For as long as I can remember, Matthew 5:33-37 has been extremely difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Well, it’s not so much difficult to understand, because Jesus’ is pretty clear. He says what He means and He means what He says, but I’ve struggled with how this passage is to be understood and applied in a world that exists where people daily sign contracts and make “vows” between each other in order to purchases houses or cars.
So if Jesus is saying that we should simply say “yes” or “no,” than we have to agree that anything above and beyond giving our word is disobeying His teaching and if we stretch that logic out, we basically need to question whether or not purchasing homes or cars or even writing checks is a legitimate practice for Christians. Perhaps we need to simply tell the banker and the car salesman and the grocer, “Yes! I will pay you. I’m a Christian” and they should just trust the simplicity of our word. After all, we’re church-going folk and everyone knows that Christians always keep their word, right?
Okay, I’ve not only been confused by the practical application of this passage, but I’ve also been confused by how all of the different verses on this subject fit together. For example,
“You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:12)
“If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Num. 30:2)
“If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin.” (Deut. 23:21)
There’s nothing in these verses that says, “Thou shalt not make vows.” Instead, we see God saying, “If you make a vow, you had better fulfill it, especially if you make a vow to Me!” So vows were permitted in the Old Testament, right?
But there’s more to consider. After Jesus died and was raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:11), Christ appeared to a Pharisee named Saul and opened that man’s eyes to see that Jesus was, in fact, the anticipated Jewish Messiah. A few years later, Saul had become the apostle Paul and had planted multiple churches all across the Roman Empire. To the churches that he planted, Paul wrote,
“As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.” (2 Cor 1:18)
“In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” (Gal. 1:20)
So we have two examples of the apostle Paul making vows before God and on the basis of God’s faithfulness. What’s more is that in Acts 2:30 we read that God swore an oath to the Jewish King David that he would have a descendant on the throne forever (Jesus). And in Hebrews 6, God swore an oath concerning the certainty of His promise and that we could trust Him.
Now I do not believe the Bible contradicts itself because time and time again, I find that these alleged contradictions disappear when they are studied out. But on one hand, I’m reading that Jesus is saying not to take an oath at all (hol?s – “completely or wholly”) and on the other, God and the apostle Paul take oaths. This has driven me crazy! Which one is it?!?!?! And I’m not sure if it’s good to start a message telling you that I’ve been really confused by this passage of Scripture, because I’m supposed to be teaching on this passage today!
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Oath Taking in the Ancient World
Here’s the skinny on what oath taking looked like from the time of Moses until the 1st century when Jesus, the Son of God, became the perfect human being. At first, Jews began to make solemn declarations or promises by appealing to Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God of Israel. Those in other cultures would make these statements in the name of their idols or upon what they considered sacred objects. These appeals to something “higher up,” be it God or idols or sacred objects, were made to bring confirmation to what was being vowed.
In other words, if you wanted someone to believe what you were saying, you would simply say something like, “On the honor of my god” and the other person would assume that you wouldn’t take that name lightly. Taking an oath was similar to self-cursing yourself because in those days, it was assumed that the gods would pour out retribution if you damaged their honor.
Taking oaths in the name of something “higher up” was basically just a way of ensuring you were telling the truth. People would make promises and do whatever it took to add credibility to their word, especially given how those people back then had the same problem we have now – a sin nature. Deception, betrayal, fraud, and lying were just as much as a problem then as it is when you purchase a used car at most slick-rick dealerships. The following story is helpful for illustrating part of our problem here:
There was a teenage son was determined to start lifting weights to build muscles. Though skeptical of his teenage son’s newfound determination, the father followed his son to the store’s weight-lifting department, where they admired a set of weights. “Please, Dad,” pleaded the teen, “I promise I’ll use ‘em every day.” The Father responded, “I don’t know, son. It’s really a commitment on your part.” “Please, Dad!” “They’re not cheap,” the father said. “I’ll use ‘em, Dad, I promise. You’ll see.” Finally won over, the father paid for the equipment and headed for the door. After a few steps, he heard his son behind him say, “What! You mean I have to carry them to the car?”
As you all know, we humans make promises all the time and often, we do not think through the responsibilities of those promises or, as we’ll see, intend to actually keep them. But this makes sense because…
The Heart is Where Intentions Are Housed, and Our Actions Prove It
In the ancient world, somewhere along the way, the Jewish people, especially the religious leaders, began to invoke sacred objects in the hopes that they could avoid the consequences of dishonoring God. So they would make vows on behalf of heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, or even against their own hair.
But here’s the problem. Many of the people who were swearing by heaven and earth and Jerusalem and their own head had no intention of every fulfilling their promises. They were making vows with every intention of breaking them. On the outside, these people appeared ever-so holy and religious and spiritual as they invoked the name of heaven and the name of earth and the name of the great city of Jerusalem as support for their deceptive words that dripped with empty vows and empty promises. Sure, they sounded and looked authentic and righteous and appeared to have strong character… but inside their hearts they were greedy, ravenous and selfishly seeking to further their own purposes despite how it would damage or sin against their neighbors.
So Jesus says, “Stop! No more! Away with your empty words and your empty promises and your deceptive speech that reeks of sinful self-ambition!”
