Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 5:33 “Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time,
Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord
Jesus here brings us to a fourth contrast in delineating the righteousness which must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees (5:20). The latter said never “forswear thyself,” break an oath, in which God’s name is used. To swear by God, and then not keep one’s word, is taking God’s name in vain (EX 20:7; LV 19:12).
This teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees was valid and commendable, but they took this truth and twisted from it a false premise. They rightly said oaths involving God’s name were binding, but wrongly said oaths which evaded the name of God were not binding. By this deceit, the leaders made breaking promises a fine art, and subtly perfected a way whereby one could get away with lying.
Matt. 5:34-36 “But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it
is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is is his footstool: neither by
Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear
by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.”
Jesus, intolerant of chicanery, forbade the use of trickery and the playing of word games to escape our grave responsibility of being honest. Believers make no such distinction as words which have to be true and words which do not have to be true. We serve a God whose every word is true, thus our every word must be true. The Christian standard is absolute, our word must always be as good as our bond.
Jesus sliced through the subterfuge and deception common to His day, and charted the safest course of action to be, “Swear not at all,” a phrase He immediately goes on to explain in more detail. Had Jesus meant to do away with all oaths, there would have been no need for Him to press ahead to discuss the examples of swearing by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and one’s head. Scripture allows the taking of oaths within the parameters set forth by three general guidelines.
First, oaths are allowed on solemn occasions. In Revelation 10:5-6, the angel “lifted up his right hand to heaven, and swore by him who lives for ever and ever” (NAS). The Apostle Paul took solemn oaths, saying, “God is my witness” (RM 1:9), “I call God as witness to my soul” (2 C 1:23 NAS), God “knows that I am not lying” (2 C 11:31 NAS), “Before God, I lie not” (GL 1:20), “God is my record” (PH 1:8). To subpoena God to serve as a witness to the truth of a statement is a serious matter, a pulling down of God into human affairs. Thus, frivolous oaths are forbidden. We are not to play with oaths as children play with toys.
Second, oaths are allowed when others ask them of us. Lying is so prevalent–“All men are liars,” said the Psalmist (116:11) in haste–that sometimes distrusting persons will request an oath of us. An oath in a contract or statement of allegiance can settle controversy and set certain people’s minds at ease. “An oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute” (HB 6:16 NAS). When asked to take an oath, believers are free to consent, for we already deem our bare words as sacred as a solemn oath. Committed to truth in every promise or statement we make, we have nothing to fear by taking an oath before God. Oaths are acceptable when asked of us in official, judicial situations. Jesus, at His own trial, did not refuse to answer a question when adjured by the High Priest (MT 26:63-64). It is okay for a Christian to take an oath as a witness in a court of law, and for the President of the United States, in his oath of office, to swear solemnly, “So help me God,” which means may I never have help from God again if I swear falsely now.
Third, oaths are allowed when undertaken as an act of worship. Whenever believers take an oath, they are calling upon God, whether they use His name or not. The Scribes and Pharisees, to avoid mentioning God directly in an oath, would use euphemisms, words substituted for God out of a pretended reverence, much like the way we say for heaven’s sake, or by gosh. They claimed to forego the name of God out of reverence, but their real intent was to swear by something changeable. Swearing by something which was always changing supposedly gave swearers the option to weasal out of their promises, to change their mind if they wanted to. Jesus unmasked such pretence and sham, and told His followers their every oath carries in it an appeal to God, whether His name is mentioned or not.
To swear “by heaven” is to swear by God, for it is His “throne” and would not be heaven if He were not there. To swear “by the earth” is to swear by God, for as “His footstool” everything which happens in it is subject to His rule. To swear “by Jerusalem” is to swear by God, since the sole basis for its glory and value is the fact “it is the city of the great King,” the seat and residence of His earthly empire. To swear “by thy head,” meaning we will forfeit our life if what we say is not true (similar to our “May I be struck dead”), is to swear by God because He alone has control over our lives. We do not have even enough power over our own selves to exert any natural intrinsic influence which can “make one hair white or black.” Whatever a believer swears by is to swear by God. For us to make any kind of an oath without reference to God, at least in our heart, is utter irreverence.
Jesus taught us that the maximum regard we can ever hold for the most sacred oath should be the minimum standard for our bare word. The Jewish leaders said if God was not mentioned, He was not a partner to the transaction, but Jesus said no one can keep God out of any conversation or arrangement. When people talk and make promises, God is always present and listening.
No oath is required to bring us into God’s presence. Named or not, God is there, “not far from every one of us” (AC 17:27). No corner hides us from Him, no cranny of the heart escapes His eye, no whisper misses His ear. “All things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (HB 4:13).
If asked, we will take an oath, but none should be needed. We do not have to put our hands on a Bible, for the Bible is engraved in our heart. We do not have to lift our hand to heaven, for heaven has been placed in our heart. We take seriously the command, “Be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long” (PR 23:17).