This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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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.’ 34But 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.”
Throughout Matthew 5:21–48, Jesus states God’s commandments, then presses beyond the commands themselves to the righteousness God intends. In verses 21–26, Jesus looks beyond murder to the anger and disdain driving it. In verses 27–32, he explores the lust that motivates adultery and the legal abuse—heedless divorce—that promotes violations of the seventh commandment. In verses 33–37, Jesus’ teaching on oaths exposes another legal subterfuge that circumvents the law and impedes obedience.
Three New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
The Purpose of Oaths
The concern of these verses is the ninth commandment and the truthfulness that humans find so difficult. The tongue is guilty of false witness, lying, gossip, slander, boasting, flattery, cursing, and more. Jesus focuses on the oath, the convention designed to restrain false assertions and promises. Oaths, promises, and contracts all have the same goal: to induce people to keep their word, especially when it is tempting not to.
God taught the Israelites to guarantee their veracity by swearing, with God as witness, to tell the truth. He commanded, “You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:12). Again, “If a man vows a vow to the Lord, . . . he shall not break his word” (Num. 30:2; cf. Deut. 23:21; 1 Sam. 12:3; Prov. 29:24). By invoking God as witness, the Israelites called him to judge and avenge if they failed to perform a vow. So, the law at least regulates and mitigates the effects of sin. Laws about divorce, oaths, and property do not describe God’s perfect will; they rein in the effects of sin.
Jesus summarizes the teaching: “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform” your oaths to the Lord (Matt. 5:33). Disciples must keep their word, especially when others depend on them, even if circumstances change or oath keeping brings real loss. No one should break vows unless keeping them requires sin.
The Twisting of Oaths
In Jesus’ day, rabbis concocted a system that defeated the purpose of oaths. They taught that oaths might or might not be binding, depending on how one swore: If one swore by Jerusalem it was not binding, but if one swore toward Jerusalem, it was. If one swore by the temple, it was not binding, but if one swore by the temple’s gold, it was. If one swore by the altar of sacrifice, it was not binding, if one swore by the gift on the altar, it was.1
This illustrates the way in which certain teachers manipulated God’s Word in Jesus’ day. When they read a challenging law, they reduced it to something manageable. When they heard, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” they redefined “neighbor” so that not everyone counted as one (Luke 10:29). They refrained from adultery but claimed a right to divorce freely, then take another woman. When they did something similar with oaths, Jesus cut off oaths entirely: “Do not take an oath at all” (Matt. 5:34a).
The rabbinic teaching perverted the purpose of oaths. Instead of calling on God to assure honesty, oaths were phrased so as to avoid God’s punishment when speaking dishonestly. Since oaths no longer guaranteed anything, Jesus removed the artificial distinction between vows that invoked God’s name, which were binding, and those that did not, and were not binding. Whatever anyone swears by, Jesus says, it refers to God. If someone swears by heaven (Matt. 5:34b), he invokes God, for heaven is his throne. If someone swears by the earth (Matt. 5:35a), he invokes God, for it is his footstool. If someone swears by Jerusalem (Matt. 5:35b), he invokes God, for it is the city of the King. If someone swears by the hair of his head (Matt. 5:36), he invokes God, for he rules our heads. All oaths call God to witness, for he created and sustains all things, even our hair.
Jesus’s Expectation for His Followers
Disciples should simply tell the truth. The Essenes declared, “He who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned” (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.135; brackets original). Jesus teaches that we should be so true to our words that the need for oaths disappears. A simple yes or no should suffice. A disciple should be so reliable that no one asks for more.
This creates a question: If it is best to take no oaths, why did God take oaths? He told Abraham, “By myself I have sworn, . . . I will surely bless you” (Gen. 22:16–17; cf. Gen. 9:9–11; Pss. 95:11; 119:106; 132:11; Luke 1:68, 73; Acts 2:27–31; Heb. 6:17). Why might God do something Jesus prohibits? John Stott explains that it is “not to increase his credibility . . . but to elicit and confirm our faith.”2 That is, God did not take oaths to exhort himself to keep his promises. Nor is his credibility questionable. But humans hear so many lies that we learn to doubt. Because we break our word, and others do the same, we half expect God to be false. So God condescends to guarantee his word, for our sake.
Further, given that God took oaths, that Jesus once spoke under oath (Matt. 26:63–64), that the law permitted oaths, and that Jesus prohibited oaths, what does Scripture require? Answers vary. Literalists, such as the first Anabaptists, take no vows. As a result, they cannot hold military or civic positions. Furthermore, they adjust their speech, in formal settings, to say “I will” rather than “I swear.”
Jesus teaches that we should be so true to our words that the need for oaths disappears.
Luther and Calvin harmonized the testimony of Scripture by distinguishing public and private speech. In private, they said, disciples should tell the truth so completely that the need for oaths disappears. Yet, since Jesus spoke under oath and God took vows for those who did not know his reliability, disciples can take oaths to assure those who do not know them. For similar reasons, Paul put himself under oath, calling God as his witness (Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:10). So, for the sake of people who cannot know they are reliable, disciples may take vows. Similarly, disciples may take vows in courtrooms or to enter military or political service. In commerce, they may enter into contracts, which resemble secularized oaths.
Nonetheless, the very existence of conventions such as oaths shows that lying, deception, and careless speech are both common and destructive. At best, oaths make men pause and speak more carefully.3 In the kingdom, however, yes must mean yes, period (Matt. 5:37). Disciples should be so truthful that the need for oaths, vows, and promises withers away. Anything more comes “from evil,” that is, evil practices, or “from the evil one,” Satan himself.4
Owning Our Words
If God’s oaths reveal that humans are accustomed to hearing lies, then oaths, vows, and promises reveal that we are also accustomed to telling lies. We swear and promise because we are careless, at best. If a child asks a parent for a promise, the parent should hear it as an indictment, since it reveals that the child has learned he cannot quite trust his father’s word. His yes has not always meant yes. Ideally, a parent’s word should be so reliable that the child never thinks of guarantees. Indeed, every disciple should aim to be so reliable that no one asks him for promises.
Alas, if the goal is comprehensive honesty, every reader must face his failure: “No human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). Even if we never lie or gossip, we speak carelessly. We also remain silent when the truth is needed—or tell the truth so poorly that its power is lost. Because words are sacred, we should be “slow to speak” and must carefully weigh each word (James 1:19).
Jesus’ teaching confronts everyone with a tongue. Everyone makes promises they cannot keep, then breaks them. Everyone bends or fractures the truth. Consider when we are most prone to break a promise: We violate words spoken to the powerless—children—much more than we break promises to the powerful. We break invisible commitments (nursery duty) more than visible ones (teaching).
No one masters the tongue, because no one has a pure heart. So this word from Jesus the teacher leads to Jesus the Savior. The one who declared God’s word at the start of his ministry gave his life as an atoning sacrifice for those who disobeyed that word.
- For a sample of rabbinic regulations of oaths see Mishnah, Sanhedrin 3:2 and Shevuʼot 3:1–7:8. This commentary generally uses Jacob Neusner’s translation in The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
- John R. W. Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 101.
- Still, most NT oaths are rash (Matt. 14:7; 23:16–18; 26:72; Acts 23:12–21).
- The Greek literally says “from the evil,” which can plausibly be interpreted either way.
This article is written by Daniel M. Doriani and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Matthew–Luke (Volume 8).
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