Jesus’ Teaching on Oaths

I say to you, ‘Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King’” (vv. 34–35).

- Matthew 5:33–37

Oaths and vows are commended in Scripture, but not every oath or vow is legitimate. Certainly, a vow to commit a sin must not be kept, for we are never to break God’s law. David realized this when Abigail’s actions kept him from his vow to kill Nabal (1 Sam. 25). Moreover, no one should swear an oath indiscriminately or frivolously. The Westminster Confession of Faith says oaths are appropriate only in “matters of weight and moment” (22.2). This reflects a biblical pattern wherein oaths are commonly associated with covenants (Gen. 26:3; Ps. 132:11). We should make vows only in matters of great and lasting consequence, such as marriages or court proceedings.

Yet, we are left with some New Testament texts that, on first glance, seem to forbid oaths in our day. Today’s passage, for instance, calls us to “let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37). Note, however, that the early Christians did not read Jesus’ words as prohibiting all oaths. Paul took vows during his ministry (Acts 18:18), and John records his vision of an angel who swore an oath (Rev. 10:5–6).

Understanding common first-century Jewish practices helps us see what our Savior was getting at in His teaching on oaths and vows. To keep people from breaking the law’s rules regarding our promises (Num. 30:1–2), Jewish teachers and leaders invented a system by which they could determine whether a vow had to be kept. Extrabiblical literature indicates that many rabbis did not consider it a sin to break a vow if it was not made explicitly in the name of God. Oaths made in the name of heaven or even the gold of the temple were not regarded as ultimately binding. As we might expect from sinners, this led to people making oaths by persons or objects other than God to give them an out in case they did not keep their word.

In Matthew 5:33–37, Jesus points out the foolishness of this teaching by reminding His audience of God’s omnipresence. People might think they can get out of their obligations because they did not swear an oath in the name of the Lord, but the Creator is present with those things by which people might swear, and He is the sovereign Creator of all. All things exist by His authority, so to swear an oath at all is to finally swear an oath in His name. A mere change of words does not give one a “get-out-of-oaths-free” card.

Coram Deo

Jesus’ teaching leads us to conclude that it is better not to make a vow than to swear an oath that we have no intention of keeping. It also reinforces the point that oaths and vows should not be made on just any occasion, but they should be reserved only for occasions of great import and lasting significance. In other cases, we should let our yes be yes and our no be no. But in all circumstances, we must strive to keep our word.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 23:21–23
Zechariah 8:16–17

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