“Be A Person of Your Word!”
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. (Matthew 5:33-37)
This passage finds Jesus giving “The Sermon on the Mount.” In this famous exposition, Jesus gives the proper interpretation of the Law and insightful instructions for living in light of the Kingdom of God, which He inaugurated with His coming. He is in the middle of giving a series of teachings about proper living, and how that affects us and other people, when he gets to the passage listed above.
After laying out the blessings of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells believers to live as salt and light in a sin-sick world. Then, in rapid fire fashion, He covers subjects important to holy living and righteous understanding: anger – lust – divorce – oaths, followed by warnings against seeking revenge and exhortations to love your enemies. These teachings continue to challenge those who hear them even today.
In the “Kingdom of God” living that Jesus is prescribing, one of the ways we show who we are and what we are is by how we speak to other people. As believers, we are called to “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1). This includes our manner of speaking with others. When God says something, is there ever any hint of doubt as to what He thinks or what He will do? Of course not! So it should be with His children.
The overall meaning of this passage is clear: Be a person of your word. Speak the truth at all times. If believers were just to master those two principles, think of how many problems and conflicts would be avoided in our daily affairs. Think of how much better life would be and how easier it would be to sleep at night if we were people of our word! Yet, the passage listed above addresses specifically the idea of oaths. So let’s take a brief look at its context and meaning.
To swear an oath is to make a solemn declaration to do or to say something. Often an oath is sealed with an appeal to God or to some authority higher than ourselves. Oaths were not an uncommon thing in the Old Testament, though there was no standard procedure or means by which they were administered. The important thing was that oaths were to be respected and honored, therefore, they were not to be entered into loosely. By the time of Jesus, however, a “sliding” system of standards concerning oaths was in place, whereby a person’s words were often not believed unless they were tied to some type of oath given to a divine power.
Jesus rejects this system and the idea that it is okay to say one thing so that you can get another. In the ethics of the Kingdom of God, the ends never justify the means. A Christian is to say what he means and mean what he says. Integrity in Christ and obedience to Him include both the means and the ends. The person whose word is good (i.e. trustworthy) doesn’t need to swear by anything. He can be counted on to do as he has said. The one who needs to resort to an oath, or to swear to something in order for people to believe him, has a character weakness that needs to be shored up. The solution is not to swear to do something, it is to build Christian character consistent with Kingdom of God values.
Some in Jesus’ day would use the Name of God in their oath. Others, wanting to avoid using the Name, would swear by other things. But that is also not acceptable to Jesus. Everything belongs to God. Heaven in His throne, earth is His footstool, Jerusalem is His city. Thus, whatever we say to another person, or in the name of anything else, we say to God as well. Therefore, our words are to be appropriate and honoring to both God and the other person, who is created in His image.
Some, seeking to avoid using the Name, but still thinking that they need to swear by something, swear on their own life, or on some other authority (e.g. “on my mother’s grave”). Jesus shows the folly of such a thought. We are not the givers of life. We cannot even change the color of our hair. So, how can we swear on ourselves or on others and have that as proof that we will do what we say?
The point of this passage is not the total prohibition of oaths on the part of believers. God Himself takes oaths (Is. 45:23; Heb. 6:17). So did Paul (Acts 18:18; Gal. 1:20; 2 Cor. 1:23). Jesus and Paul tell us that we have obligations as citizens that may require oaths (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:7). The point of this passage is that we are not to enter into flippant or rash oaths or act in ways that are deceptive. No! “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” James, Jesus’ half-brother, affirms that teaching when he says: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (Jam. 5:12).
As those called to be people of The Word, we should have the reputation as “people who keep their word.” This may mean that at times we need to delay before giving a response to a question or to a request. It is better to delay and say, ‘No’ than to say, ‘Yes’ and act later against that commitment. It is better to say, ‘No’ and risk immediate embarrassment than to say ‘Yes’ and face more embarrassment later on when our vow is not honored. Our words matter and they need to be used wisely. Jesus warns that our very words will come under judgment one day (Matt. 12:36-37).
My friends, we belong to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Therefore, in His strength, let us be people who keep our word. Doing so will preserve our character, protect the church’s reputation, and procure the Lord’s favor.
“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.”