We have finally come to the last step in sermon preparation, writing the sermon. This is the culmination of the art of preaching. Before we can begin on the work of writing a sermon we must first decide what that is going to look like. For many pastors this means filling out an outline with bullet points and preaching from that. Other pastors use a type of hybrid with detailed notes that come just short of an actual manuscript. The third option, which I employ, is to write out an entire sermon manuscript. There quite a few advantages to writing a manuscript (so many that I will not list all of them); and it seems to me that the only real disadvantage is the time required to write out a manuscript. Here are a few of the advantages to writing a manuscript that I feel make up for the time commitment.
First, writing out a manuscript forces the preacher to labor over every word of his sermon. I cannot count the hours that I have invested into fitting every word of a sermon together. I can honestly say that the hours that I spend at my desk, the dinning room table, and at Starbucks writing sermons are the times when I feel closest to Jesus. I can recall countless instances whein I found myself laboring over the meaning of a text and praying that the Spirit would illumine the text so that I would be able to preach it. These times are joyous, and I would encourage every preacher of God’s word not to bypass them if at all possible.
Second, writing out a manuscript provides a written record of the work that you have you done. This is a lesson that we can learn from the Puritans. Think of the volumes of the theology that are available from Jonathan Edwards through the sermons that he produced. I know that I am thankful that Edwards took the time, and paper (at one point in his ministry there was a severe paper shortage) to write out a sermon manuscript. Now I know that people will not be reading my manuscripts hundreds of years from now as they do with Edwards. However, the next time that I make it back to a particular text I will have an entire sermon to reference. For the preacher having manuscripts on hand is probably the best way to be ready in season and out of season.Third, writing out a manuscript forces you to think about your audience. When you preach it is important to be text driven, but you also must be sensitive to your listeners. Laboring over every word, including illustrations, helps you to be sensitive to your listeners. I know, personally, that if I were to preach from an outline many of my “extemporaneous” illustrations would strike a nerve in my heart, but not necessarily in the hearts of my listeners. I often find myself thinking and praying for my listeners as I try to decide what paragraphs and what words to use or cut/ I truly believe that I could list many more reasons to write a manuscript (if possible), but I will let you think more on that subject. Without further adieu here is my sermon manuscript for James 5:12.
In verse 12 James returns to the familiar topic of speech. It is not surprising that James would return to this topic at the close of his epistle; he has written on this topic in every other chapter so far. The speech of believers was very important to James because it reveals what is in their hearts. How people speak is a test of living faith. As we will see in this passage the true children of God will be honest in their speech, but those who are not honest will face judgment.
I. Christian, do not swear.
a. Above all do not swear.
James’ command is that we “do not swear.” In order to keep this command we must understand what James means by swear. We might tend to think that when James commands us not to swear he is talking about cussing, or using profanity. But that is not what this word means. This verb (ὀμνύετε) means to take an oath, or enter into a contract with someone. This custom of swearing an oath was a major part of the Jewish culture. We can trace this practice all the way back to the OT. In fact in Deuteronomy 9:5 we read about God taking an oath:
It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This leaves us with the question, if God swore an oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob then how can James be commanding his readers not to swear by oaths? The answer to that question is that James is not forbidding oaths. In a world filled with liars there are times when oaths (agreements, contracts, etc.) are required. For instance if you were required to testify in a U.S. court it would not be a sin for you to take an oath. Oaths become sinful when they are misused, taken carelessly, or when they are used for the intent of deceiving. This is what James is forbidding.
Let me give you three reasons why we know that James is not forbidding all oaths, but rather the misused, deceitful, and careless oaths. 1) As we have already seen the rest of the Bible does not forbid oaths, and we even have biblical examples of God taking an oath (Deuteronomy 9:5; Hebrews 6:13-17). 2) As we will discuss in more detail, James’ main concern in passage is with the honesty of his readers. The positive counterpart (what we must be doing) to this negative command (what not to do) is found in the latter part of this verse when James says, “your yes is to be yes, and your no, no…” So with this command James is concerned with truthfulness and integrity with respect to oaths. 3) Finally, we know that James is not forbidding all oaths, but rather the misused, deceitful, and careless oaths because misused, deceitful, and careless oaths had become a large problem. In the OT we can find numerous examples of oaths being misused. In Jeremiah 5:2 we see men not keeping their oaths:
“And although they say, ‘As the Lord lives,’ Surely they swear falsely.”
In Judges 11:30-35 we see one of the most foolish oaths ever taken:
Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel. When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.”
Putting it in blunt terms, Jephthah was a fool and his vow to the Lord was foolish. To go into an oath with such carelessness is a dangerous thing.
