Hearing these words used to make me cringe because Jesus told us to ‘Swear not at all’ (KJV), yet when I was a child people swore all around me:
- I swear to God!
- As God is my witness!
- So help me God!
- By God!
- I swear on my mother’s grave!
You Have Heard; But I Say…
From kids on the playground to adults—some of them even Christian—there was swearing. But I didn’t swear—I didn’t even ‘pinky swear’. I will share with you in a few moments when I started swearing, but the reason I didn’t then was because of Jesus’ words I read in Matthew chapter 5:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’
But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The evangelical church I belonged to had a list of Church Teachings, and one of them was ‘Against members swearing’. When new members joined the church, the teachings were often read to the candidates and the congregation.
One young minister was reading the teachings and explaining each one. When he got to ‘Against members swearing’ he commented, “The Church doesn’t want its members cussing and swearing!”
Afterward, an older member explained to him that the teaching was about taking oaths—not cussing (although cussing was much frowned upon).
Jesus vs. the Old Testament Law
Once again Jesus contrasts the Law with what he has to say about the issue. The Ten Commandments say in Exodus chapter 20: ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.’ (No, the main point here wasn’t cussing either.)
Other Old Testament passages add:
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19)
Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against each other, and do not love to swear falsely. (Zechariah 8)
If you make a vow to the Lord your God, do not be slow to pay it. (Deuteronomy 23)
In Numbers 30, the entire chapter is about oaths, beginning with:
When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.
The Old Testament allowed the swearing of oaths, but Jesus canceled that and said ‘do not swear an oath at all’. His point is that our integrity and truthfulness are sufficient—Yes or No; no oaths are required.
Legalistic observance of the Law on oaths is inadequate. We all know that people can manipulate the truth and mislead hearers with statements that are ‘technically true’. In any case, it is unlikely that a person willing to lie will be deterred by an oath. Oaths are no better than our own good word.
Even swearing on the Bible does not guarantee truth.
Closing on a New House
I will now tell you when I began swearing oaths—never.
I have never sworn an oath in my life. Even in legal matters we often have the right to ‘affirm’ rather than ‘swear’. Sometimes the option is written right into the documents; I always circle ‘affirm’ and cross out ‘swear’. I would not swear even if it prevented me from being President of the United States. If my word is insufficient, an oath does not help.
Years ago I was closing on a new home and the documents asked me to swear repeatedly. I told the person across the table I would affirm instead, but he said that was unacceptable. So I replied that I wouldn’t buy the house.
He called some higher authority and received permission to allow me to affirm. We went through a mountain of pages with me striking out ‘swear’ and writing ‘affirm’ for the numerous signatures. After the lengthy process we came to the final signature and he said, “This is the last step for you to get the house, but this signature must read ‘swear’ and cannot be changed.”
My wife and I loved the house and had spent untold hours in negotiation and paperwork, but we got up to leave the deal on the table. In a panic the guy said ‘Wait a moment!’ and made another call. After a few minutes, I affirmed the final signature and the house was ours.
If my word is no good, an oath does not improve it.
Jesus’ words on taking oaths are not a new legalism, and I cannot determine what another person should do in any particular situation, but the point Jesus makes is that we should always be truthful; it is part of loving others and looking out for their good instead of taking advantage of them.
Photo Credit: Office of Governor Patrick via Compfight cc
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