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James #20 - chapter 5, verse 12
The Book of James
The Test of Honest Speech
James 5:12
 
Tonight Iwant you to think back to your childhood.  Did you ever try to convince somebody you were telling the truth by saying, something like, "I swear to God?" or "I swear on a stack of Bibles?" How about, "Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye?"
 
Why did you have to say what you did to get people to believe you?  Usually it was because they weren’t used to us telling the truth!  The reason we have to add the oath or swear is because we are basically dishonest!  Man invented oaths and imposes curses upon himself in an effort to validate what he’s telling because we have learned that man can't be trusted to keep his word.
 
Sometimes it's as simple as those silly childlike oaths and sometimes it's much more complex and serious.  Even our judicial system uses an oath to remind witnesses in a court of law that it’s important to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.
 
So why don’t they just say, “Do you promise to tell the truth?” 
 
The reason is they know we are all a bunch of liars who can’t be trusted to keep their word.  We know we are all children of the devil and the devil is the father of lies. And men will go to unbelievable extremes to try to bind someone to the truth.
 
But here’s the problem with the oaths:  they don’t change man’s heart.  In fact, I sometimes think that the more passionately a person swears to tell the truth, the more revealing it is about their lack of credibility.
 
The issue of oaths and the issue of swearing was a major part of ancient life and apparently it had become an issue in the church, to the point that James now feels obligated to address it in this letter. 
 
Maybe it was such a part of society in that day it just spilled over into the church, but for whatever reason, it is addressed here.  So James says,
 
Verse 12
 
Now James was speaking to people who lived in a culture where oaths were routine.  And what James is saying is, “We are to be different.  As Christians, be a people whose simple yes and simple no is enough.”
 
Now in calling for that distinctiveness in the church, James gives us four features in this command. First is
 
  1.  The Distinction
 
Verse 12a
 
There is a distinctiveness in this command and it comes in that very first statement, "But above all, my brethren."
 
The way he introduces this particular subject lifts it above the others and sets it in the primary place.  And I find it very interesting that he says "above all, stop swearing." That means, of all the things he’s said, this is the most important.  It's a very significant beginning and it has some crucial implications.
 
For instance, the word "but" provides a transition. It can refer to a contrast which is within the same subject but there is no contrast here between the subject of verse 11 and the subject of verse 12.  So
 
So when he says “but”. he’s not using it in a contrasting way, but rather in a distinguishing way.   Perhaps it would be better translated by the word "now." He’s transitioning to a brand new topic.  He’s addressing something completely different from what he had been discussing. 
 
As I mentioned last week, verse 12 is generally included with verses 7-11, but verse 12 stands by itself.  So I think it best to translate the word “now” rather than “but”. 
 
James has now moved on to a new theme and it’s the beginning of several new themes that he wants to speak about to as he closes out this epistle.  These subjects are the final wrap-up and this one has to do with swearing and using oaths.  Then in verse 13, he’ll move on to another subject. 
 
And because it is only one verse, the assumption might be that it's not that important.  So James waylays that thought by saying "above all” as he introduces this command that takes priority. 
 
 
And we shouldn’t be surprised by that because once again James returns to the subject of our speech and
if you've been with us in our study of James you know that James has dealt with speech in every chapter.
 
chapter 1, verse 26
 
The word "religion" is a term used to refer to the outward liturgy and ceremony of religion. And he is saying you may go through some outward motions but if you do not bridle your tongue, you give evidence of an unchanged heart.
 
chapter 2, verse 12
 
In other words, give evidence of your spiritual liberation in Christ through the way you speak as well as the way you act.
 
Then in chapter 3, verses 2-11 he gives us this lengthy teaching on the tongue and how dangterous it is. 
 
chapter 4, verse 11
 
And then in this verse in chapter 5 we once again find him talking about our speech.  So it’s not surprising to hear him say, "above all things," because it is obviously above all things to James.  He is deeply concerned about the way Christians speak.
 
