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. (Matthew 5:33–37)
It is not good enough that we are careful never to swear falsely. Jesus commands His people not to swear at all, by heaven or earth, or by any person or place. Simply say yes or no. Jesus said, “Anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (v. 37). This is a significant teaching. It is the message behind the practice of Quakers and others who choose to follow it carefully. In such cases, most courts allow those with such conviction to say that they “affirm” rather than “swear” when taking an oath of office or testifying in court.
The bottom line of Jesus’ teaching is that we are always to be honest. Because of their obedience to this command, the early Quakers gained a reputation for being trustworthy. Quakers do not swear oaths of any kind. In addition to the practice being clearly forbidden in Scripture, as we have seen, the act itself is illogical and to some extent, insulting. Quakers understand that when one speaks one is either telling the truth to the best of one’s knowledge or telling a lie. The repeating of an oath does not magically change what is in someone’s heart and implies that someone may for some reason tell the truth simply by virtue of taking the oath as opposed to simply being honest in all things.
To swear is to make a solemn appeal to almighty God as a witness to a statement or transaction, saying something such as, “God is my witness.” In early times, the Jewish oath, “As the Lord liveth,” was held sacred. Then, later, the rabbis taught that if God was not mentioned, then the oath was not binding. As a result perjury was rampant. Jesus was so against this practice He said anything more than a simple yes or no was evil. To say any more infers that you are so liable to be dishonest that there must be an oath before you can be trusted.
James 5:12 deals with this same theme and says that if you say more than yes or no you may fall under judgment: “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.” It almost seems that Jesus is saying, “Even if people won’t believe you, don’t drag God into it.” God is not interested in verifying everything anyone says just because they mention His name. He is condemning people who treat oaths with contempt by making them casually or thoughtlessly.
In Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew (p. 192 ff.), the historical context of Jesus’ statement is explained. Apparently, in ancient societies, oath taking was considered dangerous, since they essentially called upon a deity of some kind to execute vengeance in the event that the oath was not fulfilled. Therefore, a flippant or false oath was, in a very real sense, blasphemy because God’s name was misused for wrong purposes.
According to Tekton, an education and apologetics ministry, “The Greek philosopher Pythagoras and others similarly taught, ‘let one’s word carry such conviction that one need not call deities to witness.’ In the context of Jesus’ own day, there existed a ‘popular abuse’ of oath-taking in which surrogate objects were introduced to swear by, so as not to profane the divine name—things like the right hand, Jerusalem, God’s throne, and the head. Jesus also addresses this practice in his directive not to swear on such objects, as some thought it easier to break an oath if they swore on something inanimate rather than God.” (See http://www.tektonics.org/lp/oathswear.html.)
People should know that they can count on what you say, and that no confirmation of any kind is necessary. We should develop such a good reputation for honesty that people will not require proof of what we affirm. We will be respected for such a stand. May God help us to guard our reputations.
God, give me a new understanding of Your position on swearing oaths. Help me to so speak and so live that those around me will know that they can rely on me to speak the truth. I thank You, Lord Jesus, that You Yourself are truth. As I speak truth, may it always be the truth in love that marks You and Your followers.
–Adapted from Encountering Jesus: Praying the Commands of Christ into Your Life by Norval Hadley. This book is available at prayershop.org. Use the code CONPSP3 at checkout to receive an additional 10% discount.
Glorify the Almighty God, who has the power to defeat your accuser and deceiver, Satan (Rev. 12:7-10). Thank God that his immeasurable power is at work within you (Eph. 3:20). Confess those times when you have tried to battle against Satan in your own strength. Commit yourself to living in God’s all-surpassing power (2 Cor. 4:7). Ask God to help you see how his power can be made perfect in your weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Pray for those countries that are clearly under Satan’s power, marked by cruelty, injustice, and horrible poverty. Ask God to bring his light into the darkness.