The next Kingdom ideal that the Lord explained to for His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount was about taking oaths. He said:
“‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.” But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by 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 even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”; anything beyond that comes from the evil one.’”
This section of the Lord’s teaching can seem kind of confusing. What’s wrong with taking oath’s? In the Old Testament, the Israelites were encouraged to take oaths. Deuteronomy 10:20 says; “Fear the LORD your God and serve Him. Hold fast to Him and take your oaths in His name.” The Apostle Paul seems to take an oath in Romans 1:9: “God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of His Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times.” Was Paul sinning?
Let’s look at why someone would take an oath. It is to encourage truth telling and trust between people. When one person makes a commitment and they want the other person to feel totally sure that they will absolutely keep it, they take an oath. Their own honor and reputation are at stake if they don’t follow through. And if they swear in the name of Lord, they have linked their promise to the honor of the Most High God. God Himself will judge if the oath is kept! The other person can take comfort in knowing how very serious the oath taker must be. The oath raises the importance of the promise, and when God’s name is used, it makes it sacred.
Can you imagine how wonderful the world would be if everyone could be completely trusted to rise up and do everything they promised? Can you imagine how terrible the world would be if nobody told the truth and you knew everyone was double minded, out to trick you, and ready to lie? It is a lot like the difference between Heaven and Hell.
In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had taken the use of oaths and distorted them completely. They had added codes to the sacred law of God that the Lord did not put there to take advantage of others. For example, if you were taking an oath and said, “by Jerusalem,” it didn’t really count. But if you made your oath “toward Jerusalem,” you were bound to it as a sacred vow. It was sneaky. Only the “right people” knew the rule and everyone else was vulnerable to their trickery. The innocent would trust others because they thought they had been given a binding oath, only to find out there was a loophole for dishonest people who had the backing of their religious leaders. The protective power of oaths became meaningless.
What a terrible code! It protected lies and corruption. Instead of building trust between God’s people in Jewish society, oath taking created suspicion. It defended evil, and all in the name of God. How terribly wretched a person must be to misuse the name of God in order to deceive others. And what is worse, it treated God like He could be fooled as well. Didn’t they fear Him?. No wonder Jesus was so repulsed by it!
The Jewish culture was so steeped in this abyss of dishonesty and manipulation that Jesus abolished oaths altogether for the people of His Kingdom. He wanted His followers to be men and women who sought to tell the truth and keep their promises absolutely. He wanted His disciples to be able to trust each other and protect each other with their determination to be honest and clear. What a wonderful vision He was building with his righteous words! What a wonderful Kingdom His followers can create if they obey! Surely they would be salt, bringing the flavor of righteous, whole relationships wherever they go.
As we read on, can you see how important the qualities Jesus described in the beatitudes are? A desire for total honesty in ever relationship requires great humility, meekness, and purity of heart. With every word, the disciples of Jesus have to work to be sure to tell the truth, just as their Master told the truth. As each one faithfully does what they say they would, they prove themselves to be honorable. They don’t need to give an oath. It is enough for them just to say “Yes” or “No.” The process of building deep, wonderful trust between the children of God would protect everyone in the community.
In the end, Jesus wasn’t saying that oath taking is evil. He was demanding an end to the devious, untrustworthy use of oaths that were a way of life among the Jewish people. He was calling His people to be so trustworthy that oaths wouldn’t be needed anymore.