Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV)
33 “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.’
34 But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
The passage we are considering is about oaths and vows. It may seem a little anticlimactic after all the discussion in 5:21-32 about murder, adultery, eye-plucking and hand-lopping. But the issue Jesus is addressing here goes to the very core of a person’s character – to the heart of what it means to live as a child of God.
We live in a culture in which the truth is often the first casualty of interactions between men. We have an incredibly elaborate system of lawyers and contracts and notaries and binding signatures to ensure that we do what we say we will do, at least when it’s perceived to be important enough.
And none of it makes people any more truthful. In fact, most people don’t even believe truth is an objective reality!
Changes in Moral Standards
- Biblical Morality (1800s-early 1900s) “Certain things are right and wrong, and I know why.”
- Abiblical Morality (1900-1950s) “Certain things are right and wrong, but I don’t know why.”
Changes in Moral Standards
- Immorality (1960-early 1970s) “Certain things are right and wrong, but I don’t care.”
- Amorality (late 1900s) “There’s no such things as right and wrong!”
(Fran Sciacca, Generation at Risk, 117.)
A study by Barna Research found that only 22% of adults in America believe there is even such a thing as absolute moral truth.
But the real kicker was what the study found related to those who profess to be “born again” Christians. They defined “born again” Christians as “people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus as their savior.”
Among that specific group, only 32% of adults and only 9% of teenagers said they believe moral truth is unchanging or absolute.
The study was entitled “Americans Are Most Likely to Base Truth on Feelings”
Less than one out of three born again Christians adopt the notion of absolute moral truth. The surveys also found that few Americans turn to their faith as the primary guide for their moral and ethical decisions.
Truth Is Relative, Say Americans
In two national surveys conducted by Barna Research, one among adults and one among teenagers, people were asked if they believe that there are moral absolutes that are unchanging or that moral truth is relative to the circumstances.
By a 3-to-1 margin (64% vs. 22%) adults said truth is always relative to the person and their situation. The perspective was even more lopsided among teenagers, 83% of whom said moral truth depends on the circumstances, and only 6% of whom said moral truth is absolute.
The gap between teen and adult views was not surprising, however, when the adult views are considered by generation. While six out of ten people 36 and older embraced moral relativism, 75% of the adults 18 to 35 did so. Thus, it appears that relativism is gaining ground, largely because relativism appears to have taken root with the generation that preceded today’s teens.
The surveys also asked people to indicate the basis on which they make their moral and ethical decisions. Six different approaches were listed by at least 5% of the teenagers interviewed, and eight approaches were listed by at least 5% of adults. In spite of the variety communicated, there was a clear pattern within both groups. By far the most common basis for moral decision-making was doing whatever feels right or comfortable in a situation. Nearly four out of ten teens (38%) and three out of ten adults (31%) described that as their primary consideration.
Among adults, other popular means of moral decision-making were on the basis of the values they had learned from their parents (15%), on the basis of principles taught in the Bible (13%), and based on whatever outcome would produce the most personally beneficial results (10%).
Teenagers were slightly different in their approach. One out of six (16%) said they made their choices on the basis of whatever would produce the most beneficial results for them. Three alternative foundations were each identified by one out of ten teens: whatever would make the most people happy, whatever they thought their family and friends expected of them, and on the basis of the values taught by their parents. Just 7% of teenagers said their moral choices were based on biblical principles.
What It Means
These figures were cited by George Barna, whose firm conducted the research, as a major reason underlying the data he released in a controversial recent public presentation about the moral views and behaviors of Christians.
In that forum Barna noted that substantial numbers of Christians believe that activities such as abortion, gay sex, sexual fantasies, cohabitation, drunkenness and viewing pornography are morally acceptable. “Without some firm and compelling basis for suggesting that such acts are inappropriate, people are left with philosophies such as ‘if it feels good, do it,’ ‘everyone else is doing it’ or ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s permissible.’ In fact, the alarmingly fast decline of moral foundations among our young people has culminated in a one-word worldview: ‘whatever.’ The result is a mentality that esteems pluralism, relativism, tolerance, and diversity without critical reflection of the implications of particular views and actions.”
