When you think about the perversion of biblical values in our society today, what first comes to mind? Some would point to the loss of modesty: the pandering of nudity and illicit sex have become something of a national pasttime. Others would say the loss of any sense for the sanctity of life is our most reprehensible characteristic as a nation. The stark reality of over 2 million abortions per year is a grim reminder of this fact. A case could be made for any number of other things, such as the complete absence of biblical humility, self-sacrifice, loyalty, etc. But our list would be incomplete if we did not mention the disregard, a disregard that borders on contempt, for truth.
Truth, or integrity in our speech, that sense of moral obligation to God according to which we represent things as they really are, both in word and deed, has gradually eroded in many segments of our society. This shouldn’t come as a total surprise insofar as the first sin in the garden of Eden was an attack upon the veracity or truthfulness of what God himself had said. Recall the statement: “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” Man’s test consisted in his trust of the veracity of the God who uttered those words. Satan spoke to Eve: “Ye shall not surely die.” Satan does not deny that God could inflict the punishment of death, as if to say that God’s power were at issue. Neither is it an impeachment of God’s knowledge, as if to suggest that Satan questioned God’s ability to anticipate the outcome of the whole affair. Rather, as John Murray makes clear:
“He directly assails God’s veracity. ‘God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). He accuses God of deliberate falsehood and deception. God has perpetrated a lie, he avers, because he is jealous of his own selfish and exclusive possession of the knowledge of good and evil!” (Principles of Conduct, 126).
This is one reason Satan is called “the father of lies” (John 8:44). There is no greater work of Satan in the life of the individual or the church than to stir up falsehood and deceit. “All untruth,” notes Murray, “has its affinity with that lie by which Eve was seduced” (127). Let us not forget that when God’s retributive justice against human wickedness reaches its pinnacle on the earth, he sends upon them “a working of error to the end that they may believe a lie” (2 Thess. 2:11; cf. Isa. 59:4,14,15; Jer. 7:28; 9:3; Hosea 4:1; John 8:44-45). Untruth or deceit is the hallmark of impiety. Recall the sin of Ananias and Sapphira that led to their immediate execution: “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart, to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3). When the book of Revelation describes those who shall have no part in the New Jerusalem, those who practice “lying” (21:27) are specifically mentioned. Indeed, “everyone who loves and practices lying” is on the “outside” (22:15). If untruth is the hallmark of impiety, truth is the sign of godliness. See esp. John 17:3; 14:6; 8:31-32; 16:13 (“the Spirit of truth”); 17:17; Eph. 4:25; Col. 3:9.
A. “You have heard it said” – 5:33
Verse 33 is probably a conflation of several statements taken from Exod. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; and Deut. 5:11; 6:3; 23:21. But what is the abuse, apparently sanctioned by religious tradition, against which Jesus directs his comments? This is addressed in vv. 34-37.
B. “But I say to you” – 5:34-37
What little evidence we have indicates that many believed that “when substitutes for the divine name were used in adjuration [i.e., the taking or asserting of an oath] then the person thus adjuring was exempt from the obligation and sanction attaching to adjuration by God’s name” (Murray, 168-69). But what exactly is an “oath”? In an oath a person calls upon a thing, a power or other person greater than himself, usually God, to bear witness to the truth of what he says and to punish him if he breaks his word or if what he says proves to be false.
We are now prepared to understand what Jesus meant. Here is Murray’s extended explanation:
“When he [Jesus] says, ‘Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet,’ he was striking directly at that profanity which enlisted substitutes for the name of God in order to secure the virtual emphasis of adjuration and yet at the same time sought escape from the obligations and sanctions that the use of the divine name itself would have involved. It is the evil of surreptitiously securing for oneself the advantages of adjuration while attempting to escape from its obligations and, in the event of falsehood, from the penalties attaching to perjury” (169).
Our Lord’s point is that we are not in the slightest degree free from the obligations and sanctions entailed by an oath simply because we swear by “heaven” or “earth” rather than explicitly by “God”. Using such words in place of the divine name is not an effective loophole should we fail to live up to the conditions embodied in the oath. Since everything to which one might appeal is contained in the universe which God has made and now rules, an appeal to anything at all is, in effect, an appeal to God.
One example of how sophisticated the loopholes had become is the fact that swearing by Jerusalem was not regarded as binding whereas swearing toward Jerusalem was!
The next question is this: Does Jesus here condemn all oath-taking? After all, does he not say, “make no oath at all” (v. 34)? My conclusion is that Jesus does not prohibit the taking of an oath, and that for several reasons:
· On numerous occasions in Scripture we read about the taking of an oath being not only sanctioned but actually commanded. See Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Phil. 1:8; 1 Thess. 2:5,10.
· Second, God himself is portrayed as taking an oath. See Gen. 22:16; Psalm 110:4; Heb. 6:17-18. “It is true,” notes Murray, “that God may do what we may not do. But in the context of Scripture injunction and example, what God has done in this particular suggests, at least, that this is one of those things in which God’s action is a pattern for us” (171).
· It would appear from Matthew 26:63-64 that Jesus himself consented to the taking of an oath.
I conclude, therefore, that when Jesus said, “make no oath at all” (5:34), he was referring to the kind of so-called oath-taking promoted by the Pharisees in which they intended to secure acceptance for what they said without putting themselves at risk should they prove to be liars. In other words, if your appeal to something other than God is for the express purpose of escaping the force and sanction of the vow, you must not swear “at all”. It is that sort of swearing, not all swearing, that Jesus condemns.
