Session #040 Yea Yea Nay Nay
Scripture Matthew 5:33-37
Summary How do you take an oath truthfully and yet not be bound by it? In this next “you-have-heard-I-but-say-to-you” teaching in Matt 5:33-37, Jesus addresses the issue of empty promises and taking the name of God in vain. Building on context, Henson then shares principles for Christians, and brings awareness to how we may be committing the same mistakes without even realizing it.
Have we all made and also experienced empty promises? What does the King say about keeping promises, honouring our word, and telling the truth?
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one. Matthew 5:33–37
You Have Heard
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.’ Matthew 5:33
Here are some Old Testament References for the verse mentioned:
You shall not swear falsely: And you shall not swear by My name falsely, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:12
But shall perform your oaths to the Lord:
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or swears an oath to bind himself by some agreement, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. Numbers 30:2
Matthew 5:33 is also rooted in the 3rd Commandment:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. Exodus 20:7
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain. Deuteronomy 5:11
What is an Oath?
It is a solemn vow, a binding agreement that what is promised will be kept and appealed to a higher authority (gods) as witness and guarantor. An example can be seen in Jacob and Laban, “The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of their father judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.” Genesis 31:53. Later, Israel began to call on Baal as their witness in Jeremiah 12:16.
Hebrew words that mean ‘oath’ and ‘curse’, sometimes mentioned together, as when one does not perform the oath, the curse will be upon him.
What Does It Mean to Swear Falsely?
There is no intention of keeping the promise or performing the oath or telling the truth at all.
As such, using the name of God loosely and lightly.
They have spoken words, swearing falsely in making a covenant. Thus judgment springs up like hemlock in the furrows of the field (Hosea 10:4).
In the Old Testament, the Law encouraged oaths:
You shall fear the Lord your God and serve Him, and shall take oaths in His name (Deuteronomy 6:13).
However, this was serious business and not to be taken lightly. There would be consequences if vows or oaths were not performed.
“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be a sin to you. But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be a sin to you. That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God what you have promised with your mouth (Deuteronomy 23:21–23).
But an oath sounds better than no oath. Here comes the ingenuity of man. Or shall we say the cunningness of man? They developed a system involving different levels of oaths. If God’s name was used, it was the most binding. But the further it was from God, the less binding it was. Even the words used made a difference. If you swear “by Jerusalem”, it was not binding. If you swear “towards Jerusalem”, it was binding.
As such, they were able to swear truthfully and not break the Law.
But I Say To You
But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black (Matthew 5:34 – 36).
Jesus was exposing the intent of the heart and asking them to stop. He was addressing the exact same issue when calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in (Matthew 23:16-22).
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind. For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind. For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it (Matthew 23:16–22).
Reveals that God is involved at every level, whether you want Him to be or not. He is the witness of every promise we make.
Heaven Is God’s throne, Earth Is God’s footstool:
Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? (Isaiah 66:1)
Jerusalem Is God’s city:
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised In the city of our God, In His holy mountain. Beautiful in elevation, The joy of the whole earth, Is Mount Zion on the sides of the north, The city of the great King (Psalm 48:2).
Your head or hair Is God’s creation:
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered (cf Matthew 10:30).
The King is involved and implicated at every level. We are not only kingdom subjects, we are also kingdom ambassadors, we represent the King. No ambassador will speak carelessly or flippantly or make promises that they cannot keep. We are not to be like many whose words are twisted and turned to have others agree with them.
Yea Yea Nay Nay
But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one (Matthew 5:37).
There is no need to qualify or justify the Yes or No. The more we say, the more likely we are tempted to embellish or make it sound better, as read in the above verse, “For whatever is more than these is from the evil one; or of evil.”
The Essenes [The followers of the sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes. These are Jews by birth and seem to have a greater affection for each other than other sects have] dispensed with taking oaths. Other than the initial oath when they joined the sect, there was no further need for oaths. Josephus records that one could trust an Essene’s word more than an oath. Philo indicates that their abstention to oaths declared their commitment to truth.
