James 5:12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
I really appreciated John’s sermon last Sunday. It was mildly surprising to find such parallels between what Israel had given themselves over to a few thousand years ago and what many in our society (inside and outside the Church) have today. The line in the text that most haunted me was v.15, “Truth is lacking and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.” The two specific ideas from John’s sermon that most stood out were, first, the fact that unrepentant and unchecked sin corrupts the whole person (Isaiah mentions hands, fingers, lips, tongue, feet, and mind). And second, while Isaiah wasn’t a participant in the sins of Judah, he was a participant in the consequences of their sin. Unrepentant and unchecked sin not only corrupts the whole of the person who sins, but also the whole of the society in which he/she lives. Sobering. My main practical application is to more consistently share the larger story of God’s plan for the people I meet. Thanks, John.
And now, welcome back to the epistle of James. Hopefully you remember that in this letter, James’s consistent charge to his readers was to listen carefully to God’s Word and then do it; to be doers of the Word and not hearers only (1:22). Much of what James wrote was meant to address the various ways his readers were failing to do so.
Regretfully, we too live in a culture for which both parts (hearing and doing) are becoming increasingly alien. It has long been a problem for people to listen to God’s commands without any real intention to put them into practice. And that’s bad, of course. But worse still is the fact that today a rapidly growing number of people are refusing to even listen to God’s Word. That is, more and more people are denying even the existence of any kind of binding revelation from God. Directly and indirectly James addressed both problems and we would be wise to heed his divinely inspired charge.
Critically, therefore, putting this larger principle of James into practice requires first an acknowledgement of God’s Word as God’s word along with a growing love for it; a growing appetite for it and trust that it is the way, the truth, and the life. Grace, we must continually cultivate that through prayerful time in the Word.
And with that, obeying James also requires specific content. Even with an acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God and a growing love for and trust in it, we still need to know what, exactly, we are to hear and obey. James has given us a number of answers, but one of the main ones that he keeps coming back to concerns our manner of speech. James repeatedly explained how powerful our words are, how much they are tied to Christian maturity, and how critical they are to Christian fellowship and faithful ministry. Our passage for this morning provides yet another example.
What, then, is the essence of this new speech-command that James calls us to hear and do? I think the simplest way to communicate the main point in v.12 is this: Keep your word always because that is what God does and because there is condemnation for those who don’t. My main hope and prayer, therefore, is that all of us would grow in our love for God, His Word, and His perfect word-keeping, and that our words would increasingly reflect all three. Let’s pray that it would be so.
THE ORIGIN OF JAMES’S COMMAND
Before we get to the specific content of James 5:12, it’s important to note that it is almost an exact quote from Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:33-37.
33 Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
James clearly had Jesus’ words in mind when he wrote this verse. Undoubtedly, v.12 came from James having heard his brother say the words we have in Matthew’s Gospel.
What’s more, Jesus Himself certainly had yet another passage in mind when He said what He said in Matthew 5. That is, James was quoting Jesus who was quoting His Father from Leviticus 19:12, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.”
The main point for us to see, and an important part of the reason for the initial clause in the verse (“above all”), is that in writing what he did, James wasn’t writing anything original. Far from a new command, James was tapping into one of the oldest commands God has given His people—to be promise-keepers, especially when invoking God’s name. Rightly understood, this ought to help us better appreciate the importance of, and lean a bit further into, the passage.
And now, to the text itself. Look with me at James 5:12. As I just mentioned, the first three words of v.12 ought to cause us to sit up and lean in. James has said quite a few things to this point (I counted over 30 specific commands), but here he said, “But above all”.
Now to be fair, James didn’t mean that what followed truly was the most important command of all. Indeed, he’d already referred to the “royal law” in 2:8 (the law of love). It did mean, however, that among all the things James had written, this was genuinely important; certainly at the top of the pile.
In typical James fashion, James didn’t feel the need to explain why he would attach such a significant label to this command, but it is good for us to understand in simplest terms why he did. The most basic explanation is found in two simple sentences spoken by Jesus and recorded a little later in Matthew (12:34-35), “…out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.”
One of the main reasons (we’ll see another later) James put such a high value (“but above all”) on the speech habits of his readers, and the one he was about to give in particular, was that the words of his readers revealed the heart of his readers. The way his readers spoke to and about one another told more about the condition of their hearts than anything they might have said about their hearts. And making false promises in God’s name indicates a heart that is desperately sick.
Again, this too ought to help us appreciate the importance of what follows. And what follows is a two-part charge, accompanied by a two-part reason. The first part of his charge is a negative version of the charge (“do not…”) and the second part is a positive version (“but let…”). Let’s turn our attention now, then, to the negative version of this ancient and essential command.
