Jesus wants to live his life in us and through us, and His life is not ordinary. It is very different from the lives people choose live for themselves. He is showing us what it looks when we let him have control of our lives.


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Matthew #18. Matthew 5:33-47

Oaths and Revenge

I have mentioned previously that many of the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day were often teaching from commentary on the Old Testament, rather than from the Old Testament itself. By doing this, they were able to claim that they were following the bible when they really weren’t. This is one reason why in the sermon on the mount Jesus used the formula: “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”

There is another way which the Jews of Jesus’ time used to avoid actually following the Bible. They would twist the actual words of text while ignoring the Spirit behind it. In many cases, the result was that they would greatly distort the intention of a particular command or passage of Scripture. Basically, they played word-games to get around the plain meaning of the Bible.

I think this is one reason Jesus brought up the subject of taking oaths. This is an area where the Pharisees were not only teaching bad doctrine, they were also teaching people how to get around what the bible clearly says.

Many places in the Old Testament, particularly in the Torah (the first five books), it says that when anyone swears an oath to the Lord, that person must be very careful to do exactly what they have sworn to do (Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21). Elsewhere it says that an oath sworn in the name of the Lord must be fulfilled, and if not, that is the same as taking His Name in vain (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12).

So what the Pharisees said was essentially this: “If you swear by heaven, you are not swearing by God’s name, so it is okay if you break your word. The same is true if you swear by the earth, or Jerusalem or your own head.” If someone swore “by heaven” many people would think this was implying God, and would therefore believe the person. If they swore by Jerusalem, they might think the temple was implied, again implying God. But the Pharisees were saying this kind of trickery is just fine. After all, the Bible says “You must not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God; I am Yahweh” (Deut 19:12). It does not say: “You must not swear falsely by heaven, or by Jerusalem,” (at least, it didn’t say that until Jesus came along). In other words, the Pharisees had found a way to obey the letter of the law and completely violate the intent of it.

So, according to the Pharisees, dishonesty among God’s people is okay, as long as you don’t do it in God’s name, or take His name in vain. This is clearly not the original intention of the command telling people to fulfill their oaths taken in connection with God’s name.

Sometimes we don’t recognize this, but this is a form of legalism. The idea behind it is, as long as you do the right thing externally, your heart and your intentions don’t matter. And if you parse your words just right, you can figure out ways so that your external behavior doesn’t even have to be that great. Many people deceive themselves with legalisms like these.

In modern times, former-president Bill Clinton is one of the most famous people who used a legalism like the Pharisees. When asked – under oath, in a court of law – if he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinski he said “there is nothing going on between us” The question was relevant background material for a sexual harassment case against him. When his lie was discovered later he said, basically, “Well, it depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” There is a case to be made that in a very technical, narrow way, perhaps Clinton was not precisely lying. However, it is clear that he deceived the court and in so doing, denied justice to a woman whom he had harassed. Even if he was technically correct, his heart was wrong.

The heart is the central issue for Jesus. His concern is this: what is in your heart? Are you looking for a way around God’s Word? Are you trying to justify yourself, or get out of trouble by playing word-games?

Let’s not play word games ourselves. One of the plain meanings of this text is that we should honor our promises and commitments, and speak truthfully. When I was young, my mother would never say “I promise.” It was because of this passage. She said, “If I say yes, then that means yes. You don’t need my promise on top of that.” And I learned I could rely on it when my mother said she would do something, or when she told me something was true.

That is one reasonable application of what Jesus says here. Ephesians 4:25, Colossians 3:9 and James 5;12 all affirm that Christians should be honest people, and that we should be people who stand by what we say.

Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. (Col 3:9-10, HCSB)

You are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth. Since you put away lying, Speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, because we are members of one another. (Eph 4:23-25, HCSB)

Another thing is the very common practice of saying “I swear to God,” or “For God’s sake.” For a lot of people, this is just a habit of speech, and it can be hard to break, because it is barely even conscious. But I think this text teaches that it would be better if we could break such habits. To say those things implies, first of all, that if you weren’t swearing to God, or appealing to “His sake,” you wouldn’t really mean what you say. Second, they kind of cheapen God, implying that “swearing to God” or appealing to something for His sake is not a big deal at all.

Now, Jesus says something that is slightly troubling, if we stop to think about it. He says, “Don’t take an oath at all.” There are two times in my life I have taken oaths: in my wedding ceremony, and in my ordination, to uphold the office of pastor. If you join the military or hold public office, you have probably taken vows to fulfill the duties and requirements of the position you have. Doctors and Lawyers may have similar oaths, as well. In addition, if you are called to testify in a court matter, you generally have to swear to your testimony.

Now thankfully, for most of us we can count the number of times we have taken an oath or a vow on one hand, but even so, what about what Jesus says?

I think we have already looked at Jesus’ main concern, which is the heart. And Jesus was speaking to people who regularly made vows when it was not required of them by law or profession. Personally, my conscience is clear about my wedding vows and ordination vows. But in my ordinary dealings, “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no.”

What is the purpose of an oath, other than to convince someone you really mean what you say? Isn’t it better to just always really mean what you say? Eventually, your reputation will be such that an oath would be entirely unnecessary, because others know that your word can be trusted.

I want us to briefly cover Jesus’ next statement also. He says:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matt 5:38-39, HCSB)

We need to clarify a few things about this passage in order to understand it properly. First, this is still in the section of the Sermon where Jesus is criticizing the way the Jewish people (particularly teachers of the Law and Pharisees) have interpreted and changed the teachings of the Old Testament. The scriptures do in fact say:

“But if there is any further injury you shall appoint as a penalty, life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:23-25).

