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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 1045am Svc, 2013-05-26

Text: James 5:12

Since the beginning of this year we have been studying the book of James, a book that has much practical teaching on many areas of our life. One area of life that James gives plenty of instructions on is how we speak. Earlier in this epistle, he had talked about words that are spoken in anger (1:19,26). In chapter 3 he had shown what awful hurt and terrible destruction this small little tongue can cause when it is used in a sinful manner. Then in 4:11 he warns his readers not to slander one another. And now as we come to James 5:12, he highlights another sin of our lips. Let us listen carefully to what he says here – “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”

The fact that James returns to this subject again and again, tells us one thing: We must take the sins of our lips very seriously! We cannot afford to ignore them. And this is not an easy thing to do especially when we live in a world that thrives on such sins. We find ourselves lamenting like the prophet Isaiah, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) So much lying and deceit goes on everyday and in every place that we have gotten quite used to it. John MacArthur said, “Our society is built on a framework of lies, leading one to wonder whether our social structure would survive if everyone were forced to speak the truth for even one day.”

There is a pervasive culture of deceit in today’s world. Media commercials make the most extraordinary claims about products just to boost their sales. Politicians make promises they cannot keep in order to gain more votes. Businesses protect themselves from losses by drafting contracts with intentionally ambiguous wording. Large corporations and organizations employ highly skilled ‘spin’ doctors to handle every disclosure them make to the public. Whenever some unfortunate event threatens their reputation, they will manipulate public opinion in their favour. By craftily-worded statements they make denials that are non-denials, and apologies that are non-apologies. They use an amazing array of devices to persuade people to believe what is false. Lying is a chronic problem that is found in every level of society.

In June last year, a well-known plastic surgeon was fined for making his clinic staff take the rap for his speeding offence. A month later, a pastor was convicted for tampering with his car’s fuel gauge and lying to an immigration officer about it. A survey of over 2,600 people that was done by Readers’ Digest 9 years ago revealed that 63% called in sick to work when they were not ill; 18% misstated facts in their resume for job applications; 32% lied to their spouse about the cost of a recent purchase; 28% lied to their spouse about their relationship with another person; and 71% lied to their friends or family members about their appearance to avoid hurting their feelings. Lying always seems to provide the easiest way out doesn’t it?

How much have you been involved in this culture of dishonesty and deceit? Have you ever tried to impress others by referring to people you barely know as ‘close friends’? Or have you ever inflated numbers and statistics just to create a good impression? Have you ever tried to evade responsibility for an offence you committed by cooking up some strange excuse? Have you ever told someone, ‘I’m not feeling so well today’ when the truth is that you just don’t want to talk with him? Can any of us say that we have never told a lie or deceived others?

I think we all have to admit like Isaiah did that we are a people of unclean lips and we dwell in the midst of a world of unclean lips. But we cannot make this an excuse to keep on doing the same thing. It is so tempting to say, ‘Everybody’s doing it.’ We have to be different from the world because we are God’s people. We no longer belong to the Devil who is the father of lies. We belong to God and must change the way we speak because He is a God of Truth, and therefore being truthful matters a lot to us. This is the whole point of the injunction that James gave in our passage. He said, “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.” (James 5:12)

I. The Practice of Taking Oaths

Here James deals with the practice of taking oaths. The Old Testament Law had made provisions for taking oaths. For instance in Numbers 30:2 the Israelites were told – “If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”

Oaths were taken for two reasons: The first was to guarantee the truth of what a person said. E.g. When taking the oath to tell the truth in court as a witness, one is required to place his hand on the Bible and “swear to tell the truth,… so help me God.” Every court of law in this world can mete out justice only as far as the witnesses are willing to speak the truth. No justice at all can be served, if people do not speak the truth in court.

The second reason why oaths were taken was to ensure the keeping of a promise by elevating it to the status of a sacred vow. E.g. In a church wedding when a bride and groom stand before the congregation and take their marriage vows, God is called upon to be the principal witness to the truthfulness of their vow. And any vow that is made must never be broken. As God has said in Deuteronomy 23:21 – “When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not slack to pay it: for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it would be sin in thee.”

Some may ask the question: Can an oath or vow ever be legitimately broken? The answer is: Only when they contravene God’s laws. E.g. A band of Jews bound themselves with an oath not to eat nor drink until they had murdered the apostle Paul (Acts 23:12). We cannot disobey God’s moral law under the pretext of obeying the same moral law. Such sinful oaths must be repented of and confessed to God. God alone has the authority to forgive as well as to release a person from a sinful oath.

