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Radical Sayings of Jesus

The Jesus manifesto continues. Jesus takes on oaths and swearing.

Jesus is clear on this. I am to say yes or no. That is it. No “I swear to God” or any variation. Yes or no. Anything else is evil.

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Master 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. ~Jesus | Matthew 5:33-37 (ESV)

This is not the sin of “cursing,” but the sin of using oaths to affirm that what is said is true. The religious elites used all kinds of tricks to sidestep the truth, and oaths were among them. They would avoid using the holy name of God, but they would come close by using the city of Jerusalem, heaven, earth, or some part of the body.

Jesus taught us that our conversation should be so honest, and our character so true, that we would not need “crutches” to get people to believe us. Words depend on character, and oaths cannot compensate for a poor character. The more words a man uses to convince us, the more suspicious we should be.

If the elites tended to be permissive in their attitude to divorce, they were permissive also in their teaching about oaths. It is another example of their devious treatment of Old Testament Scripture, in order to make it more amenable to obedience. The religious elites were very devious.

This is not an accurate quotation of any one law of Moses. At the same time, it is a not inaccurate summary of several Old Testament precepts which require people who make vows to keep them. And the vows in question are, strictly speaking, ‘oaths’ in which the speaker calls upon God to witness his vow and to punish him if he breaks it. Moses often seems to have emphasized the evil of false swearing and the duty of performing to the Master one’s oaths. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘You shall not take the name of the Master your God in vain’ (Ex. 20:7, the third commandment).
  • ‘You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God’ (Lv 19:12).
  • ‘When a man vows a vow to the Master, … he shall not break his word’ (Nu. 30:2).
  • ‘When you make a vow to the Master your God, you shall not be slack to pay it’ (Dt. 23:21).

Even a superficial reading of these commandments indicates plainly their intention. They prohibit false swearing or perjury, that is, making a vow and then breaking it.

But the devious religious elites got to work on these awkward prohibitions and tried to restrict them. They shifted people’s attention away from the vow itself and the need to keep it to the formula used in making it. They argued that what the law was really prohibiting was not taking the name of the Master in vain but taking the name of the Master in vain. ‘False swearing’, they concluded, meant profanity (a profane use of the divine name), not perjury (a dishonest pledging of one’s word).

This is sad but they developed elaborate rules for the taking of vows. They listed which formulae were permissible, and they added that only those formulae which included the divine name made the vow binding. One need not be so particular, they said, about keeping vows in which, the divine name had not been used.

Jesus expressed his contempt for this kind of sophistry in one of the ‘woes’ against the Pharisees (‘blind guides’ he called them) which Matthew records later (23:16–22):

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one 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 any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one 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 he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and 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 upon it.

Our Master’s teaching in the Jesus Manifesto is similar. The second part of his antithesis, in which he set his teaching over against that of the rabbis, reads as follows:

But I say to you, Do not swear 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 swear 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.

He begins by arguing that the question of the formula used in making vows is a total irrelevance, and in particular that the elite’s distinction between formulae which mention God and those which do not is entirely artificial. However hard you try, Jesus said, you cannot avoid some reference to God, for the whole world is God’s world and you cannot eliminate him from any of it.

If you vow by ‘heaven’, it is God’s throne; if by ‘earth’ it is his footstool; if by ‘Jerusalem’ it is his city, the city of the great King. If you swear by your head, it is indeed yours in the sense that it is nobody else’s, and yet it is God’s creation and under God’s control. You cannot even change the natural color of a single hair, black in youth and white in old age.

If the precise wording of a vow-formula is irrelevant, then a preoccupation with formulae was not the point of the law at all. Indeed, since anybody who makes a vow must keep it (whatever formula of attestation he uses), strictly speaking all formulae are superfluous. For the formula does not add to the solemnity of the vow.

A vow is binding irrespective of its accompanying formula. That being so, the real implication of the law is that we must keep our promises and be people of our word. Then vows become unnecessary. Do not swear at all, but rather let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. As the apostle James was to put it later: ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’

And anything more than this, Jesus added, comes from evil, either from the evil of our hearts and its fundamental deceit, or from the evil one whom Jesus described as ‘a liar and the father of lies’. If divorce is due to human hard-heartedness, swearing is due to human untruthfulness. Both were permitted by the law; neither was commanded; neither should be necessary.

If swearing is forbidden, is the prohibition absolute? For example, should disciples of Jesus, in order to be consistent in their obedience, decline to swear an affidavit for any purpose before a Commissioner of Oaths and to give evidence on oath in a court of law? The Anabaptists took this line in the sixteenth century and most Quakers still do today. While admiring their desire not to compromise, one can still perhaps question whether their interpretation is not excessively literalistic.

Jesus himself, Matthew later records, did not refuse to reply when the high priest put him on oath, saying: ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’ He confessed that he was and that later they would see him enthroned at God’s right hand. What Jesus emphasized in his teaching was that honest men do not need to resort to oaths; it was not that they should refuse to take an oath if required by some external authority to do so.

The modern application is not far to seek, for the teaching of Jesus is timeless. Swearing (i.e. oath-taking) is really a pathetic confession of our own dishonesty.

Why do we find it necessary to introduce our promises by some tremendous formula, ‘I swear by the archangel Gabriel and all the host of heaven’ or ‘I swear by the Holy Bible’? The only reason is that we know our simple word is not likely to be trusted.

So we try to induce people to believe us by adding a solemn oath. As A. M. Hunter puts it, ‘Oaths arise because men are so often liars.’

The same is true of all forms of exaggeration, hyperbole and the use of superlatives. We are not content to say we had an enjoyable time; we have to describe it as ‘fantastic’ or ‘fabulous’ or even ‘amazing’ or some other invention. But the more we resort to such expressions, the more we devalue human language and human promises.

Disciples of Jesus should say what they mean and mean what they say. Our unadorned word should be enough, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And when a monosyllable will do, why waste our breath by adding to it?


Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): the Messiahian counter-culture (pp. 99–102). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 24). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.