You see, on a surface level, it would appear that many of the people that Jesus was speaking to had forgotten that,
Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool;” (Isaiah 66:1)
Making promises against the name of heaven and the name of earth with the intention of deceiving people was slandering God because they were His! The apostle Paul told the men and women of Athens of “the God who made the world and everything in it” who was “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24) and that “in him we live and move and have our being” and that “we are indeed his offspring” (17:28)… Paul essentially stated that creation belongs to God, so don’t swear on something that you have no jurisdiction over.
But why would it be wrong for us to make oaths on our own head? Why can’t we make promises and appeal to our own bodies? In the United States of America we are constantly led to believe that we are in control of our own destinies and that our bodies are slaves to our minds and that our bodies are under the supremacy of ourselves! Right? We’re sovereign over ourselves, right?
Wrong. When Jesus says, in verse 36, “And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black,” He’s reminding us that when it comes to who’s in charge of our physical bodies, we are totally and completely out of our jurisdiction. God is ultimately sovereign and in control of every aspect of our bodies. When we say that God is sovereign, we are saying that God has supremacy over everything. To say that God is sovereign over everything is to declare that God is God! And in order for God to be God, He must be sovereign over our bodies. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying,
“… do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt. 10:28-31)
If birds are under the sovereign care of our Father, how much more so His children? Human beings are subject under the Lordship of God. You can die your hair blonde or blue or green or pink or red or whatever other color is cheapest at Wal-Mart and yet underneath all of that dye your hair will still be the color that God made it.
So those who attempted to distinguish between heaven and earth and Jerusalem and their own bodies as different levels of reasons to trust everything that they said, even though their intentions were to not keep their word, were spurious. They were counterfeits with no genuine desire to honor their word (cf. Matt. 23:16-22).
And Jesus calls them on it and says that their “yes” should be “yes” and their “no” should be “no.” Period.
Making Oaths is Actually an Issue of Character
At the 1993 annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Atlanta, three hundred thousand doctors, nurses, and researchers came together to discuss, among other things, the importance a low-fat diet plays in keeping our hearts healthy.
Yet during mealtimes, they consumed fat-filled fast food, such as bacon cheeseburgers and fries, at about the same rate as people from other conventions. When one cardiologist was asked whether or not his partaking in high-fat meals set a bad example, he replied, “Not me; I took my name tag off.”
The thing about making vows and promises and taking oaths that we have no intention of keeping is that when we do those things, as followers of Jesus, we dishonor His name. Christians can’t take off their name tag! The apostle Paul says that you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, who “is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people” (Eph. 1:14 NLT). The name that we wear as our identity is Christ! And we’ve been given His Spirit as a guarantee for that identity.
Followers of Jesus, who are under His Lordship and who have responded to His grace and mercy and love, should be so characterized by integrity that other people have no need for a formal assurance by way of making vows or giving oaths to be trusted. Your character should be known because you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. You are distinct from the world and when you say “yes,” you mean “yes” and when you say “no,” you mean “no.”
William Hendriksen, commenting on this passage of Scripture, wrote that
“The real solution of the problem is in the heart. In that heart truth should reign supreme. Hence, in daily conversation with his fellowmen a person should avoid oaths altogether. Instead, let him become so truthful, so thoroughly dependable, that his words are believed. When he wishes to affirm something let him then simply say, “Yes”; and when he desires to deny something let him simply say, “No.” Anything “stronger” than that is from the evil one.”
Ultimately, the intention and desire to defraud people and make people believe our words when we know that we’re not going to keep them, is from the devil. Now if you’re reading from the ESV or the KJV or the NASB, you’ll notice that the translators tell us that the desire to defraud people “comes from evil,” whereas the NIV, the NLT, and the NET say that this “comes from the evil one.” Some Bibles say “from evil” and others say “from the evil one.” This phrase in the Greek (ek tou ponêrou estin) is literally “comes from the evil.” The phrase in the Greek has the definite article (literally “the evil,” the Gk. translation of tou ponêrou), which tells us that this evil is specific and particular. It’s not a evil, it’s the evil. Who is the evil? The devil, right? Consider this in light of what Jesus said to a large group of unbelieving Jews:
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
The devil is the source of all lies and deception because he is the father of lies. So for us to make oaths using appeals to heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem, or even our heads with the intention of deceiving people is of the devil, because deception is part of his character. Only Jesus is the truth (John 14:6).
Who’s Your Father?
So who’s your father? Is your father the devil? Does what proceeds out of the abundance of your heart come from a heart that houses evil intentions and deception and manipulative words that are inspired by the evil one?
Or is your father the Heavenly Father, the creator of the heavens and earth who has said that heaven is His throne and the earth is His footstool and all that is in creation is His?
Here, in Matthew five, Jesus is saying that “it is never necessary for Christ’s people to swear an oath before they utter the truth.” Christians should be known as people of truth because they follow Jesus, who is the ultimate expression and example of truth.
And the beauty of the gospel is that His radical demand for truthfulness springs from the radical fact that His Word is truthful because He is truthful and we will become more and more like who we worship. So when He says that He will never leave us or forsake us and that He loves us with such a great love that He would go to the cross and die for His people… we can trust Him. His love should motivate us towards being truthful and honest…
 Tim Davis, Pastor Tim’s CleanLaugh Collection.
 Stephen Nordbye, “Always an Example”, PreachingToday.com
 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, p. 308.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 125.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.