The Pharisees and Truthfulness

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37)

As children, we played deceptive games that were designed to trick our friends and we said the untruth we told did not count because we had our fingers crossed, and that was supposed to be a rule that we all understood after a few times at being tricked. In essence, the Pharisees had some similar deceptive practices, but to God, these were invented in their deceptive minds and had no semblance of authority in the Law of Moses.

Who Are The Modern Pharisees?

Some teach that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because of their strict handling of the Law of God. That is far from the truth. The Pharisees were not strict with the Law of God, though they were strict with their own human traditions. People conclude wrongly that it is wrong to be strict with the Bible. The fact of the matter is that the Pharisees were too loose in their handling of the Law of God.  Thus, looseness with the Bible is modern Pharisaism. How strict were they about truthfulness? When sometimes you can swear an oath and it does not count and sometimes it does count, and when you have to know the rules of deceptive swearing versus truthful swearing, there is something here that is not found in the Law of Moses. I remind you again that Jesus is not contrasting His new law with the Law of Moses. He is contrasting true righteousness (found both in the Law of Moses and in Jesus) with the lesser standards of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees held a very loose standard of righteousness when it comes to truthfulness and oaths.

Swearing means "to support the truth of one's word, affirmation, or promise, by a solemn appeal to someone or something sacred or associated with the holy". It is "verifying one's words as being true by calling upon sacred persons or things as proof of honesty."

What the Law and Prophets Said

The Old Testament said:

  1. Keep your vows (Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21),
  2. Don't make a vow you can't or won't keep (Ecclesiastes 5:2-5).

Therefore, make as few as you can, but keep the vows you make.

Is this what the Pharisees did and taught? Not at all! Here is what the Pharisees did with vows and issues of truthfulness. They made a rule to "perform unto the LORD your oaths" (Matthew 5:33), but, give yourself a lot of wiggle-room on words you say to people.  Perform to the LORD your oaths, but act like there are oaths of various degrees of seriousness when you deal with humans. To them, you were to be sure that when you are going to lie to people you do not invoke the name of God. They made secret rules about binding oaths (Matthew 23:16-22), and when you look at the rules they made it sound like the childish game of crossing your fingers. They actually felt justified in this behavior!

Can we say that their teaching and practice destroyed the Law, or fulfilled Law? The Pharisees "destroyed" the Law by:

  1. Creating an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust,
  2. Excusing their lies by the "nature" of the oath.

Jesus "fulfilled" the Law. His behavior and teaching create an atmosphere of trust and eliminate all casual oaths. He said "swear not at all" in such casual and flippant ways. The words "at all" mean in the "common" ways of the scribes and Pharisees. "At all" means "commonly."  Don't swear "commonly."  All common swearing that would violate God's law (which did not forbid legal vows or religious vows to God) should become unnecessary by just being truthful in practice and principle. Swear not at all in all of the kinds of ways he was about to enumerate. Do not swear commonly, either by heaven, temple, gold, head, etc. All that becomes a farce for deceptive intentions is completely forbidden. All lying is forbidden. If "yes" does not mean "yes", then don't say "yes. Don't pretend that words don't count:

  1. Because you had your fingers crossed,
  2. Because you said, "If I'm lying, I'm dying",
  3. Because you said "the temple is my witness" instead of "God is my witness",
  4. Because you said "the altar is my witness" instead of "the gift on the altar is my witness."

These human rules are not reflected in the Law of Moses. They were the standards of the scribes and Pharisees and they destroyed the righteous standard of the Law of Moses.

Truthfulness fulfills the demands of righteousness, and righteousness is expressed in the Law. Honesty and integrity are principles of righteousness. The Pharisees were not very strict in regard to these principles. But, Jesus and His People are. This is because the righteous requirements of the Law are to be fulfilled in God's people (Romans 8:4; 13:8-10; II Timothy 3:16-17). The contrast in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is not between Jesus' new Law and Moses' old Law. It is a contrast of the respect Jesus had for the righteousness of the Law of Moses versus the lower, loose, and fallacious standard of the scribes and Pharisees. Those who would live in the kingdom of heaven would have to have a righteousness that "exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees."

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