Barna emphasized the importance of the data related to the views of teenagers and the born again population. “Just one out of ten of our country’s born again teenagers believe in absolute moral truth – a statistic that is nearly identical to that of non-born again teens. Christian families, educators and churches must prioritize this matter if the Christian community hopes to have any distinctiveness in our culture. The virtual disappearance of this cornerstone of the Christian faith – that is, God has communicated a series of moral principles in the Bible that are meant to be the basis of our thoughts and actions, regardless of our preferences, feelings or situations – is probably the best indicator of the waning strength of the Christian Church in America today.”
The researcher stated that the difference in truth views between born again and non-born again adults was statistically significant, but not much to cheer about. “When a majority of Christian adults, including three out of four born again Baby Busters, as well as three out of four born again teens proudly cast their vote for moral relativism, the Church is in trouble. Continuing to preach more sermons, teach more Sunday school classes and enroll more people in Bible study groups won’t solve the problem since most of these people don’t accept the basis of the principles being taught in those venues. The failure to address this issue at its root, and to do so quickly and persuasively, will undermine the strength of the church for at least another generation, and probably longer.”
Barna also reported that compared to a similar study his firm conducted a decade ago, the basis of people’s moral and ethical decisions these days is more likely to be feelings and less likely to be the Bible.
The words we are considering were spoken by the One who declared Himself to be the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6) – The One whose Word IS TRUTH (Psalm 119:160). And He presents us with a standard of truthfulness that is infinitely higher than the standards of men.
James seems to echo the words of our Lord in his epistle, and he puts special emphasis on this command, introducing it with the words, “above all.”
James 5:12 (ESV) 12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Our Lord’s approach to teaching does not often hand us His essential point without any mental effort on our part. Jesus uses forceful words – words that pierce into us and turn our traditions and assumptions on their heads, and He makes us think about things as we would never think about them apart from the influence of His Word.
As the writer of Hebrews says, God’s Word is… able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Some Christians have taken Matthew 5:33-37 to teach that we must not, under any circumstances, utter an oath or vow. So they refuse to take an oath in a court of law, in a marriage ceremony, or in any other situation. Is that our Lord’s point here – to create a new prohibition that didn’t exist under the Law of Moses and thereby to overcome men’s tendency to be untruthful? Part of me would love for it to be that simple, but I do not think it is.
Oaths and vows show up remarkably often in both testaments, and the Law addresses them a great many times. It is strikingly consistent that, aside from this passage and James 5:12, the rest of the Scriptures does not prohibit oaths. Indeed, the Law specifically commanded God’s people to swear their oaths in His name.
Deuteronomy 6:13-14 (the “Hear, O Israel” passage): “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you” (emphasis mine).
Deuteronomy 10:20: “You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve Him and cling to Him, and you shall swear by His name.”
These commands have in view the first and second commandments of the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:1-5 (ESV) 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me,
God’s people were to worship and serve Him alone, and were to swear by His name alone, because He is the One True God. God’s people were never to create or bow down to any image in the form of any created thing, because God alone is sovereign over all. To worship or serve anyone or anything except YAHWEH, the One True God, is to put that person or thing in God’s place. And to swear by any created thing is to make it an idol.
Leviticus 19:12 says, “And you shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.”
This prohibition against swearing falsely by the name of God is critically tied to the third commandment of the Ten Commandments. 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 (Exodus 20:7).
To take His name in vain means to invoke His name emptily, lightly, or profanely – 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, because taking the name of the Lord in vain includes taking it lightly – treating it as common or trivial.
Hebrews 6:16 speaks of the first purpose of oaths, saying that with men, “an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute.”
I find nothing in Matthew 5:33 that fails to match up with clear statements contained in the Law. The error of the Pharisees that Jesus is addressing here was not in misstating the Law; it is in mishandling the Law. They missed the point of the Law. We will come back to that shortly.
“But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black” (Matthew 5:34-36).
What is the significance of swearing “by” someone or something?
