Promises exists because truth does not. We swear by heaven that this time we will do what we say because we did not follow through all those other times.
But when people use oaths, their listeners should not assume that they have entered a no-spin zone. In Jesus’s day, the religious leaders had created a whole system of disingenuous oaths that could be sworn by Al than honorable person. For example, if a dishonest painter wanted to convince his clients that he would keep his contract while having no intention of doing so, he would swear by the temple. If the owners of the home took him to court, they would have no case because his oath based on the temple was meaningless. If however the painter swore by the gold on the temple, he would have to put on his big boy pants and finish the house or face the legal consequences. That was a real oath. Confusing, yes?
Jesus was not amused by this tangled mess of words and condemned the pharisees’ manipulative games saying, “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 (Matt 5:34-37).”
In other words, Jesus calls us to reject oaths and to embrace the plain, simple, and unnuanced words of truth.
Oaths and Sovereignty
Jesus condemns the practice of swearing oaths because God is omnipresent. He exits outside of time and space, observing all human interactions throughout the globe in the now. King David famously notes in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” God does not need an invitation to preside over our actions. He and his ethic remain in place regardless of whether we recognize his presence with our words.
Moreover, his ethic is an ethic of unadulterated truth. Psalm 119:160 declares, “The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” Jesus holds his humanity and his followers to his ethic, making truth-telling one of the ten commandments. Exodus 20:16 states, “You shall not bear false witness.” The apostle Paul concurs writing,
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with it practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col 3:9-10).”
Men and women who lie stand in opposition to the loving goodness of God. Even those who seek to excuse their sins through manipulative oaths to God will find themselves the recipients of his heavenly displeasure and eternal judgement. As Jesus notes later in the gospel of Matthew, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (12:36-37).” Idle, worthless, deceptive words will be judged by the standard of truth regardless of where or how they are spoken. Jesus is the God of truth today and forever.
The Dangers of Pinky Promises
Many souls understand the danger of swearing by God. Every time they utter a white lie and then swear by god that they are telling the truth, they peak up at the sky to make sure a lightning bolt is not on its way. To side step judgment while creating an oath, they swear on their grandmother’s grave or on their mother’s legacy as a cook that such and such is true. They may even get super series and pull out the pinky promise.
Jesus condemns all these earthly promises as well, noting that men and women, “cannot make one hair white or black.” Despite our boasts, we cannot enforce divine justice. If the boyfriend promises you that you are his one and only girl and then violates that promise the next Friday night when he takes your best friend to dinner, he is powerless to enforce the consequences of his promise “to drop dead.” While God can send floods, plagues, and armies to uphold his covenants, the sleazy boyfriend cannot. Even good promises like a trip to Disney World cannot be accomplished through human effort alone. As James notes in James 4:15, “Instead you ought to say, “if they Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Those who make promises on their mother’s grave are foolish. And those who look for and accept such promises are equally foolish. Men and women remain powerless to accomplish their will.
Instead of appealing to oaths to assure our listeners, those who know Jesus should always speak the simple truth. They should state the truth plainly in love. God speaks this way. He told the prophet Isaiah, “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right.” Because the spirit of Christ resides in the believer, she too will plainly speak what is true and right in all settings for God reigns everywhere.
The Dress Dilemma
At this point, some Christians will raise their hand to object, noting that at times lies will do less harm than the truth. For example, if a husband tells his wife that she does indeed look fat in her new dress when asked, his date night might end right there and then. Hello leftover hotdogs! To keep the evening moving along, he lies and tells her that she looks great. Hello Ribeye! But at this moment, he has sinned against his wife, preferring himself above her. In seeking to sidestep a controversial statement, he has opened his wife up to criticism from their waitress, a coworker, and a host of other people who will also notice that her dress is not a winner. When one of them bluntly tells her the plain truth, she will be doubly hurt by her husband. She will have been both publicly shamed and lied to. The trust between the husband-and-wife fractures. The next time he tells her she looks great, he will have to swear a little oath to overcome her doubt. All this proves once again that oaths exists because the truth does not. Lies always destroy.
Are Wedding Vows Sinful?
Lastly, some sensitive souls have read Jesus’s words and concluded that military, legal, and marital oaths constitute a violation of God’s law. However, the simple swearing of an oath is not a sin. In Matthew 26:63-64, Jesus testified under oath that he was the Son of Man. Moreover, God made oaths with Noah, Abraham, and Moses.
Oaths exists because the kingdom of earth is saturated with false speech. For a sinful, broken society to function, sinful men and women in the kingdom of man must create ways to differentiate between when they are speaking falsely and when they are speaking truthfully. To create this space, they employ oaths to signify that what follows breaks from their normal pattern of false speech. With this understanding in play, Christians can take legal and formal oaths because they have already committed to the ethic of truth at conversion. An human oath simply codifies in human terms the Christian’s previous spiritual commitment to truth telling. The Christian is free to take oath. But he is not free to talk in a way that necessitates he give his listeners the assurances of promises. In her daily speech, the believer’s words should also be the simple truth. Her yes should always yes and her no should always no. May Hod help us all to speak the truth in love.