Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.—Matt. 5:33–36
In the regular business of life, people use vows and oaths—at marriage ceremonies, in the courtroom, executive oaths of office. Because human nature is prone to lying and distrust, God has provided for proper use of oaths (cf. Heb. 6:16). In describing who may enter God’s presence, the psalmist says one requirement is that the person be one who “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Ps. 15:4b; cf. vv. 2–3). Such a person’s word is more important than his or her welfare.
God Himself has issued oaths in the past (Gen. 22:16–17; cf. Pss. 89:3, 49; 110:4; Jer. 11:5; Luke 1:73). He did so to impress upon people the special importance or urgency of a promise. As Hebrews notes, “Since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (6:13). Christ often used the expression “truly” or “truly, truly” (e.g., Matt. 5:18, 26; 6:2, 5, 16; John 1:51; 3:3, 5; 5:19, 24). As with the Father’s oaths, the Son’s use of “truly” did not make those statements any more trustworthy than any other pronouncements. The “truly” teachings underscored the importance of certain teachings. Jesus even used an oath before the high priest Caiaphas that He was indeed God’s Son (Matt. 26:63–64).
In view of the special nature of divine oaths, we should “make no oath[s] at all”—in other words, no frivolous ones that would compromise our truthfulness and integrity (cf. Pss. 119:29, 163; 120:2).
Could your conversation be improved with less embellishment and exaggeration? Can your word stand on its own two feet?
The Spiritual Credibility Gap
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil. (5:33–37)
Credibility gaps are not a creation of modern times. They have existed since the Fall and have continually been one of the major marks of the world system. Satan is the prince of this world, and since he not only is a liar himself but also “the father of lies” (John 8:44), it should not be surprising that the system he heads is characterized by lying. Because all men are born in sin, all men are born liars (see Ps. 58:3; 62:4; Jer. 9:3–5).
The natural credibility gap is widened even further by popular novels, movies, television, music, and advertising-in which truth, fantasy, and outright falsehood are blended into mixtures impossible to unscramble. Truth is so scarce that nearly everyone is suspect. Business people, advertisers, commentators, clerks, salesmen, lawyers, doctors, tradesmen, teachers, writers, politicians, and even many, if not most, preachers are suspect. Our whole society is largely built on a network of fabrication, of manufactured “truth.” We shade the truth, we cheat, we exaggerate, we misrepresent income tax deductions, we make promises we have no intention of keeping, we make up excuses, and betray confidences-all as a matter of normal, everyday living.
So much of business, politics, government, the educational system, science, religion, and even family life is built on falsehoods and half-truths that a sudden revelation of the whole truth would cause society as we know it to disintegrate. It would be too devastating to handle.
Yet even the most corrupt and deceptive societies have always realized that, in certain areas at least, the “real truth” is necessary. Courts of law require witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Without truth, even a semblance of justice would be impossible. Because of the extreme importance of truthful testimony to justice, perjury itself is a crime that can bring severe penalties. Even gangs of criminals and conspirators, who use lying and cheating as their stock-in-trade, demand the truth among themselves, because it is necessary to their own survival.
Individually men are inclined to the truth only when it benefits them, yet collectively they have always known something of its importance and rightfulhess-even outside courts of law. The great Roman orator Cicero said, “Truth is the highest thing a man may experience.” Sadly, with most people it is an infrequent experience. Daniel Webster wrote, “There is nothing as powerful as truth and often nothing as strange.”
Even the ancient Jewish rabbis, whose unbiblical traditions and flippancy with the truth Jesus challenges in the Sermon on the Mount, moralistically considered lying-along with scoffing, hypocrisy, and slander-to be one of the four great sins that would shut a person out of God’s presence. In their consciences men know that truth is right and essential. That is one reason they go to such lengths to make what they say appear to be truthful. Our problem is in being truthful.
The Jews of Jesus’ day revered the idea of truth in principle, but in practice it was buried under their system of tradition, which over the centuries had continually cut God’s law down to fit their own sinful perspectives and purposes. In Matthew 5:33–37 the Lord proceeds to expose their convenient distortion and contradiction of the divine revelation they claimed to love and teach. In these five verses Jesus sets forth the original Mosaic teaching, the traditional perversion of that teaching, and His own reemphasis of what God’s standard for truth has always been.
