Matthew 5:33-37  

“Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear [Gk.  apodidomi [ap-od-eed’-o-mee]; means to recant, renounce, retract, or take back (a promise)] thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

The people to whom Jesus spoke would have been taught the words of Deuteronomy 23:23. “That which is gone out of thy lips thou shalt keep and perform; even a freewill offering, according as thou hast vowed unto the Lord thy God, which thou hast promised with thy mouth.”

34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: 35 Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. 36 Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

37 But let your communication [manner of speech] be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil [Gk. poneros, hurtful (in effect, or influence)].                                    

Four Prohibitions and Four Reasons Not to Swear

Do not swear by heaven, because it is God’s throne (v. 34).

Do not swear by the earth, because it is God’s footstool (v.35).

Do not swear by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King (v. 35).

Do not swear by one’s own head, because a person cannot make one hair white or black (v. 36).

As Jesus reviewed the Moral Law in His Sermon on the Mount, He addressed the Third Commandment which prohibits swearing, or the taking of an oath. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7).

The Law also prohibited false swearing, and the giving of false testimony. “And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:12).

In Jewish society, swearing was not profanity, as we understand the word today, but rather the calling of God to witness a human activity that was not honored, or just not true. In simple terms, to swear to tell the truth, and then retracting and telling a lie, was taking the name of the Lord in vain because it meant calling God in as a witness to what was being said. 

Today, the secular term for this behavior is perjury. It is against civil law to perjure oneself under oath. There is a serious penalty when this is done. Spiritually, there is a serious penalty for swearing by God to tell the truth, or making a vow, and then retracting, or taking everything back.    

The safest way to keep the Moral Law is not to swear at all.  The Quakers embraced this practice  and found themselves in great trouble for refusing to take an oath in a court of law. In the 17th-century, many Quakers were fined for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to the new king of England, Charles II (May 29, 1630 – February 6, 1685).

When we consider the whole counsel of Scripture on the topic of swearing, or taking an oath, we find something paradoxical. A paradox refers to a statement that seems to be self-contradictory, but, upon examination, is true. In the Bible spiritual paradoxes abound.

A. W. Tozer explains.

“A real Christian is an odd number anyway. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, goes down in order to get up, is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest, and happiest when he feels worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passeth knowledge.”   ~The Root of Righteousness  

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24, 25). The greatest divine paradox is the Cross.

“The foolishness of God and weakness of God was manifest to fallen men in the Cross of Christ” (Precept Austin). We live because Christ died! We can have victory over sin because Christ became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).

Paul writes, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). “Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ Who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).

When you read the Bible, look for spiritual paradoxes such as the one we are confronted with in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “Thou shalt not swear,” yet, in the Old Testament, believers were called upon to swear by the name of the Lord.

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name” (Deut.   6:13).

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul swears by the name of God.

“For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers;” (Rom. 1:9) God Himself swears, for God has sworn to David. “I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant” (Psalms  89:3).

God has sworn to the Church.

“Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: 18 That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:17, 18). Considering this body of truth, the teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount cannot mean there is to be  an absolute prohibition from swearing, or taking an oath. Therefore, let us consider the teaching more closely, and notice  there are three types of swearing.

There is needless swearing.

In Jewish society, people were saying as a meaningless expression, “By my life…I swear this will happen.” Such swearing was pointless, for there are situations an individual cannot control, such as  making one’s hair white or black. Of course, this was said before the days of Tony hair products, or Lady Clairol hair color, but the point is well taken and understood. There is needless swearing.

There is frivolous swearing.

This was done when an oath was taken in order to evade ultimate responsibility. A Jew would shift and say that they swore “by heaven,” or “by earth,” because it was believed that such an oath was not as binding as swearing by the name of the Lord. Jesus pointed out, such swearing is still using God’s name in vain because heaven is his throne, and earth is His footstool. And Jerusalem is the city of the great King. Because of this, swearing became frivolous. The oath was without any serious purpose or value. 

There is justifiable swearing.

For example, in a court of law it is not wrong to swear by God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Just make sure what is said is truthful. It is not wrong to say the Pledge of Allegiance, to affirm one nation under God. It is not wrong to take an oath of office, such as the president takes, or a military enlistee, and to say, “So help me God.”    

