Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘James 5’ Category

Another Look at Swearing Oaths

Read Full Post »

Click here for more on oaths

We are continuing on in our series on righteous speech, learning what the Word says, so that we can guard our mouths.

Swearing oaths is not a topic that is talked about much anymore, but I think there’s some good stuff in this and I want us to dig into it this morning.

We will focus on – Matthew 5:33-37 –

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not break your oath, but carry out the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ or ‘No,’ “No,’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

What are oaths?

Swearing doesn’t play a big role in our society today, like it did in Jesus’ day and even up to about a hundred years ago. As a result, we don’t actually know much about swearing today.

We use the word “swearing” very broadly to cover things that it doesn’t cover biblically. For instance expletives – foul or vulgar language, profanity or cuss words. However you want to say it. These all basically boil down to various alternative words for “idiot,” “poop” and “sex.” This is not swearing biblically considered.

Swearing is when you call upon God (or some other power) to guarantee your word – that what you say is true or that what you promise you will do. The guarantee equals a curse in that if what you say isn’t true or you don’t fulfill your promise, God himself will deal with you. (The kid’s version goes, “cross my heart and hope to die.”)

The introduction of a higher power lends credibility to the statement by putting pressure on the swearer to come through, for their own sake.

There are three parts to an oath: 1) I Swear . . .  this phrase indicates that you are placing yourself under an oath. 2) By . . . this is a reference to some power greater than you.  3) To . . . this refers to the oath statement itself. This is what you are asserting as true or promising to do.

An example is: “I swear/ by (to) God/ to help you tomorrow.” To swear an oath, you don’t have to go through the entire formula, you can say simply, ‘I swear I will help you’ or ‘by God I will help you,’ for instance.

Two basic kinds of oaths

1) A testimonial oath: You invoke God to testify that something is true or false. In Matthew 26:72/74 – Peter swears, “I do not know the man (Jesus)!” – with curses stated as well.

2) A promissory oath: You invoke God to guarantee that you will, or will not do a thing. In Matthew 14:7 Herod swore a promise to Herodias “to grant her whatever she might ask,” which got John the Baptist killed.

The Mosaic law on oaths

Swearing oaths is fine in the Old Testament. As long as you only use Yahweh’s name – Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20. To use another god is to put yourself under that god’s power. You must also keep your oath – Leviticus 19:12. It is a breaking of the third commandment – using God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7) if you don’t. Swearing is intended to promote righteous speech.

Now we come to our text and look at . . .

Jesus on promissory oaths

We’ll see as we go through this that Jesus is only talking about promissory oaths. Our first clue is that testimonial oaths are used in the New Testament. Just to give one of many instances – in Galatians 1:20 Paul says, “before God, I do not lie,” which is a testimonial oath.  With this in mind lets look at Matthew 5 and break this passage down into three points:

1. Jesus is teaching us not to swear promissory oaths – “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not break your oath, but carry out the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear . . .” – Matthew 5:33-34.

With these words Jesus forbids promissory oaths. (Now some translations say “vow”  here, but that’s not the word and swearing is what Jesus is talking about).

That Jesus is talking only about promissory oaths can be seen in the phrase “carry out” in v. 33. Other translations say,  “repay,” “fulfill,” “perform,” or “keep.”  Since there is nothing to repay or carry out in the instance of a testimonial oath – you have either told the truth or not – this shows that Jesus is forbidding promissory oaths, where you make a promise and have to come through on it.

2. Jesus is teaching us not to swear any kind of promissory oath – “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 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 one hair white or black” – Matthew 5:34-36.

Jesus is here rejecting substitute oaths. By the first century people were reluctant to swear by the name of Yahweh, for it was no longer thought fit even to pronounce the Name out of reverence.

This led to much discussion about what substitutes could be used for the Name, and thus which oaths were really binding, and which might not be truly binding . . . and you could use to deceive people.

Jesus gives the examples of heaven, the earth and Jerusalem. His argument here is that all of these substitutes point back to God (Isaiah 66:1; Psalm 48:2), and so they all invoke God, and thus are all binding. [He also makes this point in Matthew 23:16-22].

So when Jesus says, do not swear “at all” he means that all promissory oaths are forbidden – explicit God oaths and substitute oaths without God’s name since these imply God, too.

3. Why we shouldn’t swear promissory oaths – “for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes,’ or ‘No,’ “No,’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” – Matthew 5:36-37.

Jesus forbids swearing promissory oaths because of our inability to do things – “to make one hair white or black.” The focus is on human weakness. We can’t always carry through on our promises.

Although it is not stated, looming behind this is, no doubt, Exodus 20:7 – don’t take God’s name in vain. Since we cannot always come through on our sworn promises, we should not entangle God’s holy name with our fallibility. This brings the Name to dishonor and brings judgment upon us.

The phrase – “anything more than this comes from the evil one” probably refers to the arrogance of those who do not see their limitations regarding the future and then involve God’s name in this. We are to be humble about what we can perform in the future.

James 4:16 makes this same point. After talking about boasting over tomorrow, it says – “Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

Jesus then says, “Let your word be ‘yes,’ ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ ‘no.’” This means, let our yes be truly a yes and our no truly a no. That is, simply keep your promises; the commitments you make – without using oaths.

Practical application

Jesus does allow testimonial oaths, when we are sure what the truth is, as we see Paul doing from time to time.

His teaching on promissory oaths, however, excludes the traditional political oath of office; the military oath; and the court oath. These are all promissory oaths. You promise ahead of time that you will do a given thing.

But in all of these cases today, as far as I can tell, you can affirm instead of swear – so that you make the commitment simply by giving your word, and not involving God in it. If you find yourself in a court setting, I encourage you to use the affirm option.

In general Jesus’ teaching on promissory oaths calls us to:

Integrity – we should come through on our promises and commitments (without the use of an oath) – Matthew 5:37. Let your reputation for keeping your word be all the credibility you need.

Humility – We are limited in our ability to carry out our intentions. We do not know the future and cannot guarantee it. To try to do so is boastful, arrogant and evil – Matthew 5:33-36; James 4:13-16.

The reverence of God’s name – we especially should not involve God’s holy name by means of an oath with our human weakness and fallibility – Matthew 5:33-37, James 5:12.

William Higgins

Read Full Post »