Matthew 5:33-37 – “Let Your Yes, Be Yes!”

oath Just as in most modern cultures, swearing oaths was common Jesus day. Swearing oaths was permissible by the Mosaic Law (Deut 23:21-23).  An oath was pronouncing a curse upon one’s self if the truth was not spoken, or a promise is not fulfilled. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo defined an oath as an “appeal to God as a witness on matters in dispute, and to call him as a witness to a lie is the height of profanity” (Spec. Leg. 2.10).

This was an important issue in lawsuits and daily life since it underscored the truthfulness of one’s statement. The oath was only required where truthfulness was in doubt, possibly in a legal situation.  The Law allowed for oath making but emphasized the importance of keeping an oath.  If you promise something you are to keep that promise.

Traditionally one would “swear by” something.  Swearing by the name of God (or a god) was common (Exod 20:7, Lev 19:21), but God did not want his people using his name for oaths they did not intend to keep. Swearing by the King’s name was possible since the king in Israel was to be God’s representative. One might swear by his own life that his word was true, something like “swearing by my head.” Swearing by “heaven and earth” was also common, as was swearing by the angels, the temple, or parts of the temple.  Oaths sworn on things other than God were “less binding,” they were less serious (Matt 23:16).

Jesus is reacting against those persons who invoke God by oath and do not fulfill that oath. By swearing an oath the hypocritical Pharisee would imply that he was truthful.  But then he would say later than an oath made on the temple isn’t binding.  This is the issue in Mt. 23 16-20.  It is the equivalent to a child saying “had my fingers crossed.”

As with each other extensions of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ ideal is an absolute virtue: Do not swear oaths you cannot or don’t intend to keep. If you cannot keep an oath, it is better to not swear oaths at all! The problem Jesus is getting at is that if your word cannot be trusted then you are nearly worthless to the kingdom of Heaven.

In contrast to swearing oaths you may not keep, Jesus says:  Let your “yes” be “yes”, your “no” be “no”.  This simply means tell the truth, and faithfully do what you promise. Like the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is extreme and hyperbolic – does he really mean his people ought never swear an oath? Like self-mutilation in the adultery passage, Jesus’ extreme statement emphasizes the heart of the original command: be honest and keep your promises!

This is a radical concept in our day as much as it was in Jesus day.  He is commanding that we live by the words we say!  If we promise it, we have to do it. Like anger and lust, Jesus stands in the tradition of the Wisdom Literature. Proverbs 12:17 and 19:5 threaten the false witness with punishment and Sirach 23:9 says “Do not accustom your mouth to oaths, nor habitually utter the name of the Holy One” and in 41:19 “Be ashamed of breaking an oath or agreement.” Like Jesus, the wisdom writers warn against swearing oaths in haste that will not be kept.

How does this principle of “let your yes be yes” extend to other areas of life? If we willingly break a law or policy we promised to keep, are we guilty of not “letting our yes, be yes”?


NB: While I did not cite this article, it was very helpful: Don Garlington, “Oath-Taking In The  Community Of The New Age  (Matthew 5:33–37)” TrinJ 16 (1995): 139–70.


14 thoughts on “Matthew 5:33-37 – “Let Your Yes, Be Yes!”

  1. The two points I observe are that everything is God’s and that we need integrity. Jesus tells the people not to swear on heaven because that’s God’s throne, not swear on Earth because that’s his footstool, and not to swear by your own head because we have no control over it God is the one who changes its hair color. Jesus is laying out the fact that God is in control. With God being in control than we must do what he expects of us. If we say we are going to do something we should do it otherwise we are liars and have no integrity. It is difficult to represent God when you are making promises and not honoring them. And this idea of integrity should be in all areas of our lives not just in our vow making. Although everyone signs up for an email or website and agrees to the terms and conditions, but does anyone actually read them? We are saying yes and we don’t even know what we are saying yes to. Or when we get our license we agree to obey the laws of the road, but again everyone at some point has looked down and noticed they were going a little faster than the limit whether on purpose or not. I don’t know if it means we are breaking our vow, but it does seem we have a crack in our integrity. It would be interesting to see how Jesus would respond to these issues today.