The Principle of Mosaic Law
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” (5:33)
The traditional teaching that Jesus quotes here was a composite of ideas based on Leviticus 19:12, Numbers 30:2, and Deuteronomy 23:21. The two vows mentioned here are from two different, but related, Greek terms. The first is from the verb epiorkeō, which means to perjure oneself, to swear falsely, to make false vows. The second is from the noun horkos, which literally means to enclose, as with a fence, or to bind together. The truth of an oath or vow is enclosed, bound, and therefore strengthened by that which is invoked on its behalf.
A clear description of an oath is given in the book of Hebrews: “For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute” (6:16). The name of something or someone greater than the person making the oath is invoked to give greater credibility to what is said. Any oath calling on God invites Him to witness the truthfulness of what is said or to avenge if it is a lie. An oath was therefore generally taken to be the absolute truth, which made “an end of every dispute,” because it invited judgment on the one who violated his word. The Jews who returned from the Babylonian Exile to Israel took “on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s laws” (Neh. 10:29).
God provided for making oaths by His name (Lev. 19:12) and many Old Testament saints, both before and after the giving of the law, followed the practice. Abraham confirmed his promises to the king of Sodom (Gen. 14:22–24) and to Abimelech (21:23–24) with oaths in the name of God. He also made his servant Eliezer “swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth” that he would not take a wife for Isaac from among the pagan Canaanites around them but from among relatives in Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia (24:1–4, 10). A similar oath is related involving Isaac (26:31). Jacob and Laban, his father-in-law, called on God as their witness when they made a covenant with each other at Mizpah (31:44–53). David and Jonathan did likewise when they covenanted together (1 Sam. 20:16). David himself “swore to the Lord, and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps. 132:2). All those great men of God, and many others, made oaths and covenants calling on God as witness to their truthfulness and sincerity (see Gen. 47:31; 50:25; Josh. 9:15; Judg. 21:5; Ruth 1:16–18; 2 Sam. 15:21; 2 Chron. 15:14–15).
Even God Himself made oaths on certain occasions. To Abraham He said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies” (Gen. 22:16–17). As the writer of Hebrews explains, since God “could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself” (Heb. 6:13–14, cf. v. 17). Obviously the Lord’s promises made with an oath were no more truthful or binding than anything else He promised. It is not that God makes an oath because His word would otherwise be questionable or unreliable, but because He wishes to impress upon men a special importance or urgency related to the promise. (More references to divine oaths are mentioned in Ps. 89:3, 49; 110:4; Jer. 11:5; and Luke 1:73.)
Jesus many times used the phrase “Truly I say to you” (Matt. 5:18, 26; 6:2, 5 16; etc.), and the even more emphatic “Truly, truly, I say to you” (John 1:51; 3:3, 5; 5:19, 24; etc.), to call attention to a teaching of special importance. As with God’s oaths, the words Jesus introduces with “truly” are no more truthful than anything else He said, but emphasize the unique importance of certain of His teachings. It is important to note that Jesus Himself swore an oath before Caiaphas that He was the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 26:63–64).
God provided for proper oath-giving in His name as an accommodation to sinful human nature, which is so prone to deceit and lying. Without any prohibition, Hebrews 6:16 affirms the place of proper oaths. He knows that men’s inclination to lie causes them to distrust each other, and in serious situations an oath is permissible to give greater motivation to tell the truth or to keep a pledge. To make the wedding vow, with God as a witness, to love and cherish our mates for as long as we both live is to recognize and make a firm commitment to honor the special sanctity that God places on marriage. The psalmist, in describing the kind of person who may enter God’s holy presence, makes clear that one mandatory requirement is that such a person be one who “swears to his own hurt, and does not change” (Ps. 15:1, 4). His word is more important than his welfare. Keeping oaths made to God is the mark of a true worshiper. To put it another way, true sons of the kingdom hate lies (Ps. 119:29, 163; 120:2).
Obviously an oath, no matter how strong the words used, is only as reliable as the one who makes it. As Peter sat in the courtyard outside the Sanhedrin while Jesus was being tried, a servant-girl said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean”-to which Peter replied, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When another servant-girl made a similar statement a short while later, Peter “denied it with an oath.” Still later, when other bystanders made the same assertion, Peter “began to curse and swear, ‘I do not know the man!’ ” (Matt. 26:69–74). That swearing was not profanity, but an oath given with special vehemence. Peter increased the strength of his oath, but that did not increase the truth of what he said. It was bad enough to have lied; it was even worse to call God as a witness to the lie. In addition to denying His Lord, Peter used God’s name in vain. It is small wonder that he “went out and wept bitterly” (v. 75).
