Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Perhaps the oath that most of us know best is the one a person takes in court: “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” And for most of us, if not all of us, this would not be a problem; we would gladly take that oath. In fact, we are probably wondering why a whole Lord’s Day is devoted to the matter of oaths. Indeed, this is the only commandment of the 10 that is dealt with across two Lord’s Days in the Heidelberg Catechism. Why is that? Why the need for a detailed consideration of oaths?
Well, when the Catechism was written, there were a lot of people asking a lot of questions about oaths and vows. Remember that this was the time of the Reformation. And so, you had MONKS and NUNS, for example, who had vowed allegiance to a particular monastic order, like the Benedictine monks or the Sisters of our Lady, etc. And they together with all Romans Catholic PRIESTS had vowed to remain unmarried and celibate their whole lives. But now they were being taught that God did not require people to be celibate if they wished to serve Him and that God’s ordinary way of working among His people did not require monasteries and nunneries. So what was to be done; they had made oaths and vows. Were these oaths and vows binding? And if not, what oaths were binding?
But there was also another class of people at that time, the ANABAPTISTS, who appealed to a passage like Matthew 5 as teaching that Christians were no longer to make any oaths in NT times. And you will find that this is a view that many Christians still hold today, largely because of the passage before us. Jesus does say in v34, “Do not take an oath at all…” So at first read, it seems that they may have a point. Should we make an oath or a vow then? Well, we will look carefully at this passage and some others to answer this question but also to see some wider implications for the way we talk.
These words of the Lord Jesus are a part of what we call the SERMON ON THE MOUNT.
• In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it. Jesus did not come to set the law aside. In fact, He argues against any relaxing of God’s commandments, as you can see in v19.
• And from v21, He says more about this with a series of six teachings that each begin with a phrase like, “It has been said,” or “you have heard that it was said.” The first one dealt with murder, the second one with adultery, the third with divorce, and now he comes to the matter of swearing oaths, as we read a moment ago.
• And with each of these the Lord Jesus drives the Law home even further or demands more by way of obedience than was commonly accepted in that day.
And in this teaching on oaths we see that THE TRUTH SPEAKS ABOUT THE TRUTH. Let me explain: In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” So Jesus is the truth – He is the essence of truth, the standard of truth, the revelation of truth, and the example of truth. So He is well qualified to speak about the truth. And while the narrow focus here is oaths, the wider focus is truth. So today we consider the PURPOSE of oaths, the PROBLEMS with oaths, and PROPER oaths, as they relate to the truth.
We begin then with the nature and purpose of oaths.
1. If you think back to the Garden of Eden, it is pretty obvious that oaths were not necessary before the fall, right. There, truth reigned; there were no lies. But then he who in Scripture is called the father of lies enters the picture as the serpent. And do you remember his first words to Eve? They had to do with truth, didn’t they. He said, “Did God really say…?” In other words, was God really telling you the truth? And from that moment on, once sin had come into the world, truth became optional. The word of man could be the truth or it could be a lie. And so, the oath became a part of language as a way for man to appeal to a truth beyond the uncertain truth that colours so much of regular communication. And in actual fact, God Himself modelled this for mankind, as we read earlier in GENESIS 22. There God swore to Abraham that He would do as He had promised to Him. And the Hebrews passage we read talked about that occasion and went on to talk about the oath in human-human communication. It says, “Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.” So there you have the purpose of an oath – it is to confirm what has been said and to put to end any argument.
a. And you boys and girls will know how this works. I am not saying anything here about whether or not you should do this but I expect that you have either said or have heard someone else say, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” (Pinky promise?) And when that is said, it is said to end the debate about whether the truth has been told. “Did you take my pencil?” “No!” “Are you sure you didn’t? Harry said he saw you take it?” “I didn’t take it! Cross my heart and hope to die.” And that normally “puts an end to all argument.” You have sworn, at pain of death, that you are telling the truth.
b. And this is the same purpose of the oath we mentioned at the beginning of the sermon. By saying that you swear to tell the whole truth, so help you God, you have promised, by God, to tell the truth – end of story.
c. You boys and girls might also remember the story of RAHAB and the spies, from the Bible? Rahab hid the spies and asked them to save her and her family when Jericho was destroyed. She said, “Swear to me by the LORD that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house.” Their promise alone was not enough. Their sworn promise, “by the Lord,” gave her some surety.
d. And so, the NATURE AND PURPOSE OF THE OATH is to uphold, or to elevate, or to enhance the truth. The oath is a gift of God that contributes and adds weight to the truth.
2. So look now at our text in Matthew 5. The words that Jesus quotes in verse 33, are not found in the OT. They could be a summary of what the OT teaches about oaths but in these 6 statements that Jesus makes, He is taking aim at the INTERPRETATION of the OT that was supplied by the Rabbis. The Rabbis were those who studied God’s law and wrote down how the law was to be applied in given situations.
a. One of these books is called the MISHNAH. And the Mishnah has a whole section that divides oaths into different classes, giving examples of valid and invalid oaths. And it is this type of mentality that Jesus is confronting here in Matthew 5.
b. Turn with me, for a moment, to MATTHEW 23:16 to get a sense of how ludicrous this had all become.
i. In v16, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’”
1. They had developed the idea that the temple was a man made building, but the gold in the temple was sacred. And so, if you made an oath on the temple, you did not need to keep it. But if you made an oath on the gold of the temple, well, that oath you had to keep.
2. But Jesus exposed this foolishness by going on to say, “You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?”
ii. Can you see how ridiculous this whole law-interpreting effort had become?
c. So as we return to MATTHEW 5, we see similar attempts to play around with the law regarding oaths. According to the Jews, you had to keep an oath made to the Lord, but you did not necessarily have to keep an oath made in the name of heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or upon your head.
i. And Jesus exposed the foolishness of this understanding of the law by pointing out that while heaven may not ‘technically’ be the name of the Lord, it is where the Lord sits in His glory and splendour.
ii. While the earth may not ‘technically’ be the name of the Lord, it is the place where He rules in majesty.
iii. While Jerusalem may not ‘technically’ be the name of the Lord, it is where God lives among His people.
iv. And finally, while your head may not ‘technically’ be the name of the Lord, the Lord is the one who created you and numbered every hair on that head.
v. And so, again, can you see how ridiculous this whole law-interpreting effort had become?
So, the PURPOSE of oaths was to uphold and promote the truth, but in Jesus’ day it had become a nit-picky minefield of what was right and what was wrong and what was binding and what was not. Let’s see this some more as we look now at the PROBLEMS with oaths that these verses reveal.
1. First of all the Lord Jesus takes aim at what we might call UNNECESSARY oaths.
a. The Rabbis had developed differing classes of oaths. Important oaths were to be made in the name of the Lord. But you could make lots of other oaths that did not involve the name of God that were not as binding as an oath made in the name of the Lord. And the outworking of this was that oaths were a common part of every day language. People would swear by this and swear by that to back up anything and everything.
i. But here is the problem with that. Imagine if you were to come to my place and I was to show you my PRECIOUS doorbell and my precious spoon and my precious chair and my precious tea-towel and my precious gumboots and my precious washing-line, would you go away thinking to yourself that I had a lot of precious stuff? No. You would go away thinking that I either don’t understand what precious means, or I don’t really attach a lot of value to the word “precious.”
ii. And this is exactly what happens when people swear oaths all the time. If they regularly use oaths to back up what they say, people pay less and less attention to anything they say.
iii. This is why oaths should only be made when it is absolutely necessary and they are sincerely meant. A101 of the Catechism describe the restriction in this way, When “the government demands it or necessity requires it.”
iv. Jesus Himself swore an oath. During His trial, Pilate adjured Him “by the living God to tell [him and the court] if He was the Son of God?” And Jesus answered in the affirmative.
v. The Apostle Paul repeatedly uses phrases in his epistles like, “For God is my witness that I …”
vi. But remember that we are dealing here with an aspect of the 3rd Commandment which says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.” The Lord does not want His name to be used meaninglessly and frivolously. So we may make oaths but only when necessary. This is what the Lord Jesus means when He says “Do not make an oath … let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ We should not make unnecessary oaths.
2. But the Lord Jesus also rebukes the making of ILLEGITIMATE oaths.
a. Here in Matthew 5:34-36, and in Matthew 23, Jesus reveals that making oaths by calling upon creatures or created things is a breaking of the God’s law. Listen to God’s command in relation to oaths from Deuteronomy 6:13, “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by His name you shall swear.”
i. If we swear an oath, it is to be by God and nothing or no one else.
ii. As the Catechism helpfully summarizes it, “A legitimate oath means calling upon God as the one who knows my heart to witness to my truthfulness and to punish me if I swear falsely. No creature (or we may add created thing) is worthy of such honour.”
iii. The only oath that a Christian should make, when either the government or necessity demands it, is an oath that calls upon the name of God.
3. So we are not to make unnecessary oaths or oaths in the name of anyone or anything other than the name of God. But thirdly and lastly, Jesus also rebukes the HEART ATTITUDE that underlies all this; an attitude that abuses the truth.
a. He says in v37, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” Can you see the problem that lies at the heart of Jesus’ rebuke here? God is the author of Truth. And in order to uphold, or to elevate, or to enhance the truth, He has given His people the gift of the oath to contribute to the truth. And He has placed very clear and careful boundaries around oaths to make sure that they served truth.
b. But the whole theology of oaths that the Jews had built up had exactly the opposite effect. It took away from the truth. The emphasis was on being able to legitimately break an oath, rather than keep it. And as a consequence, the truth was diminished, downgraded, and despoiled, and the name of God was blasphemed by those who spoke in this way.
c. At its heart then this theology of oaths owed itself to the devil, not to God. Its origins lay in the father of lies, not the God of truth.