II. The Protest against Abusing Oaths

And so we see that the law concerning oaths was given to man for very good purposes. But just as many good things have been abused by man, so the law concerning oaths became abused as well. How? All oaths are supposed to be made in the name of God. The person who swears is actually appealing to God Himself to be his witness that what he says is true or will be fulfilled. And if what he says is not true or is not fulfilled, then he will come under severe condemnation – the condemnation of having taken God’s name in vain (cf. Exodus 20:7).

But if you were to look at v.12 in our text you will notice that James was speaking of swearing not by God’s name, but by heaven or by earth. Apparently many  people were doing this. Why did they swear by heaven or by earth? They were doing this to avoid taking God’s name in vain. They did not want to be condemned for breaking the 3rdcommandment.

But there was another reason why they did this: It was to make distinctions between oaths that are less binding and oaths that are more binding. This provided a loophole that they could use. To wriggle out of their oaths Let us look at what Jesus said on this in Matthew 23:16-22 – “Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by thetemple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the giftthat is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.”

    From this we can see that the Jews had developed a very sophisticated system to judge how binding an oath really was. Incredible distinctions proliferate under such a system. To them, swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, though swearing toward Jerusalem was. Such extensive distinctions can be found even in the Mishnah, which records all the traditions of the rabbis which the Jews use to this day. But all these distinctions are artificial, because in reality everything is under God’s jurisdiction. Heaven is God’s throne and the earth is God’s footstool. Whatever object men may choose to swear by, God is always brought into the oath as a witness. Thus the severity is exactly the same – they will face the same condemnation if they were to break their oath, as breaking an oath that is made in God’s name.

But by making such false distinctions the Jews had turned oath-taking into a horribly sinful practice. Instead being used to uphold truth, oaths were now being used to disguise falsehood and to deceive the unwary. Sinful men were using oaths to make promises they did not intend to keep! Their victims may confront them like this: “You promised to do this for me, and I believed you because you swore to me that you would keep your promise.”But the reply he gets is, “Yes, I did swear to keep this promise, but it is not binding at all since I did not swear by God’s name. I swore by heaven, and so I don’t have to keep my promise to you.” “But God lives in heaven. So how can you say that your oath is not binding?”

“Oh yes, but God lives in the third heaven. You see I did not swear by the third heaven, but by the first heaven – which is just the plain blue sky above the earth. So what action can you take against me?”

Can you imagine how much dishonest speaking and insincere promising resulted from the kind of swearing that became so common in the time of James? One example of this is Simon Peter’s denials of Christ (Matthew 26:72,74). The situation got so bad that people did not trust one another anymore. It became a habit for people to swear very often because no one was speaking truthfully, and words could no longer be trusted. Many promises were made, but few were kept. It was in this situation that James gave the injunction in our text – “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath...”

Some (e.g. the Anabaptists and Quakers) have gone to an extreme in applying this injunction. They say that we should not swear at all, not even when we are required to do so in a court of law, or on our first day of National Service. To them, oath-taking of any kind is forbidden. The problem with this view is that the Israelites were actually commanded to swear by the name of their God. For instance they were told in Deuteronomy 10:20 – “Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name.”

Secondly, swearing by God’s name was considered to be worthy of praise Psalm 63:11 –“But the king shall rejoice in God; every one that sweareth by him shall glory….”

Thirdly, Jesus permitted Himself to be placed under oath. We see this in Matthew 26:63-64 – “But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said…”

Fourthly, the apostle Paul often said, “God is my witness” and took at least one oath (Romans 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 2:5, 10). Fifthly, an angel with uplifted hand swore an oath to God in Revelation 10:5-7. And finally, God Himself takes oaths and swears by His own name in Hebrews 6:17 (“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath” cf. Psalm 110:4; Jeremiah 44:26).

What then was James’ purpose in giving this injunction in v.12 against swearing? He was not speaking against oath-taking, but against the oath-breaking and insincere promising that had become so prevalent at that time. This was a terrible practice, and God’s people should not follow this. What James says here is therefore not against taking formal oaths (like those required of witnesses in a court of law). It is rather a plea for truthful and honest dealings with others. People should be able to trust everything that we say. We should not have to constantly resort to swearing in God’s name just to prove that what we say can be trusted.

In today’s world people do not use oaths as much as before to validate what they say. The accepted practice now is to put everything down in writing. But even that may be challenged if it is not properly signed and notarized with stamp duty. And so there are still legal loopholes that dishonest men can make use of to get their way even when things are put in writing. All these measures (oath-taking in ancient times and putting in writing in modern times) have become necessary only because we live in a culture of deceit and dishonesty.

