Recently it was my pleasure to participate in the summer series for the Acton church in Michie, TN. The theme was, “Difficult Sayings of Jesus.” My assignment was, “Do not take an oath at all” (Matt. 5:34). It was a joy to be with those brethren and to have a part in this series.
For all the difficulties surrounding this text it really focuses on our integrity. Who are persons of integrity in our world today? Lawyers? Doctors? Preachers? Politicians? Coaches? College presidents? Your mother? Your mother’s word probably carried the force of law when you were growing up. She didn’t have to call on God’s name to confirm anything she said.
In culture and churches integrity is the missing link to greatness. Christians will crash and burn in the arena of integrity (1 Cor. 9:27). For example, marriages thrive on good intentions, but flounder for lack of integrity. In the professional world a person is hired with the skills to win and perform well in his/her chosen field, and sometime later are fired for lack of integrity. Do the words we speak have anything to do with integrity?
In Old Testament annuls of leadership Saul lacked integrity. Certainly, Abimelech (Judg. 9) was bankrupt of integrity. The discussion about Job concerned his integrity (1:1; 2:3). The word, “integrity” means, “faithfulness, trustworthiness.” How did Job remain faithful to God in the face of the terrible losses he sustained? He lost his family, possessions and health, but not his integrity (2:9).
Jesus ventured into that particular area of human integrity in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37). People had decided that oaths were of two kinds: binding and non-binding. To take a non-binding oath was just another way of lying. To take an oath where there was no intention of keeping it was also a way of lying. Life is not divided up into compartments where God is or is not involved. There is no standard of truth for the church and another for the business world.
People today may say, “I swear,” out of habit to add validity to what they say. Perhaps it’s an interjection that rarely has the benefit of a second thought. Or, it may be that we have gone from, “My word is my bond,” to, “A person’s word is no good without a bond!”
What is an oath? It is the strongest possible affirmation of the truthfulness of a statement. An oath is to invoke God as the guarantor of a person’s word. For example, on one occasion a group of people asked Jeremiah to pray to the Lord for them so that God might show them how to go and what to do. The prophet assured them he would do so. Then they replied to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to all the word with which the Lord your God sends you to us” (Jere. 42:5). Why didn’t the people simply say to Jeremiah, “We will do according to all that God says” and leave it at that? Why did they need to call God to witness against them if they failed to do what they said they would do? This example simply illustrates how prevalent oaths were in Old Testament times. And because oaths used God’s name it was a serious matter to break them. The Jews of Jesus’ day had developed the habit of finding insipid substitutes for God’s name in their oaths (Matt. 23:16-22).
It is difficult to overstate the importance of oaths in Old Testament times. People swore by God’s name (Neh. 13:25), and by God himself (Isa. 65:16). Abimelech had Abraham swear by God (Gen. 21:23). Moses swore by heaven and earth (Deut. 4:26). God allowed oaths taken in his name (Deut. 6:13). An oath was to be taken seriously with the intention to keep it (Lev. 19:12). To profane God’s name is the same as taking it in vain (Exo. 20:7). This verse has nothing to do with using bad language, or saying the G-word. Literally, you are not to use the name of the Lord in a way that involves falsehood. James offers a similar no-oath statement in James 5:12.
Church history shows us how Matthew 5:34 has been interpreted through the ages.[i] In the very early days Jesus’ words were interpreted as literally prohibiting oaths of any kind, as reflected in the writings of Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. In the days of Augustine of Hippo that policy began to be reversed. Under Emperor Constantine Christianity had strong ties to the Roman state. Augustine developed a religious defense for oaths that is followed by the Roman Catholic Church to this day. The early Protestants defended oath-taking based on John Calvin’s ideas of a sinful human nature and the consequent unreliability of ordinary speech. Anabaptist groups (Quakers, Mennonites and Amish) totally reject oath-taking, “but the prohibition is more generally understood as primarily directed against the habit of promiscuous and unnecessary swearing such as prevailed among the Jews in the time of Christ.”[ii] Among the older preachers of the American Restoration Movement, David Lipscomb interpreted Matthew 5:34 as prohibiting “every form and character of oath or swearing.”[iii] Of particular interest to our times, humanists, atheists and agnostics add a different argument. They refuse to invoke a divine witness whose existence they deny anyway. It involves them in something they deem a lie.
