After dealing last week with what is admittedly the most difficult instruction in the Sermon on the Mount we now move to the next teaching of Jesus in this sermon which also presents a challenge to our understanding. 

       Matthew 5:33-37: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'  But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

       The phrase, “Do not break your oath” in the Greek means to not swear falsely and is so translated in a number of English versions.  Jesus is apparently reflecting on a statement found in Leviticus 19:12 where it is written: “Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.”  The word “oath” is a word that means promise, pledge or vow. The Hebrew word translated “swear” in Leviticus 19 is shaba (shawbah).  This is an interesting word which means “to seven oneself.”  It pertains to repeating an oath seven times to give it forcefulness.  We find a good deal of shawbah being performed in the OT.

       In Genesis 21 Abraham is seen as swearing an oath to Abimelech that he would deal kindly with him.  In Joshua 14 it’s recorded that Moses swore an oath to Joshua that he would inherit the land that he had spied out years earlier. In 1 Samuel 24 it is recorded David swore to Saul that he would not destroy Saul’s seed from off the face of the earth.  In Psalm 132 we find David, apparently in a reference to building a temple for God to dwell in, swearing an oath to God that he would do this.

       Making a promise, pledge or vow was common in OT times and apparently repeating such promise, pledge or vow seven times was considered an affirmation that what was promised would be carried out.  Using the name of God in the making of oaths was actually commanded by God.

       Deuteronomy 6:13: Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.

       Deuteronomy 10:20: Fear the LORD your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.

       It is clear that God commanded the Israelites to fear Him, serve Him only and only take their oaths in His name.  Speaking an oath in the name of the one and only God was a serious matter.  It meant that before God you were making a promise and God was a virtual witness to such promise. With God as your witness, you were in essence saying as God is faithful, just and righteous, so will I be faithful, just and righteous in fulfilling the oath I have made.  Therefore, not to fulfill such oath was to use the name of God in vain.

       The prohibition against swearing falsely by the name of God is critically tied to the third commandment of the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20:7:

          You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.

       To take God’s name in vain means to invoke His name in an empty manner.  It is to take His name lightly or profanely.  It is to use it without humbly acknowledging the holy character of the One whose name you are invoking. To invoke the name of God in an oath or vow when your statement is false or when you do not intend to honor your words is a direct violation of the third commandment. And to invoke the name of God over a trivial or inconsequential matter is also a violation of the third commandment

       In the Old Testament, oaths were to be sworn in God’s name only. They were to be used for affirming any variety of matters, and they were to be true.  Oaths were used to resolve disputes, to seal agreements or covenants, or simply to affirm the truthfulness of  declarations.

       Exodus 22:10-11:  If a man gives a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbor for safekeeping and it dies or is injured or is taken away while no one is looking, the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the LORD that the neighbor did not lay hands on the other person's property. The owner is to accept this, and no restitution is required.

       In the oath already referred to in Genesis 21, between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba, this oath served both to end a dispute and to establish a covenant. It was used to resolve a dispute over ownership of certain wells, and to seal a covenant to perpetuate the agreement about the wells.  In that covenant, Abimelech said to Abraham,

       God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned. And Abraham said, ‘I swear it’

       Later, Isaac and Abimelech reaffirmed the same essential covenant by exchanging oaths once again as seen in Genesis 26.

       In Hebrews 6:16: the writer speaks of the purpose of oaths, saying that, “Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.”

       A vow is a specific kind of oath in which the person making the vow solemnly swears to pay something to God in return for God’s favor or blessing in a certain matter. In the Law of Moses, there is a very strong connection between vows and votive offerings. A votive offering was a special form of the peace offerings made in fulfillment of a vow. In 1 Samuel 1, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, vowed that if God would grant her a son, seeing that she was barren, she would devote her son to God as a Nazirite. God did give her a son, and she fulfilled her vow, bringing Samuel to the temple and giving him over to Eli, the high priest.  The making of vows was considered a very serious matter in God’s eyes.

       Deuteronomy 23:21&23: If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin.    Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.

       Ecclesiastes 5:4-5: When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.  It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it.

       In the Old Testament, if you were going to make an oath, you did it before God.  By doing it before God you were invoking God as a corroborating witness to attest to your words.   You were invoking the name of one whose witness is reliable and trustworthy, to testify to the trustworthiness of your words. At the same time, you were acknowledging your accountability to God, agreeing that you expected to be judged by Him if you were found to be speaking falsely.  The Mosaic Law made it clear that God’s people were to swear by Him alone – not by any other God and not by any created thing.

