Your Have Heard That It Was Said:
Do Not Break Your Oath

Matthew 5: 33-37

DIG: Did Jesus say that oaths were evil? How do you imagine the teaching in the TaNaKh about oaths was being misapplied to avoid taking responsibility? Why are oaths a poor substitute for integrity? Does this passage prevent believers from taking an oath in a trial or in court?

REFLECT: How do you think your friends see your integrity? Your spouse? Your children? Your relatives? Your co-workers? Your neighbors? When people look at you and talk about you, do they say you are a truth-teller? Or are they wary of you because they cannot trust that you will do what you say you’re going to do? If that is true about you, what steps can you take to change that?

In His fourth example contrasting the true righteousness of the Torah with pharisaic Judaism, the Master teaches us to have integrity in our promises at all times. Once again, Jesus teaches about a common theme in first-century Judaism. The use of one’s word in an oath or a vow was taken quite seriously. In the Torah, your word was your bond. If you took an oath, it was absolutely mandatory that you keep it. But the Oral Law (see Ei – The Oral Law) gave all kinds of ways to break an oath. Two tractates of the Talmud address a multitude of details and interpretations regarding oaths (Tractates Shavuot and Nedarim). It is some of these rabbinic interpretations that Yeshua is addressing when He said: You have heard that our fathers were told, “Do not break your oath,” and “Keep your vows to ADONAI (Matthew 5:33 CJB; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21).

God provided for making oaths in His name (Leviticus 19:12) and many righteous of the TaNaKh, both before and after the giving of the Torah, followed that practice. Abraham confirmed his promises to the king of Sodom (Genesis 14:22-24) and to Abimelech (Genesis 21:23-24) with oaths in the name of ADONAI. He also made his servant Eliezer swear by ADONAI, God of heaven and God of the earth that he would not take a wife for Isaac from among the pagan Canaanites around them but from relatives in Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia (Genesis 24:1-4, 10 CJB). Isaac did the same thing (Genesis 26:31). Jacob and his father-in-law, make an oath when they made a covenant together at Mizpah (Genesis 31:44-53). David and Jonathan made an oath together regarding the house of David (First Samuel 20:16). David himself swore to ADONAI, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Ya’akov (Psalm 132:2 CJB). All those great men of YHVH, and many others, made oaths and covenants calling on the LORD as a witness to their truthfulness (see Genesis 47:31, 50:25; Joshua 9:15; Judges 21:5; Ruth 1:16-18; Second Samuel 15:21; Second Chronicles 15:14-15).

A clear description of an oath is given in the book of Hebrews: People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and put an end to all argument (Hebrews 6:16 also see 6:13-14). The name of something or someone greater than the person making the oath was called upon to give greater believability to what was said. Any oath calling on ADONAI invites Him to witness the honesty of what is said or to avenge if it’s a lie. So the oath supposedly was to be taken as the absolute truth.

Messiah addressed a popular abuse of oaths in His day. To protect the sanctity of the divine name against unintentional oath taking, common Jewish practice introduced kinnuyim,or substituting objects to swear by. However some unscrupulous people apparently thought it was harmless to deceive others if they swore by something like their right hand. Others took all oaths more seriously, but specifically warned against using the name of the LORD. Their belief was that if the oath was broken or not fulfilled, ADONAI’s name would be blasphemed. At that time the rabbis had to actually judge which oaths were actually binding as allusions to God’s name. The further removed the oath was from the actual name of God, the less danger they faced for violating it. But Jesus taught: Do not swear an oath at all (Matthew 5:34a).532

The general principle that His disciples should not take oaths is now illustrated by a series of examples of specific oaths that are inappropriate. To avoid swearing an oath by God’s name people swore by heaven and earth, Jerusalem and the Temple. The Talmud gives an example in which a vow is firmly upheld if it is made under the authority “of Jerusalem, for Jerusalem, by Jerusalem . . . of the Temple, for the Temple, by the Temple” (Tractate Nedarim 1). Jesus’ point is that ADONAI is the Creator and LORD of everything that exists; heaven is God’s (Isaiah 66:1-2), the earth is God’s (Isaiah 66:1-2), Jerusalem is God’s (Psalm 48:2; Mt 5:34-35), the Temple is God’s (Habakkuk 2:20) and even the hairs on your head are God’s. Therefore, Jesus commanded: Do not swear 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 (Matthew 5:34b-36). Therefore, it is wicked and sinful to use anything of God’s, whether His name or any part of His creation, as a witness to anything that is dishonest, deceitful or insincere. Every lie is against God, and every false oath dishonors His name.533

Even though this practice of having some kind of extra reinforcement was acceptable in the first-century Judaism, the implication was that their original word was not good enough. Instead of being an indication of integrity, it became a mark of deceit. Instead of inspiring confidence, it promoted skepticism.

Our Lord Himself came under an oath (Matthew 26:63-64), as did Rabbi Sha’ul with the nazarite vow (Acts 18:18). But the Meshiach is making it clear that there should be no need for such reinforcements if our word is spoken with integrity. He taught: Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No,” anything beyond this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:37). The truth has no degrees; a half-truth is a whole lie. The LORD has never had any standard other than absolute truthfulness. So the Word of God says that the child of God, at all times, should be trustworthy.

If we begin to feel comfortable with our dishonesty, we can easily deceive ourselves as well as others. We may never see the patterns of sin in our lives that are blocking God’s love and our growth in holiness. We can never deceive God; however, who is able to look into our hearts and know what lies there. Honesty is the lifeblood of our relationship with Him.

Our honesty and consistent faithfulness to biblical standards can be a powerful witness to a world that is skeptical and ready to find hypocrisy among those who profess to be believers. When we call ourselves followers of Messiah, we say, in effect, that we will follow the standards that Christ established. We can bear witness to the Gospel with more than words; our lifestyles and our actions reveal to the world the true depth of our faith.535 Saint Francis of Assisi said it this way, “Preach the Gospel at all times . . . and if necessary, use words.”

Lord Jesus, I want to be Your witness to an unbelieving world. Please cleanse me of the sin that causes my inconsistencies. Wash me with Your blood so that I may be more faithful to you and a more credible witness to others. Send Your Holy Spirit to give me the strength and desire to live out my calling as one of Your Holy ones.


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