In 2009 I studied this passage in a Wednesday night class I called, Difficult Passages in the New Testament. Various factors qualify this passage as being difficult. Jewish tradition had perverted the original meaning of the Old Testament’s teaching on oaths to the point that people felt their words were useless without an oath. We are challenged as to how to interpret and apply Matthew 5:34 today. That is, does it apply to all oaths and in every conceivable circumstance? The strict view is that Jesus said, “Do not take an oath at all.” End of the matter! Right?
What would you think if I could show you from Scripture that an oath is not necessarily wrong, and that there are occasions which justify its use? Would you think it an effort on my part to contradict what Jesus taught? If the writer is entitled to the benefit of the doubt would it help to clarity the issue for you, or, throw you into confusion?
First, we have the example of the apostle Peter who, before those who were accusing him of being a disciple of Jesus, “began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know this Man of whom you speak’” (Mk. 14:71, NKJV). Aside from the audacity of his bold-faced lie the apostle invoked a curse on himself and an oath to back it up! Due to our misunderstanding of what the words “curse” and “swear” mean, we typically think that Peter had a cussing fit. It had nothing to do with that at all! In actuality Peter said something like, “May the Lord strike me dead if I know him. I swear (affirm) that I do not know him!” Did the apostle lose all recollection of what Jesus had said about oath taking? Did he violate the Lord’s teaching on it? Who is prepared to say that he did?
Second, we have Jesus’ example in Matthew 26:63 where he answered the high priest under oath, with no argument to the contrary. The high priest said to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Literally, the high priest said, “I command you to testify under oath!” This is the equivalent of being placed under oath in a modern courtroom trial. Did Jesus ignore his own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount about oath taking? Who is ready to say that he did?
Third, Paul does not hesitate to call upon God to witness the truth of his statements in Romans 1:9 and 2 Corinthians 1:23. In Galatians 1:20, Paul said, “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” Why didn’t the apostle simply say what he did and leave it at that? He knew very well what Jesus had said in Matthew 5:34. Did he disobey what Jesus taught about taking oaths? Who is willing to say that he did?
The pertinent question for us is whether Jesus’ words were intended to address all human circumstances that involve oaths, such as the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, the Oath of Enlistment into military service, the Oath of Office and the oath, or affirmation, in a court of law. Whether is it right to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” or, to “affirm” in court is a serious sticking point with most of us. Some people prefer to use the word “affirm” as opposed to “swear,” but it is really a distinction without a difference. In a legal setting persons are under the jurisdiction of legal authorities who are trying to establish human norms of law. To submit to taking an oath is complying with those norms, and as long as such norms do not violate the will of God they are, by extension, submitting to God (Rom. 13:1-7).
The intended meaning of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:34 is evident from its context. Lying had become so common that an oath was required in affirmation of the truthfulness of a statement. Even then one could find a loophole allowing him/her to renege on their word. This was a perversion of the law and all that was right. Jesus would not give leniency to this attitude. The Lord’s prohibition of oaths is based on the fact that God required truthfulness (integrity). A person who is reliable will speak reliable things. Our words are not just “off the cuff,” but from the heart. “Anything more than this comes from evil,” Jesus said. That is, as soon as it is necessary to bolster your words with an oath the ideal of internal truthfulness has been compromised. If we will simply say what we mean and mean what we say we will find, as persons of integrity, that oaths are quite unnecessary.
[i] The information that follows is taken from the article, “Oaths,” in the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, Joel B. Green, General Editor. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 556-557.
[ii] “Oath,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church,” Edited by F. L. Cross. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1985), 987.
[iii] Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell, Edited by M. C. Kurfees. Nashville: McQuiddy Printing Company, 1921), 670. And, with regard to the approach that I shall now follow, Lipscomb said, “That God or the Savior swore does not carry the right to his servants to swear, especially as he has so clearly forbidden it to them and limited their statement to the ‘yea,’ ‘nay,’ in contrast with the swearing.” In response to this, my own limited logic would suggest to me that if Jesus prohibited swearing (oaths), and yet engaged in it himself, the thing the Lord did was not in violation of what he prohibited, and that he in fact did not forbid “every form and character” of oaths, as Lipscomb maintained.