“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.” – Matthew 5:33-37 ESV
God puts a high value on truthfulness. He keeps His word and He expects those who belong to Him to do the same. In Jesus’ day, oaths were common place and were used to validate or prove that what one had said was true. If you made a statement, you would back it up with an oath, saying something like, “By the temple, I swear that what I am saying is true.” If you were promising to do something, you might add an oath, like “I swear by Yahweh.” Basically, you were adding credence to your words by using something of greater significance and value as proof of your sincerity. But there were several problems with this practice. First of all, God had long ago warned the people of Israel to value and protect His name. God’s name was directly tied to His character. To profane or misuse His name was to treat God with dishonor. So, God had said, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7 ESV). When we read that passage we tend to associate it with cursing or using God’s name as part of a curse. And while that most certainly is a way of using His name in vain, the original context had to do with using God’s name in any way that brought contempt or dishonor to Him.
Over in the book of Leviticus, we read: “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12 ESV). Notice the key word, “falsely”. If you made a statement and used God’s name as a form of guarantee, and then it became clear that what you had said was untrue, you were guilty of profaning His name. You had lied and had involved the name of God in the process. This was clearly forbidden. And yet, in Jesus’ day, it had become common practice. And the religious leaders had come up with an elaborate system of curses that provided loopholes and escape clauses, so that your oath didn’t have to be non-binding. In essence, they developed a hierarchy of oaths, where some were more binding than others. If you swore by God’s name, it was considered binding, But if you swore by heaven and earth, it was not. Swearing toward Jerusalem was binding, but swearing by Jerusalem was not. And the problem in all of this was the underlying lack of truthfulness. That is what Jesus is trying to expose. Listen to the harsh accusations He would later level at the religious leaders.
“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.” – Matthew 23:16-22 NLT
You see, the Jews believed that it was their obligation to back up their promises with oaths. That was their distorted perception of the Old Testament teaching concerning oaths. In their mind, making an oath kept you honest, at least in the eyes of others. One of the problems we face in reading these verses is that we don’t quite understand what it means to make an oath. You may have heard someone say something like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles”, but we don’t put a lot of stock in a statement like that. If someone were to say to you, “I swear on my life”, it wouldn’t necessarily provide you with any more confidence that what they were saying was true. Even if we hear someone say, “I swear to God”, we don’t automatically give that person’s words more credence or credibility. In fact, we might doubt their word even more. Someone who has to back up his word some form of oath is probably already lacking in integrity and questionable as to their reliability.
Jesus is exposing the underlying issue of dishonesty – a lack of truthfulness. He tells His audience to back up their promises with action. In other words, they are to do what they say they are going to do. Speak truth. And the truth is, if you’re honest, an oath won’t be necessary. Be a man of your word. Be a woman who is known for integrity of speech. No exaggeration. No half-truths. No broken promises or false commitments. Jesus puts it in easy-to-understand terms: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:37 ESV).
You’re probably familiar with the term: “My word is my bond.” It simply means that my word should be the guarantee, and no written contract outlining obligations or penalties is necessary. What I said, I will do. What I promised, I will fulfill. My word is truth. That takes integrity. And in Jesus’ day, that was a character trait that was in short supply. But He came to establish a new way of living. He came to provide a new kind of righteousness that mirrored the very character of God.
God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT
God is truthful and trustworthy. He doesn’t lie. He never breaks His covenants. He keeps His word. And He expects the people of God to live the same way. We are to be a people of our word, not just people of the Word.
One day, while Jesus was speaking with a crowd of followers, He made the statement, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NLT). Confused by what Jesus had said, they responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT). They couldn’t comprehend what Jesus was saying. And so they fell back on their status as descendants of Abraham. They claimed special rank because of their Hebrew heritage. But Jesus told them something quite the opposite.
“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT
Satan is the father of lies and he is your father. Now, that’s the way to win friends and influence enemies. But Jesus was not out to win a popularity contest. He had come to reveal the truth. He would even go on to claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Truth and lies cannot coexist together. A people who make a habit out of lying and justifying their actions with elaborate oath systems are not trustworthy or truthful. They don’t reflect the nature and character of God. And Jesus was letting His listeners know that their actions were out of step with God’s will for their lives.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, who would later become a leader in the church in Jerusalem, took the teachings of Jesus and applied them to those under his care.
“But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned.” – James 5:12 NLT
People whose hearts and lives have been changed by God through faith in the death of His Son, don’t need to lie. They will speak the truth. Jesus would later say, “But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:18-19 NLT). In bringing up the issue of oaths, Jesus was revealing an underlying problem with dishonesty. But He had come to change all that. Yet it would only happen if those who lie recognize their problem and turn from the father of lies to God the Father through Christ, His Son. By placing our faith in Christ, we are given the capacity to live as He did, reflecting the very nature of God in both word and deed.
The apostle John provides us with the reminder that right actions stem from a right relationship with God. Our lives will be characterized by truth when we have come to know Christ as our Savior.
If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT
Living as Jesus did: honestly, truthfully, and with integrity. The truth has set us free. And so we are free to speak truth. We are free to live in truth. The apostle John goes on to remind us that knowing the truth must show up in the practice of the truth. In other words, our belief should influence our behavior.
This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. – 1 John 1:5-6 NLT
The words we speak are a reflection of the condition of our heart. And Jesus was describing the character of those who would be citizens of His Kingdom – those who would eventually place their faith in Him as their Savior. Their words would be truthful and their character, trustworthy. They would require no oaths to substantiate their claims or need to resort to swearing to prove their integrity. Their transformed hearts would result in trustworthy speech.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.