. We want the best of both worlds.

Well, at the time Jesus was speaking, this same kind of linguistic gymnastics were common in Israel too. They had all these caveats, that you could swear by heaven, or by the earth, or by Jerusalem, you could even swear by the Temple, and all of those could be broken, but if you swore by God, then that was an unbreakable oath. People became very creative in making their oaths and the rabbis had to determine which were actually binding.

Jesus showed up and said, ‘knock it off.’ Just let your yes be yes and your no be no.

Think about it: why do you need to add all this other stuff to your story or your commitment? Does that mean you’re not telling the truth the rest of the time? When you start adding things to your simple, honest, direct speech, now people don’t know whether to believe you or not.

One of the expressions we hear regularly is when people say, “Well, I’ll tell you the truth …” Does that mean you’re lying to me the rest of the time? Why are you highlighting your truthfulness right here and now? What about everything else? Should I only really trust you when you use this particular formula?

It puts the listener in a hard place because they’re always trying to figure out what’s real and it gives the speaker a way to do or say whatever is most convenient because there’s a way out.

So what do we do with this? Does this mean we can’t take an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic as so many of our government servants do? No. I take the same oath myself.

What Jesus is going after here, as with every other issue in the Sermon on the Mount, is the heart. He’s going after the person who is looking to build in a way out, an escape clause. He’s looking to shut down the excuse of the person who says, “Well, I know I said that, but I didn’t say…” and you fill in the blank.

Turn with me to Psalm 15 and look at the question it asks:

Psalm 15:1 LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle?
​​Who may dwell in Your holy hill?

And the answer is:

2 ​​He who walks uprightly,
​​And works righteousness,
​​And speaks the truth in his heart;
3 ​​He who does not backbite with his tongue,
​​Nor does evil to his neighbor,
​​Nor does he take up a reproach against his friend;
4 ​​In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
​​But he honors those who fear the LORD;
​​He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
5 ​​He who does not put out his money at usury,
​​ Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

​​ He who does these things shall never be moved.

Here’s the take away, here’s the point of it all: if you are not willing to keep your word, don’t give it. And most certainly don’t try to use God’s name or anything else to convince people that you will.

By God’s grace and with His strength become the kind of man or woman that means yes when they say it, and means no when they say it. Become the kind of person whose character and reputation makes an oath unnecessary. In a little bit, we’ll talk about how you do that, because it’s not easy to “swear to your own hurt” and still keep your word, but it can be done, especially if your heart is clean and your motives and intentions are pure. Don’t be the person who wants to say good things, but then goes looking for a way out when things get hard.

Which brings us to the second issue we’re considering this morning – the issue of marriage and divorce. Do you see how this all fits together? Every marriage begins with a vow, a promise made to each other.

One of my big surprises when I read the Bible all the way through for the first time, was that I never found a wedding ceremony. There’s nothing in here that says, “this is how you have to do it.” There’s no order of ceremony, there are no vows. Weddings are mentioned, and marriage is most certainly discussed, but there is no formula given that says, “This is how you have to do it.” And yet, it always involves making a promise to the other person. In fact, whether you have a religious wedding or not, there is always some sort of promise or declaration made about how this relationship is going to be different from all his or her other relationships – we prove with vows and exchanging rings, and that makes it all official.

So here’s the question, in light of what we just said about taking oaths, what about this uniquely important vow – should you be trusted when you make your wedding vow? Under what circumstances should you be able to get out of it? I would argue it’s the most important commitment you can ever make.

We find more information on this subject over in Matthew 19, so we will visit it again when we get to that chapter, but let’s take a quick look there now anyway because it will be helpful in understanding what Jesus says here.

Matt 19:1 Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there.
3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Now, that is very important – who or what does Jesus says binds people together in marriage? He doesn’t say it’s the judge, or somebody with a marriage license, or an Elvis impersonator at the drive-up chapel in Las Vegas, Jesus says God joins a man and a woman together and for that reason, don’t let any human being try to separate them.

