One of these things is not like the other. This was the premise of those mind-numbingly frustrating questions on standardized tests. You’d get a list of four items, and based on your extensive juvenile vocabulary, you had to distinguish which of the items on the list did not belong. Something like:
A. Spiny Lumpsucker
B. Tasseled Wobbegong
C. Sneezewort Yarrow
D. Strange-Tailed Tyrant
I often played this same game with Jesus instructions in his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, we find Jesus’ amplification of the law of Moses. The “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you” pattern of these statements reveals that Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17–20).
He ratcheted up the behavioral requirements of the law and rooted obedience in the heart. Thankfully he did not merely hold out a standard of behavior, but he lived that standard perfectly, fulfilling the law of God in a way that no descendent of Adam ever could. His gift of a right standing before God empowers his people to live a life of worshipful obedience in every area of life, including those whom he mentions in this great sermon.
Consider the first four topics on his list:
Even my middle school mind would have recognized that one of these is not like the other. The trifecta of murder, adultery, and divorce are likely going to be on anyone’s top ten sins list. Oaths seem out of place here, as if a minor footnote in Jesus’ sermon manuscript somehow made its way into the text itself.
But, Jesus doesn’t make mistakes like this. Clearly, he thought that answer D was just as big of a deal as A, B, and C. Here’s what he 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 ESV).
The parallelism between each of Jesus’ statements is clear. First, he points out the Old Testament law and its corresponding application. In the context of oaths, Jesus reminds his audience of passages like Leviticus 19:12 that warn against evoking God’s name when making a promise and the risk of thoughtlessly breaking the same promise.
Then, Jesus takes the law further—to the real heart of the matter. Before, he said that murder stemmed from anger (Matt 5:22), adultery from lust (Matt 5:28), and divorce from selfishness (Matt 5:32). He continues this pattern with his fourth topic, claiming that people should not take oaths at all.
Apparently, it was common practice to attempt to support your promises by calling on the gods as a witness. The assumption was that the gods would surely not break their promises, so the person who made the oath could be trusted to fulfill their promise.
God says, “Don’t do that with my name. Don’t tie my name up in your little promises.” Instead, Jesus argues that his people should simply let their “yes” be “yes” and their “no” be “no”. In other words, God wants his people to keep their promises—to do what they say they will do. So, here’s the pattern:
Sinful Action ===> Heart-Level Sin
Murder ======> Anger
Adultery ======> Lust
Divorce ======> Selfishness
Oaths ======> Lying
Lying may seem like a strong word, but what else do we call it when we make a promise and don’t follow through? Our inability to keep our word manifests itself in a constant scramble to rationalize our sin or make it seem as if we will do what we say the next time around. Sure, we may not say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I will do such-and-such,” but we do invent all sorts of ways to prop up our feeble promises.
This sin is consistently seen in a world that beckons us to over-promise and under-deliver. We live busy lives, with people constantly clamoring for our attention. Our inboxes, voicemail, and calendars demonstrate that we’ve made a lot of promises and have people waiting in the wings to ask us to make many more.
Our sickness of pride and the resulting people-pleasing condition causes us to say “yes” far too often; after all, it feels good to be needed. And, before we know it, we’ve made all sorts of promises, some big and some small, to people who are counting on us to keep our word.
Keeping our promises requires a selfless heart and sacrificial actions. Saying “yes” requires neither. We say that we will prepare that document for an upcoming meeting, then we throw something together at the last minute because. . . well. . . we just ran out of time.
A father promises that he will take his 4-year-old daughter out on a daddy-daughter date, and then, before he knows it, another week is in the rearview mirror, with far too many episodes of Dinosaur Train to fill the gap of his negligence. Far too often, our “yes” actually means “maybe” or “no.”
God’s people love, fight for holiness, honor their marriage commitments, and keep their word. Each action reflects the nature and character of God. We love even our enemies because God loved rebels like us (Rom 5:8–10). We seek purity because God purchased us with his precious blood (1 Cor 6:19–20). We cherish our spouses, portraying the way God loves his church (Eph 5:22–33). And we keep our promises because God always keep his promises to us (Deut 7:9; 2 Cor 1:20). When we say “yes” and keep our promises – even in small areas like doing the dishes, responding to an email, or executing an assignment – we model the heart of God.
Incidentally, each of these actions is meant to set God’s people apart from the world. In a world flooded with anger, lust, divorce, and broken promises, God’s people are to be the one thing that is not like the other.
In case you are wondering, here’s an answer key to the opening question:
Correct Answer: C, which is a plant, while all of the others are animals