Summary: Jesus teaches us a new way of reacting to our offenders. He calls us to have godly integrity and character, to not steal the character of others and to not retaliate or try to get our own justice.
In my last post, I talked about what Jesus says about divorce and marriage. In this post, I discuss what Jesus says about swearing oaths and retaliating against our offenders.
Why do people swear oaths? According to Jesus, there’s a motive behind it. Most people don’t think of it before they swear. The old covenant focused on swearing the oath, not the motive. The new covenant deals with both the internal motive and the outward swearing of oaths.
I don’t know if I’ve ever used an oath. But as disciples of Jesus, we have our marching orders. Jesus calls us not to swear oaths or retaliate against our enemies. These commands from Jesus go against our human nature. It’s natural for us to want to do both.
As we look at Jesus’s teaching for His disciples on the new way of doing things, ask yourself if you do them, and why. We are going to examine these two updates to old covenant law, and how the new way of Jesus changes things. Let’s get started.
The Old Ways
When Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount, He approached two old covenant commands that sought to govern human character and action. He mentioned them to show the internal motivations of our hearts.
Jesus updated the old ways and approaches we take toward others. He showed the difference between the old ways and new ways. As Jesus’s disciples, we must learn His ways and put the old ways in the past.
The old covenant law could not abolish our motives and the ways we think. But it could address our outward actions. The old covenant focused on action, while the new covenant focuses on our hearts, thinking processes, and inward desires.
Only the Holy Spirit can look on the inside of our character and intentions to see why we commit the actions we do. And only He can give us the fortitude to live up to the character and image of Christ. The old ways are just that, ways of the past. Jesus calls us to a present and future glory as we emulate His character by the Holy Spirit’s power
Swearing Falsely (Matthew 5:33-37)
You may ask, “What is Jesus talking about when He cites the old covenant talking about swearing falsely? I don’t see that anywhere in the Ten Commandments.” Jesus is quoting from Leviticus 19:17. It is part of the whole old covenant law or Torah.
So, how do you swear falsely? Does this refer to swear words? No. This refers to swearing an oath, like if a person swears using God’s name when they hit their thumb with a hammer. But it doesn’t just have to be using God’s name in vain.
You can swear falsely if you say something like, “I swear on my mother’s grave,” or what we do before you testify in court by placing a hand on the Bible. That’s why it’s such an egregious act to lie during your testimony, or perjure yourself. You are testifying a lie based on God’s truthful Word.
Swearing falsely does not talk about cussing. Although this is not good, swearing refers to the act of making an oath. Oaths are dangerous to make because they require you to say you are being truthful and have integrity founded upon God’s name (which is His character) or something sacred to you.
One of the Ten Commandments speaks directly to giving false testimony in a court (Exodus 20:16). It refers to lying about the character or actions of your neighbor. It’s an attack on the character of those around you. The Israelites considered this to refer only to fellow Israelites. But consider that every person around you is made in God’s image, and that’s why God takes lying about your enemy so seriously.
When you take an oath and base it on God’s name, something or someone sacred to you, God’s Word, or another person like your mother’s grave, etc., you take the character of the person upon yourself. Because your character cannot be trusted, you appropriate the character of another.
People who make oaths cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Since their character is questionable, they must steal the character of another person when they speak. This is why Jesus instructs Christians to “simply let your yes be yes and you no, no” (Matthew 5:37).
Stealing the character of another person, what I call character assassination, puts at risk the integrity of the person you make the oath upon. God will not stand for you to take His name and defile it with your lies.
The character and integrity of a Christian must be above reproach (Colossians 1:21). Anything you say or do should not be questionable. When you say something, the person you speak to should expect you are not lying, not even a white lie.
A Christian takes Jesus’s name. The word Christian means, “Little Christ.” When followers of Jesus were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26), they took the name with pride. They acted so much like Jesus that people could not tell the difference.
When you take the name of Jesus, you must speak and act like Him. People who watch your life should not be able to tell the difference between you and Jesus. We cannot measure up to this high standard on our own. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to best represent our Lord.
So, let us not steal the character and integrity of other people. It gives our Lord a bad reputation when we misrepresent Him. Let our words be true to our actions. Let our actions be true to our Lord’s teachings and commands.
Resisting Retaliation (Matthew 5:38-42)
Next, Jesus addresses our desire to get justice for ourselves. He quotes, “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:22, and Deuteronomy 19:21. The idea behind it is that the Mosaic Law commanded justice for wrongs. In the same way a person wronged you, you wronged them. The punishments for violating God’s law were returned upon the offender.
Seeking justice against those who wronged you was the basis of old covenant law. Example after example of case law throughout the Torah proved this principle of doing unto others what you would have them do to you.
To seek justice meant for your offender to receive the same injustice he gave you. If you lost an ox because of your neighbor’s ox, you would be given his ox to replace yours. You got retribution for the injustices you endured.
But Jesus changed the law of retaliation. Retaliation was not the heart of the lawful prescription of justice. You didn’t pursue justice in the Law of Moses just to get revenge. A pure heart sought God’s justice so that justice prevailed, not to get his neighbor’s possessions.
Even in the Old Testament, God set the standard by saying that we must not retaliate to get justice for ourselves (Deuteronomy 32:25; Psalm 94:1) and affirmed in the New Testament (Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:6). Only God, the great Judge, can take vengeance righteously and perfectly.
This world is unfair. It’s unjust. People get away with offenses and injustices. That’s why Jesus said that we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). While the devil controls the world system (Ephesians 2:1-2) we cannot expect godly injustice for those who offend us.
When we feel someone has wronged us, our idea of justice is imperfect. We cry out for justice like David many times. But when we feel is unjust toward us may not be. We cannot guarantee our idea of justice agrees with God’s law. So, we must be careful to demand “justice” for what we feel violates our rights. Paul asks why we don’t accept injustices as Christians (1 Corinthians 6:7).
Jesus suffered the ultimate injustice when sinful people crucified Him though He was innocent. If we are innocent, accused by someone we didn’t do or say, we suffer injustice for the sake of Christ. We should take it as a badge of honor when people turn to us and persecute us, assassinating our character and integrity for their reasons and advancement at our expense.
Instead of demanding our rights and crying foul, we should see Jesus as our Example and take the injustices and offenses like He did, as a sheep to the slaughter is silent. Instead of taking justice for yourself, allow God to take vengeance on your behalf when He wishes. I tell people I’m not the Judge. God is my Defender.
When God takes vengeance for us, it’s because His law was violated, and the offense is against His son or daughter. Our justice for any offense at the very worst can be the death of the offender. All we can do for murder, rape, serial killing, and the worst of the injustices in our court system is to take their life. If they were a mass murderer, taking their life only goes so far. God’s judgment and punishment perfectly fits their crime.
When we let God be the Judge, we rely on His perfect judgment and timing. The Bible promises God will judge the wicked His way (Psalm 82:2). I would rather God judge justly according to the heart and actions of my offenders because He can punish the person rightly. We let God carry out His judgment and vindicate us. Our Father has our back.
Ask the Holy Spirit to help you live out Jesus’s teachings and commands, to be an example of Jesus to those around you. Allow God to be your Avenger. Judge with kindness and mercy. Don’t seek your way. Let God shame people for offending His child. Shock your offenders with your godly response.
We are tracking with Jesus through the Sermon on the Mount and have just discussed taking oaths and retaliation. Next, we will tackle loving our enemies.