Jesus’ statement in His Sermon on the Mount to let your yes be yes and your no be no (Matthew 5:33-37) is picked up by two other New Testament authors. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes: "But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no" (2 Cor. 1:18). And in his short epistle, James writes: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment" (James 5:12). With the brief background supplied by previous articles (here and here), we can now begin to get a better sense of what Jesus, Paul, and James are saying about "yes and no."
Last week, Joel discussed the real meaning of the Third Commandment. It was the fear of breaking this commandment that led to the Jewish tradition of not speaking God’s name—fear of blaspheming His Name. Modern Christianity has somewhat adopted this superstition by turning the Third Commandment into a prohibition against using God’s name as a swear word. While this is certainly part of it, we must realize that the Third Commandment is not only referring to words that proceed out of our mouth. We can also "take God’s name in vain" without ever speaking a single word; in fact, this is probably more often the case. When we "take" God’s name, we are taking an oath of allegiance to love Him with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. When we violate this oath of allegiance, we are "taking God’s name in vain."
Knowing that His audience had turned the law of God into a list of dos and don’ts, Jesus cuts to the real issue in the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout His monologue, Jesus contrasts the tradition of the first-century legalists (using the phrase "You’ve heard it said…") with the actual intention of the law (using the phrase "But I say to you…"). When He gets to the part about "not making false vows" (Mt. 5:33-37), He directly attacks their tradition of using heaven, earth, or Jerusalem as the authoritative object of their faithfulness to do what they agreed to do. In other words, the Jews had gotten in the habit—out of their fear of misusing God’s name and violating the Third Commandment—of making vows in the name of heaven, earth, Jerusalem, etc. Similar to modern children saying "I swear I will not tell this secret on my mother’s grave," the Jews had developed a tradition that appeared to not violate the Third Commandment, yet still gave their vow some credibility. But Jesus exposes their tradition for the folly that it was by making the point that heaven, earth, and Jerusalem all belong to God anyway.
The primary point of Jesus’ teaching is actually two-fold. He first draws attention to the fact that by swearing on these other objects, his hearers were essentially admitting that their own words were worthless. If the tradition of swearing on these objects was prevalent enough to be included in His sermon, it must mean that a general sense of suspicion was present among that society. In an attempt to have some semblance of honesty in a dishonest culture, they began swearing on the "higher" things that they held in common.
The second aspect of Jesus’ teaching however is the more important one. After condemning their "heaven, earth, and Jerusalem" oaths in verses 34 and 35, He moves into the personal space of each of his listeners (and us as readers). "Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil" (vv. 36-37). The issue of authority looms large here. Jesus isn’t about to leave the door open for his hearers to come up with a different object to swear upon. Bringing it to the individual level, Jesus makes the point that we do not even own ourselves, which means that we don’t even possess the authority to swear on our own lives. God not only owns heaven, earth, and Jerusalem; He owns us too. It is for this reason that the only option we have is to let our "yes be yes," and our "no be no;" we have no authority to say anything otherwise. James makes this point clear when he writes:
Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. (James 4:11-17)
Notice that James connects boasting with evil, just as Jesus connected anything beyond yes and no as being evil in His sermon. At first glance, it may seem that Paul—in the 2 Corinthians passage—is violating this principle by tying what he said to the faithfulness of God, but he is actually affirming it. When the passage is read in its context, it is clear that Paul is speaking about the words that God gave him to write and speak. What Paul is really saying is that he is delivering the message that God gave to him, not words and meanings of his own creation. In other words, Paul is saying God’s words are faithful because God Himself is faithful. In reality, Paul is making a clear distinction from his own words and the Words of God.
And in this confidence I intended to come to you before, that you might have a second benefit—to pass by way of you to Macedonia, to come again from Macedonia to you, and be helped by you on my way to Judea. Therefore, when I was planning this, did I do it lightly? Or the things I plan, do I plan according to the flesh, that with me there should be Yes, Yes, and No, No? But as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No. For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us—by me, Silvanus, and Timothy—was not Yes and No, but in Him was Yes. (2 Cor. 1:15-19)
Christians should be known as people of their word, just as God is of His. We should never have to resort to dragging God into our promises to other men. We have no authority to do this in the first place; and in the second, if we feel compelled to do this, it is a judgment against us that we are not faithful and true. May God be pleased to make us faithful to His Word, which will, in turn, make us faithful to our own.
Article posted June 11, 2009