Reading Time: 7 Minutes
Dallas Willard says that attempting to do what Jesus teaches in our own strength is like trying to turn an apple tree into a pear tree by tying pears onto the branches. Willard’s words are particularly appropriate for Jesus’ message that we are studying today.
Jesus said, “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5.33-37).
In Jesus’ day, people would never use God’s name in a way to make their own words seem more sincere and truthful. Instead, they used words such as “heaven” or the person’s “head” as a substitute word for God. Jesus pointed out the error of this behavior and said that “yes” or “no” is all that is necessary and proper.
We may not be too familiar with the background of Jesus’ words, but we certainly know the wrong use of language. Here are a few examples.
— You see the price of a new new truck with a sign on the window of $17,995. It looks like a good bargain, so you visit with a salesman. After the salesman finished explaining to you that you don’t qualify for the low price, he offers you the truck for the “great deal” of $25,500.
— A “wonder” product is advertised on TV for the bargain price of three monthly payments of $29, plus shipping and handling. The shipping and handling expenses are at least $29 or more.
— Your friend tells you that you can trust him or her because they are desperate for financial help. They tell you with great sincerity, “As God is my witness, I’ll get you paid back on time.”
— Ever since President Herbert Hoover promised voters “a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage during the campaign of 1928,” we have had politicians make promises that any thinking person knows is about as likely to take place as President Hoover’s claim.
I am sure you can think of other examples of this kind of speech, because it is what is normal and customary today. In fact, what is not normal is someone who simply speaks the truth without any additional elaboration, promises, claims, and more.
We use words to manipulate other people to get our selfish desires met. We “spin” the truth to get from others what we want. We make promises that we cannot keep and don’t intend to keep. We exaggerate the truth to make us look good.
The World Functions on Trust
The Psalmist asked, “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11.3). A lack of trust is a major crack in the foundation of society.
Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount about false prophets. They seem to be gentle lambs, but are actually wolves. We can’t trust their speech. We can only evaluate their deeds (Matthew 7.15-20).
The Old Testament false prophets aligned themselves with the popular opinions of the leaders or the people. They opposed authentic prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. They destroyed the foundation of trust and led the people into judgment.
Jeremiah said this about the damage done by the false prophets,
“But in the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen a more shocking thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that no one turns from wickedness;
all of them have become like Sodom to me,
and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.” (Jeremiah 23.14).
A husband who swears to his wife, “I swear to God, I didn’t do it,” when in fact he did, puts major cracks in the foundation of his marriage.
A salesman who quoted Bible verses every day to his employees, but who was jailed for tax fraud, caused major cracks to appear in the lives of his employees. (Note, this was an actual occurrence when I lived in Cape Girardeau.)
Many people at Maywood Baptist Church have broken the trust of family and friends by saying one thing and doing something else. Some foundations are tragically broken to the grief of many who have a new life in Christ.
Rebuilding foundations of trust may take a long time, but it is possible. However, it is only possible if our words match our actions. The “I swear to God” talk won’t gain anyone’s trust. Truthful words and genuine deeds will rebuild the foundation of trust.
How can we change both our speech and actions?
Jesus said, “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person bring good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure” (Matthew 12.33-35).
Going back to what Dallas Willard said, we can’t change an apple tree into a pear tree by hanging pears on its limbs. I don’t know of any instances where God has ever changed an apple tree into a pear tree. Praise God, I do know many instances where God changed an evil person into an honorable and gentle person.
Please note, getting “religion” may not change you. The history of religion is full of people who used religion to further their own self-interest. Some of the most tragic events in human history have been done by so-called religious people.
A genuine experience with Jesus will get you started on the pathway to words and actions working together. If you have years of practice in being deceptive, it may take some time for Jesus to completely clean that habit out of your life.
If you really want a new inside condition, consider what Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5.25-26).
Notice that Paul says the word of God will wash our inside condition of all of the negative ways we have served ourselves over the years. Coach Jake Taylor suggested that people read one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) all the way through in one sitting. If you take Jake up on that suggestion, you will notice a tremendous change in your inside condition.
There is an old story about an alcoholic who lived years before Alcoholics Anonymous. He came to a priest, desperate to get free from drunkenness. He was just one step away from total ruin. The priest gave him a Bible that only contained the Gospels. Then, he told him to read all the way through one of the Gospels every night when he got home from work. Not only did the man get sober, but he became a radiant follower of Jesus.
He was washed in the water of the word of God.
Dear Jesus, I know that I am guilty of wrongly using words to further my own advantage over people. I want a heart that is conformed to you and your will. Please show me how to wash my life in the water of your word.