The original context of these Old Testament verses is the civic law of ancient Israel. In other words, these penalties were given as legal sentences for breaking the law. In our society today, there are maximum sentences allowed to be given, according to the nature of the crime. A judge cannot sentence someone to life in prison without parole for disturbing the peace. In the same way, “an eye for an eye” etc. describes the maximum sentences allowed by Hebrew law during Old Testament times. Thus if you killed someone, you yourself could be executed (capital punishment). If you broke someone’s arm in a fight, you wouldn’t go to jail, instead, your arm would be broken by civil officials. The nation of Israel had no prisons until the time of the kings, therefore, specific punishments were given for specific crimes. In other words, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was intended directly and only for enforcement of the civil law.

But by Jesus’ day, Jewish Rabbis had twisted these verses out of context and used them instead to justify personal revenge and retaliation. In fact, the original intent of these laws was to hold revenge in check, placing punishment in the hands of law. But this got obscured through years of rabbinical interpretation.

What we need to understand from this, is that Jesus is not advocating anarchy. I don’t believe he is telling us to give criminals free reign in society. Instead, he is speaking against personal revenge and retaliation. In fact the New Testament speaks very highly of the concept of government and law, and we are bound, as citizens of any nation, to try and uphold any laws that do not cause us to disobey God. This means that this verse may create tension at times; for as Christians we should not only refrain from retaliating, but even offer more to the one who would hurt us or take from us. And yet at the same time, as citizens, we ought to uphold law and order. John Stott writes:

“For example if my house is burgled one night and I catch the thief, it may well be my duty to sit him down and give him something to eat and drink, while at the same time telephoning the police.”[1]

Jesus is not trying to stop the administration of justice with his comments; instead, he forbids us to take the law into our own hands.

So what does it mean, understanding this context, to “turn the other cheek?” Jesus very deliberately chose the phrase “slaps you on the cheek” (verse 39). The blow described is an insulting blow, not a dangerous, life-threatening blow. Jesus was slapped by the soldiers as they taunted him before his crucifixion (Mark 14:65). He was slapped by a servant of the high priest at his trial (John 18:22). This is a different Greek word, and a different kind of blow, from the beating/flogging he also received at that time. A slap is the sort of thing which might ordinarily start a fight. In other words, rather than be goaded into a fight for your honor, let the one who is inciting you to fight slap you on the other cheek. Another way to put it might be this: respond to provocation with peace-making.

I think however, that there is a definite distinction between brawling, and defending one’s life. It is one thing to be drawn into a verbal war, or a physical fight; defending yourself from harm is something quite different. Even someone slapping you on the cheek is not going to do you great damage unless you start fighting back.

A threat to life, or a threat of great bodily harm can be defended with clear conscience. Rape also falls into a category where self-defense is appropriate and good. In such circumstances we are not talking about retaliation, revenge or responding to insult, but rather, the defense of body and life. Jesus is also not talking about combat on the battlefield. What we do as soldiers of a nation is not the same as what we do as individual Christian persons. It would seem difficult to argue that fighting in a war as a soldier of your country is a matter of personal revenge or retaliation.

Second, I think Christians are excluded from verbal and legal brawling. I have a problem with a computer company that has both “slapped me in the face” and “taken my shirt” (figuratively of course). I don’t think it is appropriate for me as a Christian to sue them for what they owe me, or even to report them to the Attorney General. For me personally, the only thing that would motivate me to do such things would be revenge. I refuse to call them names or insult them in return for the insults given me (I can’t say I haven’t been tempted).

In this day and age, posts and comments on social media can start “verbal brawling” and campaigns of gossip and slander. So can spoken words. Jesus is telling us to stay out of such things, and to refuse to be drawn into quarrels and arguments, as well as brawls.

The example of Jesus is primary in all of this. Isaiah, prophesying about Jesus, said:

“He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7)

People misunderstood Jesus. They mocked him, made fun of him and insulted him. At the end they arrested him unjustly and beat him and spat on him. And he turned the other cheek. And he made the ultimate sacrifice of love for those who abused him.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ day had another saying “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” The first part, “love your neighbor” of course comes from the ten commandments, found in Exodus chapter 20. The second part was fabricated by Jewish rabbis. The “hate your enemy” part is not actually found with “love your neighbor” in the Old Testament. Instead, the rabbis made a case out of various commands to holy war and certain Psalms that highlighted the justice of God. But Jesus is quick to point out that this is an unbiblical, unworthy addition.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” isn’t a complicated statement: it is just hard to do. But Jesus points out that God loves his enemies, and yours; even when they do evil, even when they are evil.

Jesus concludes with some startling words:

And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:47-48, HCSB)

This is the summary for all of chapter five. Jesus wants to live his life in us and through us, and His life is not ordinary. It is very different from the lives people choose live for themselves. He is showing us what it looks when we let him be in control of our lives.

The standard is his perfection. The very great news is that he covers us in his perfection, so that we meet the standard, not by our efforts, but by trusting him. Instead of striving very hard to do all these things that Jesus has said, he invites simply to say “yes” to him. So, for example we might say, “Jesus, I can’t avoid anger on my own. But I give you my life, and give you permission to deal with it.” And then when he leads or reminds you, let him do what he wants to do with your life. We might say: “Jesus, I can’t love these people who have harmed me. But I know you want to love them through me. You have permission to do that. If you loving them through me means I have to talk with them, I will do that. You can change me and use me as you wish. Thank you for meeting the standard of perfection in my life.”

Let’s let Jesus come and form his own character in us and through us right now.

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[1] John R.W. Stott The Message of the Sermon on the Mount