It is one of those tests of the faith and how we speak reveals what’s in our hearts.  And where the Spirit of God has transformed the heart, there will be honest speech. And that's the essence of what he wants to say in chapter 5 verse 12.
True believers can be tested by their speech. There is a distinctiveness about the way Christians talk to one another and about one another. 
 
So when he uses the phrase "above all," or we could translate it, "especially," it is because he wants us to remember that the most telling member of our physical bodies, when it comes to our faith, is our tongue. 
 
And before we leave this phrase, I want to say just a word about “my brethren”. 
 
I find that phrase to be very encouraging. He doesn't preach down to them or condemn them.  Instead, he identifies with them. It indicates that James had compassion for them as one who also needed to guard his own mouth and speak truth. They had a common spiritual life that called for a common kind of speech that honored God. You see, the heart is the storehouse and the mouth tells you what you have stored there.
 
So that’s the distinction.  “Above all, my brethren.” 
 
From the distinction, James then moves to
 
  1. The Restriction
 
Verse 12b
 
That's the restriction. He focuses on that single issue of swearing. Now when we think of the word "swearing," if you're like I am, you think of cursing and swearing and four-letter words and so forth. 
 
But when James uses the word “swearing”, he’s talking about using oaths and swearing by someone’s power or authority. 
 
In reality, any misuse of the Lord’s name is an oath.  And whether we realize it or not, we all do it quite a bit, either directly or indirectly.  We’ve become accustomed to a lot of words that are actually substitute words for God or Jesus or Lord. 
 
You’ll hear people say things like “gad” or “crimeny”  or “jeez” or “golly”  which are all substitutes for taking the Lord’s name in vain.  You hear it all the time. Those are really oaths.  Even though the speaker may not have had that in mind and it’s just a habit, it is a reminder that we should give more thought to what we say and how we present ourselves out in public. 
 
Misuse of the name of God, profaning the name of God, blaspheming the name of God, dragging down the name of God, invoking the name of God illegitimately, all of that is, in a sense, related to the kind of swearing that James has in mind.
 
But more specifically, there had developed among the Jews a very complex system of swearing. And I think what had happened was what was going on in the world had made its way into the church and was being seen and heard in these Jewish believers.    
 
And without going into all the details, it involved swearing by an oath involved three parts. It was attesting to the truth, calling for God to witness what you said and invoking God's punishment if you violated your word.
To say "I swear to God" meant, “I want you to know I'm telling the truth, I want God to witness I'm telling the truth and I want God to punish me if I'm not telling the truth.”
 
And in those days when there weren't contracts and binding documents and court rooms to enforce them and all of that like there are today, it was very important that people be trusted.
 
So this system of oaths was a way in which you bound your conscience to do what you were supposed to do. And it was a very solemn thing to call God to witness and invoke the judgment of God on you if you defaulted.
 
We do the same thing today when we are called to be a witness in a trial.  If you sit in a courtroom and you swear to "Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God," then you better do that.
 
If you stand at the altar and commit yourself to a partner for life and say, "I promise before God and these witnesses to be your loving and faithful spouse for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep me only unto thee,” then you better keep that vow. If it calls for the invoking of God’s name, then it is a serious occasion. 
 
So what, in particular, is James talking about here in verse 12 when he says, “Above all, my brethren, do not swear by heaven or by earth or with any other oath"?  What is he prohibiting? 
 
 
We find good commentary from his older and wiser brother.  In Matthew 5, we find the Sermon on the Mount.  And in that sermon, Jesus addresses this same matter. 
 
Verse 33
 
Stop right there.  Tradition said. . . And, boy, that sounds so good.  But there's something hidden in it. "Fulfill your vows to the Lord." Ahh, there's the point. If I make a vow and I swear to something other than the Lord, I can break it.
 
It was okay to swear by anything other than the Lord, because then the vow could be broken.  So the Jews would swear by everything else other than the Lord to get what they wanted or make the deal, then renege on it because the vow wasn’t binding.  It has the appearance of being holy because it is close to God or Jerusalem or whatever, but wasn’t specifically mentioning God’s name. 
 