        Genesis 31:43-55: records the covenant between Jacob and Laban. After serving Laban for over 14 years, Jacob departed Aram with his wives, concubines, children and flocks. Laban pursued Jacob and caught up with him at the place that would be named Mizpah (watchtower). After some serious verbal sparring, Jacob and Laban made a covenant with each other to respect one another’s people and possessions. They erected a heap of stones, and said that it would be a “witness” between them. But in verses 50 and 53, they explicitly declare that it is God who is both their witness and their judge. The heap of stones is ultimately just a physical memorial to their covenant, but God is the One whose name they invoke as witness and to whom they are accountable for honoring their words.

       The Jews of Jesus’ day had put an interesting twist on all of this. They had trouble telling the truth consistently so in order to guard themselves against being found guilty of swearing falsely by the name of God, it seems that they established the habit of swearing by things other than God. They wanted to add some kind of force to their promises to make their words more credible, but they didn’t want to incur the judgment of God by swearing something in His name when they didn’t fully intend to make it good or when it was not entirely true. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too. So they created what was in effect a lesser class of oaths – oaths that were bound to various parts of God’s creation rather than to God Himself.

       As Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 indicate, instead of swearing by God and only God as the law had commanded, they swore by those things God had created such as the heavens, the earth, or by the city of Jerusalem, or even by their own heads. In an attempt to avoid the judgement of God for making oaths in His name as the law required and yet not following through on such oaths, the Jews were invoking things other than God as a witness to their oaths.  Jesus points out how ridiculous this was in Matthew 23.

       Matthew 23:16-22: "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, `If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.'  You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?   You also say, `If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.'  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.  And he who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it.

       Do you see where the scribes and Pharisees had taken this, and how Jesus stands their foolish logic on its head?  They were coming up with all sorts of mental acrobatics to insulate themselves from accountability to God, and Jesus told them you cannot get away from your accountability to God by invoking things, because God is sovereign over all things!

       Jesus is virtually asking the religious leaders He was addressing if they really think that in swearing by the temple they avoid accountability to speak words of truth?  In swearing by the temple they really think they are somehow by-passing God and therefore can avoid God’s judgement if they don’t speak the truth?  Jesus is telling them that it is the glory of God that makes the temple what it is and by swearing by the temple they are still swearing by God?  The temple is the dwelling place of God!  Jesus is asking them if they really believe that swearing by heaven you insulate yourself from being seen by God in your lies.  Heaven is the very throne of God!  You are still swearing by God.

       In Genesis 24:3, when Abraham sent his servant to choose a bride for Isaac, he said to his servant. “I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live”

       Jesus is telling the religious leaders that when you use the heaven or earth or anything and all else God created to back up a promise, pledge or vow, you are involving God as your witness.  You don’t swear by the heavens or the earth! You swear by the God of heaven and the God of earth.  It is noteworthy that the One who is able to legitimately call created things to witness with Him is God Himself.

        Deuteronomy 4:25-26; “When you become the father of children and children’s children and have remained long in the land, and act corruptly, and make an idol in the form of anything, and do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you shall surely perish quickly from the land where you are going over the Jordan to possess it. You shall not live long on it, but shall be utterly destroyed”   

       God alone can call creation to witness with Him because He alone is sovereign over that creation! Men have no place to do so, because men control nothing in an ultimate sense. Jesus says we can’t even swear by our own heads because we can’t make a single hair on our heads white or black.

       Let’s now return to Matthew 5:33-37: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.'  But I tell you, Do not swear at all: …… Simply let your `Yes' be `Yes,' and your `No,' `No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

       Is Jesus here teaching that we are never to swear, that is to make a promise, pledge or vow and use God as our witness?  What do we see Apostle Paul doing?

       In 2 Corinthians 1:15 to 2:11 Paul is explaining to the Corinthians that he had genuinely intended to come to them twice, first on his way from Ephesus to Macedonia, and again on the return trip. His plans had changed, and it appears he changed his plans very deliberately because he did not want to add to their sorrow over a matter that had required their discipline of a wayward saint.

       This is a very interesting passage of scripture because in light of what Jesus taught about swearing in Matthew 5.  Paul acknowledges that our “yes” must be “yes” and our “no” must be “no,” and yet, he employs an oath to affirm the genuineness of his motivation for changing his plans.

        2 Corinthians `1:18.  When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, "Yes, yes" and "No, no"? But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not "Yes" and "No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.

