“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” (Matthew 5:33-36).
An oath is a promise of truthfulness—either to report the past truthfully or to do a future job faithfully. An oath is a promise made under the authority of a greater power, usually God himself. The most famous oath in our culture can be heard in courtrooms regularly: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Presidents and members of Congress, judges, juries, new citizens: all are asked to swear oaths that they will be faithful in their duties.
Some Christians take this teaching of Jesus so seriously that they refuse to place themselves under oath under any circumstances. Whether they are witnesses in a trial or are becoming new citizens, they ask only to affirm their truthfulness, not to swear an oath. Other Christians point out that Jesus allowed himself to be placed under oath during his trial for blasphemy—he did not object to the oath. Old Testament prophets in several places describe God placing himself under an oath as he talks to his people. (Hebrews 6:13-20 comments on the oaths God swears.) Clearly, swearing an oath is permissible under certain circumstances. When something important is at stake, swearing an oath is acceptable. When strangers need to be convinced that you are telling the truth, swearing an oath is acceptable. Aside from lying under oath, swearing an oath is sinful only when done carelessly, to no purpose, about things that are not important, or among people who already know you.
Jesus was not thinking of this sort of quibbling as he preached. Swearing oaths may be necessary in this sin-polluted world, just as divorce is necessary under certain circumstances, but neither divorce nor swearing oaths becomes good out of necessity. Living in this world, we must sometimes do things we would not do in a perfect world. Jesus wants our eyes to be in the ideal world and not limited to the rules and regulations of this life.
We respect human life so much that we would not even insult another person. Marriage matters so much that we avoid lust. In the same way, we respect the name of God so much that we use it to talk to God or to tell others about God; we do not misuse it for other purposes. Even things in this world that matter so much that they require us so swear oaths have less importance than the kingdom of God. If we use God’s name to assure someone that we are speaking truthfully about the things of this world, God’s name is not being promoted. God’s name is demoted when it is used for minor matters, purposes for which it is not intended.
Even in the Ten Commandments, God demands that we respect his name instead of misusing it. God does not want us to avoid speaking his name; he wants us to use his name when we speak to him in prayer or when we tell other people about him. People of the world continue to use God’s name for lesser purposes. We hope to keep his name holy. We remind the world who Jesus is and what he has done. We teach the people of the world how Jesus has kept his promises and rescues people from their sins. J.