In marriage, two lives become knit together so that they are no longer separate entities, there are one. I fear that too many of us resist this though – if you were to do a sober analysis of your marriage, of your life, are you one? Are you united? Are you in agreement? Are you working together, mutually supporting, mutually reinforcing, aiming for the same goals, is there harmony and synergy, are you in sync? God Himself wants you to be joined together, to be one and never to be separated. Never to destroy what has been created. But, that’s brings up a question:

Matt 19:7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”

This goes back to what we saw in the Sermon on the Mount – this is the “certificate of divorce” Jesus spoke of there. What was that all about?

Well, in Deuteronomy God gives the people of Israel all kinds of instruction about how they are to live and worship as people who know God. And in chapter 24 God gave instructions about marriage. He said

Deu 24:1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house,

It goes on to say, if all that happens and she remarries and that second marriage goes bad, she can’t return to her first husband. It was meant to be a protection against serial marriages or any kind of wife-swapping.

But here is where we need to direct our attention: God has opened the door to the possibility of divorce, but under what conditions? And the answer is only in the case of uncleanness. That doesn’t mean he or she didn’t take a bath. It means you had to be able to point to something very specific and say: this is the reason for his or her uncleanness and therefore, the reason for our divorce. It was intended to be a limiting factor. It was intended to build a fence around marriage.

Next week we see Jesus make reference to the law that said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – that didn’t mean here is exactly what you have to do in response to an injury, it meant you can’t do anything more than this. It limited vengeance. So too, this instruction on how to get a divorce was meant to limit divorce by saying, you can only get one if you can identify, point to, and prove, something wrong had been done.

And if it happened, a certificate had to be issued. You had to sign your name to it. You had to publicly announce you were breaking the vows you once made. You were going back on your word about taking this person into your life “‘til death do you part.” It was meant to make a divorce a sober and serious thing, almost like a funeral, the death of something created by God. You needed to have a good reason for it.

But, not long before Jesus was born, a group of Jewish religious scholars started to shift the emphasis of what God told Moses. They said what’s really important here is that someone gives a certificate of divorce. The reason why you’re getting divorced isn’t that important – as long as you do it the right way – give the piece of paper, or papyrus, so that they can prove it’s done and over with and you can each get on with your lives, that’s what really matters.

And then they began to argue for a very liberal interpretation of what ‘uncleanness’ meant until they had watered it down to mean just about anything that you didn’t like about the other person. It was the ancient equivalent of our modern no-fault divorce laws.

So, we have evidence of people getting a divorce because they didn’t the way the woman cooked, or because she spoke to other men in public, or simply because they found someone better looking. We even have archeological evidence of a woman writing a divorce certificate to her husband.

The ancient world was very “progressive.” Divorce and remarriage were widespread in Greek and Roman culture and had crept into Jewish culture extensively when Jesus was alive. So don’t think our modern world is uniquely bad. There is nothing new under the sun. But, also know, this is what Jesus came to save us all from.

He went on to say:

Matt 19:8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

It’s important to note: God never commands divorce. He permits it, but what He actually commands is love empowered by forgiveness. Now, that doesn’t always work. Because of the hardness of the heart of one or both individuals, divorce may be the only workable solution. But it’s never the preferred outcome. It’s always a reluctant accommodation.

Jesus tells them: “From the beginning it was not so.” God never intends, never, ever, intends to join a man and woman together temporarily. He always intends for it to be durable. He intends for them to love Him and love each other. To benefit one another, to help, to serve, to cherish, to encourage and strengthen each other, no matter what.

Divorce is always proof that something went wrong. Someone had hardness of heart. Someone was unwilling to put the other person first. Someone let their selfishness run wild. Maybe it was both of them, but certainly it was at least one of them. Someone broke their vows and in the process broke someone else’s heart. Things got hard, or they were never easy, or something better seemed to come along. Whatever the excuse, he or she stopped standing on their promises, stop proving their oath and their vows, their yes was no longer yes, their no was no longer no, and something special died as a result.

It is going to be hard to keep your marriage vows at times, it is going to be hard to keep your word but that is why we make these special commitments, we’re saying: I’ll do for you what I won’t, what I can’t, do for or with anyone else.

So, what do we do as a result of hearing all of this this morning? What do we need to keep in mind or how do we need to change?