In the Old Testament, when you swore by someone, you were invoking that person as: (1) a corroborating witness to attest to your words; and (2) a judge against you if your words were found to be untrue. 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 that person, agreeing that you expected to be judged by Him if you were found to be speaking falsely. This is why, as Hebrews 6:16 says, “men swear by one greater than themselves” – i.e., one to whom they are accountable.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had put an interesting twist on all of this. They had trouble telling the truth consistently, just like you and I do, so in order to guard themselves against being found guilty of swearing falsely by the name of God, it seems that they had firmly established the habit of swearing by everything EXCEPT 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 moldy 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. James Montgomery Boice refers to this practice as “evasive swearing.”
As Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:34-36 point out, instead of swearing by God, they swore by “the heaven,” or by “the earth,” or by Jerusalem, or even by their own heads. Apparently, it got pretty silly. Oaths became like contests to see who could bind the most impressive object to his statements to give them the greatest force.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 show how absurd this all had become:
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’
17 “You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold?
18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering up on it, he is obligated.’
19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering?
20 “Therefore, he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.
21 “And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.
22 “And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon 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!
You think that in swearing by the temple you avoid accountability to God to speak words of truth? It is the shekinah glory of God that makes the temple what it is – the dwelling place of God! You think that in swearing by heaven you insulate yourself from being seen by God in your lies? Heaven is the very throne of God!
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. From 2 Corinthians 1:
17 Therefore, I was not vacillating when I intended to do this, was I? Or that which I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes, yes and no, no at the same time?
18 But as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no.
23 But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth (emphasis mine).
Verse 23 very much follows the pattern of the Old Testament oaths.
Now in what I am writing to you, I assure you before God that I am not lying (Galatians 1:20, emphasis mine).
For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:8, emphasis mine).
Paul repeatedly invokes God as his witness to emphasize the solemnity and the truthfulness of the things he is declaring, and he does so under the superintending of the Holy Spirit.
Was Paul violating the teaching of Jesus?
I don’t believe Jesus’ point in Matthew 5 is that oaths are evil or that an oath can never be legitimate. I believe His point is that the swearing of oaths as practiced by the scribes and Pharisees was evil, in its entirety – because they deliberately swore their oaths by everything EXCEPT God in a foolish effort to sidestep their accountability TO God!
Our Lord emphatically points out in Matthew 5 that God alone is sovereign over all things – heaven, earth, Jerusalem, even the hairs on your head. And you – you are sovereign over nothing, not even your own hair. No matter what you choose to swear by, it is God to whom you and I and every other created thing are accountable, and you’re accountable to Him whether you swear an oath or don’t swear an oath. You’re accountable to Him every time you open your mouth.
It would be better to swear no oath at all than to think you can contrive a way to avoid accountability before God to be a truthful person.
Our “Yes” must be yes and our “No” must be no. No oath can make that so. Being believed is nothing. Being a truthful person in the eyes of our heavenly Father is everything.
For us who are His children, our Father’s words show us how to live. May we desire to turn the light of His truth upon our own hearts first and foremost.
As you contemplate our Lord’s teaching regarding oaths and vows, I ask that you won’t focus exclusively on hashing out examples of how we fall short of God’s standard of truthfulness. I ask that you devote some time and thought to consideration of how we become truthful people – truthful from the heart.
I’m not saying our behavior doesn’t count. As children, we all start by learning how we are required to behave, then we hopefully learn to internalize the principles we have been taught. So the behavior can feed the heart, and the heart certainly feeds the behavior. But let’s focus on the goal of godly lives from godly hearts. We will not speak truth in our hearts if we are not in love with the One who is Truth.
- Brothers and sisters, let us be truthful people because we hunger and thirst for righteousness.
- Let us be truthful people because God re-created us to be pure in heart.
- Let us be truthful people because we desire to be salt and light in a world that desperately needs our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
- Let us be truthful people because we long to live out the lovely character of the One who gave us life at the cost of His own life’s blood.
- Let us be truthful people because we are our Father’s children.
That’s reason enough.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2002), p. 131.