KEEP YOUR WORD ALWAYS
As I stated in the introduction, James’s main point is that God’s people must always keep our word.
Negatively, James commanded his readers: “…do not swear…”.
To swear in this sense does not mean using cuss words or vulgar language. It means making a promise or an oath. Oath-making was a significant part of the custom of the ancient world. At times it was even commanded by God (Exodus 22:10-11; Numbers 5:19-22). In other words, James’s command was not a prohibition against making any kind of oath. But it was a prohibition against making a certain kind of oath—the kind that was disingenuous and not intended to be kept. In short, it was a prohibition against making false or misleading oaths.
There are two levels to this that are worth noting. The first is that God’s people were explicitly and repeatedly prohibited from breaking any promise, but especially those made in God’s name (Leviticus 19). To swear by the name of God was to invoke the most severe scrutiny.
I’ve shared this before, but I think it’s worth repeating here as a concrete example. When I was a kid I lied a good deal. I said what I felt like I needed to say to get what I wanted. If I could do so without lying, that was preferable, but definitely not required. I had one weakness, however, and my less scrupulous friend eventually found it and exploited it. Because I lied so often (as did my friend), we learned to be skeptical of one another. Consequently, to simply say something like, “I’ll pay you back,” was dubious at best. Our word was not sufficient collateral for either of us. However, one time I must have really wanted my buddy to trust me because I added the clause, “I swear to God I’ll pay you back (or something similar).” I wasn’t a Christian, but there was enough common grace fear of God in me that I was not able to break that oath. Of course, my friend picked up on this and going forward refused to believe anything I said unless I added the words “I swear to God”. My days of gaining by lying to him came to an abrupt end.
As silly as it is, this is almost exactly what James, Jesus, and the Father all had in mind. Like me, the Jews were unscrupulous enough to lie regularly, but they also feared God too much to do this when swearing by His name.
And that leads to the second level, and one James gets at most directly. As you can see, James didn’t merely command his readers not to swear, but not to swear”…either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath.”
Again, there was enough fear of God in James’s readers not to break an oath made in His name. However, like many other Jews, they’d given themselves to the practice of swearing by something significant, but (in their minds) not as significant as by the name of God. Instead of the name of God, they’d swear by heaven, the earth, one’s head, or some other oath. It’s kind of like saying, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” Doing this was one step short of swearing by the name of the Lord, but one step greater than merely swearing by their own word.
This was a problem for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that they were doing so to lie with a clearer conscience and less consequences. But as we’ve already seen, this did nothing to lessen the seriousness of their lies in God’s eyes.
When making a false oath, they’d swear by heaven, but Jesus reminded them that to swear by heaven is to swear by the very throne of God. Likewise, to swear by earth, is to swear by God’s footstool. To swear by Jerusalem, the city of the temple of God, is to swear by God’s special city. To swear even by their own head, was to swear by that which belongs to God. And to swear on their mother’s grave was to swear by something entirely in God’s hands.
James commanded his readers to stop doing that. He told them to stop swearing by anything at all as a means of swearing falsely because lying is wrong and lying by anything belonging to God is the same as lying in God’s name.
It’s helpful to know what God doesn’t want us to do. It’s often even more helpful to know what He does want from us. For that reason, James stated his charge negatively as we just saw, and positively, as we’re about to see.
“…do not swear…but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no…”.
“The first ‘Yes,'” Thomas Manton writes, “refers to the promise, the second to the action” (James, 326). That is, James’s command was to let your saying “Yes” result in your doing yes. There should never be a disconnect between the two.
What James was driving at here is that when an oath is taken, it should always be to show the goodness and seriousness of the situation, not to make the agreement more certain.
For instance, when we get married we’re eager to hear the vows our spouse makes, not because that somehow makes them more likely to be faithful; as if neither of you were certain how it’d turn out until the solemn vows were taken. How absurd is that?! Instead, we delight to hear the words because they remind us of what a wonderful and serious commitment we’re entering into.
Let me say this a little more straight-forwardly. If you are waiting to hear your spouse’s vows at the altar before knowing whether or not you can trust them, you are in a whole heap of trouble. It is because you know they are trustworthy that you decided to marry them in the first place. Your wedding vows are just public declarations of the wonderful commitments you’ve already made to each other and the firm trust you already have in each other.
More specifically, as God’s people, we must never need to add anything to our “yes” for someone else to trust that we will follow through, or to our “no” to know we will steadfastly refrain.
To make this even clearer still, let me say a few brief practical words about this principle before finishing the sermon with James’s reasoning for his command.
- Never lie. Keep your word, every time. Obeying James’s command means that others ought to know you as someone whose word is as certain as is humanly possible (“if the Lord wills”). People should be truly caught off guard if you say you will do something and don’t, or if you say you won’t do something and do. Never lie.
