Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:33-37
Many years ago, I learned how to cuss and be a Baptist preacher: use Babylonian kings’ names. When you miss a three-foot putt say “Belshazzer!” When someone cuts you off on the interstate say “Nebuchadnezzar!” It works.
Jesus wants to talk with us about our language today. And we need the help.
Research indicates that 64 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “I will lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn’t cause any real damage.” Ninety-one percent say they lie “regularly.” Only 31 percent believe that honesty is the best policy.
Today Jesus wants to talk with us about truth telling. We’ll focus on our words, because they both reveal and mold our souls.
Why tell the truth?
Our Lord begins: “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'” (v. 33). Here he summarizes passages from Leviticus 19, Numbers 30, and Deuteronomy 23. And he agrees: lying is wrong.
So what is lying?
- Speaking false words: half-truths, exaggerations, misquotes, slander.
- Giving false impressions: misleading about our accomplishments, or income, or relationships. Sometimes we do this in spiritual garb: “Pray for the Smiths, they’re having trouble at home” or “Pray for the Joneses, their child is struggling in school.” Gossip in the guise of spirituality.
- Withholding truth: “If someone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible” (Leviticus 5:1). Listening to slander or gossip without correcting it; agreeing tacitly to falsehood; refusing to pay the price of truth.
Why tell the truth? Because God consistently commands and commends truth-telling.
- Without exception: “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts” (Zechariah 8:16).
- Every one of us: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).
- No matter how tempted we are to lie: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place” (Ephesians 6:14).
This is the key to peace with God and ourselves: “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin” (Malachi 2:6).
Why tell the truth? Because God condemns lying:
- Here is what the Lord thinks of lies: “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy” (Proverbs 12:22).
- He warns us: “A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare” (Proverbs 21:6). Enron employees can attest that God is right.
- Lying breaks our relationship with God: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence” (Psalm 101:7).
- God must punish those who lie: “You destroy those who tell lies. The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord, detest” (Psalm 5:6).
So God commands us: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices” (Colossians 3:9).
Why tell the truth? Because our words reveal our souls. Jesus said, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34). Our words are windows into our souls, and a witness we can never retract. How do we unring a bell?
Why tell the truth? Because our words mold our souls. James, the brother of our Lord and pastor of the first church at Jerusalem, makes the point clear: “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
When we lie we become liars. Our words take on a power and life of their own. I don’t fully know why, but the words I speak shape how I think and feel. When I fail and then condemn myself, I become more of a failure. When I succeed and then encourage myself, I become more of a success. Our words reveal us, and they mold us.
Why do we tell lies?
Given their importance, the value of truth, why do we lie?
Comedian Jay Leno told a somewhat embarrassing story about himself in his book, Leading With My Chin. The problem is that it didn’t happen to him, but to another comedian, Jeff Altman. When the deception was discovered, Jay told a reporter for the New York Post that he liked the story so much he paid Altman $1,000 for the right to publish it as his own.
Why did he do it? Why do we? Think about the last lie you told. Why did you tell it?
One: Lying is part of our fallen human nature: “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies” (Psalm 58:3).
Two: We lie to compensate for our own failures. We have some sense of the way things should be, of life as God intended it. But we know that we are failing to live up to this standard.
So we create a false self, an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to this person. But we cannot. So we lie, to others and to ourselves. We lie to be the people we aren’t. We lie to be empowered, to control the situation. It’s part of our fallen nature.
Three: We lie to get ahead. To get the account, to close the deal. To impress the girl or the boy. To please our parents. To further our agenda.
Four: We lie to hurt those who hurt us. Someone lies to us, so we lie to them. They hurt us, so we get revenge. We start or repeat half-truths, rumors, gossip, slander, to hurt the people we feel justified in hurting. After all, they did it to us.
Five: At its root, we lie because we are tempted by Satan himself. Jesus says, “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37 NIV). Later he explains: Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). The first sin in the Bible was a lie (Genesis 3:4), told by Satan himself.
Satan wants us to lie, so that we break the word of God, harm our witness, and corrupt our souls.
How do we tell the truth? (vv. 34–37)
So how do we refuse his lies? How do we refuse our own? How do we tell the truth? Here’s the key: give every area of your life to the Lord Jesus. Refuse to divide your days into sacred and secular, religious and the “real world.” Believe that God’s commendation of truth and condemnation of lying applies to your business practices as much as your Sunday school teaching, to your private finances as much as your public faith.
The Jews of Jesus’ culture missed this point completely. They believed they could make an oath and then break it, so long as they did not swear by God himself. They could swear by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem. They could swear by their heads, as though to say “My head’s on the line if I don’t do this . . .” They could swear by the “secular,” just not the “sacred.”
But Jesus is blunt: there’s no distinction. Heaven is God’s throne room, the place where he lives. Earth is his footstool, his possession. If someone slanders America, we are upset. If you criticize my car or house, I feel criticized, because I own them. Jerusalem is his city. If you criticize Dallas, I’m unhappy. Our heads are his creation. If you criticize my sermon, I feel criticized, because I made it.
Greek philosophers taught that soul and body are separate, spiritual and secular distinct. Keep your faith and your life in separate compartments. Tell the truth at church but lie when necessary at work.
Except that God is as present at work as in church. You belong to him as much there as here. The “secular” does not exist. There is no place which stands outside God’s hearing, his caring, his judging or rewarding. Every word is spiritual, for it is spoken by a tongue God made. It reveals a heart which should be his. It shows who is on the throne of our mind and soul.
What was the last lie you told? Be honest—why did you tell it? To compensate for failure or weakness? To get ahead? To hurt someone who hurt you? Ultimately you did it because Satan tempted you. And you pleased him.
Please remember this week: God commands truth-telling and condemns lying. Your words will reveal and mold your soul. So tell the truth. You’re on the stage. Your world is the panel, watching to know if you’re a truth-teller. And God is the audience.
In the night fog, a ship’s captain saw what appeared to be another ship’s lights. To avoid a collision, he signaled the approaching ship: “Change your heading 10 degrees west.” Back through the fog came the reply: “Change your heading 10 degrees east.” The captain replied with clear irritation: “I am an admiral—change your heading 10 degrees west.” Came the response: “I am a seaman fourth class. Change your heading 10 degrees east.” Furious, the admiral blazed his message: “This is a United States Navy vessel under orders of the U.S. government. Change your heading 10 degrees west.” Came the reply: “Change your heading. I am a lighthouse.”
Live by the truth. Speak the truth. Or you’re sailing your ship in a foggy night. And the rocks are near. What heading do you need to change today?