In addition to these examples many were using trickery in their oaths in attempts to deceive people. Here is how it would work. Everyone knew that it was binding to swear by the name of the Lord. However, many people thought (and some taught) that if you could just avoid using the name of the Lord when you made an oath then you could legitimately weasel out of your oath. It was almost like saying, “if I cross my finger it doesn’t count.” This is what James is addressing. Like James Jesus addressed this very issue in Matthew 23:16-22:
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’ “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’ “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
The point that Jesus makes is that God is everywhere and even if you do not mention his name in your oath you are still offending if you lie. Jesus elaborates further on this same point in Matthew 5:33-34:
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God…
Notice the very beginning of this verse, “you have heard that the ancients were told…” Jesus is not referring to the oaths that are spoken of in Scripture, but rather to these oaths that came down from the ancients. And if you will notice there is an out in these oaths. The tradition was to “fulfill your vows to the Lord,” and for many that meant if they did not say the name of the Lord they did not have to keep their vow. This is not what Jesus wants from his followers. Jesus wants his followers to be trusted whether they are under oath or not. In order for that to happen they must be honest. Here Jesus is reiterating what the Law had already taught in Deuteronomy 23:21:
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you.
James, like Jesus, is looking for honesty by forbidding the intentional art of deception. People were using oaths in an attempt to hide the truth, and this was wrong.
We do not make many formal oaths in our society today. But we do make commitments and we do give our word. When we try to hide the truth by using clever words to fool people we are breaking James’ command.
b. Under no circumstance should you break this command.
James makes it clear that under no circumstance are we to break this command. James addresses this issue of trying to deceive others by using a particular order of words when he writes, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath…” In other words it does not matter how you word your oath you are still required to be honest. Just because you don’t use the name of the Lord does not mean that you can get out of being honest. There are no circumstances that allow us to be dishonest, and there are no clever schemes that allow us to lie. We may be able to word something in such a way that we can fool someone without violating the exact words that we used. It is not hard to find loopholes to sneak through. However, Jesus demands a higher ethic from us. He demands that we must not just avoid lying; rather we must be truthful in all areas of our life. Now that we have looked at the negative side of James’ command (what not to do) let’s look at the positive side (what we must be doing).
II. Christian, tell the truth
a. Let your yes be yes and your no be no
The positive side to James’ command is that Christians must be people who are known for honesty. We must tell the truth. This is why James writes, “your yes is to be yes, and your no, no…” James is calling for simple and honest speech. When we speak should not be deceptive with sly words, but we should simply to tell the truth. In doing this we will build up such a reputation for being honest that our mere word will be just as reliable as a signed document, or a statement given under oath. We are to have integrity, remembering that as Christians we are representatives for Jesus in this world. Thus, in this passage, James is essentially concerned with the honesty of his readers.
John Calvin aptly summarized this passage when he wrote:
“He brings the best remedy to correct the vice which he condemns, that is, that they were habitually to keep themselves to truth and faithfulness in their sayings.”
Calvin is exactly right. If you want to fix the problem of using your words to intentionally deceive others then this is the answer. Just let your yes be yes, and your no be no. If you make a habit of telling the truth then you will be keeping James’ command.
But why is it so important that we keep James’ command and be honest? We have already briefly mentioned one reason. That is, we are representatives for Jesus in this world. But there is another reason, and James concludes verse 12 with that reason.
b. So that you will not fall under judgment
We must keep James’ command and be honest otherwise we will fall under judgment. Ultimately the James’ primary concern for his readers was their standing before God. All throughout his letter James has called for people who claim to be Christians to take a close look at whether or not they have repented unto true faith. Within this chapter James has been calling for his readers to look to the immanent return of King Jesus. And now, James is calling his readers to be honest so that they can avoid the judgment that will occur when Jesus returns. We must be careful how we understand this passage. It may seem on the surface like James is saying that if we tell the truth we can be forgiven and avoid judgment. But this is not the case. We must attain forgiveness through the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus, and it is not of our own works. So then, what is James talking about? James is showing that you can tell if faith is real or not by what the people who claim to have faith do. If they are honest it proves that their faith is real and they are the children of God. However, if someone habitually lies it proves that their faith is fake. And those who continue lying through deceptive words will face eternal damnation because a life-pattern of lying is evidence of an unrepentant heart.
In 1 John 1:6 the apostle John said:
“…the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”
When one becomes a Christian their life will begin to look like Christ’s life (this is called sanctification). But if your lives are marked by continual lying Christ is not in you. In fact, we know that Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44); so a life of lying is proof that your heart is still in rebellion to God. In Revelation 21:8 we see what happens to lying rebels of God:
But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
I know that it is difficult to look forward to the end of this life. You are all so young, and it would be much easier to look forward to the rest of your life. But let me ask you this, do you think that the kids your age in Littleton, Colorado woke up on April 20, 1999 thinking about their judgment? Do you think that they showed up at Columbine High School ready to stand before God and give an account for their lives? Unfortunately the answer for most of them was probably no. However, on that day two young men stormed the school heavily armed killing 13 people. Whether they were ready or not those people had to stand before God on that day.
It may be hard to think of God’s judgment, and the second death of hell. But if you do not think about it now then you are destined to be trapped in it for all of eternity. Repent and turn to Jesus so that you can be forgiven and transformed into an honest child of God.