       Paul is calling God as his witness in affirming that it was in order to spare the Corinthians greater sorrow over the disciplinary matters that Paul had to deal with in their congregation that he did not return to Corinth as he initial intended.  Paul is saying that his intention is not to say yes and then say no.  He compares his intentions with that of the teaching he, Silas and Timothy have provided about Christ which is always true.  But Paul is also telling the Corinthians that He changed his mind about coming to them to spare them and he calls God as his witness to back up his decision.  In scriptural parlance, that is taking an oath. Then we have this in Philippians:

       Philippians 1:16: For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.

       To call God as a witness is equivalent to performing an oath.  It is saying that your statement is as good as if God Himself was making the statement.  That is what taking an oath is all about.  It is invoking the integrity of another person as that of your own.  Since God has total integrity, to use God’s name in witness to an oath, promise or pledge is a very series matter.   What we see here, however, is Paul doing the very thing some believe Jesus prohibited in the Sermon on the Mount.

       Once again we must consider the context of the Sermon on the Mount.  The context is our righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees. After Jesus taught what we call the Beatitudes, spoke of being the salt of the earth and a light to the world, he makes the pointed statement, "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus then goes on to teach about murder, adultery and making of oaths.  As He does throughout His ministry, Jesus contrasts the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees with what the law says.  He shows how the religious leaders of the first century had distorted the law, created devious ways to try to get around the law and in general created a parallel system of law to justify their own misdeeds. I have given various examples of this throughout this series. 

     It is apparent that in making the statements He makes in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is railing against distortion of the law.  The religious leaders knew it was wrong to murder but apparently being angry with your brother and calling your brother a fool was acceptable.  The religious leaders knew adultery was wrong but came to practice divorce for just about any reason so they could marry someone else.  The religious leaders knew they were accountable to God when making an oath so they tried to get around this by appealing to what they felt were lesser witnesses in making oaths. 

       Jesus dealt with all this by making it perfectly clear what the original intent of the law was. Jesus was not making iron clad rules of behavior in his Sermon on the Mount teachings.  Jesus at times, himself, called the Pharisees fools.  Jesus, himself, became angry at times with the religious leaders as I previously pointed out in his driving them out of the temple for selling their wares.  In His teaching on adultery, divorce and remarriage, it is apparent He was not saying pornia was the only cause for divorce but that the Jews had gone way too far in justifying divorce and it therefore was tantamount to causing their divorced spouses to commit adultery. In dealing with making oaths, Jesus was not teaching that all oaths are wrong but that if you are going to circumvent the original intent of the law and claim witness for your oaths persons or things other than God, it is better you make no oaths at all but just let your yes be yes and no be no. Apostle James is saying the same thing

       James 5:12: Above all, my brothers, do not swear--not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No," no, or you will be condemned.   

       James qualifies his statement about swearing to reflect on the same misuse of swearing that Jesus discussed, appealing to entities other than the one and only God.  Like Jesus, James is pointing to the misuse of oaths and not their total prohibition.  If oaths were being totally prohibited, then Paul was violating such prohibition.

       Throughout Matthew 23, Jesus repeats over and over again, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites….” A hypocrite is someone who makes the appearance of being what he is not.

       How did they demonstrate hypocrisy in their use of oaths? They used oaths to add credibility to their statements, but their statements came from untruthful hearts. The Pharisees had developed a system for taking oaths that was contrary to what God intended.  Their oaths were no more reliable than the statement of a child who has his fingers crossed behind his back.  In their hearts, they were more interested in being believed than they were in being truthful. Everything that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount comes back to the reality that God sees straight into our hearts. He sees the malice and murder in our hearts when we cling to anger toward a brother or sister. He sees the adultery in our hearts when we gaze longingly at another person. He sees the falsehood in our hearts when we lie under oath.  He is the only lie detector with 100% accuracy!

       As we saw in Deuteronomy 6:13, it is not a matter of a prohibition against making oaths but of being sure to make them only before the one true God.  "You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name." Far from prohibiting all oaths, Isaiah tells us that "he who swears in the earth shall swear by the name of God" (Isaiah. 65:16).

       The bottom line is that we are not to swear falsely.  We are not to use God’s name in vain by appealing to God as our witness and then being less than truthful.  God’s name is profaned constantly in courts of law where people swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help them God and then proceed to lie on the witness stand.  The scriptures teach that if we are going to take an oath, it better be before God only and it better be based on a sincere intent to be truthful and fulfill the conditions of the oath.  Anything less than this is a violation of God’s will. 

       Next we will deal with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.