Do Not Make Oaths at All! – Matthew 5:33-37

As demonstrated above, there was a great deal of discussion within Second Temple Judaism on the issue of making oaths and vows. Rather than define what sorts of circumstances would allow for an oath or vow could be set aside, Jesus tells his disciples to no swear oaths of any kind. Craig Keener summarizes Jesus’s teaching here as “oaths are a poor substitute for integrity” (Matthew, 192).

Truth MemeSince the Law is clear God’s name cannot be used to guarantee an oath, the Jewish people would swear by other things, with varying degrees of surety. A Greek might swear by any number of gods. In the treaty of Corinth. For example, “I swear by Zeus, Gaia, Helios, Poseidon, Athena, and Ares, by all gods and goddesses, that I will maintain peace and will not break the treaties concluded with Philip of Macedon.” The Hippocratic Oath began with the words “I swear by Apollo the physician, Aesculapius, and Health, and All-heal, and all the gods and goddesses…” By invoking the name of a god the person making the oath is calling on the god to judge them if they break their word.

Jesus forbids swearing by heaven, earth or Jerusalem as well as searing by “your head.” In Matthew 23:16-22 Jesus implies the Pharisees also swore by the temple, the altar. In each case someone is substituting something for swearing by the name of God. For Jesus, any substitute for God in an oath is just as binding as swearing by God’s name.

Swearing by one’s head may refer to one’s own life. A similar phrase appears in the Mishnah:

m.San 3:2  [If] he said to him, “If one litigant said to the other, ‘I accept my father as reliable,’ ‘I accept your father as reliable,’ ‘I accept as reliable three herdsmen [to serve as judges],’ “R. Meir says, “He has the power to retract.” And sages say, “He has not got the power to retract.”  [If] one owed an oath to this fellow, and his fellow said, “[Instead of an oath], take a vow to me by the life of your head,” R. Meir says, “He has the power to retract.” And sages say, “He has not got the power to retract.”

The problem with swearing by something is that breaking the vow not only dishonors the vow maker, but also the name (or thing) invoked (France, Matthew, 250). Jesus quoted the first part of Leviticus 19:12, the second have says the one who swears falsely “profanes the name of the Lord.” If one “swears to God” to do something and the oath-maker fails, the God himself is dishonored.

Rather than guaranteeing one’s word by swearing an oath, Jesus demands his disciples be truth-speaking people. The true disciple of Jesus speaks the truth and keeps their word when they give it. If someone is committed to the truth then their word will be respected and there is no need for an oath.

How can the disciple of Jesus live out this ideal of speaking the truth? Ulrich Luz points out “Once again the history of the text’s interpretation is characterized by attempting to remove the text’s sting and to soften it or to evade its demand” (Luz, Matthew 1–7, 266). The problem of “never swear an oath” is that virtually every society requires some sort of oath-making. This may be legal or economic. For example, if one gives testimony in a court case one must swear they are telling the truth. Any business relationship requiring payments is more or less an oath to pay off a debt by a certain time. Could a society function without legally binding contracts?

Most interpreters therefore argue Jesus is forbidding the sorts of frivolous oaths permitted by the traditions of the Pharisees. Pastors might extend this to flippant use of God’s name (“I swear to God…”)

It is also possible Jesus has in mind the used of God’s name in magical incantations. It was common in ancient cultures to use a god’s name in magical curses or blessings. Later magical papyri use Yahweh, Jesus, and other Christian “power words,” in modern swearing the speaker is using God’s name to invoke a curse on another: “God damn it” is calling on God to curse someone.

These are certainly appropriate applications of the respect for the name of God based on the commands of the Torah. But is this what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5:33-37? He is demanding his disciples be known as people of integrity, people who can be trusted to keep their words so that their “yes” is just as certain as someone who has sworn an oath by the gold of the Temple.

Unfortunately, Christians do not live up to this level of integrity. Many are willing to ignore the truth if it furthers a political agenda, many are willing to state outright lies in order to score points in a public debate. Although philosophers might have debated the nature of truth for a long time, recently the American public has endured alternative facts, different interpretations of events, and errors or obvious falsifications presented as truth. Five minutes on Facebook will show that both sides of the political landscape are comfortable telling lies if it makes the other side look worse.