Well, I think the first thing we learn is the importance of making sober commitments. Reassess the things you’ve sworn to do, the oaths you’ve taken, or the things you said. Are you doing it? Are you following through? Do people around you believe that you will do what you say, or do they write you off or take you with a grain of salt? Your reputation is often a reflection of your character. The best way to influence what other people think and say is to work on what you say and do.

So, review your life and the commitments you’ve made – are you honoring them? And, be cautious in making new commitments. Be careful with casually or politely agreeing to do things. Don’t say things like “I’ll be praying for you” and then not pray. Stop right then and there and pray for and with the individual. Don’t say “call me if you need anything” and not mean it. Stop saying “we have to get together” and then never following through with a calendar. Those are the pleasantries of daily life, but search yourself on the big commitments too.

And share the lessons you’ve learned and mistakes you’ve made. This is one of the great benefits of being in a church where you have a hundred other people the age of your parents or maybe even the age of your grandparents, and vice-versa – the older generations have hundreds of people the age of your kids or grandkids here – and you can influence them. You can share with them, we can learn from each other. There is spiritual wisdom, godliness, and maturity in this body that is available to each other. I’m asking you to share the lessons you’ve learned about making and breaking commitments with each other – peer to peer and older to younger – share.

And when you find it hard to keep your commitments, when you find your heart wandering, or the anger building, or the anxiety creeping – seek guidance from God’s Word. Spend time here. Bring your frustrations or your difficulties, bring your weak and weary heart to God and ask Him to speak to you from the Bible. He has promises in here, He has wisdom in here, He has answers in here – for you.

And then, on the basis of what you find in His Word, pray, pray, pray. Fight the spiritual fight behind the physical or emotional battle.

And after you have prayed, share your burdens with one another. We are here for each other, we’re the body of Christ and we all work together for the glory of our head, Jesus Christ. If you’re finding it difficult to keep your word, in marriage or anywhere else, share that with someone you can trust and ask them to help you, ask them to pray for and with you, share your struggles, frustrations and questions, get it out, and ask for reinforcements. There are people on your left and right who know what you’re going through. They’ve been there themselves. And they can encourage you, help you, and get you through this.

And finally, ask for the power and strength of the Holy Spirit.

You have to know this, you absolutely have to know this: God never tells you to do something and walks away to watch you fail. He wants to give you the wisdom and strength you need to do what He’s calling you to do. So ask Him for it. Tell Him, God I need Your power in my life to do this well. I need You to pour out Your Holy Spirit upon me. I need supernatural strength for this and I’m asking you to make yourself real through me today. Those of you who know your Bible well know that love, patience, endurance, faithfulness and self-control are all fruit of the Holy Spirit – they are produced when the Holy Spirit is active in our lives, so ask Him to be fruitful.

There’s one last thing we need to know about all of this talk of honoring your commitments and keeping your word: God doesn’t want to force you to be miserable when things get tough. He wants us to take our commitments seriously; He wants to create a culture of trust where people can believe each other. Life is easier when you don’t have to spend time wondering if so and so really meant it when they said such and such.

He’s also calling to fight against the power of darkness and corruption in this world, and in us. When God tells us to be people of our word, He is calling us to be lights in the darkness, trustworthy people who inspire the confidence of others. People who give other people hope.

He’s also calling us to provide companionship and dependability to others in their moment of need and not just when it’s easy or convenient. When we make, and keep, commitments, we are a blessing to others when they need it most. We’re the faithful companion who never leaves their side, we’re the rescue team that shows up when they feel they’re lost. And in that sense, we get to imitate God to one another.

After all, that’s why we’re here this morning. We’re here to worship a God who made a commitment to us, to save us from sin, give us new life, and never turn His back on us, and adopt us for eternity. And so, God sent His son, His only son, to rescue us, to redeem us, to give His life for ours. Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for a friend. God made a promise of salvation, kept the promise at great personal expense, and now, to those who have received His offer, He promises “never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

We’re going to celebrate communion now, and as the elements are passed out, I encourage you to take some time to search your heart and ask: how am I doing with keeping my word? Is there any forgiveness I need to seek? Is there any action I need to take? And, to praise the God who swore to His own hurt that He would save us, and did not change. He has shown Himself to be trustworthy and faithful to us, so now those who have received from Him are asked to reflect to others.

Let’s pray.

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