  2. Letting our yes be yes can relate and extend to almost every area of our lives. It is how we act and respond to things. People say things all the time, they say they will do one thing or promise to do another. We have those people in our lives that when they do promise something, we do not think anything of it because we do not believe what they have promised will actually happen.
    If we willingly break a promise we made then es we are guilty of that. It is very important that when we say we are going to do things that we do them. When we start to not back up things we say, people will not be as willing to listen to us or trust us, it hurts our accountability. We trust in the Lord and we know he does not break promises.

  3. As Christians, we have a higher calling to be in the world but not of the world. When others are making empty promises and oaths, Christians should be the ones reflecting the God who keeps His promises. There are plenty of passages that stress the importance of keeping our word, and to keep God’s name sacred and holy. John 8: 42-44 is about Jesus telling His disciples that Satan is the father of all lies, and when Satan lies, he speaks from his own character. This is important to know in order to show who Christians should want to belong to and represent through their actions. Telling the truth has to do with every aspect of a Christian’s life, when people are looking and when people are not looking.

  4. Even in the first century, promises and oaths were held in a serious context. In the time of Jesus, I think these covenants were more important and relied on because a man’s word was everything. I’m not saying that it is not important today, but that the emphasis on it was different. Jesus teaches that we need to let our “yes” be “yes”, and our “no” be “no. This means that in our promises, we need to be faithful to them and be honest and tell the truth. There are many teachings that are parallel to this concept throughout Jesus’ ministry. For example, in Matthew 5:33, Jesus says: “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.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God…”. Jesus shows the impact that oaths can make. Later, Jesus explains how our “yes” should be “yes” and our “no” should be “no”. Jesus then explains that anything more than this principal comes from evil.
    I think this principal can and should be extended to other areas of our life. Because I believe that Jesus’ teachings aren’t only theological but ethical also, his teachings can apply to many areas of our life today. This can be seen in our everyday tasks that we might not even think apply. For example, paying our taxes is an agreement we have made in order to be a citizen. If we neglect paying our taxes truthfully, we are falling short of our promise. So by willingly breaking any law or policy we promise to keep, I believe we are guilty of not letting our yes, be yes. This directly relates to Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God”.

  5. If we make a promise and do not keep it, then yes…we are not letting our yes’s be yes’s. Like miller2016 said, ultimately God is sovereign. We have no control over what God is going to do or not going to do in our lives. I think Jesus stresses this issue because as his children, we should not be thinking daily that we have control over future events in our lives. If we do make a promise, we should be 100% positive that we are able to follow up with it. Because we are made in God’s image, we are to reflect His character. God makes a couple different promises to His children throughout the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, God promises us that his grace is sufficient. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 God promises his children that we will not be overcome with temptation and that there will always be a way out. In Romans 8:28, a promise is made that all things work together for good. The difference between God making a promise and humans making a promise, is that God sees our life from a bird’s eye view. He already knows what is to come, and we do not. This divine command from God is a reminder to live humbly as Christians and to live in full submission to Him because we have no control over future events of our lives.

  6. I believe that if we do make a promise and fail to keep it we are guilty of not letting our yes be yes. I really like what katelathrop said about how we have no control over what God is going to do in our lives. We are human and we are going to make mistakes every now and then. But when we make a promise to someone, we have to be 100 percent positive that we will follow through on our word. When we lie and break a promise, it shows exactly who we are and what are character is like. John 8:42-44 explains how Satan is the definition of a liar and it comes from his true character. As Christians we should show what our true character is by following up on our promises that we keep to others.

  7. I think that this teaching, in some ways, might come across as even more absurd in our culture than it did in Jesus’ day. It seems that people don’t put as much trust in the word of other people, hence the constant need for written contracts and the rise of court cases. People are so willing to sue anyone else, because keeping your word is no longer a thing of great importance. While 1st century Jewish people had issues of their own with agreements being broken, their punishments were dealt more swiftly and much more commonly. In our current culture, it is no longer quite as big of a deal to break an agreement, hence the need for things like prenuptials, in order to make it even easier for someone to get out of a marriage agreement whenever they feel like they need to. I think that Jesus is calling people to remember the way God has always kept his word with us, and that ought to motivate us to do the same with people. Jesus was the physical representation of God keeping his word, and we are to be that to the people of the world.