As Christians, we are to be people of integrity, people worthy of trust, but some of the worst lies I have read come from people who claim to follow Jesus. But it is not just politics (or what passes for political dialog today), Christians lack integrity in other areas as well. How do Christians fail to be people of integrity? Can someone regain a reputation for integrity?

23 thoughts on “Do Not Make Oaths at All! – Matthew 5:33-37

  1. as instructed us to stay away from speaking on saying you will swear on an oath. An oath can be looked at and defined as something that is a poor substitute of a person’s integrity. Many individuals fall to making an oath under other worldly objects or things. Jesus commands us not to swear by the heavens and that is it forbidden and an act of unlawfulness. He commands to also not to swear by other people’s lives. Do not put their life on their line or even in the conversation. The issue of swearing by something is that breaking the vow not only dishonors the vow maker, but also the name or thing that was involved. If you swear by God than you are dishonoring God. Jesus would rather us be truth speakers and spread truth instead of putting your hope on false objects. Jesus also commands us not to use God’s name in vain but strictly use his name to bring honor and glory. “He is demanding his disciples be known as people of integrity, people who can be trusted to keep their words so that their “yes” is just as certain as someone who has sworn an oath by the gold of the Temple.” The sad part is most Christians run away from the truth because they are trying to show off to the world. As Christians we need to be people that are worthy of trust and that are full of integrity.

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  2. Jesus has instructed us to stay away from speaking on saying you will swear on an oath. An oath can be looked at and defined as something that is a poor substitute of a person’s integrity. Many individuals fall to making an oath under other worldly objects or things. Jesus commands us not to swear by the heavens and that is it forbidden and an act of unlawfulness. He commands to also not to swear by other people’s lives. Do not put their life on their line or even in the conversation. The issue of swearing by something is that breaking the vow not only dishonors the vow maker, but also the name or thing that was involved. If you swear by God than you are dishonoring God. Jesus would rather us be truth speakers and spread truth instead of putting your hope on false objects. Jesus also commands us not to use God’s name in vain but strictly use his name to bring honor and glory. “He is demanding his disciples be known as people of integrity, people who can be trusted to keep their words so that their “yes” is just as certain as someone who has sworn an oath by the gold of the Temple.” The sad part is most Christians run away from the truth because they are trying to show off to the world. As Christians we need to be people that are worthy of trust and that are full of integrity.

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    • As I mentioned in my initial post, Can you swearing really be that bad when you are telling the truth. What do you think the problem is with swearing with the Christian world? I find that people walk on egg shells whenever a topic like swearing is brought up. Within our judicial system, it is require for people to swear under oath. And people still lie on the stand. This very action put numerous innocent people in jail and even put to death. Now I understand why it is wrong to swear, due to the fact people lie, but there’s nothing man can do about that. We have up to God to handle what people do when it comes to swearing. I swear to prove that I being sincere and very serious about whatever I am talking about. For the reasons people need the confirmation from the person swearing that they are telling the truth. In cannot help people abuse this action, but what else in the world is not abused/ overused. Might as well be the word “Love” and “Sorry” in this conversation. How many times do people hear bad news from a friend and tell them that they are sorry, in reality are they really sorry about what they heard or just looking out for the person’s best interest. Same thing with love, I can say I love Bob Dylan, but let’s say Bob Dylan enemies planned to execute me if I confess to loving Mr. Dylan, indeed I would not do so.

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  3. Christians today have started to have a problem with being honest. Everyone seems to have an ulterior motive, making them stretch the facts and not tell the truth in order to get their point across. Telling the truth has a great impact on a person’s credibility/reputation. If someone lies once, it can be hard to trust that person again. It is one thing for non-Christians to lie and stretch the truth, but Christians are called to be above those who are non-Christians. This has become a huge problem and it needs to be fixed. “The last verse of our passage permits us to widen the scope of the passage to see that followers of Jesus are called to live with utter honesty” (McKnight, p. 119). We are called to live with complete honesty. Telling partial truths or outright lying is not right. This needs to be something that each individual strives to do in their own lives.

