Scripture: “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
Observation: In this fourth transformation of Levitical law, Jesus summarizes a compilation of Old Testament verses addressing taking oaths, particularly when inciting the name of the Lord:
- Leviticus 19:12 – “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” ESV
- Numbers 30:2 – “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” ESV
- Deuteronomy 23:21 – “If you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin.” ESV
In Jesus’ day, some religious leaders had compromised oaths to where only those invoking the name of the Lord were binding. If people sought to loophole their commitment, they would swear by less sacred things: heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or the altar (see Matthew 23:16-22). Indeed, with such commonplace duplicity among Israelites in the first century, the historian Josephus writes of the one sect that maintained their integrity regarding promises: the Essenes. He observes, “Any word of theirs has more force than an oath; swearing they avoid, regarding it as worse than perjury, for they say that one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already (Josephus, J.W. 2:135).
The Essenes, an outlier of mainstream society, modeled what it means to have the integrity of the law written on one’s heart. Indeed, their firm stand against oaths echoes Jesus’ sentiment: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (verse37 above).
Takeaway: As the Essenes imply, we judge ourselves when we deceive others with promises we never intended to keep. But there remains a proper context for making a vow, such as the Nazirite vow, a commitment to separate oneself to the Lord attested by the outward signs of abstaining from strong drink, letting no razor touch the head, and distancing from dead bodies (Numbers 6:1-21). Similarly, our prayer of faith (confessing our sins and asking Jesus to be the Lord of our lives) is our vow to consecrate ourselves to our Triune God. In return, he promises to:
- never to let us go (John 10:28)
- finish the marvelous work he has started in us (Philippians 1:6)
- work all things for our good (Romans 8:28); and,
- let nothing separate us from his love (Romans 8:38-39).
Thus, with his glorious assurances, there is no reason to equivocate. We say “Yes” or “No” no matter the circumstances, for the truth will set us free (John 8:32). So whether others interrogate us or ask us to make commitments, we need not fear the consequences of rejection. Because even if we err with our “Yes” or “No” response, Christ’s grace abounds: His Holy Spirit will redirect us in all truth (John 16:13). And this we know to be true: all the best things in life are “Yes” in Christ Jesus!
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who is the way, the truth, and the life. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who guides us in all truth. Would you please help us to be truth-tellers who do not mislead with our intentions or swear by your name but solely say “Yes” or “No,” confident that all the best things in life are “Yes” in Christ Jesus? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling