Matthew 5:33-37: “Again, you’ve heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You must not break your oaths, but you shall pay to the Lord your vow.’ But I say to you, ‘Don’t swear at all, neither by heaven because it’s God’s throne, nor by the earth because it’s the footstool of His feet, nor by Jerusalem because it’s the city of the Great King; nor should you swear by your head because you aren’t able to make one hair white or black! But your word should be yes, yes or no, no. Anything more than this is of the evil one!”
[The Greek word omnuo, translated “swear” could also be translated “make a vow,” “make an oath.”]
Jesus, of course, is referring to the laws in the Torah on vows or oaths. These laws are scattered through the various books, but probably the clearest statement is found in Deuteronomy 23:21-23. This spoke of vows made specifically to the LORD, which were voluntary.
“When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you must not put off paying it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you and that would be sin for you. But if you refrain from vowing, it wouldn’t be sin. Guard everything that comes out of your lips and do as you voluntarily vowed to the LORD, just as you spoke with your mouth.”
Jesus not only spoke of this issue here, but elsewhere. In Matthew 23:16-22, He tears into the Scribes and Pharisees for their casuistic methods of getting around vows.
His half brother James (who probably was present at the Sermon on the Mount) seems to have taken Jesus literally. Though he rephrases Jesus, he uses similar wording.
“But above all, my brothers, don’t swear (omnuo), neither by Heaven nor by earth, nor by any other oath. But your ‘yes’ should be ‘yes’ and your ‘no,’ ‘no,’ so that you don’t fall under judgment!” (James 5:12)
Vows in our day are made quite frequently: wedding vows, oaths of office, witnesses in court take oaths. And it seems that vows are broken nearly as quickly as they are made. Is Jesus forbidding His hearers to make such vows? There are some Christians, members of some sects, who refuse to make vows, basing their thinking on these passages.
One big problem with this is that vows are used commonly throughout the Scripture. In fact, Deuteronomy 10:20 appears to be a command.
“You shall fear the LORD your God, you shall serve Him, you shall cling to Him, and you shall swear by His Name.”
Paul used vows and he made them calling on God as his witness! (Romans 1:9; Philippians 1:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 10)
Jesus Himself testified under oath (Matthew 26:63, 64). And what about all those “Amen, amens!”? Weren’t these in a sense, oaths?
And, of course, the LORD God Himself swears (Psalm 110:4).
So how do we deal with what appear to be conflicting teachings? First of all, we need to recognize the context in which Jesus was speaking. He has been giving His interpretation of the Law of Moses, to people who had been given a rabbinic, casuistic interpretation. He was taking His hearers past that interpretation and past the letter of the Law, to the spirit of the Law. He was going beyond outward actions to the heart. We’ve seen Him do this with the laws on murder, adultery and divorce.
The rabbis of His day had developed teachings on every law in the Torah, and had gone to great lengths in deciding which oaths were binding and which were not. Jesus, in Matthew 5:34-36; 23:16-22 deals with the various items that it was thought one could swear by, which would not be binding. Apparently it was felt that if a vow were crafted a certain way, it was not legally binding. (Sound familiar?)
But Jesus cuts past all the legalese. All swearing is swearing by God! Every vow! It makes no difference if one swears by heaven or the earth or Jerusalem or one’s own head. An oath is an oath and it is made before God. And we are accountable to Him for the truthfulness of our speech. Untruthfulness is always sin. It is literally “of the evil one.” Satan, the devil was the first liar.
So the real issue is not whether or not we should make vows. We shouldn’t have to. But if we make them, they must be characterized by truth. In fact, all of the speech of a follower of Jesus must be characterized by truth. We should be the type of person from whom a simple yes or no would be adequate.