You Have Heard What The Ancients Were Told
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ ” Matthew 5:33 (NAS)
In the fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, the Spirit moves the apostle to note the six times Jesus uses the phrase “you have heard that the ancients were told”, or “you have heard that it was said” as He delivered the sermon on the mount. The topics involved were murder, adultery, divorce, vows, retaliation, and love of not only your neighbor, but your enemies.
Jesus, as He began the introduction of the New Covenant through His ministry and teaching, desired to upgrade the people’s understanding of the principles contained in the Law in preparation for a promise of the New Covenant, when God would write His law upon their hearts. (Jer. 31:33). Simply stated, He was moving from the externals to the internal. This week we zero in on the topic of vows.
Jesus’ statement “you have heard…” in reference to vows is found in Numbers 30:1-2. “Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, ‘This is the word which the LORD has commanded. If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.’ “
This principle is restated later in a similar manner in Deuteronomy 23:21-23 to the second generation of those who came out of Egypt in the exodus as they were being prepared to enter the promised land of Palestine.
The law concerning vows followed on the heals of an overview of the laws concerning the offering of sacrifices ( daily, weekly, monthly, and the feasts). This makes sense since vows many times were tied to the sacrificial offerings made in thanksgiving to the LORD.
A vow therefore, had to do with an action which was to be executed on the LORD’s behalf or, that which was dedicated to God, such as the Nazerite vow, which dedicated the whole person to the LORD in service for whatever portion of time had been promised. Conversely, an oath was something that restricted the offerer from a privilege or practice. Both were offered voluntarily. To vow and not pay was to break an ordinance of God, to sin against God.
It appears that in Jesus’ day, the Jews were noted for their many oaths (vows) affirmed by calling on many things such as heaven, earth, Jerusalem and even their own heads. Note that the commandment in the law said if they make “a vow to the LORD.” By not invoking the name of the LORD in their many oaths, they then considered them to be unbinding and therefore breakable. This is the practice Jesus was seeking to disabuse.
Fleshly man is always concerned first about the externals, how they look or are perceived among their contemporaries. Their words are always crafted to leave open “plausible deniability” if their actions don’t follow their rashly spoken words. Politicians survive upon this unholy practice, as did the religious leaders (politicians) of Jesus’ day. The result? No one really means what they say and the whole system is profaned, while everyone runs around, from politician to the everyday people, looking for an excuse to offer for the violation of their many vows, oaths or promises. Society as a whole is debased, and as the prophet Isaiah would note, “truth has stumbled in the street.” (Isa. 59:14)
Jesus took the practice many were abusing and sought to turn their thinking to the logical end of their actions. They were still vowing to something that the LORD had created, possessed or controlled. In their vow to these things, Jesus demonstrated their vow was still the same as making it to the Lord God. Heaven was His throne, earth His footstool, Jerusalem His city, and the hairs on their head, given by Him who made them. (Matt. 5:34-36) A vow, no matter how it is made and affirmed, is still a vow between man and God. He removed their excuses and revealed their true standing in the sight of God.
The Lord is concerned about the heart, that is what He looks upon. (1 Sam. 16:7) That’s why Jesus also reminded the people that “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” (Matt. 12:34) Your words reveal exactly where your heart is. The Lord went on to clarify the ramifications of “loose lips” theology. “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36-37)
God is concerned about internal character. An honest individual does not need to back his/her word by some type of oath or vow. Those that did it in Jesus’ day were actually operating from evil motives, seeking an opportunity to break their word. That’s why He said, “let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matt. 5:37) The apostle Paul, through the Spirit, reminded us of the principle in this way. “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” (Eph. 4:25) Not just to our neighbors in the church, but our neighbors in the world. God knows your heart, does your neighbor know you speak the truth? Amen.