The Authority of the King: Jesus and Oaths (Exposition of Matthew 5:33-37)

Does it take an act of Congress to get you to tell the truth? Apparently in Florida, it does. On Thursday, April 26th, the Florida State Senate voted to require all lobbyists, lawmakers and staffers to be placed under oath each time they testify in legislative committees. Should any be convicted of knowingly telling a lie, they could face a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. What a novel idea! Requiring our lawmakers to tell the truth! The tragedy is that it is understood by virtually all, that this kind of action was necessary to promote truthful speaking in the Florida State Senate! (Source)

But this is the land we are living in today. We are living in the land of legal loopholes with many lawyers who make their substantial living helping people jump through those loopholes. We live in a land, in the words of Ralph Keyes, author of The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, when “We no longer tell lies. Instead we ‘misspeak.’ We ‘exaggerate.’ We ‘exercise poor judgment.’ ‘Mistakes were made,’ we say. The term ‘deceive’ gives way to the more playful ‘spin.’ At worst, saying ‘I wasn’t truthful’ sounds better than ‘I lied’.” We live in a world of liars and like Isaiah many of us must confess, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Sixteen years ago, in the book The Day America Told the Truth, 91 percent of those surveyed lie routinely about matters they consider trivial, and 36 percent lie about important matters; 86 percent lie regularly to parents, 75 percent to friends, 73 percent to siblings, and 69 percent to spouses.

The problem of deceitfulness is not just a 21st century problem however. It was also a 1st century problem that Jesus address plainly in His Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus confronts and corrects the misuse of language in order to accommodate untruthfulness among the people of His day. In Jesus’ words of truth we will find the antidote to this basic problem of human speech.

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’  34 But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne;  35 nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  36 Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black.  37 But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.  Matthew 5:33-37

I. What They Had Heard, v. 33.
In verse 33, Jesus summarizes the teaching of several key Old Testament passages regarding the swearing of oaths. Four of the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, address this topic:

Exodus 20:7 You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Leviticus 19:12 And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.

Numbers 30:2 If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

Deuteronomy 23:21-23 When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you. 22 But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you. 23 That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.

Here Jesus succinctly summarizes the teaching of all these verses combined with the statement: “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.” (v. 33). This seems like a reasonable summary, doesn’t it. Jesus had a gift, which most preachers lack, the gift of brevity. He could state in a few words what it would take others many words to state.

There was not one thing wrong with what the Jews of Jesus’ day had heard. It was an accurate summary of the Law on the matter of swearing oaths before the Lord. The problem was not with what they heard, but the way in which they heard. They heard, not with a desire to be truthful, but with a desire to find a loophole in the law. Does that sound familiar? We live in a day in which contracts which were once confirmed with a single word or a handshake, now require hundreds of pages of documentation, all decorated with little stars which one must either initial or sign one’s name. Why is all of this necessary? Because people cannot be trusted! The problem is that if someone will lie to you one time, they probably won’t have any trouble lying as many times as necessary to sign all of the notarized forms!

The problem which Jesus addresses in this passage is that the Jews of His day were finding loopholes to break their promises if they had only swore in one particular way. To understand this we must compare Matthew 23:16-22. In this text Jesus pronounces judgment upon the scribes and Pharisees who thought they could get out of their oaths if they had only sworn by the temple, altar, or heaven. But Jesus says that the temple is greater than the gold, the altar is greater than the gift, and to swear by heaven is to swear by the very throne of God! Jesus is showing the scribes and Pharisees the folly of their reasoning. This is the same thing that Jesus is saying in Matthew 5:34. Let’s consider next what Jesus says:

II. What Jesus Says, vv. 34-36.
Essentially, “If this is the way you’re going to use oaths, to try to get around instead of telling the truth, then don’t swear an oath at all. It’s useless!”

The attempts by the scribes and Pharisees to escape accountability for telling the truth by carefully avoiding the name of God were not successful. To swear by heaven is to swear by God’s throne! To swear by earth is to swear by God’s footstool. These words echo the language of Isaiah 66:1 in which the LORD says, “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool.” To swear by Jerusalem is to swear by the city of the great King. This a reference to Psalm 48:1-2 which states,

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised
In the city of our God,
In His holy mountain.
Beautiful in elevation,
The joy of the whole earth,
Is Mount Zion on the sides of the north,
The city of the great King.

Nor can you swear by your own head, because you don’t control it, God does. So if you were to swear by your own head, you are swearing by the God who keeps your head. The God who makes white hair, black hair, brown, blonde, and red! Jesus said in Matthew 10:30 that “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” He is sovereign over all and therefore you can’t swear by anything without swearing by something that is in someway related to Him. There are no loopholes! All promises must be kept!

Robert Mounce has written, “The very existence of a vow introduces a double standard. It implies that a person’s word may not be reliable unless accompanied by some sort of verbal guarantee.”

III. What We Must Do, v. 37.
What is our response? What must we do in light of Jesus’ teaching? It’s really quite simple: Tell the truth! Let your “Yes,” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.” Be a person of integrity in speech!

We shouldn’t have to announce when we’re telling the truth, “Now this is the truth . . . .” We shouldn’t have to cross our heart and hope to die or stick a needle in our eye. As members of the King’s New Covenant community we should be the kind of people who say what we mean and mean what we say, without any oaths, being necessary.

The point of this passage is not to forbid the use of oaths, but to promote truthfulness. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Amish/Mennonites have interpreted this text literally and refuse to take oaths to tell the truth in the courtroom. But Jesus Himself testified under oath to the high priest in Matthew 26:62-64 and the apostle Paul calls God as a witness to his truthfulness in 2 Corinthians 1:23. God Himself, “when He made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” (Heb. 6:13-14). Jesus’ point then clearly could not have been to forbid the making of oaths, but to emphasize the importance of being the kind of person for whom an oath is not necessary.

A. M. Hunter wrote, “Oaths arise because men are so often liars.” Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:33-37 and 23:16-22 is to forbid lying! In the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:25,

Therefore, putting away lying, “ Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another.

James, the brother of Jesus, warns in his epistle in James 5:12,

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.

Again, James emphasizes not swearing by heaven, earth or anything, and using that oath to avoid truthfulness, but rather to speak truthfully in order to avoid judgment (Rev. 21:8). Anything more or less is considered lying. That’s why Jesus closes His authoritative teaching on oaths by saying that adding words to feign credibility, while at the same time having the intention of not keeping those words is of the evil one tou ponerou “evil personified” or the Devil who is described elsewhere in Scripture as “a liar and the father of it.” You are never more like the devil than when you lie! When you understand this, you won’t need an act of Congress to tell you to tell the truth. You will have a higher standard, the standard of the King!

Let me close by reminding you that we are all liars.  We’ve all lied and therefore deserve the judgment which James speaks of and the Lake of Fire which is promised to “all liars.”  Only one person has ever lived without ever having spoken a lie.  Only one person of whom it could be said, “No guile was found in His mouth.”  This sinless man went to the cross of Calvary and gave His life for liars like you and me.  If you trust in what He accomplished on the cross and are willing to turn from your lying ways, you can receive forgiveness and a new heart that desires to tell the truth!

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