Oaths and Vows – Matthew 5:33-37

Research into Matthew 5:33-37 __ Christians and Oaths

Matthew 5:33  “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’

The command not to break an oath is not given in exactly the words of the Old Testament, but words very similar to them are to be found.

Exodus 20:7  “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain. 

Leviticus 19:12  ‘And you shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.

Numbers 30:2  “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. 

Deuteronomy 23:21  “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay paying it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you. 

Psalm 50:14  “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving And pay your vows to the Most High.”

Zechariah 8:17  “Also let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, and do not love perjury; for all these are what I hate,’ declares the LORD.”

Matthew 5:33  “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’

Jesus is giving us the way in which Scripture was understood by the Jews. The use of both the negative (“You shall not break your oath”) and the positive (“you shall keep your oaths”) gives emphasis to the importance of respecting sworn testimony. GNB draws attention to something a bit different when it renders “Do not break your promise” and in the next verse, “do not use any vow when you make a promise.” It is true that promises must be kept, but at this point Jesus is speaking of sworn testimony. A similar comment might be made about “You shall not break your vows to God” while this is true, it narrows unduly what Jesus is saying. An oath is a solemn statement, not necessarily a promise or a vow, affirmed to be true before God. When anyone invokes the deity, the truth must be spoken. Theologian T. H. Robinson points out that this goes back to a time when people thought that a lie between people did not concern God, whereas if the divine name were invoked “His dignity and honor were at stake”; people would expect perjury to be punished.

Matthew 5:34  “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,”

As throughout this section, Jesus’ command is in emphatic contrast: “Do not swear at all.” To swear means to make a solemn declaration or statement with an appeal to God or a superhuman being, or to some sacred object, in confirmation of what is said” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). J. Schneider understands swearing to be primarily self-cursing should one not be speaking the truth”

Deuteronomy 6:13  “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.”

In Jesus saying, “Do not swear an oath at all,” some have interpreted this to mean that a Christian should never take an oath for any reason, such as testifying in court. A witness is “sworn in” raising his or her right hand (and sometimes placing the other hand on a Bible) and promising to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” However, the point of Jesus’ teaching is not that taking an oath in this manner is wrong. Taking a meaningless oath in order to create a loophole and retain the option of breaking it is wrong. If an oath is required in the course of civic duty, the Christian should have no problem making it. The proper application of Jesus’ principle of “let your yes be yes” is that the Christian must be truthful in all circumstances.

Such a solemn statement is sometimes called for, but Jesus is saying that it should not be necessary for his followers. He is not forbidding the taking of an oath in a law court or the like. The law said, “you shall … swear by his name” and Jesus himself responded when the high priest put him on oath (26:63–64).

Matthew 26:63-64 “But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus *said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”

He is saying in the strongest terms that those who follow him must speak the truth. They must never take the line that only when an oath is sworn need they be truthful. At all with the negative excludes the oath altogether. There must never be the need for it. Jesus brings this out by referring to the way oaths were commonly sworn. The Jews held that unless the name of God was specifically mentioned the oath was not binding; there were lengthy discussions about when an oath is or is not binding, and people would sometimes swear by heaven or earth or a similar oath and later claim that they were not bound by that oath because God was not mentioned. Jesus rejects such clever but unsound reasoning. People should not swear oaths at all, certainly not by heaven, for that is the throne of God; to substitute heaven for God does not in fact avoid a reference to the deity, for heaven is his throne.

Matthew 5:35  or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING.

Nor should an oath be sworn by the earth. It seems a curious form of oath, but it is perhaps meant as a contrast to the preceding reference to heaven. Since the name of God was not used many Jews cheerfully swore “by earth” and “by heaven and by earth” is mentioned in Shebu. 4:13 and regarded as not binding. There may be a reminiscence of Isaiah 66:1, where God speaks of heaven as his throne and the earth as his footstool.  Swearing by the earth does not avoid the link with God, for the earth is the footstool of his feet.

Isaiah 66:1  Thus says the LORD, Heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?. 

 At one and the same time the footstool brings out subjection and nearness. It is perhaps relevant that God’s footstool is associated with worship.  

Psalm 99:5  Exalt the LORD our God, And worship at His footstool; Holy is He. 

The city is linked with God as being the city of the great king. The point of all this is that by their hair-splitting differences the Jews could not escape between this form of oath or vow and that. God is present in all his creation. The important thing Jesus is saying is to tell the truth and keep one’s pledges without insisting that a certain form of words must be used if it is to be binding. No oath is necessary for the truthful person.

Matthew 5:36  Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 

The first three rejected oaths all in one way or another refer to God, but now comes an oath that centers on the person of the swearer. You are not to swear by your head, Jesus says. For this final example the verb swear is repeated, which may be for emphasis, but more probably in order to give balance to the sentence. To swear by the head means that the swearer would give his head/life if he were not speaking the truth” (Theologian H. N. Ridderbos). The reason for not swearing moves from the greatness of God to the littleness of people: no one is able to change the color of even one hair, a very small part of the human body. Such an impotent being is not one by whom to swear oaths!

Matthew 5:37  But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; and anything beyond these is of evil.

Ultimately, the matter is that it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth but is not necessarily wrong. What is wrong is making the oath and not keeping it. Our word, as Christians, should always be so reliable that nothing more than a statement is needed from them. God is in all of life, and every statement is made before him. Your statement will refer to anything you say. The literal meaning is this. “Plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is all you need to say.” That would suit the context. Another possibility is that the words signify much what James says: “But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment.”  James 5:12, that is, your statement should be thoroughly reliable and righteous, thus make an oath unnecessary. Some interpreters suggest that a doubled “yes” or “no” is the limit of what is permissible, but it is unlikely that Jesus would engage in such rationalizations, especially when he is opposing that of the Jews. Anything more than these expressions is of the evil one. This may mean that it originates in evil thoughts and plans, or probably directly from the devil himself.

Jesus says, “Do not swear an oath at all.” Some have interpreted this to mean that a Christian should never take an oath for any reason, such as testifying in court. A witness is “sworn in” raising his or her right hand (and sometimes placing the other hand on a Bible) and promising to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” However, the point of Jesus’ teaching is not that taking an oath in this manner is wrong. Taking a meaningless oath in order to create a loophole and retain the option of breaking it is wrong. If an oath is required in the course of civic duty, the Christian should have no problem making it. The proper application of Jesus’ principle of “let your yes be yes” is that the Christian must be truthful in all circumstances.