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The Rev. David W. Hall (PhD, Whitefield Theological Seminary) is married to Ann, and they are parents of three grown children. He has served as the Senior Pastor of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) since 2003. After completion of his undergraduate studies, Pastor Hall studied at Swiss L’Abri and then enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1980. In addition to pastoring, David Hall is the author or editor of over 20 books and numerous essays.

Column: First Truths from the First Gospel by David Hall

Speech Perversion and Gospel Truth

December 11, 2014 •
Read Matthew 5:33-37
Notice also what is happening in this process in which the Scribes seek to negotiate the value of words with Jesus. They try to buttress their words with authority greater than their own character. The reason for this is because their character was contradictory or deceptive. They said one thing and then lived the other. They also thought that only a small portion of their speech was relevant to God—only those statements that invoked the name of God were true and binding. All other words could be dishonest, misleading or full of duplicity.
This is what the phrase “You have heard it said” refers to. Jesus confronts the scribal approach that devalued speech, turning language away from stewardship into gamesmanship. In his first gospel Jesus is interested in truth and constancy in speech.
Jesus lays down quite a different principle in this gospel sermon. What he says is quite clear. Jesus teaches us here that all our speech—every word—is spoken before God and lies under his scrutiny. Each word involves the reality of God in our lives. That is, by each spoken word those around us can know if God is really in our character. Our language betrays our heart. It is unavoidable. “For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Our language is the measure of our heart. 
In effect, Jesus is saying that, so far from having to make “God a partner in any transaction, no man can keep God out of any transaction. God is already there. Heaven is the throne of God; earth is actually his footstool; Jerusalem is the city of God; a person’s head doesn’t belong to him apart from God; we can’t turn our own hair different color. God is involved in all of this and Ruler over all of this. There is nothing in the world which does not belong to God.”1  That includes our language. “Jesus relates every oath to God for God in some way stands behind everything. Therefore no oath (nor word) is trivial. . . all are solemn pledges to speak the truth.”
The Scribes tried to compartmentalize life and reduce parts of speech to being religious. Then all deception could break loose in the rest of their speech. Jesus speaks against this compartmentalization. He says ‘No! You cannot say parts of your words are none of God’s business and do not have to be judged by him.’ Jesus says throughout here that what God desires is the whole life—even the use of our speech. Our speech, thus, is not outside of the umbrella of God’s reign nor unrelated to our Lord’s gospel.
Jesus commands not merely to avoid murder but also to avoid anger in all of life. Don’t just avoid adultery, he teaches, but also stop lust in its tracks. He teaches his disciples not just to avoid perjury, but that all language is a stewardship and is to be exercised to the glory of God, not for human convention or deception. The law has a positive thrust as well.
Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and others in which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the church and another kind of language in the office, home, or plant. God does not need to be invoked or invited into certain departments of life and kept out of others. He demands to be Lord over all of our language or not Lord at all. The first gospel informs us that if a person is really poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, the Salt and Light to the world, then that person’s speech will be different in this respect. That person’s character or life will back up their words and be enough to assure them.
We are to be known as people whose word is firmer than an oath. Our speech is to be different after we become Christians. For the true believer, it should be totally unnecessary to say, “I swear to God that I am telling the truth.” The true believer should not have to swear by Jerusalem or by heaven or earth or by the number of hairs on our heads. We should not need to buttress of speech with superlatives and oaths to assure the hearer that what we say is true. Those around us should be convinced that we are people who speak the truth without the aid of oaths. Our character and our language should be a uniform witness to the truth of God. We must not have the reputation of giving exaggerated or deceitful verbal accounts. We should be able to simply say Yes or No. An honest, humble person can do that.
The attitude that Jesus is condemning is one like these expressions below. Stop and analyze with me why we swear today. When a person says:
“I give you my word of honor.”
“I stake my reputation on it.”
“You can absolutely take this to the bank.”
“[with expletive], you better believe it.”
What is going on? What this person who’s swearing is saying is something like this. ‘This is exceptional language, not ordinary speech. What I’m really saying is that ordinarily. . . in the normal course of speech. . . I don’t always speak with the same binding quality. God is not always my witness and as a rule I merely float along on the stream of ordinary chatter. Normally you can’t take everything I say as being true. As a rule I’m not present in my word, but rather let my tongue run around freely like a tramp. However in this oath, I’m telling you that you must really believe what I say. I’m trying to increase the gravity of my words by this swearing. My oath is like bringing up the big guns or clout of language.’ In the midst of verbal hypocrisy, people normally summon oaths to serve as guarantors of their words truthfulness. When we use an oath or swear or exaggerate we attempt to “mark off an area of absolute truth and put walls around it to cut it off from the muddy floods of untruthfulness and irresponsibility that ordinarily overruns speech.”2
Examples could be multiplied, but the point is clear by now that “swearing is a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty. We do this to try to induce others to believe us because our simple word is likely not to be trusted.”3  Note: Jesus never did this, and he doesn’t want his disciples to be so dubious as to have to swear by some reputation other than their own.
The problem with swearing is that we try to evoke the authority of truth for our words when our life or character does not have this corresponding authenticity. Jesus tells his disciples in this sermon that first their character must be re-made so that they’ll be truthful to God. Then our speech, being a part of that character, must reflect truthfulness, sincerity and genuineness. Our words must be dependable because our character is!
A Christian should seldom need an oath to buttress or guarantee the truth of anything he may say. That person’s character should make an oath completely unnecessary. His guarantee and witness should be found in his/her new life in Christ. That is Jesus’ gospel of language. There is to be no zone in our life or speech that is not controlled by Christ’s Lordship.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 157. 
Helmut Thielecke, Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1963), 54.
John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Wheaton, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 86.

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