But, for all practical purposes, Jesus said,

37 Let your communication [let your speech] be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

The Lord would have His people use simple and honest language. The words of a Christian should always be truthful, and will be when believers remember, we stand and live coram deo, in the presence of God.

Now the reason why some individuals feel compelled to swear is because so many do not tell the truth. We live in a society of liars. Consider the evidence.

Politicians lie to their constituents.

Countless campaign promises are made and never kept, by all parties.

The Media lies to the people.

Some media outlets are so good at lying they can win a Pulitzer Prize. In 2018, the NY Times and Washington Post shared this journalistic award by telling the world that Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to help sway the 2016 election — a grand conspiracy that we now know never existed.

Congregations will lie to their pastors,

sometimes to make them feel good, or not to be embarrassed. A minister told his congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark 17.”The following Sunday, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the pastor asked for a show of hands. He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17. A few hands went up. The minister smiled and said, “Mark has only sixteen chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying. I have the right audience to speak to.”

Christians can lie.

Some will lie to stay out of trouble, as Peter did. Some will lie to make a good impression within the congregation, much like Ananias and Saphira tried to impress the Jerusalem church. If people always told the truth there would be no need to put anyone under oath. There would be no need for Truth in Advertising Laws under the guide of the Federal Trade Commission. The Psalmist was so upset with people in his generation not telling the truth that he spoke in a moment of frustration. “I said in my haste, All men are liars!” (Psalms 116:11).

The Royal Command of King Jesus is that His disciples tell the truth. We are not to use the name of God to affirm a falsehood. We are to keep our conversations clean and wholesome for anything more than this will produce evil (Matt. 5:37).If we want to do no harm to others, let us learn to guard our lips, by God’s grace.  

One form of evil that will be manifested when our lips are not guarded is the use of guttural language. There was a time in America when an attempt was made to contain profanity, especially in the public domain, including Hollywood.  

Between  the early 1930’s and late 1960s, the Hays Code, officially named the Motion Picture Production Code, attempted to establish moral guidelines and rules for movies that were meant to make Hollywood pictures “presentable” and “safe” for the public at large, which meant not covering or featuring certain controversial topics, themes, actions, or words.

There was a desire to honor religious and family values. Under the Hays’ Code, sexually explicit scenes were not allowed, the good guys were always to prevail, and the  bad guys were to always lose. Anything that promoted or encouraged vulgarity, bad ethical values, or moral perversion was banned.

If there was excessive violence, nudity, or profanity, the scene was either rewritten or cut from the film. In 1939, there was a breach in the Hay’s Code in an epic film called Gone With The Wind. The closing scene has the hero of the movie, Rhett Butler, walking out the door declaring to Scarlet O’Hara, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

There were people in the public arena who protested the showing of that movie based upon that one word. Many realized that to allow the one word of profanity by a leading movie star was to endorse public cursing, and that would lead to other vulgarities.

Time has proven the concerned citizens of the 1930’s to be right. Today, on the radio, on prime-time TV, in the news coverage, and in movie theaters, the most offensive language is uttered, and laughed at. Americans no longer know how to blush at the mindless vulgar dialogue and gratuitous images of perversion, spawned in hell, and spewed forth on public media forums. It makes some people smile to remember the uproar over one little four letter word back in 1939. But the smile turns to sadness when it is realized that had the Hays Code been honored, we would not be assaulted today by the moral decay in talk that is hardly worth the dignity of being called, dialogue.

The English vocabulary of 470,000 words is one of the richest in all the world, and yet it seems that most screen writers, TV personalities, and authors, cannot express themselves except through expletives. This whole matter of speech comes under consideration in Matthew 5 as Jesus Christ reminds His followers to be careful. By guarding the lips in the matter of taking oaths and using God’s name correctly, the principle is established that much sin is avoided.

As Christians, let our conversation be plain and honest. Let the truth always be told. Whatsoever is more than this will produce evil.

May the Lord help us to tell the truth and to speak in simple terms that will avoid hurting self, and others.

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