Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …
When is it ok to lie?
Should you always be honest about everything?
We all know about little “white lies”, when a small lie seems harmless and the actual truth may not be well received.
Jesus takes time in the middle of His great sermon to talk about honesty.
Jesus has been teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount. He showed that God’s law is not simply a list of do’s and don’ts, it is a relationship with Him (see here). He then uses a series of examples to show that there is a much higher standard than the written law if we are to be His followers, and part of His kingdom.
He starts with the example of murder. You cannot say you are a good person, simply because you never murdered anyone. Even hatred, anger, and broken relationships leave you guilty before God (see here).
The next example is adultery. It is not just the physical act of adultery, but any lustful thought leaves you guilty before God (see here).
Jesus follows the example of adultery with the example of divorce. Marriage is holy and honorable before God. It is not to broken by unfaithfulness, nor by divorce. Simple legal proceedings do not entitle you to separate from your spouse, and any such actions leave you guilty of both your own and your spouse’s unfaithfulness (see here).
Jesus then uses the next example to warn His listeners about taking an oath. At a first glance, this is not the example that we would expect to follow. Jesus has been talking about serious issues: murder, adultery, divorce, … now oaths? How can this be as serious as the others?
But taken from another perspective, Jesus is not teaching about rituals but about our character. He is not giving new rules to govern murder but He is teaching that we must show forgiveness. He is not giving new rules to govern adultery but He is teaching that we must show purity. He is not giving new rules to govern marriage but He is teaching that we must show faithfulness.
And finally, He is not giving new rules to govern how to give oaths but He is teaching that we must show honesty.
“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
It is easy to overlook this passage, thinking that it does not really apply to us. There are very few examples where have an occasion to give or to witness an formal oath: the president gives his oath of office, doctors give the hippocratic oath, and legal witnesses need to give the courtroom oath (“swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God”).
But we make promises all the time. We make small and large promises. There are some promises that we would die before we would break them, and there are some promises which we never intend to keep.
What does Jesus have to say about oaths? About making promises?
Jesus refers to the common belief about the law, “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn’”.
You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
But this was also an indirect reference to the ninth commandment:
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
An oath, or a vow is a solemn pledge to fulfil a promise. This was common practice for men and women in the Old and New Testament times. As part of the vow, they would call upon God, or something higher themselves to hold them to their promise.
- Abraham required a vow of his servant before he went to find a bride for Isaac (Genesis 24).
- Isaac made a vow as part of a treaty with the neighboring nations (Genesis 26).
- Jacob made a vow with Laban when they parted ways (Genesis 31).
- Joseph extracted a vow from his family that they would bring his bones back to Canaan when they left Egypt (Genesis 50:25).
- Ruth pledged her allegiance to Naomi with a vow (Ruth 1:16-17).
- David made vows of loyalty to Jonathan (1 Samuel 20), of mourning for Abner (2 Samuel 3:35), and protection to Shimei (2 Samuel 19:23).
- Jesus Himself testified under oath (Matthew 26:63-64).
- Paul made a vow, requiring his return to Jerusalem (Acts 11:18).
The best example of this kind of vow was when God Himself made an oath as part of His promise to Abraham (Genesis 22). Hebrews 6:13-20 explains this oath in that God swore by Himself, since there is no one greater than Himself.
There are also examples of wrongful vows in scripture:
- Jephthah made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing in his house after his victory, and so he sacrificed his own daughter (Judges 11).
- Saul rashly vowed to not eat food until they finished destroying their enemies, and then turned with another rash vow that Jonathan must be killed (1 Samuel 14).
- Saul vowed to the medium that he would not hurt her for summoning Samuel (1 Samuel 28).
- The wicked king of Israel vowed to murder the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:31).
- Peter used a vow to deny Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:69-74).
We see from these examples that there is nothing inherently wrong with making a vow. Vows have been used throughout history for both good and bad purposes. Yet we see the damage that can be caused by a rash vow, and God specifically warns that once you make this solemn pledge, He expects you to keep it!
The Jews in Jesus’ day would use oaths as part of their every day practice. These oaths were part of their daily business and had no more significance than you or I would give to our dinner plans that we make with our friends.4
But Jesus is addressing another way that the Jews would misuse oaths. They had a common practice where, if they did not attach the name of God to their oath, they did not consider it binding. It was effectively a way for them to lie.
They would mask their promises by making oaths upon important articles, such as Jerusalem, the temple, the gold of the temple, etc. Now matter how important of an object they bound themselves to, if it was not the name of God, then they were free to break their word.
It is similar to children making a promise and then saying, “but I had my fingers crossed!” 4
Jesus’ response was that God is sovereign. He has control over all things in heaven and earth, whether it be Jerusalem, the temple, or even yourselves. Whatever you bind yourself to is always under God’s control!
But I say to you, Do not take an oath 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 take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
Later in His ministry, Jesus severely rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for being hypocrites. In Matthew 23, He called them “blind guides” for their dishonesty:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
So what is Jesus teaching here? He cannot be teaching to no longer make vows. 7 Jesus testified under oath at His arrest, and Paul made a vow to return to Jerusalem during his travels (see above).
But Jesus is speaking against this flippant use of His name, and the quick, meaningless promises that we can make. His conclusions are the following:
- Don’t make promises by things that we cannot control. We cannot even control our own bodies, let alone God’s kingdom.
- You need to tell the truth, even in the small, seemingly insignificant vow. Just because God’s name is not attached, does not allow you to break your promise. 4
- Let your word be true. Let people trust you to the point that you don’t need to make a special vow in order for them to believe you. As in the old expression, “let your word be your bond”.
“Jesus’ disciples were to be characterized by simple, unadorned truth at all times. For them there was to be no external guarantee of truthfulness.” – Stanley D. Toussaint 1
“Everything that a Christian does is most important because of what he is, and because of his effect upon others.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones 6
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References / Notes
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 5:17-48, pages 99-106
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 5:17-48, Pages 19-21
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 5, The Principles of the Kingdom, Part 1
 Stephen Davey, Spitting Images, Matthew 5:33-48, 5/26/1991
 John MacArthur, The Spiritual Credibility Gap, Matthew 5:33-37, 8/5/1979
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Chapter 25, The Christian and the Taking of Oaths, Matthew 5:33-37, pages 231-238
 Some people have used Matthew 5:33-37 as a Biblical command to never make legal vows (i.e. testify in court, etc.), but as shown here, this cannot be what Jesus is teaching. Great men of God made vows both before and after this teaching.