“Again 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.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:33-37).
The greatest sermon ever preached, is certainly not devoid of controversial teaching! If there ever was a preacher who stirred up controversy with his preaching, it was the Son of God himself, Jesus Christ.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus equates remarriage with adultery, tells those who lust to cut off their hand or gouge out their eye, and to turn the other cheek to the one who slaps you on the right. Jesus’ words are difficult. And certainly the issue of oaths is no less so.
Did Jesus really mean that we should never make an oath? Is it wrong to swear on the Bible before giving testimony in court? Does Jesus mean that any and every oath is sin? This can hardly be the case given that God makes oaths (Gen. 22:16-17; Heb. 6:17; Gen. 9:8-11; Luke 1:68; Ps. 16:10, 132:11). Further, Jesus spoke under oath at his trial (Matt. 26:63-64) and Paul took vows where he called God “as [his] witness” (Rom. 1:9; 1 Cor. 1:23; 1 Thes. 2:10).
So what is Jesus’ point about oaths? I think the answer lies in Jesus’ response to false interpretations of the law which he summarizes in 5:37 when he says, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” As he so often does in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus corrects false interpretations of the law. Jews, especially the Pharisees, in Jesus’ day had elaborate categories of oaths each of which were binding in varying degrees. For instance an oath sworn “by Jerusalem” was not binding but an oath sworn “toward Jerusalem” was, an oath sworn by the temple was not binding but an oath sworn by the temple’s gold was. It was not binding to swear by heaven or earth. There are many more examples, but the point Jesus is making here is that the Jews (the Pharisees in particular) had set up unnecessary categories in an attempt to avoid God’s punishment for speaking dishonestly. Thus Jesus’ teaching was not a contradiction of Mosaic law, but rather the perfect interpretation of the Law’s teaching on oaths and speaking truthfully.
D.A. Carson, in his commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary sums up the OT regulation of oaths by saying, “the Mosaic law forbade irreverent oaths, light use of the Lord’s name, [and] broken vows. Once Yahweh’s name was invoked, the vow to which it was attached became a debt that had to be paid to the Lord” (Ex. 20:7; Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 5:11, 6:3, 22:21-23). That is why one should not swear by heaven–it is God’s, nor by oath–it is God’s, nor by Jerusalem–it is God’s. Nor should one swear by their own head, again, it is God’s. God is the creator of anything and everything we could possibly swear by.
Therefore, it follows that every oath made is ultimately an oath to God himself! When we swear by any other entity, we are merely attempting to diminish the consequences for breaking our promises and not telling the truth. Thus what Jesus is criticizing was likely false categories of oaths rather than oaths altogether. Carson sums it up well when he says, “if oaths designed to encourage truthfulness become occasions for clever and [casual] deceit, Jesus will abolish oaths.”
We are all probably more guilty of making false oaths than we are willing to admit. We don’t swear by heaven, earth, or any city, but we do couch our promises with all kinds of exceptions (e.g. “I’ll be home at 5:30 so long as everything goes as planned”). It’s rare that everything goes as planned in this life, so instead of feeling obligated to be home when we say we will, we just diminish the consequences by phrasing it advantageously! We also embellish the truth to make ourselves look better. When we break promises, we are the first to list all the reasons why it’s not our fault that we broke them. When was the last time you said, “I am sorry I didn’t do what I said I was going to do, I don’t have a good excuse, I broke my word, please forgive me?” Jesus responds to the type of half truths we are so prone to by saying, “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, do what you say you will do and keep the promises you say you will keep. If you can’t seem to ever keep the big promises you make, maybe you should start by making smaller promises that you can keep. Maybe you need to work at learning to apologize to those you have wronged without making excuses for everything you might have done wrong.
If you are reading this please know that I am preaching to myself here as well! Jesus, as he so often does in the Sermon on the Mount, shows us how far short we fall of keeping the law. The good news is that there is one who has kept absolutely every promise he has ever made to us, who one makes every promise “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:19-20). Jesus’ teaching on oaths is one that we continually fail to keep, in fact but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot keep any of Jesus’ difficult commands in the Sermon on the Mount. Thankfully Jesus has come for sick rather than those who already see themselves as healthy, and for the sinner rather than the one who already sees himself as righteous (Matt 9:12-13). I am thankful that Jesus doesn’t expect us to be righteous in and of ourselves but only to mourn that we aren’t righteous and hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:4, 6). Further, if we believe, God promises to apply the very righteousness of Christ to our account (Rom. 10:4).
If Jesus’ teaching on oaths hits you like a ton of bricks and reminds you how desperately far you are from keeping his commands, then that is probably a good thing. Call out to the one who has kept every promise to us concerning our salvation. Ask for help. You can be true to your word, but only by the power of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has promised to all who believe!