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    • I think you made really great points about how Christians and disciples of Jesus are meant to live. We are meant to be honest and true. Our word is meant to be so true that we do not have to swear or make an oath so that people will believe us. However, as you mentioned, this is not always true for non Christians and for Christians. We live in a world where it is so easy to be tempted to lie or tell a partial truth. Jesus is calling us to live lives that are full of truth. Something that I am wondering is if we are able to live in a way where our word is true, would our society be able to just accept what someone says without an oath? How would our world look if we did not always have to make oaths for anything we do?

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  4. McKnight writes that “simple honesty emerges in concrete ordinary events” (119). God does not look for an incredible, completely upright individual to fulfill His purposes because there is no such person. We are all sinful and we have all stumbled in character at some point or another. When I think about simple honesty emerging in ordinary events, I immediately think of a person who is the same in front of a crowd as they when they’re alone. A follower of Christ can “put on a show” by being excited in worship, involved through their service, or even plugged into small groups, but that doesn’t mean there is an intimate relationship with the Lord. From my own experience, it is very common at my church for members to be super involved in everything. I have to consistently check my heart and motives to make sure that I am on the right track before the Lord, not only before man. And isn’t it so easy to fall into the trap of wanting to be accepted/known by the people around us? I would argue that we repeatedly forget that the only opinion that matters or holds any weight is what God says about us. That is why I love what David says in Psalm 51:10-11, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Renew a right spirit within me – these six words should be constantly on our lips as we pray to God. Which is another concrete ordinary event that we tend to push to the back burner. Being humble before the Lord in prayer and asking Him to make us into people of integrity. I don’t believe there are any huge hoops to jump through in order to have integrity. It is quite simple, but we must first realize that it is impossible without the Lord’s guidance and strength.

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  5. I feel that the twenty first century has a different opinion on the value of words compared to the first century. In the first century, your word was your bond. If you stated you would do something, or even gave an oath, it was a big deal. If that oath was broken, great consequence would come upon the oath giver. The oath giver would lose respect in the community. However, this is not the case today. It is common, or even accepted, to be what the kids call “flakey”. This is a person who says they will do something and then never do. There is little sincerity or authority in oaths and given words today. It is important for Christians to be true to their word. Integrity implies honesty and high morals. If a man says one thing and does another, promises one thing and does another, how can be be called a man of integrity? As Jesus stated in Matthew 5, let your yes be yes and your no be no. Stick to your word and there will be no need to swear great oaths for people to believe your intentions.

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  6. Going off what Nick said, there is a lot of deceit going around today; especially around those who don’t believe and live to a higher standard. McKnight reminds us that we are to live righteous and humble lives and having a characteristic of telling the truth goes leaps and bounds in today’s day in age. Telling the truth or not telling the truth determines how we are interpreted and as Christian’s we have bigger obligations and are held to a higher standard. People constantly look for when we slip up and call us hypocritical but in fact we are only human. and in the end what matters is if we made the right decision or not. Finally, God tells us that we must tell the truth and be honorable for His sake. So, at the least we should be honoring God with what we do and this is one way we are called to show the love and testimony of Jesus Christ.

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  7. I think people have a trouble with swearing on oath, because the flaws of man. We are bound to not keep our word due to certain circumstances and sometimes to get ourselves out of trouble. At the same time, I believe that it is not bad of thing to swear an oath. Let’s see what the bible says about swearing.
    “But I tell you, do not swear an oath 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.”- Matthew 5:34-36
    This is telling man to swear to God, your town, family, etc. At the same time we are expected to swear under oath in court? In my opinion, the court can be a corrupted system as well, does this apply to the court system as well. They swear under oath believing that whoever is testifying will tell the truth. These are people who’ll do whatever to get their point across. Therefore, I believe swearing under should not prohibited for the very reason that it’s a way to show sincerely. We cannot help rather or a person being truthful or not. We will have to leave that for God to decide what he should about this. In the book, Sermon on the Mount, Mcknight clearly states “simple honesty emerges in concrete ordinary events” (Mcknight, 119) therefore the ball is in our court.