The Place of Oaths in the Law
We should understand the intent and spirit of the Law. God never intended the Law to make man good. Instead, the Law, in part, was to accommodate man’s evil and wickedness. God knew that given our own way, we would cheat and disappoint one another through broken promises and empty words. Hence, the provision for oaths, with Him as the witness and guarantor. The Law was God’s means of grace for men to live with each other. Oaths were instituted to accommodate sinful relationships in a fallen world.
For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute (Hebrews 6:16).
God Himself Makes An Oath
This is seen through God’s dealing with fallen humanity, particularly with Abraham.
God’s promise is good. He always keeps His Word. However, for Abraham’s sake, He takes an oath against His own Name (since there is none higher than He)
For when God made a promise to Abraham because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you” (Hebrews 6:13–14).
Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:15–18)
Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, 18 that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. 19 This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, 20 where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:17–20).
Jesus Takes An Oath – for the Sake of Sinful Man
Jesus did not have to do it at all because He is the Truth. Yet, even after doing it, the people did not believe Him but instead, they used it against Him and crucified Him.
But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:63–64)
Paul, on many occasions, called upon God as His witness:
For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:8).
Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie (Galatians 1:20).
Moreover, I call God as a witness against my soul, that to spare you I came no more to Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:23).
For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness—God is witness (1 Thessalonians 2:5).
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, invoked the name of God to support his apostolic ministry. As such, the taking of oaths is allowed, for the sake of fallen humanity. The issue is truthfulness, not the restricting of oaths. Remember the seriousness and solemnity of oaths and not to use them lightly or flippantly, to justify anything and everything. An extreme example: In modern history, the Quakers view this strictly and do not take oaths. Not even in the civil courts.
What Does It Mean For Christians Today?
General Principle: Christian Credibility & Trustworthiness
We carry the name of our Lord. That means that whatever we say or do, we do it in His name, whether or not we intend to use it or not. We are redeemed by the Blood of Jesus, born of the Holy Spirit, not of the old order but the new. The Law is written in our hearts and we are led by the Spirit who guides us into all truth. Our word is good and true. There should be no need for additional statements to make our words good-er or true-er. No double or hidden meanings in what we say or intend to say. Speak plainly and clearly: If Yes, means Yes. No means No.
Both in the Church and in the World
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment (James 5:12).
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:9–11).
Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor,” for we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25).
This is no coincidence that this teaching comes straight after issues of adultery and divorce. Wedding vows are made in the presence of God, with family and friends as witnesses. Extend this into the marriage and into the family:
Do we keep our promises?
Do we tell the truth? How open are you with one another?
Or do you keep little secrets from each other?
Contracts & Agreements: Business, Employment, Ministry
In business, I have been taught to “Put things in writing”. Terms and parameters are needed so that scope of work is clear. Beyond that, where responsibility, trustworthiness and integrity are concerned, the Christian should excel in these areas. Unfortunately, with Christians, this is even more critical because of many expectations and missed expectations that lead to arguments and fights and lawsuits. Whether employer or employee, vendor or client, ministry partners or volunteers, do our words count? What goes into our products and services? Do we overpromise and under-deliver? Responsibility and Commitment?
Some discipleship programmes require participants to enter into a covenant with one another for the sake of commitment in all aspects.
With God: Careless Pledges, Rash Vows & Empty Promises
How many promises have you made to God? How many have you kept? Do you make promises at the spur of the moment? With conviction? Or Emotion? We love the altar calls. But what has happened after that? It is because we keep breaking our promises that we need covenant renewals after covenant renewals. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it. Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Better to be faithful one aspect at a time, than to miss everything.
Using God’s Name In Vain
We must be careful not to use His name to sound more spiritual. Would it not be better if we simply obeyed, moved and responded to whatever we claim to have heard from God? If God has really spoken to so many, then how come so few are on kingdom assignments?
What we promise, we are to deliver. And what we say, is always to be the truth. God is everywhere. He sees all, knows all, and hears all. We bear His name and represent Him. When people deal with me, I would like them to say, “No problem. He is a Christian. His word can be trusted.” Hopefully not, “Oh my. He’s a Christian, you know?” As kingdom people and kingdom ambassadors, let us ask the Holy Spirit to enable us to represent our King adequately and truthfully.