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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

The Gospel and Our Speech

November 25, 2014 •
Read Matthew 5:33-37
At this stage in our study of the Sermon on the Mount, we are analyzing six illustrations of Jesus’ main principle asserted in Matthew 5:17-20. Remember his principle and posture toward the law: “I have not come to overturn the Law of God, but to fulfill it.” However, he had come to correct and overturn the rabbinic baggage that has been added to the law. So far we’ve looked at three examples:
First, a reference to the 6th Commandment concerning the sanctity of humans created in image of God where Jesus said and stressed positive aspects. Not only are we not to murder violently, but we are also not to hate or insult.
The second and third examples were both derived from the 7th Commandment concerning the sanctity of sexuality where Jesus said and stressed positive aspect. Lust and divorce were instances that violated the inner recesses of the 7th commandment; not only lurid sexual affairs.
Now we move on to consider a fourth example that concerns the gospel of our language. “Again (v. 33) you’ve heard it said” demonstrates that this is another item in the series that generally follows the second table of the Ten Commandments. This teaching could also be thought of as gospel “stewardship” of language for two reasons.
Positively to demonstrate how Christ says we are responsible to take care and precaution about our words. I wonder if conversation care might not be a larger contribution to human flourishing than creation care. Jesus teaches that every word is a pledge or oath. Words and speech are valuable commodities. We often take them for granted, but they are powerful and have great potential.
Negatively, this emphasis would teach that stewardship is much more than “a money season” concern. It is not just finances but the whole of life that falls under the rubric of stewardship. Verbal communication is a precious gift of God. He even calls Jesus “the Word.” God believes the verbal is also ethical. Part of walking in the Spirit is to manage the good gifts God gives us. This commandment (and its ethical center) is the best guide and part of the gospel.
Throughout all of this it should become clear that the Beatitude-Christian or person described in the Beatitudes will not use speech to participate in any way that is not God-honoring. Rather Christians realize that each word we say is backed up by their character. Thus our speech should reflect truthfulness.
This text speaks of the sacredness of our word. It says that every “yes” and every “no” we utter is spoken absolutely and before God. We are elsewhere told that every word of ours is deemed so important that the Last Judgment will concern itself with them and will surprise us with a precise enumeration of every careless word we have uttered. Later in Matthew 12:34-36, Jesus will teach: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.”
Just think of all the driveling words, exaggerated tales, oaths never kept, and prolific profanity that we utter. Think of the words that fly from mouth to mouth in rumors. I know one Pastor who recently had to resign because some people started gossiping and complaining about his shortcomings -- mainly that the hymns were too slow! His ministry was virtually destroyed through sinful, malicious speech. Think of the insincere professions, religious mumbo-jumbo and thoughtless promises we speak. Remember some vows that have been broken? Can you think of times when you’ve agreed to something or promised someone something and let them down? Are you known as a person as good as your word?
Jesus said believers are to be people whose word is acceptable because their character is dependable. Our character of truthfulness, rather than an oath should be the assurance of our words. Truthfulness is important; “strictly speaking all [oaths] are superfluous. That being so, the real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word.”  
But notice how the Scribes had conveniently narrowed down the scope of the Law. They deviously conformed the Old Testament to their own practice. The Scribes had reduced the Law’s demands about speech to one prohibition. They said the Law only forbids perjury. “You have heard it said” does to this particular law just as the previous three examples did. It refers to the summary of the scribal teaching on this subject. The Scribes drew from the following Old Testament precepts:
“You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God” (Lev. 19:12)
“When a man vows a vow to the Lord . . . he shall not break his word” (Numbers 30:2)
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it” (Dt. 23:21).
All of these verses are good and are designed to encourage truthfulness or to make truthfulness the more solemn and sure. That was the original intent to which Jesus wishes to return. However, all the Scribes forbade was blatant perjury using the name of God. They reasoned that if God’s name was used, he was to be viewed as a partner in the sworn contract. But if God’s name was not used, the speaker was free to be as false in speech as the day is long. Do you see how they shrunk the law to fit their own unrighteousness? That is part of why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” They were not keeping the law—they were reducing it, then in turn beating others over the head with it.
In fact, the “Jews divided oaths into two classes—those which were absolutely binding and those which were not. Any oath which contained the name of God was absolutely binding; any oath which succeeded in evading the name of God was held not to be binding.”  
So if one used God’s name, the oath was absolutely binding. If not, he felt free to break the oath. Verbal evasion (not language stewardship) became a fine art. One Rabbi said that if you swear by Jerusalem you are not bound by your vow; but if you swear toward Jerusalem then you are bound by your vow. Such dishonesty of speech reduced the value of serious oaths and shrunk the value of truthful words. This is how the Law had been perverted by Jesus’ time. And Jesus taught that this is the opposite of gospel truth. Moreover, our speech is a gospel concern.
[1] John Stott, Christian Counter-Culture (Wheaton, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1978), 73.
[2] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 157.


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