But Jesus challenges all that kind of thinking. 
 
Verses 34-37
 
Everything has God’s fingerprints on it.  You can’t separate that which is holy from that which is unholy simply because God’s name isn’t used becaseu God created it all. 
 
The heaven is His throne. The earth is His footstool. Jerusalem is His city. A man's head belongs to Him, not the man. Nothing in the world you can touch that doesn't belong to God.  And that's the restriction.
 
There are times when invoking the name of God in a covenant is good and it is always binding. I stood before the Lord one day and vowed to preach faithfully His Word at an ordination. That was a solemn occasion. And to this day I stand, as it were, under the judgment of God if I default.
 
 I stood at an altar one day and promised before the living God my commitment to my wife, Patricia, and I stand under a just judgment of God should I break that vow.
 
That's the restriction. Don't make foolish vows invoking the name of God. Now how foolish is it when people just say "for God's sake this," and "for Christ's sake that," and throw the name around as if it meant nothing?
 
Well from the restriction comes
 
  1. The Instruction
 
Verse 12c
 
So what does it mean to let your “yes” be yes and your “no” no?
 
Just exactly what it says.  For a Christian, it's enough if you say yes, it's enough if you say no. Simple, straightforward, honest speech and he's really just reiterating what Jesus said, as I read you a moment ago, anything beyond that is from the evil one. Why does it say that? Because the evil one is the source of lies.
 
 
Jesus lifted all conversation in His church and from His people to the level of sacredness. Everything I say out of my mouth should be a promise of truth that will never be violated. You should have such integrity that it's enough for people to hear you say yes one time and know you'll never violate your word.
 
Everything you say should be simple, straightforward, honest speech and if we speak the truth in every situation that will set us apart from the world.  The church must be different.
 
And finally,
 
  1.  The Motivation
 
Verse 12d
 
When James says, “lest you fall into judgment” is another way of saying the Lord will is going to hold us responsible for what we say. 
 
So what kind of judgment is to be expected for violating this command? Is he talking about the corrective chastening of a Christian? Is he saying if you do this you're going to get disciplined?
 
A study of the word “judgment” helps us to know what he means.  The word translated “judgment” is the word in the Greek from which we get our word “crisis” and it basically means a point of decision. In the New Testament, it always refers to the decision of the judge who passes sentence.
 
 
It is never used of chastening a believer. The word for "discipline," or "chastening," is a completely different word for the word judgment.  Chastening and disciplining has to do with training a child. It is
 
There is a word that is used for the judgment of believers, but it is a different word also.  This word is never used of the judgment of believers. In every single instance of its usage in the New Testament, this word speaks of the decision of a judge to pass sentence.
 
In fact, James only uses it in one other place and that is chapter 2, verse 13, and it's a good parallel. There it says the judgment or the verdict of the judge will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. And there it's simply talking about being sentenced to hell when God judges those who’ve shown no mercy. 
 
And here, the usage is exactly the same.  James is saying, in no uncertain terms, if you continue to blaspheme God’s holy name by your lying oaths, you will be sentenced by God to hell. That's what it says. It's a very strong warning about hell.
 
So why is James saying that to the church?  He’s saying it to the church for the same reasons he’s addressed every other subject in this letter.  Not everyone in the church was saved.  And James is simply asking them to evaluate their faith.  If it’s real, oaths won’t be a problem. 
 
If they were in the habit of carelessly swearing by God, then they needed to examine their faith to see whether or not it was genuine.  It’s just that simple.
 
This doesn't mean that in our entire life we'll never mess up or say anything we shouldn’t or use some words that aren’t fitting.  We will err with our tongue, and perhaps err often. 
 
But it is not the way of our hearts.  It is not the habit of our lives.  It is the exception rather than the rule. And we who are His children reflect His nature. 
 
And so, James consistent with the pattern of the whole epistle calls us to look into our hearts and see if we have a living faith that is evidenced by our honest speech. 
 
Let's pray
 
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