III. The Prescription of Truthful Speaking

The ideal situation is that our Christian character of honesty and truthfulness should make all such measures unnecessary. The taking of oaths and vows should be reserved only for matters of great importance like marriage. To use them in everyday speech is to make a mockery of God’s name. Hence, in the latter part of v.12 James says, “…but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.”

It should be that whenever we affirm something or deny something, no one has any reason to doubt that it is the truth. If we have to keep convincing them that ‘this time’ we are really telling the truth, that means that we have not always been honest. And once we have been dishonest, it will become very hard for us to persuade them to believe whatever we say. We may end up saying, “I know that I was not entirely truthful with you last time, but this time, I really mean it. Please believe me this time. Look, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that this is true; Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Why should we need to say things like that, or anything more than just a plain “Yes” or “No”? Saying more than that only betrays a basic dishonesty that destroys our credibility. And when our credibility is destroyed, what will become of our relationships with others? They will be destroyed as well.

If we were to ask people, “What is the most important quality that you look for in a relationship?” the answer nine times out of ten will be honesty. Conversely, if we ask them, “What caused the deepest disappointment in your relationship?” the answer will usually be dishonesty.

But there are more serious consequences than that. Losing our credibility will not only destroy our relationships with people. It will also disable our witness for Christ. No one would accept the testimony of a witness unless he is credible and trustworthy. For this reason, lawyers doing cross-examination always try their best to prove that the witness in the stand is not credible, and that his testimony ought to be thrown out of the court. Once our credibility before others is destroyed, how can we convince them that what we say about Christ is true? Who will believe us when we share the Gospel, if they can’t even believe what we say in other matters? Therefore if we want to preserve our effectiveness as witnesses for Christ, we must keep our credibility intact. Otherwise we can never fulfill our mission of making disciples Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).

I hope we all can see by now how careful we must be with our speech. Remember that your word is your bond. It must be reliable and sincere. I would like to end by suggesting some steps you can take to have victory through truthful speaking:

Firstly, if you are not saved yet you must turn to Christ for salvation. Without being changed from within, all your efforts to change your speech will be futile. In Matthew 15:19 Jesus said, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Confess to Him that you are a sinner, guilty of sins like lying, deceit and dishonesty. Only the blood of Christ can wash you and make you whiter than snow. Ask the Lord Jesus to be your Lord and Saviour, and He will make you a new creature, one that is able to speak truthfully.

Secondly, think carefully before you say anything or make any promise. Ask yourself: Do you really mean what you say? When you say, ‘Yes’ do you really mean Yes? And when you say, ‘No’ do you really mean No? Do not ever let your tongue speak faster than you can think. Proverbs 10:19 tells us: “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise.”

If you have a problem ensuring that everything you say is sincere and truthful, then please make the same prayer that the psalmist made in Psalm 141:3 – “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.”

Thirdly, whenever you commit yourself to do something, make sure that you do it no matter how difficult it is to do it. You must keep doing this even though others may fail to keep their commitments, or renege on the promises they had made to you. For instance, if you tell someone that you will meet him at 3 pm, make sure that you are there by 3 pm. If you tell someone that you will return his call, make sure you do it. If you tell someone that you will be praying for him, then don’t forget to pray for him.

Parents, if you want your child to be truthful and faithful to keep his promises, then you must always be truthful and faithful to him. Make sure that you keep every promise you make to your child. There is no such thing as an insignificant promise. Think of how faithful your heavenly Father has been in keeping every promises He made. Not a single one of them has failed. By keeping every promise you make, you become more conformed to His glorious image.

Fourthly, whenever you fail to be truthful in speaking, or you break your promise, deal with the matter immediately. Do not procrastinate. If you are in the midst of a conversation with others and you realise that something you just said is untrue, admit it immediately and do not be afraid of the response you will receive. It is a lot better to correct yourself rather than to be corrected by someone about your false statement. If you break a promise, be sure to make a sincere apology without delay. Admit that you have caused disappointment and that you need to ask for understanding and forgiveness.

May the Lord help us to apply these steps so that our Yes will always be Yes, and our No will always be No. There is just one more thought I would like to leave with you before we close – If you have made any commitments or promises to God before please be sure to keep them. Can you recall how you had responded to all the previous sermons you have heard from the Book of James? Perhaps your heart was moved to make certain changes in your life. How much have you followed through with them? God holds you accountable not only for every word you utter to people but also for every word that you utter to Him.

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

January 21 & 28 - The Power of Prayer

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. James 5:16