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Sermon on the Mount: Oaths

Let your yes be yes and your no be no, and don't presume to be in God's place.

Written by Mike Biolsi on .


 As we continue our six intensifications, we come to one on taking oaths.

Matthew 5:33–37 CSB
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.

We know about oaths, right? We make them at very important times in our lives. 

If you are a soldier, you swore an oath:

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

The oath of military enlistment is an example of an oath of loyalty to your country. A person who violates this kind of oath can be tried for treason.

If you have ever been asked to testify in a court of law you were to swear an oath:

"Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?"

Once someone answers "yes" to the above question (or similar), the individual is considered to be under oath. If someone testifies in court under oath and then lies on the stand, the individual can be tried for, and convicted of, perjury.

WE make an oath at marriage - and Jesus just addressed that topic! You make a vow to someone and then break it by having lustful thoughts and actions or by “un-joining” what God has joined together. It is better not to make the oath than to make it and break it!

ASK: How would you define an oath?

oath ⚡

(ōth) - A solemn, formal declaration or promise to fulfill a pledge, often calling on God, a god, or a sacred object as witness. []

That is just one definition of an oath, and it is a very fitting one for what the Bible is referring to. It is a pledge to do something calling on God, or a sacred object, as a witness.

There are two words in the Hebrew Bible used for swearing and oath, and one means a promise and the other means a curse. They show both sides of an oath - it is not just a promise, testified by God, it also invokes the curse of God if the promise is not fulfilled or the words are not true. 

You may be surprised how many oaths and vows are found in the Bible! There are many oaths and also a variety of types of oaths. 

Sometimes these vows were made to others with God as a witness. Like the time Solomon made this vow:

1 Kings 2:23–24 CSB
23 Then King Solomon took an oath by the Lord: “May God punish me and do so severely if Adonijah has not made this request at the cost of his life. 24 And now, as the Lord lives—the one who established me, seated me on the throne of my father David, and made me a dynasty as he promised—I swear Adonijah will be put to death today!”

Other times these vows were made to God in exchange for something God would do.  One might make an oath to give God your firstborn child, like Hannah did:

1 Samuel 1:11 CSB
11 Making a vow, she pleaded, “Lord of Armies, if you will take notice of your servant’s affliction, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.”

God gave her Samuel and she gave that son to God! She kept her vow. 

Jacob made a vow to God:

​Genesis 28:20–22 CSB
20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me during this journey I’m making, if he provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s family, then the Lord will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to you a tenth of all that you give me.”

In times of warfare we often have trench prayers, right? “God if you will get me out of this, I will....” We understand the prayer of Jacob quite well. 

Sometimes, oaths were made to God as an act of worship or sacrifice.

The book of Leviticus has several references to vows being presented as offerings to God, and acceptable offerings at that!

Numbers chapter 6 talks about someone offering themselves to God by making a special vow, called the Nazarite vow, which is considered and act of dedication and worship. 

Numbers 6:1–8 CSB
1 The Lord instructed Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When a man or woman makes a special vow, a Nazirite vow, to consecrate himself to the Lord, 3 he is to abstain from wine and beer. He must not drink vinegar made from wine or from beer. He must not drink any grape juice or eat fresh grapes or raisins. 4 He is not to eat anything produced by the grapevine, from seeds to skin, during the period of his consecration. 5 “You must not cut his hair throughout the time of his vow of consecration. He may be holy until the time is completed during which he consecrates himself to the Lord; he is to let the hair of his head grow long. 6 He must not go near a dead body during the time he consecrates himself to the Lord. 7 He is not to defile himself for his father or mother, or his brother or sister, when they die, while the mark of consecration to his God is on his head. 8 He is holy to the Lord during the time of consecration.

Know anyone in the Bible who wasn’t supposed to cut his hear? Samson (Judges 13). He was a Nazarite - but not a great role model 🤨

Sometimes, oaths were made to confirm the truthfulness of a testimony. This is similar to the swearing that we have in our courts of law. 

There is an example of this in the trial of Jesus that is recorded later in the book of Matthew. 

​Matthew 26:59–64 CSB
59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death, 60 but they could not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. Finally, two who came forward 61 stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’ ” 62 The high priest stood up and said to him, “Don’t you have an answer to what these men are testifying against you?” 63 But Jesus kept silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

I find it interesting that it is not recorded that those giving false testimony were required to swear but the high priest called Jesus to swear by the living God. He did not use the name of God, but there was no doubt the priest was calling him to accountability to the highest power. 