But we must now address yet another question. Assuming that Jesus is not prohibiting oath-taking in an absolute sense, do these verses (as well as James 5:12) imply that when we do take an oath we should appeal only to the name of God and not to any substitute, whether those noted in the text or any others to which one might appeal? In other words, some contend that we may continue to swear by “heaven” or “earth” or “Jerusalem” or by “all that is holy,” etc., as long as we do so with the realization that we are not exempt from its sanctions. They argue that the use of particular words is not ultimately relevant to oath-taking. The issue of importance is one’s intent or attitude. Murray argues for this view:
· He first points to the fact that on several occasions in Scripture “sacred oaths were taken in terms of expressions other than that of God’s name expressly” (172). He points to Gen. 42:15; 1 Sam. 1:26; 17:55; 2 Kings 2:2,4,6.
· He also appeals to Mt. 23:16-22. “In this case he does not condemn the practice of swearing by the temple, or by the altar, or by heaven. But he is emphasizing that which is the main thought of Matthew 5:34-36, namely, that if we swear by the temple we swear by it and ‘by him that dwelleth therein’, and if we swear by heaven we swear ‘by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon’. There is no suggestion that the use of such terms is improper so long as we realize the Godward reference and understand that the adjuratory use carries all the implications of the direct and express use of the name of God” (172).
My own opinion is that wisdom (if not Scripture) dictates that we not take oaths except when legal authorities demand it of us (as, for example, in a court of law). My reason is this: The taking of an oath is an implicit confession that one is not altogether honest. It is ironic that an oath is the attempt to undergird the truth of what we say, which is at the same time a confession that we don’t speak the truth, that our word alone is suspect. The taking of oaths is a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty! If someone comes to me and says, “Sam, with God as my witness I am telling you the truth,” my response is: “If you are telling the truth, why do you need God as your witness?” Appealing to God is his way of overcoming my suspicion concerning his honesty. Would not the better approach be to cultivate a life of integrity and consistency and truthfulness so that we sufficiently gain the trust of others to preclude the need for an oath?
Is it ever OK to lie?
God is truth, and we are to be like God. Truth-telling is therefore a crucial moral duty for those in the kingdom of God (see esp. John 8:44; Acts 5:1-11; Col. 3:9; Rev. 21:27).
The question is this: "Is it ever morally permissible to tell a lie?" Or are we obligated to tell the truth in every situation, no matter the consequences?
Remember: one's conduct/actions are vehicles for truth and falsehood, authenticity and deceit, no less than one's words.
So, is the Christian ever justified in communicating a falsehood? Perhaps a few examples will help focus our thoughts:
· Is it ethical to post a "Beware of the Dog" sign on your fence to deter a burglar, even when you don't own a dog?
· Is it ethical to leave the lights on in your house when you are away, again to deter a potential burglar from breaking and entering?
· Is it ethical for a woman to fake a heart attack or to pretend to faint when attacked by a rapist? Is it ethical for her to call out to her husband as if he were close by, when in fact he is not? Is it ethical for her to tell her assailant that she has a sexually-transmitted disease in order to discourage his assault?
· Were the Allies in WW II justified in deceiving Hitler concerning the location of the Normandy invasion?
· Is it ethical for a football team to send a man in motion to the left side of the formation in order to deceive the opposing team into believing that the play will be run in that direction, when in fact it will be run to the right?
· Is it ethical for the police to operate radar in unmarked cars? After all, by using unmarked cars they are deliberately deceiving us into thinking that they are civilians.
· Is it ethical for the police to conduct undercover, plain-clothes investigations which by definition demand that they deceive people concerning their identity and intent?
· Is it ethical to lie to someone about where you are taking them in order to keep the secret of a surprise birthday party that is planned in their honor?
· Is it ethical for those in the military to wear camouflage uniforms in order to mislead their enemies concerning their location?
· A woman is diagnosed with a rare kind of cancer. Recently, a pharmacist discovers a drug that might save her but is charging for it twenty times above a reasonable price. The sick woman's husband sells everything he owns and borrows as much as people will lend, but comes up short. The pharmacist refuses to extend him credit or to let him pay out amount over time. "I discovered the drug and I'm going to make from it all I can." In desperation and love for his wife, the husband is contemplating breaking into the drugstore and stealing the medicine. If he doesn't, his wife will die. Would he be wrong in doing so?
In order to make this question even more forceful, consider two biblical examples:
· Pharaoh's demand that the Hebrew midwives kill all new-born male babies. See Exod. 1:17-21.
· In Joshua 2:1-7, Rahab lied to protect the Israeli spies. See also Heb. 11:31; Js. 2:23. [And did you note that Joshua sent spies into the land, whose purpose is to deceive and undermine the enemy in order to gather information the enemy hopes to conceal. God had spies working for Him in the OT.]
It would appear that there are occasions when deception is ethically permissible. But note well: not all falsehoods are lies. A lie is an intentional falsehood which violates someone's right to know the truth. But there are cases in which people forfeit their right to know the truth. The question, therefore, is not whether it is ever morally permissible to lie. The question is, "What is a lie?" A lie is the intentional declaration or communication of a falsehood designed to deceive someone who has a moral and legal right to know the truth. A lie is the telling of an untruth to someone to whom you are morally and legally obligated to speak the truth. There are, however, certain occasions on which we are not under obligation to tell a person the truth (in times of war, criminal assault, etc.).
What about Lt. Col. Oliver North's admitted deception of Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings? North insisted that had he disclosed the truth he would have jeopardized the lives of the hostages. He felt his highest moral obligation was to the hostages and their families, and only secondarily to Congress. He asked himself: "Am I dealing with people who in this particular instance have a moral and legal right to know the truth?" Given several past incidents of congressional leaks that North believed put lives at stake then and would do the same now, his answer was "No." What do you think?