Vows and Proper Intent

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (v. 37).  

- Matthew 5:33–37

As we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, we must again be clear that we may not read Jesus in a way that contradicts the Old Testament. He comes to fulfill the Father’s purposes and promises and to show Himself as the goal of the old covenant revelation (Matt. 1:18–25; 4:12–17; 5:17–20). Dr. Sinclair Ferguson comments, “What at first appears to be a contrast [between Christ’s teaching and the Old Testament] is really Jesus’ proper explanation and application [of the Old Testament]” (The Sermon on the Mount, p. 95).

Therefore, it would be a mistake to abolish oaths and vows altogether based on today’s passage. Matthew 5:33–37 has little bearing on the swearing of oaths in a solemn setting, such as when we testify in a court or enter the marriage covenant. Jesus is dealing more generally here with the priority of truth and our tendency to break everyday commitments. Oaths and vows were instituted to safeguard the truth (Num. 30:1–2), but sinful humanity soon found ways to get around the spirit of this principle. Many rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that a vow made in God’s name is inviolable but that one made in the name of something else can be disregarded. Some rabbis even taught that a vow made in the name of Jerusalem is not binding but one made when facing toward the holy city is sacrosanct. This tendency to fudge when telling the truth is universal. Today, politicians debate the meaning of is, and corporations “cook their books” to keep shareholders in the dark. Liberal ministers vow to uphold the purity of the church even though they hate her creeds.

Our Savior will have none of this. Any vow we make, even if sworn by something besides God, is made in His presence (Matt. 5:33–36), and we cannot get around our commitments through endless qualifications. We should affirm something only if we are true to it; alternately, we ought to say no if we have any doubt that we can follow through. Our yes must be yes and our no, no (v. 37).

Jesus later testifies under oath (26:62–64) because He recognizes the legality of vows and is not abolishing their use altogether in the Sermon on the Mount. He only forbids us from making promises that we do not intend to keep. 

Coram Deo

Matthew Henry writes that “the frequent requiring and using of oaths, is a poor reflection on Christians, who should be of such acknowledged fidelity, as that their sober words should be as sacred as their solemn oaths.” Believers are to be people so known for their truthfulness that they have no need to vow that they will keep their word. Let us not make promises that we cannot keep and be faithful to do what we say in big and small things.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 19:11–12
Psalm 24:3–4
Hebrews 6:13–20
James 5:12

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