33 “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.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil
As Jesus gave His Sermon on the Mount, the commandments He gave therein point to what Kingdom living under the New Covenant looks like. The passage we are considering here finds itself in the early part of this sermon, the whole of which finds Jesus teaching the ethics and effects of this new way of living. After laying out the blessings of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells believers to live as “salt and light” in a world desperately in need of both. Then, after explaining that He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, Jesus shows how the truth of that new reality is played out in the lives of believers as they deal with issues of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, revenge, and dealing with one’s enemies. One of the ways believers show who they are and what they are is by how they speak to other people. Now it is true that only by abiding in Christ and walking in His power can one live out the Law that Jesus is presenting here. However, it is also true that believers are the ones who are to live out these things.
As a starting point of our reflection on Matthew 5:33-37, when God says something, there is never doubt as to what He thinks or will do about that subject. It will surely be done. So, in this passage, Jesus declares: Show that you belong to me and that you are a person of your word. Do not follow the patterns of the culture in playing word games with your speech. Rather, speak the truth at all times. In doing so, you reflect the character of God!
In some ancient cultures, including the Jewish culture of first century Palestine, it was thought that a lie between people did not concern God, unless and only if the divine name was invoked in the oath. Then it had to be fulfilled. To swear in this context is to make a solemn and truthful declaration by appealing to God or some authority higher than ourselves. Oaths of this type were not uncommon in the Old Testament. However, they were held as something sacred and thus to be entered into only with sobriety and commitment. By the time of Jesus, however, a person’s words were often not believed unless they were tied to some type of oath to a divine power.
It is to the Jews of His day, who held to the aforementioned view of oaths, that Jesus specifically addresses His words in 5:33. As a result, in an attempt to evade having to follow through on one’s oath, people would often take them in the name of other things, such as earth or heaven, or even God’s throne (v. 34b). Rigorous debate was held among the religious leaders about how to determine if an oath was binding or not. Jesus, however, cuts through the smoke and fog of such debate by saying that we are not to swear, or take an oath, at all in our everyday discourse (v. 34a).
To elaborate that point, Jesus teaches that to swear by heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem does not give one an escape from an oath because everything ultimately belongs to God. Heaven is His throne, earth is His footstool, Jerusalem is His city (v. 34b-35). Thus, everything that we say, whatever the context in which we say it, and to whomever we say it, is said in the holy presence of God. No attempt at evasion can succeed from the one whose eyes “are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).
Some attempted to move away from involving God in an oath by swearing the oath upon oneself. Thus, the oath would be taken on one’s head or on one’s life (v. 36a). But this attempt only displays the smallness of humans, because it is beyond the authority and power of the person to change the color of even one hair (v. 36b). If humans are incapable of even such a small thing, how can they be a trustworthy source or authority of an oath and its enforcement? In using this imagery, Jesus shows the folly of taking an oath by appealing to some sort of human authority.
As we look at Scripture, we see that words are important. Therefore, it is not okay to misuse them to gain something that we desire. In the Christian life, the ends never justify the means. (See Rom. 3:7-8). Jesus instructs us to say what we mean and to mean what we say. It is not a matter of just counting words, it is a matter of making words count. How would we live differently if we took to heart the fact that we will judged for every word that comes from our lips? (See Mt. 12:33-37). What impact would that have on our speech at the store counter, in the car, talking with friends, or waiting in line at the Post Office?
Jesus is not giving a total prohibition on oaths in this passage. Elsewhere in Scripture we see that oaths are required in the court of law (Deut. 6:13; 10:20). Jesus himself responded at his trial when placed under oath by the high priest (Matt. 26:62-64). Moreover, oaths are mentioned in other places such as Gal. 1:20, 2 Cor. 1:23, and Acts 18:18. What Jesus is saying, however, is that believers are to speak the truth always and that this commandment does not require taking an oath of any kind to fulfill it.
When we remember that everything we say is heard by God, the silent listener to every conversation, then the words of Jesus take on added weight: “Let what you say be simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (v. 37). Let the last part of that verse sink into our thinking. Needing any other source or authority for speaking the truth is evil in origin. What a stupendous thought!
There is a simplicity and a security in making our words direct and truthful. The person whose word is good and reliable doesn’t need to swear by anything else in order to convince someone that he is serious about what he says. If, however, a person needs to resort to an oath in order to convince others of his honesty, then there is a fundamental weakness in his character. If that is the case, then repentance is needed, and one needs to turn to Christ for help in being a truthful person, thus showing oneself to be a follower of the One who is ultimate Truth. So, friends, let us speak the truth – everywhere, to everyone, in every situation. In doing so, we honor Christ, we honor ourselves, and we walk in the light of His truth. I close with a short quote from the English novelist William E. Norris:
“If your lips would keep from slips, Five things observe with care: To whom you speak; of whom you speak; And how, and when, and where.”