  8. I would say that an example of making oaths that gets broken very regularly is the oath of marriage. We look at the divorce percentage and we see that the importance of that oath that those people make means next to nothing. In my opinion, there are different circumstances that sometimes call for divorce. But for the most part, I would say that marriage and carrying through until death is an option.
    Obviously this is just one example. Overall, I would say that the reason Jesus pushes the importance of keeping oaths is because as Christians, we are called to be honorable and upright people who mirror the image of the Lord. Gen. 1:27 “So God created man kind in His own image, in the image of God He created them…” We should use this as a model and a constant reminder of how we as Christians should live out our lives.

  9. I do think that breaking an oath or promise is basically the same thing as lying. You could argue that people sometimes say they will do something, but can’t see it through because of things that are out of their control. This happens. But as Jesus explains, making promises that you’re not sure you can keep is part of what being dishonest means.
    I also think that Jesus’ “let your yes be yes, and your no be no” statement could be taken in the context of “choice words”. Though this isn’t Jesus’ own words, Paul tells us in Philippians to set our minds on what is pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. We think what we say, and if we curse, we’re not following this passage. I think Jesus has the same idea when he says this. By saying “let your yes be yes and your non be no”, I think he could be speaking against using “extra words” (swearing) along with our “yes” and “no”.

  10. I think on what Jesus is trying to tell us here is that we need to keep what we say, and don’t make any promises on things that we know we can’t keep. As others have said in their posts we, as Christians, need to be honorable and upright people. We here on earth are the first things that people see in Christ. It is like the students at GBC, if we go out into public wearing GBC clothing and all the public sees is that person being rude, disrespectful to others while wearing GBC clothing that gives a bad image on GBC, just because of that one person. Or even at sporting events too, if a visitor of the other team comes, and they are nothing but disrespectful and rude to you, you are going to have a bad image of the visiting team because of that one fan. Even though there could be thousands of other fans who are the exact opposite of that one fan. It still leaves that bad taste in your mouth. All I am trying to say is is that Jesus wants us to be truthful and loyal to our words so we don’t give a bad image to God. If we do, then all we are is liars and will give a bad image to God.

  11. I would make the argument that breaking an oath is the same thing as lying. If breaking an oath is being dishonest then I believe that constitutes as a lie. To not keep an oath was being dishonest before God, especially if the oath was done in the name of God. This is the main reason that Jesus did not want people making oaths in the name of the Lord unless they intended to keep it. An oath was a promise before God and not something to take lightly. Still today people make promises and swear by God’s name and it is never taken seriously. “You have also heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not break your vows; you must carry out the vows you make to the Lord.’ But I say, do not make any vows!” (Mathew 33 -34a). Jesus goes on to say to not bother making any vows because God does not need to be involved especially when people don’t take them seriously. He says to simply say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and to be honest.

  12. First off, I really enjoy the comparison between hypocritical Pharisees and children who have their fingers crossed behind their backs. My NIV study Bible makes note that if people told the truth and were reliable on a regular basis, the phrase “I promise” would rarely come out of our mouths. In my opinion this is the easiest blog question we’ve had yet in this class. Peer pressure instantly comes to mind when I think of the “let your yes be yes” principle. I’m a lot better at sticking to my word now then I was a few years ago, but I can remember the times in my life where I would be content saying no. Next thing you know, and a few minutes later consisting of badgering friends, my content no would turn into an “okay” or “I guess”. Or another related scenario for this principle can take place at our workplaces. When our bosses ask us (not tell us) to do something and we say yes. Then the next day they come in and the task you said yes to complete hasn’t been completed. I see this time and time again at my workplace. Your word and reliability can quickly mean nothing. I’m sure the list goes on with scenarios. I would say that if we freely break a law or policy we swore to keep, then we are indeed guilty of not letting our yes be yes. I feel like this principle gets more and more important the older we get. We lose credibility and opportunities the more we break our promises.

  13. In our culture today people do not put an importance on the promises that they make to people, they tend to be empty words that they never meant to keep. We, as Christians, have to be very careful when we make promises to people that we will keep them. Not only is this a huge test of trust, it is also how Jesus tells us to live. We need to be cautious to make only oaths we can keep, because we are called to be the light to the world (Matt 5:14). If we are not setting an example of integrity by carrying out promises and doing what we say we will, how are people supposed to trust the other things we say- like the message of the Gospel. It is important to “let our yes be yes” and make only promises that we can keep to other people and to God.

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