A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 29, 2018.
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “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 5:31–37).
Speech is a human attribute, a communicable attribute, an attribute we share with God. Talk is cheap, it is said, but in reality it’s quite powerful. In an age where speech has been cheapened by a rejection of authoritative truth, we can easily forget the power of the spoken word.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). How did He do this? “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). “And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters…’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:6-7). “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place…’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:9). “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation…’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:11). “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night….’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:14-15). “And God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures…’” (Gen. 1:20)….and ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures…’ And it was so” (Gen. 1:24). “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Gen. 1:26). “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). “And it was so” (Gen. 1:30).
In six days, God spoke creation into existence, concluding with man made in His image. The creative Word was spoken, and it was so, always accomplishing His divine purpose. God declared through Isaiah, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10-11). God’s Word is a powerful thing.
In the beautifully, created Garden, Lucifer lurked in the form of a serpent. As a fallen angel of light, he coveted the glory reserved for God alone, and therefore challenged the integrity and sincerity of truth by questioning what God had spoken, seemingly usurping the Word of God with a fallen question. Of the woman made in God’s image he asked, “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1). In that first temptation, Satan challenged God’s Word, lied about God’s Word, and distorted God’s Word. So, man and woman, made in the image of God, fell in sin, a fall that resulted from a lie about what God said.
We remain made in the image of God, yet fallen in our sinful condition. Like God, we have the power of speech, but unlike God we do not always speak truth. God’s moral law fits our temptation: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex. 20:16). Having the power to speak, yet prone to falsehood, why don’t we say what we mean and mean what we say?
Say the Truth
Consider marriage. Marriage is, as God designed, a covenant made between one man and one woman before God, a covenant made by the spoken words of a man and a woman. The covenant implies its solemnity as well as lifelong commitment between a man and a woman as they live before God. What was spoken in ceremony at the beginning has lifelong consequences.
In the beautiful English of The Book of Common Prayer, a wedding ceremony is introduced, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony.” Before God, the Congregation and the woman, the man vows to love his wife, comfort her, honor her, and keep her, in sickness and in health, forsaking all other…so long as they both shall live. Likewise, before God, the Congregation and the man, the woman vows to obey him, serve him, love, honor, and keep him, in sickness and in health, forsaking all other…so long as they both shall live. Likewise, the man and woman commit to one another, as wedded husband and wife, “till death us do part.” Such is the beauty of a wedding ceremony, words spoken by two made in the image of God…
How long does it take two sinners to forget such solemn vows? Loving her sounded good, until she became less lovable. Comforting her and honoring her became uncomfortable and demeaning. Keeping her was easy until it wasn’t, and then she became a burden. Forsaking all others was just a memory when he met someone else who loved him, honored him, and could meet all his desires. Obeying him sounded good, until she realized she knew far better. Serving him was demeaning, and the more she learned the less she loved. She would start honoring him when he started honoring her first. She was sick of him and longed for another, someone who would just love her the way she wanted to be loved. Marriage vows are quaint, and talk is cheap, so we’re told. Why not divorce her? Why not leave him?
Such an opportunity had been devised in Jesus’ day, at least for the husband. Drawing from Deuteronomy 24, a man could divorce his wife if he “found some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1). While the “indecency” is not defined, by Jesus’ day the scribes and Pharisees had contrived a myriad of definitions from the extreme to the trivial. Name the catalogued indecency and hand her a divorce certificate. That was it.
Contextually, however, the passage in Deuteronomy has less to do with an indecency and more to do with casual divorce. The scenario describes a woman who moves from one man to the next, implying that the indecency is sexual immorality. Jesus’ exposition clarifies this: “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Permission to divorce was given in the law only if the indecency found after marriage was sexual immorality. Anything else violates the covenant made. Any other contrived “indecency” sends the man’s wife into the arms of another, committing adultery.
To be clear, this passage is not Jesus’ comprehensive teaching on marriage and divorce. (We will return to this topic in much greater detail later in Matthew). The thrust of this verse is that manipulating legal language does not validate breaking a covenant made before God and man. Irreconcilable differences do not negate the truth spoken in marriage.
Or, consider an oath. Just as God spoke creation into existence, He also swore never to destroy life by flooding after the great flood, sealing His oath with a covenant (Gen. 9:9-11). Similarly, Deuteronomy commands, “You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear” (Deut. 10:20). The purpose of an oath is to encourage speaking the truth. Just as a marriage ceremony solemnizes the vows made, so also an oath solemnizes the truth spoken. Rightly does the Westminster Confession caution, “Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth” (WCF 22.3). An oath taken is a serious matter before God and man.
But in Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees had manipulated God’s Word and created loopholes for falsehood. By swearing upon objects rather than the name of God, an oath could be broken. But Jesus says, “Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven…or by earth…or by Jerusalem…or by your head.” In the Jewish Mishnah a multitude of options are given full of unique nuance, such as swearing by Jerusalem as opposed to swearing toward Jerusalem, and so on. Cutting through this system of legalism, which could easily be manipulated for deceit, Jesus denies oaths taken by heaven or earth, by Jerusalem or your very own head. Why? Because if you say it, mean the truth!
Mean the Truth
The point of an oath is the truth: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” It’s not merely that we speak words of truth, but that we mean the truth. The Proverbs caution, “An evildoer listens to wicked lips, and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue” (Prov. 17:4). There is a direct connection to evil spoken and evil done, and a liar is the first to fall prey to a lie. Therefore, we are to be a people who not only speak the truth but mean the truth. There is to be substance to our words. Paul encouraged the Ephesian church, “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor (Eph. 4:25). This is the case with our neighbor and our spouse.
Marriage vows spoken are a lifetime commitment of truth. Contrary to cultural interpretation, love is not a fickle feeling but a commitment. What was said in the wedding ceremony is meant for a lifetime. Whether a wedding vow made or an oath taken, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Say the truth. Mean the truth. Live the truth.
Live the Truth
For the Christian, the integrity and sincerity of our words are of the gravest importance. Why? Because, as Paul described it, “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). As such, we are “jars of clay” holding in fact a treasure (2 Cor. 4:7), a gospel treasure to share with friend and family, city and nation. But, how can we share the truth of the gospel if our words cannot be trusted or if we live a lie. Many compromise their witness because of a lack of integrity of word and deed. Let us live the truth that we may also share the truth of the gospel. Yes is yes, no is no. Truth is truth. These are hard words to believe in a relativistic culture unless we live them.
One way that we share this truth is in our marriages. If you are married, did you know that your marriage is a living testimony of the gospel? Paul explains it this way: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:22–32). Consider the magnitude of this: a marriage is a picture of Christ and His beloved church! Words spoken in covenant are lived out by husband and wife to the glory of Christ! Marriage vows mean something, something so mysteriously profound that a certificate of divorce is unimaginable. Let us not only say the truth, and mean the truth, but live the truth.
Now you may confess, “I have said things but not meant them. I have meant things but did not live them. I have not kept my word.” While we have not, God has. God spoke creation into existence, and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-4). In the fullness of time, the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14), saying, meaning, and living the truth.
God the Father said, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). God the Son said, said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). God meant what He said. He lived, died, resurrected, ascended, and will return, according to His Holy Word.
Living as the truth, He died for truth, that we might truly know God. And He truly arose from the dead that we might live for Him and with Him forever. We rejoice in this truth, because we know the Truth, (John 8:32), speaking, meaning, and living the truth in Christ.