For me, the biggest surprise is that God made an oath! He made an oath to Abraham! 

ASK: So here is a question: if we call  upon a higher power, or symbol thereof, to be witness and hold us accountable, who does YAHWEH swear to? ⚡

​Hebrews 6:13–17 CSB
13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater to swear by, he swore by himself: 14 I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply you. 15 And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and for them a confirming oath ends every dispute. 17 Because God wanted to show his unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, he guaranteed it with an oath,

I love  verse 13!  If you are Yahweh you can even swear by yourself - because you are the highest authority!

So it is quite apparent that the Old Testament did NOT ban making vows!  The Law & Prophets DID allow for oaths! However, there was a prohibition in the law on breaking oaths: ⚡

Numbers 30:2 CSB
2 When a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to put himself under an obligation, he must not break his word; he must do whatever he has promised.

The key to that passage it not how a person swears, or what words they use, but the statement is simply, “he must not break his word”. THIS was the heart of the OT law regarding oaths. 

Similarly, it was prohibited to claim you are telling the truth and to lie. This would also be breaking your word and was referred to as profaning the Lord’s name: ⚡

Leviticus 19:12 CSB
12 Do not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God; I am the Lord.

Just like many of the other laws, this command got expanded upon in Deuteronomy: ⚡

Deuteronomy 23:21–23 CSB
21 “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to keep it, because he will require it of you, and it will be counted against you as sin. 22 But if you refrain from making a vow, it will not be counted against you as sin. 23 Be careful to do whatever comes from your lips, because you have freely vowed what you promised to the Lord your God.

Not only must we do what we say, but it is a sin against God NOT to do it. HOWEVER… you are free to choose to NOT make a vow! 

We can see that oaths were an important part of the Law and Prophets. They helped define God and his character, shape the nation Israel as a people, establish a legal system and enhance worship. Because they were so foundational and because God was to be the security of the oath, it was prohibited to break an oath lest you mock God and fall under his judgement and punishment. 

By the time Jesus arrived on the earth, that laws concerning vows had been reinterpreted or reinvented in a number of ways! Apparently, it was the practice of some to try to make vows by something divine… just not God. 

Jewish records show people vowing by heaven, or heaven and earth. Some might vow by their own head or their life. Why would they do this? By doing so they felt that the vow was not binding and therefore they could get out of them and not face punishment. 

Apparently, the scribes and Pharisees had made some form of convoluted law system regarding which oaths were binding and which were not! In other words, you could swear by certain things and be bound by it, and swear by others things and get out of it.  ⚡

​Matthew 23:16–22 CSB
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the temple, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath.’ 17 Blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? 18 Also, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it means nothing; but whoever takes an oath by the gift that is on it is bound by his oath.’ 19 Blind people! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? 20 Therefore, the one who takes an oath by the altar takes an oath by it and by everything on it. 21 The one who takes an oath by the temple takes an oath by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And the one who takes an oath by heaven takes an oath by God’s throne and by him who sits on it.

Most likely, this is what Jesus was addressing when he made this statement in the sermon on the hill:

Matthew 5:33–37 CSB
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to our ancestors, You must not break your oath, but you must keep your oaths to the Lord. 34 But I tell you, don’t take an oath at all: either by heaven, because it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, because it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black. 37 But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.

James quotes Jesus and even makes it a little simpler:

​James 5:12 CSB
12 Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “yes” mean “yes,” and your “no” mean “no,” so that you won’t fall under judgment.

So, what was he saying and why was he saying it? 

ASK: Are Jesus and James saying that it is no longer OK to make a vow or take an oath?

IF Jesus was creating a new law, that all vows are wrong, then we have a few problems. 

First, going back to Jesus’ statement that he did not come to abolish the law - if he was saying that all vows were bad then he would be stating that Law was wrong or needed to be changed. That would be a contradiction.

Second, that would make the Apostle Paul out to be a tremendous sinner as he swore many times: Rm 1:9; 2Co 1:23; Gal 1:20; Php 1:8; 1Th 2:5, 10

​Romans 1:9–10 CSB
9 God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in telling the good news about his Son—that I constantly mention you, 10 always asking in my prayers that if it is somehow in God’s will, I may now at last succeed in coming to you.