- Say “yes” and “no” to right things. If we are going to keep our word without exception, we need to make sure we are very careful with our yeses and nos. Of course, this means not agreeing to engage in some type of sin or refusing to obey one of God’s commands. But probably more helpfully, it means not saying “yes” to lesser things or “no” to greater things. Don’t tell your buddies that you’ll go golfing on your wife’s birthday. Don’t say no to a friend asking you to share the gospel at the farmer’s market because of some TV sporting event. In other words, don’t say yes or no to things that godliness will require you to walk back.
- Do what you say, as you said you’d do it. The first two practical points focused on more black and white yeses and nos. The final two focus on more subtle yeses and nos. Don’t exaggerate and don’t constantly alter your commitments. Don’t imply that you will do more than you plan to. Don’t tell a friend that you’ll help them with their roof if you only intend to drop by for an hour. Don’t agree to disciple someone if you know you’re only available for a few minutes every few weeks at 4am. And don’t tell someone you’ll come over at noon, then one, then three. When you give your word, do what you said you’d do.
- Finally, say “yes” and “no”. Don’t be wishy-washy. Another more subtle form of disobeying James is by never saying “yes” or “no”. Letting your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no means giving clear yeses and nos. Don’t make it so that everything is always mushy and no one knows what you are agreeing to or not agreeing to. Minnesota nice often encourages us to say “yes” to things merely to be pleasant. It’s not that we plan not to do what we say, we just don’t necessarily plan to do it. That might be proper in Minnesota culture, but it disobeys James.
Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.
You shouldn’t need to add anything to your oaths or promises for people to know they can trust you and that you will do what you said as you said it. Should you ever take a formal oath, it ought to be to highlight the seriousness and significance of the promise, not to make it more certain. Those things are at the heart of James’s command.
Hopefully you’re clear on what it means to keep your oaths/promises. Likewise, hopefully you’re clear on the fact that it is really important for Christians to do so. But why is this so important? Why is it so essential for Christians to be promise-keepers? I mentioned earlier that James shared a bit of his reasoning for this command. One part of his reasoning is explicit and one part is implicit.
Explicitly, James commanded his readers to avoid swearing falsely and instead to do what they said they would do, because failing to do so leads to condemnation.
“…do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”
The bottom and simple line is that people who lie without remorse and refuse to acknowledge deceit as sin, betray the fact that their hope is not in Jesus and that they remain condemned in their sin.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…
Have you ever considered the company lying keeps in the eyes of the biblical writers?!
Oath-breaking is a sin. And like every sin, its wages is death. Our only hope in escaping the condemnation and death that our sin (any of it and all of it) deserves is by the grace of God, credited to us through faith in Jesus. Where there is not an acknowledgement of this, a fight against this, and a (even if maddeningly gradual) lessening of this, there is condemnation. In other words, explicitly, keep your oaths, Grace Church because not doing so is a really big deal.
Implicitly, and even more significantly, James commanded his readers to avoid swearing falsely because that’s what God does, perfectly, every time.
Numbers 23:19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
Likewise, Hebrews 6:18 says that it is “impossible for God to lie.”
Indeed, our great hope in life and death is that God will continue to keep His promises to us, to save us in Jesus. If He doesn’t, we are doomed. But thanks be to God, He always has and forever will keep His every word. All of that was Paul’s point in Titus 1:2. Christians have the “hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.”
This means, therefore, that we ought to always keep our word in God’s name because in doing so we are helping people understand God’s glorious nature and the trustworthiness of the gospel. Conversely, it also means that, as James’s readers were doing, when we break our word in God’s name we are lying about who God is and keeping the world from seeing the gospel’s true power.
In conclusion, I imagine that most of you have no problem admitting that keeping your word is right. But I also imagine that most of you have a decent sense that doing so perfectly, every time is hard. Indeed, it’s impossible in your own strength. Grace, we cannot obey James’s command here (or any other of God’s commands) on our own. We can’t even want to. But God has not left us on our own. He has not left us to obey in our own power. In His Son we have forgiveness of our every broken oath and in His Spirit we have power for every obedience.
What’s more, as you’ve heard me say many times before, every command of God for every one of the people of God is a description of what He is certainly making us into, not some kind of impossible feat of strength. James’s words here, therefore, are not mainly a call to a good, but insurmountable task we’re meant to futilely pursue until Christ returns. Take heart in the fact that they are instead a charge to be what we are graciously becoming.
Keep your word, therefore, Grace Church, every time. But do so in the knowledge that in Christ your broken promises have been forgiven, your condemnation is gone, you have all the strength you need to keep them starting now, and God is certainly transforming you into one who loves the True God with all you have and all you are.