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  8. This post brings up the sad reality that so many Christians fall short of being trustworthy people or as you say people of integrity. If the true intent of Jesus’ words here is to explain that for his disciples there is no need to make oaths because we should have such an integrity already that no one would ever need to question whether or not we will follow through with what we say, then my question is, didn’t he also know that we would never stop sinning? We will never reach the point of full integrity no matter how hard we try just because our role is not to be perfect. We are to strive to be like Christ (who was perfect), but that is the whole reason why we are not God. Jesus even states anything beyond yes and no comes from the evil one. I think God recognizes that we will fail, but making oaths is something that is so overlooked today that we do not even associate it with integrity. We just do it as we go through the motions. McKnight points out that Jesus calls oath making to a complete stop (115) which means that he is more concerned with our hearts than with the silly promises we make when only he knows what our every second holds. I think the church needs a reminder of just what the intent of our hearts are when we make promises? Is it to make ourselves look better? Jesus also teaches that pride comes before the fall. If we strive to be people of integrity, honesty and vulnerability will spread.

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    • Mary, you bring up some really good points. The idea that Jesus does already know that we will not stop sinning because we come from a sinful nature is important to point out. Even though he knows this, he still gives us this command. I think that it is important to look at the idea that even though he knows this, he wants us to continue to strive to be more like him. He had such great integrity and the only way that we will have integrity like his is if we learn to be more like him. Jesus commands us to take up our cross daily and to follow after him (Matthew 16:24). I think that when we start to do this, we will in turn start to think like him and our integrity will grow as well as we will turn away from this pride that you speak of.

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  9. I think you bring up a couple very good questions! First you said, “How do Christians fail to be people of integrity (Long, 2018)?” Your second question was, “Can someone regain a reputation for integrity (Long, 2018)?”
    To answer your first question, I believe there are multiple ways. As you mentioned, just look on social media. I know many people that claim to be Christians, but are they really living a life the way that Jesus would want. In reality, no one lives a perfect life. No one’s life is acceptable to God. But, we can live out or Christian values and practices. I understand that there are different backgrounds and people believe different things. So, it all depends on how you interpret things. But, as Christians, the core belief is still there. Also, the only people that truly know if you are a Christian, is you and God. Nobody else can make that decision for you. But, the way you act can speak volumes about your personality.
    Your second question is a tough one for me. I am all for redemption and people need to be given second chances. On the other hand, there are some things that are tough to forgive. As Christians, we need to forgive, but it can be tough sometimes. It is especially tough for me, because integrity is extremely important for me. I believe that doing things the right way is the only way to do it. Scot McKnight says that simple honesty goes a long way. This was the section in the chapter that stuck out to me. This is what integrity is. Tell the truth. It goes a long way. People notice it. There are definitely times it would be easier to live life without integrity, but simple honesty goes a long way (McKnight, 2013).

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  10. I’m pretty sure I hear more oaths now a days than I hear compliments. I think a lot of people get oaths mixed up with being evil. So then people go around trying not to swear by anything they are missing the point. Jesus said to let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. I think the point is just that Jesus wants what we say to actually mean something. We as Christians should be above reproach in what we say. There should be no need to involve a higher power in what we say. There is no reason to drag God into your commitments so why swear in His name? Christians do get a bad wrap in politics but everyone in politics seems to lie. It takes a lot for me to consider ANY politician trustworthy. I think the church just needs to remind people that our yes should be yes and our no should be no.

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  11. “From the beginning honesty was the assumption for human interactions. Without that assumption trust breaks down culture into chaos (McKnight pg.111).” When we are kids in elementary school we are told that lies are bad and we should never lie. In church our Pastors tell us that lying is a sin. But once we get older we are told “white lies” are ok to use to not hurt some else’s feelings. That its ok because white lies are harmless. The point of oaths “in framing honest statements in courts, Israelites took oaths that made their statements legally obligating because they implored the presence of God (McKnight pg.112).” WE take oaths in courts and public offices today that by swearing this oath that whatever you say is the truth and nothing but the truth. But what’s the point for a dishonest politician or judge to take an oath on the bible or in God’s name when they don’t believe in God or what the bible says.

