“Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all — not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
How do you establish reliability?
The Alaska state trooper pulled over the pickup after seeing two people lying in its bed. He quickly confirmed two minors who had drunk too much alcohol. Next he queried the driver about any drinking, which was vehemently denied. The driver actually swore that he had no alcohol to drink, but a breath test proved otherwise. Finally, the young man admitted to drinking.
The state trooper was not amused by the false oath. Neither was God.
Jesus taught both positive and negative ideas about oaths. In this section we deal with the negative side (5:33–35), and the next section (5:36–37) will consider the positive commands about oaths that Jesus gave his disciples.
It may be hard to understand the importance of oaths in first-century culture, because our own ways are so different. The ancient world did not issue drivers licenses for identification or credit cards for commercial transactions. In place of our written contracts — so common that we generally sign without reading them — the ancients often used verbal agreements bound by an oath before God. This means that, in our culture, fear of lawyers has replaced the fear of God.
The importance of oaths in first-century culture meant that the scribes and Pharisees had developed a fully-elaborated set of rules to guide their use. Jesus first repeats what the ancients were told by Moses (5:33) and then shows how the labyrinth of oath-law may be altogether avoided: “But I say to you, do not take oaths at all” (5:34a). The phrase at all is emphatic in the Greek original.
Why should oaths be avoided? R.T. France explains, “Jesus is not so much opposing OT legislation as telling his disciples not to take up an option which the law offered but did not require.” In particular, Jesus discounted the standard oath-forms authorized by the religious establishment. In a form of pseudo-holiness, they advocated swearing oaths by heaven (5:34) rather than using God’s name, allegedly out of respect for God.
R.T. France notes how Jesus often enumerated these oath-forms: “Here Jesus lists oaths by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and one’s own head, while in 23:16–22 he will add a further list (the temple, the gold of the temple, the altar, and the gift on the altar). . . . All such surrogate oaths display not reverence but theological superficiality.”
That phrase theological superficiality is a treasure! Jesus sweeps away all these verbal tricks by pointing out that every single oath is uniquely related to God. You are no safer to swear by Jerusalem than to swear by God’s name. There are no safe oaths.
The plain fact is that everything we do and say is done with God as our witness. Every act by a disciple reflects on Jesus and will be judged by Jesus as such. There is no way to create a “safe zone” in which we can act as we please without implicating Jesus.
Who is your witness?
When an American acts the fool in a foreign country, his conduct reflects upon our country. In a similar way, when a believer in Jesus proves unreliable, the kingdom of heaven receives harm.
The book of Hebrews reveals something surprising when it says: “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). God identified himself to Moses by saying, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). Be sure to live in a way that God is not ashamed to be called your God!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 214.
 France, Matthew, 215.