Image: Azalea flowers, North Garden, Virginia, April 2021
Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on Matthew 5:33-37.
But I say unto you, Swear not at all… (Matthew 5:34a).
The higher law of Christ begins in v. 34a: “But I say unto you, Swear not at all….” After this general admonition against ungodly swearing, Christ offers four exemplary things by which one is not to swear: by heaven, by earth, by Jerusalem, and by thy head (vv. 34b-36).
Does Christ offer here a complete prohibition against swearing any oath (a promise made to man before God as witness) or making any vow (a promise made directly to God)?
If this were the case, then Christ would not have affirmed passages in the Old Testament that call for faithfulness in keeping one’s word, like Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21-23 (see Matt 5:33), but he would be doing away with them completely. This would not fit with what Christ said about his coming not to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).
We can even find references in the NT to God himself making vows to men of old, like Abraham (see Hebrews 6:13-17) and David (see Acts 2:30). If God himself swears such oaths, it is not unlawful for men to make such promises.
Christ then does not here prohibit making such oaths, but he condemns those who make them in a false and deceptive manner, seeking loopholes to justify the breaking of their word. Rather than speaking forthrightly and calling God for their witness, they had instead swore by things other than God. So, they said, I swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne, etc. See Christ’s condemnation of such “blind guides” in Matthew 23:16-22.
Here are the comments on this passage found in the notes of one popular Study Bible that I think gets it right:
“This should not be taken as a universal condemnation of oaths in all circumstances…. What Christ is forbidding here is the flippant, profane, or careless use of oaths in everyday speech. In that culture, such oaths were often employed for deceptive purposes. To make the person being victimized believe the truth was being told, the Jews would swear by ‘heaven,’ ‘earth,’ ‘Jerusalem,’ or their own ‘heads’ (vv. 34-36), not by God, hoping to avoid divine judgment for their lie” (MacArthur Study Bible).
This fits with what we read on the Puritan Matthew Poole’s interpretation:
“We must consider that our Saviour is here opposing himself to the corruptions of that age brought in by the Pharisees, who has taught people that swearing was nothing if they did not foreswear themselves…. [forbearing] the name of God.”
Christ, with all the righteous indignation of the prophets of old, is condemning in this passage those who make vows before God deceptively and hypocritically, never intending to keep their word, to pay the vow which they have made.
We are not to double-mind men, unstable in all our ways (James 1:8). We are instead to speak clearly and truly, and then stand by what we have promised without wavering, whether that be a commitment to a spouse in marriage, a commitment to covenant church membership in a local church, ordination to church office, or, most importantly, the commitment to follow Christ.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle