People make oaths, vows, and promises all the time. We do this, for example, when we marry, testify in court, pledge allegiance to the flag, join the military, become a doctor, join a church, or just say, “I swear to God”. But, how does this relate to what Jesus said about oaths in Matthew 5:33-37:
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.
Jesus’ words on oaths are found in Matthew 5–7, in which we find Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount.
The general idea of this passage isn’t complicated: tell the truth. Commenting upon this passage, Craig Keener said, “Human cultures developed oaths because people could not trust their neighbors without calling an avenging deity to witness; but those who recognize that God witnesses every word must speak and act from integrity of heart that transcends such formalities.”
Those whom Jesus has redeemed and who are members of his kingdom have no need for oaths. Having “put away falsehood” as a way of life, we speak the truth with our neighbors (Ephesians 4:25). However, the fact remains that we still live in a fallen world, and people lie all the time. We’re not fully at home in the kingdom just yet. So, many wonder how to we operate in a world where oaths still seem necessary?
Context of Matthew 5:33–37
As with any text, it’s important to establish some context. As D.A. Carson says, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.”
First, the subject of oaths stems from the Old Testament. This is why Jesus says in verse 33, “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.’” Even though this saying isn’t an exact quotation of any particular verse, it does capture the heart of the Old Testament teaching on oaths found in such passages as Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21. If performed properly, oaths were approved by God and served to show allegiance to him over idols.
However, by Jesus’ time, oaths were being widely abused. R. T. France explains:
Oaths normally invoked God as the guarantor of the person’s word, and it was this which made it so serious a matter to break them: it was a misuse of God’s name (Exod. 20:7), a profanation (Lev. 19:12). In response some Jews had already developed the habit, which underlies much of our “social swearing” today, of finding more innocuous substitutes for the actual name of God; here Jesus lists oaths by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and one’s own head, while in 23:16–22 he will add a further list (the temple, the gold of the temple, the altar, and the gift on the altar). Such casuistry . . . receives very short shrift since heaven, earth, and Jerusalem are inseparably linked with God as his dwelling and possession.
Just as we do today, the people in Jesus’ times didn’t take oaths seriously but rather offered them casually, much like our common saying, “I swear on my mother’s grave.” This attitude provokes Jesus’ words, “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” (Matthew 5:34–36).
Jesus attacks lame attempts at avoiding a solemn promise to God. Therefore, in this context, Jesus’ purpose seems to be more about correcting false ideas about oaths than it is about rewriting the Old Testament and changing the law. As with all of his “You have heard it said, but I say to you” sayings, Jesus points us to the true intent of the law through the mountain of misconceptions.
Given this context, we’ll explore two common views of this passage.
In the passage in question, Jesus does say, “Do not take an oath at all.” So, wanting to follow Jesus, some people take this literally. If Jesus says don’t take an oath, we don’t take an oath. Pretty simple.
Over the years, this has been the position of several groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as orthodox Christian traditions, such as the Mennonites. Some scholars also see this kind of radical tone to Jesus’ words.
The strength of this view, of course, is that it takes the text at face value. Oaths were basically a necessary evil before Christ due to the sinfulness of humanity. But in the new order, in the kingdom of God, there is no need for oaths. There is no darkness in the children of light—they speak the truth.
However, one of the main disadvantages of this view is that oaths appear to be used elsewhere in the New Testament, possibly by Jesus himself.
In Matthew 26:63–64, the high priest says to Jesus (emphasis mine), “I adjure you [i.e., “put you under oath”] by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” and Jesus answers him. Then in Acts 18:18 we read, “Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers . . . At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.” Also, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (see also: Galatians 1:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). If Jesus was interested in communicating a literal observance to his command, it seems that he may have failed it himself, as well as Paul.
Another disadvantage of this view is that it sets itself up for failure by developing a new form of legalism, the very problem that Jesus was addressing. As France suggests, refusing to take an oath based on this passage can, “convey quite the wrong impression,” treating Jesus’ words “as if they were a new set of literal regulations to replace those of the scribes and Pharisees.”
View #2: Jesus Rejects Abuse of Oaths
The other view commonly held is that Jesus doesn’t reject taking every oath, but rather the misuse of oaths. The idea is that his point is more about being people of truth than it is about literal oaths. As mentioned above, “Much of oath-taking in Jesus’ day had become a tool which, in the hands of the clever and manipulative, fostered the diametrical opposite of the divine intention of the oath.”
Jesus, then, uses hyperbole to make his point. The intention of the law was not that humans would create ways around it but rather that they would be truthful in their speech. Many Bible commentators hold to this view.
The basic idea is that oaths, “should not be needed, but in practice they serve a remedial purpose in a world where the ethics of the kingdom of heaven are not always followed.”
The point is clear: oaths should be used with caution before God. Our primary focus should be on becoming people who live with authenticity and honesty, not people who casually make promises we don’t or won’t keep. We should take very seriously Jesus’ admonition against using oaths flippantly.
Jesus calls us to live like children of the kingdom, and children of the kingdom are those who “swear to their own hurt” (Psalm 15:4), meaning they live in honesty and integrity even when it causes personal pain and difficulty. As Jesus has taught us, the truth, no matter how painful, is what sets us free.
We live in a deceptive world. The ease of presenting a false image of ourselves to others is perhaps the highest it has ever been in the social media-saturated culture that we live in. We need to hear Jesus’ call to be people of truth now more than ever. Jesus’ rejection of oaths is about being the kind of people who say what they mean and mean what they say.