The Judge and the Jar

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, August 11, 2019 0 comments

by Logan Ames

For years, I’ve heard friends of mine talk about putting money into their “swear jar." Now, I can’t honestly say that I have ever actually seen a swear jar at the home of anyone I knew, but it became somewhat of a popular assertion to suggest paying a swear jar in an effort to punish oneself for foul language and hopefully eradicate it from one’s vocabulary. It sounds like a good idea in theory because having to relinquish money for a mistake generally makes a person think about it a bit more (think of how much you began to watch your speedometer more closely immediately following your first speeding ticket). But, if no one else has control or access to your jar and the money goes back to you anyway, it’s an exercise in futility.

The subject of swearing is certainly addressed in the New Testament, but it has very little to do with what our current society recognizes as “curse words." To be clear, Paul writes against “unwholesome talk” in Ephesians 4:29 and directs believers to avoid any “obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking” in Ephesians 5:4. This means that the words which we commonly refer to as “curse words” are wrong in God’s eyes as well. However, the problem of swearing carried much greater consequences than mere bad words. James felt it was important enough to warn his audience about it in his letter to the early Christians. In James 5:12 he wrote, “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear - not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Otherwise you will be condemned.” His words are very similar to those of his older brother, Jesus, in Matthew 5:34-37.

This is a bit of a confusing topic in Scripture because while the verses in James and Matthew appear to prohibit all oaths, there are examples of Godly men all throughout the Bible who invoked the name of God as their witness to the truth of what they were saying. Just to give you examples from each Testament, Elijah did it regarding his proclamation that there would be no more dew or rain in 1 Kings 17:1, and Paul did it regarding his reasons for not returning to Corinth in 2 Corinthians 1:23. In addition, God Himself occasionally swears an oath. In Hebrews 6:13-14, the writer refers to the oath God swore by Himself to Abraham regarding the promise.

So then, what is the difference between those oaths and what James and Jesus were talking about? I believe the answer lies in the cultural context that we can’t see directly in Scripture. As David Guzik explains in his Enduring Word commentary on this verse, Jewish people of those days understood the difference between binding oaths and non-binding oaths. Oaths which invoked the name of God were considered to be “binding," while oaths that merely mentioned other things and did not mention God’s name were considered to be “non-binding." Many of the Jews, including those new believers who were part of the earliest church, used this distinction to their advantage. They could give the appearance of being serious about their statements while knowing they could easily ignore what they had originally said as long as they didn’t mention God’s name. It was the ancient version of “crossies."

If you pay close attention to the words of both James and Jesus, the non-binding oaths are what they are condemning. Swearing by heaven (the sky), the earth, one’s own head, a city, or anything else with the full intention of ignoring the oath would leave them in danger of condemnation. James simply tells believers not to do it, while Jesus explained in His words that God controls all of those other things, too. So, those who felt they were less responsible for honoring their word if they swore by things God created rather than the Creator Himself were sorely mistaken. Since all of those other things matter to God, one cannot simply swear an oath by them and think that God won’t care if it’s broken.

The bottom line in James’ warning is that those who consider themselves believers and followers of Jesus should always consider the impact of their words and ought to place high value on keeping one’s word. Anyone who has to rely on workers or volunteers in order to complete necessary tasks knows the frustration that occurs when someone doesn’t show up after committing to be there. In my own life, I have friends who I know I can count on to show up and work when they said they would, and I have other friends whose word simply cannot be trusted. But beyond my own evaluation of those friends, James declares that those who have to swear by something more than just giving their own words are actually betraying themselves. Their need to say more than a simple “Yes” or “No” reveals that their word is very weak. And those whose words cannot be trusted will be judged accordingly by the Almighty Creator.

If you have been someone who has gone back on your word so many times that you don’t even recognize when you’re doing it anymore, it’s time to stop and heed the warnings of both James and Jesus. You might think just because your society has gotten used to it that God and His people don’t care either. You might also think that trying to earn people’s belief in you by swearing some sort of oath is acceptable in God’s eyes. You must know that you could be in danger of eternity without God! Words matter to Him and anything you could swear to would reflect poorly on your character, and that character deficiency will be dealt with when Christ returns. I encourage you all to be men and women who are keepers of their own words and doers of the work of the Lord.

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