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  12. The first point that caught my attention in this blog post was “The problem with swearing by something is that breaking the vow not only dishonors the vow maker, but also the name (or thing) invoked”. That is completely accurate and something that people nowadays do not directly think about unfortunately. We are often caught up with how we look if we make a vow and break it. We instantly worry about our reputation that we have put on the line. We forget to quickly about the name that we swore by. In our case as Christians, this name would be God or Jesus Christ. McKnight states it well when he says ” the Bible permitted oaths, but Jesus calls the whole thing to a final stop… Jesus steps in to say kingdom people are so honest there is no need for any oaths. They always tell the truth because they indwell the kingdom now” (McKnight, pg.115). This quote ties in well with the idea of integrity also. First it is pointing out that we no longer need to make oaths but it is also saying that we should be honest enough people in the first place. We should have a great level of integrity that we should not even need to make an oath to win anyone’s trust over in the first place. A person of great integrity is often well trusted because they have not given anyone a reason to doubt. There was no need for an oath in the first place. I think that Jesus is going beyond the idea of how he wants to eradicate oath making and is getting to the heart of the point that we should just be honest in the first place.

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  13. I believe that making oaths is where many Christians fall short in keeping them. We are then generalized as a not trustworthy. Yet, many people are forgetful people and do not tend to be untrustworthy. We just do not know how to bond ourselves with what we say. I believe that these century people say things, just to say them. They do not usually mean what they say and so when they take an oath they do not know how much that means to people. My mother always taught me let your words mean something in life. Do not commit to something that you can not do. Which a hundred percent true. Why are people so use to be flakey people who are not reliable when Jesus told his followers “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no”. Why do we have that standard nowadays? We live in a world full of sin and many christian have not changed from what the word is tell them. They live life how they see fit, yet they should be changing their routines and how they should not say things to say things. Actually mean them.

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  14. I think that when talking about Christians more often that not we forget that they are humans. I am not trying to justify anyone’s sin, but let’s be real, being a Christian does not mean perfection. Now, we should strive for Jesus’ standards which can be translated as perfection, but when we fall short (which is pretty much all the time) we forget that it is part of being human while trying to be a Christian. There is also another side of the story, the one in which “christians” take advantage of that title and constantly lie, deceive and take advantage of other people. How do Christians fail to be people of integrity? Pretty simple: we are trying to do “life” on our own, and our sinful nature tends to overpower our christianity. I think it’s when we forget about our need of Jesus that we try to handle matters in our hands and that’s when our flesh usually wins. As far as regaining the a reputation for integrity, it is very hard, specially in the public setting. It’s also hard because reputation is up to those people around the offender, it takes into account someone else’s perspective. Definitely some people will have more grace towards the offender than others, but as Christians we are called to forgive and love one another.

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  15. As Christians, we are to be people of integrity, but that does not mean that we are perfect and in our sinful nature, lie, cheat, etc. We see in McKnight that from the beginning, there was an assumption of honesty in all human interactions, and breaking this trust brings chaos, just as in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve don’t tell the full truth to God (p. 111). We fail to be people of integrity when we begin to stray away from God and control our own daily lives, such as McKnight’s example of wandering eyes during a quiz or even source checking papers. When trying to regain their reputation of integrity, it can be tough, and although it can be accomplished, that individual has to works to show that they can be trusted, and that they have every intention of regaining their positive reputation, and first coming to terms with what they did to lose their reputation. When we try to do things on our own as Christians, we tend to fail to be people of integrity, but when we let God work within us and guide our words and our actions, we will be people of integrity.

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  16. As Christians, we are called to live lives full of integrity and honesty. In reality though, this rarely happens. Romans 3:23 tells us that all fall short of the glory of God. This shouldn’t mean that we can’t strive to live a life of integrity. McKnight even states that a woman was “stunned by our simple honesty, but i think that she was stunned because our world’s system far too often works the other way” (p. 120). As Christians, we should be this light to the world and to live a life full of integrity. We have to have God work in and through us to show people what integrity looks like because of our sinful nature.

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  17. as humans we make way too many promises that we cant keep, which brings the face value of our word to plumite to the ground. as christians i think we make some of these promises because we can and if we dont hold up our end we think its okay because we are forgiven. but in all reality it diminishes us and doesnt bring glory to God like we are meant to do. we are meant to live good and honest lives, to live in a way that brings glory to God. and in making promises or oaths we diminish that.

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