 What is the point he wanted his listeners on that hill and in the future to comprehend? AGAIN, we must come back to the passage in the context of the other sections. It is more about the motives and person behind the activity than the activity. 

If we go back to the beginning of this law, the command was to keep your word:

Numbers 30:2 CSB
2 When a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to put himself under an obligation, he must not break his word; he must do whatever he has promised.

In other words, he or she must be a person of integrity - doing what they promise. 

Why not just say that? Why go through all the extras in naming the heaven, Jerusalem, etc?

Keeping with the context of this sermon, Jesus  said that our righteousness, or right living, must be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees. It should not be surprising, then, that we find most of the laws mentioned in this sermon being broken by the scribes and Pharisees  - and Jesus calling them out for it!

Jesus is condemning that practice because it is providing a way for people to be dishonest and to go back on their word. Should it matter if my oath was by the temple or the altar? If I make an oath, I am bound by it. My word should be truth - no matter what. Do not break your word. 

If I answer, “yes” or “no” there is no questions to my intent or meaning. It cannot be distorted. 

To make a vow by something other than God so that you would not truly be obligated to fulfill it would be deceptive and make you to be a liar. 

I believe this is the most literal understanding of the teaching Jesus is making. 

The citizens of God’s kingdom will be men and women who keep their words. 

We will be people of truthfulness. This is significant as we are to imitate Christ, and he IS TRUTH:

John 14:6 CSB
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

As followers of Jesus we should not have to call upon God as our witness so people will believe us! If I am an image bearer of God, then I must be truthful! 

Hebrews 6  (where God swore and oath and kept his promise) reveals the character and nature of God as one who is trustworthy and true, who keeps his promises. If I am an image bearer of God, if I am a member of his kingdom and bear his name, then I must also be a person who keeps my promises.  ⚡

Psalm 15:1–5 CSB
1 Lord, who can dwell in your tent? 
Who can live on your holy mountain? 
2 The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness, 
and acknowledges the truth in his heart—
3 who does not slander with his tongue, 
who does not harm his friend 
or discredit his neighbor, 
4 who despises the one rejected by the Lord 
but honors those who fear the Lord, 
who keeps his word whatever the cost
5 who does not lend his silver at interest 
or take a bribe against the innocent—
the one who does these things will never be shaken.

While it can be hard to keep our oaths, and even painful at times, it is something that honors God. 

ASK: let me ask you today, are you a person of your word?

I do think there is a another teaching in this passage. 

At the end of our passage we read this: Matthew 5:37 “But let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything more than this is from the evil one.” 

A vow is often a promise to do something in the future, as we saw in some of our Old Testament examples. 

Therefore, to vow is to assume that you have control over the future - which in essence us putting yourself in the place of Yahweh. I believe this to be another point Jesus is trying to drive home:

You should not swear by heaven, earth or Jerusalem - they are God’s spaces. You are not in control there! Heaven is the throne room of God and you only have the right to be there if invited, you are not the one in that space that is on the throne.  

Earth is the footstool of God, and even there you have no power. You cannot even control the weather!

Jerusalem is the place God chose to have his name dwell - the city on earth where he would display his glory. 

There is not right for us to presume upon any of those as if we have any authority of dominion there. They are God’s space, his places of dominion. 

THEN, Jesus goes on to tell us not to swear by our own head - because we are not even in control of that. Some people TRY to control the graying of their hair, but it is just a  cover-up. We cannot even control the color of our hair or how much we have - what makes us think we are able to control our own future?

James speaks on this subject as well:

James 4:13–16 CSB
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” 14 Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. 15 Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

What seems to be a common thread among these things we swear by, is that in that in each case, when we swear by either the divine, or our own life, we are assuming the place of God. 

THAT would be why Jesus said that to do so is from the evil one.  

The first temptation by the evil one was to make humans believe that they could be “like God”. The power struggle of wanting to be in control to be confident in our own decisions, direction and future is a temptation we all face. 

When we swear regarding future plans or commitments (like Hannah) we must be careful that in our heart we are not believing that we are in control of the future and can guarantee tomorrow.

Do not fall into the trap of the evil one - thinking you are a god and in control. And do not be like the evil one - telling lies and distorting the truth. 

Instead, be people of integrity. Let your words be countable. 

Can your co-workers, bosses, family members, children, count on your words? Even more, can God count on them?


Sermon on the Mount: Oaths