4. And we will return to this point as we finish but let’s first consider some wider implications of what we have learned, and we do so in reverse order:
a. First of all, is your ‘Yes’ yes? Is your ‘No’ no? Are your words reliable? Are you recognized at home or at work or at school as someone who speaks the truth?
i. Boys and girls? Do Mum and Dad know from experience that when you describe something that happened at school then that is exactly what happened at school? Or have they learned from experience that you usually leave out any details that might get you into trouble? Bobby pushed me for no reason… when in actual fact you had taken his book and wouldn’t give it back.
ii. Husbands, does your wife know that if you say that you will take her out for coffee in the next day or so, then that is usually what will happen, barring something unforeseen?
iii. Would others say of you, brothers and sisters, that when you promise something or make a commitment, you deliver or you turn up when you said you would?
iv. And in business, what is more important to you – your word or making a dollar?
v. Jesus is the truth. God loves the truth. Do you speak the truth, from the heart?
b. And what about illegitimate oaths and unnecessary oaths?
i. Do you say things like “I swear on my mother’s grave…” or “May lightening strike me dead…” or “Cross my heart and hope to die”? They are illegitimate oaths; oaths that believers should not be making.
ii. Do you say things like “O my gosh, no way would I do that!” or “heck, yes!”? Well, they are a kind of ‘Christianized’ ways of saying “O my God, no way would I do that!” or “Hell, Yes!” They are illegitimate and oaths.
iii. And you know, we even have to be careful with phrases like “To be really honest…” or “To tell you the truth…” or “To be completely frank with you…” or “Legit/For Real.” You see, whenever you talk like this, you are suggesting that what you were saying before that may or may not have been honest or truthful or legit, but now it is.
These are some of the ways that we can undermine the truth. So finally then, let us briefly consider the PROPER oath.
I trust you have seen in all we have said thus far that Jesus is not forbidding oaths in this passage of Scripture. There are oaths found throughout Scripture. God makes commands about how oaths are to be made. Jesus Himself went under oath. The Apostle Paul called on God as His witness, several times. So we may make an oath when the government demands it or it is absolutely necessary.
And in case you are wondering about those NUNS AND MONKS AND PRIESTS I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, the Reformers considered passages of scripture like the ones we have looked at and said that such vows were not required by God, were often made in the name of Saint___, were rashly made, and made with the intention of earning God’s favour. And so, not only could these vows be broken but in fact you were duty bound to repent of making them in the first place! And so, someone like Martin Luther, who had been a monk, married, as did many others.
But when all is said and done, there are perhaps three groups of people when it comes to the proper use of God’s name in relation to oaths.
1. One group of people take God’s name in vain all the time as blasphemy and they meaninglessly use it in an oath. I wonder if this could be you, perhaps? If so, you need to know that there is no sin that makes God more angry than the careless use of His name. His name reflects His character, which is one of holiness and grace. Jesus was called Jesus because He came to save His people from their sins. Romans 10:13 says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So don’t misuse His name. Instead, believe in His name; believe in Him for the forgiveness of your sins and receive the gift of eternal life.
2. The second group of people think that blasphemy is wrong because of how they were brought up and they are happy to make an oath in the name of God in court of example, because we live in a Christian country. But the God they call upon is some deity in the sky that they do not know in any intimate and personal and saving way through the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is not their Lord and Saviour; their motivation and example; their desire and their hope. I wonder if this could be you, perhaps? Are you a cultural Christian? Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Please don’t be content with a belief in God. It is not enough; you must confess Jesus as YOUR Lord and Saviour and become part of a church community where you can worship Him regularly.
3. The third group though are those who gladly make an oath in God’s name because for them that is an opportunity to profess their faith in Christ. When they promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God, they are speaking of the God who is their God and Father through Jesus Christ their Lord and Saviour. They are glad to speak the truth because they know that Jesus is “the Way, the TRUTH, and the Life.” I wonder if this could be you, perhaps? But it is possible that all we have said today has reminded you that you too are guilty of blasphemy or sins in the area of making oaths and speaking the truth? And if so, then I urge you to take the name of the Lord on your lips again – confess these sins to Him. Ask Him to help you to love and honour His name and to share His name with others as some one whose ‘Yes’ is yes and ‘No’ is no, and who gladly makes an oath in His name when the government demands it or necessity requires it. Amen.