Sometimes oaths are made sincerely but foolishly, without considering their seriousness and possible consequences. Such rash oaths were made by Joshua (Josh. 9:15), Jephthah (Judg. 11:30–31), Saul (1 Sam. 14:24), and Herod (Matt. 14:7).
By Old Testament law, oaths were to be made only in God’s name. “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name” (Deut. 6:13; cf. 10:20). “He who is blessed in the earth shall be blessed by the God of truth; and he who swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth” (Isa. 65:16). Even Gentiles were to swear only by God’s name. Of Israel’s wicked neighbors, the Lord said, “Then it will come about that if they will really learn the ways of My people, to swear by My name, ‘As the Lord lives,’ … then they will be built up in the midst of My people” (Jer. 12:16).
God established the seriousness of keeping an oath. Even “if a person swears thoughtlessly with his lips to do evil or to do good, in whatever matter a man may speak thoughtlessly with an oath, and it is hidden from him, and then he comes to know it, … he shall confess that in which he has sinned. He shall also bring his guilt offering to the Lord for his sin which he has committed” (Lev. 5:4–6). Joshua 9:20 punctuates how essential keeping an oath is: “… lest wrath be upon us for the oath which we swore.”
The Perversion of Rabbinic Tradition
The tradition Jesus mentions in verse 33 seemed to be biblical, but it had several flaws that made it fall short of what the Old Testament actually taught. First, it had a missing ingredient, and second, it had a misplaced emphasis.
The missing ingredient was a proper circumstance for making an oath. Virtually any kind of oath, used for almost any kind of purpose, was acceptable-just as long as it was not false and the person would fulfill it. The missing ingredient of a serious circumstance led to frivolous, meaningless oath-making that completely vitiated the legitimate purpose of oaths. People would declare anything and promise anything with an oath, while having no qualms about providing means by which lying or breaking their word could still be done. Indiscriminate and insincere vows became so commonplace that no one took them seriously. Instead of being a mark of integrity they became a mark of deceit. Instead of prompting confidence they prompted skepticism.
The misplaced emphasis was in limiting the honest oaths to vows to the Lord, to oaths made directly to Him or in His name. The keeping of those oaths was mandatory, whereas the keeping of others they made optional.
The system of oaths between one person and another was like a giant game of King’s X. People would swear by heaven, by the earth, by the Temple, by the hairs on their heads, and by any other thing they thought would impress those they wanted to take advantage of. That kind of routine oath-making was usually lie-making; and it was considered by those who practiced it to be perfectly acceptable as long as it was not in the name of the Lord.
The command “You shall not swear falsely by My name” (Lev. 19:12) was conveniently interpreted to mean that swearing falsely by any other name was allowed. The command “If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Num. 30:2) was interpreted as permitting the reneging on oaths made to anyone but God.
Thus, through rabbinic tradition, God’s standard of absolute truthfulness was contradicted and lowered to a level that accommodated the sinful, selfish capacities and purposes of the people. They wanted to lie, and they did not want to be hampered by God’s absolute standard of truth. Instead of calling on the Lord to help them live up to the divine standard, they reduced that standard to suit their own carnal abilities and interests.
The Perspective of Divine Truth
But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil. (5:34–37)
In contrast to those alterations of the divine will, Jesus simply reasserts the Old Testament standard that had been misconstrued and perverted by tradition: make no oath at all. Oaths are to be used only on important occasions and are to be given only in the name of the Lord. Though the Greek construction here is an unconditional negative (mē … holōs), that does not preclude all oaths. Commentator William Hendriksen’s explanation is helpful: “What we have here in Matthew 5:33–37 (cf. James 5:12) is the condemnation of the flippant, profane, uncalled for, and often hypocritical oath, used in order to make an impression or to spice daily conversation. Over against that evil Jesus commends simple truthfulness in thought, word and deed” (Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973], p. 309).
In light of specific Old Testament teaching approving oaths, in light of Jesus’ use of such phrases as “truly, truly,” and in light of God Himself’s making oaths that correspond to men’s (Heb. 6:13–17; cf. Luke 1:73; Acts 2:30; etc.), it can hardly be correct, as many interpret this passage, that Jesus here forbids the making of any oath under any circumstance. (See Meredith G. Kline, The Treaty of the Great King [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963]; and Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.], p. 478, for a discussion of oaths.) He had just said that He did not come to destroy the smallest part of the law (Matt. 5:17–18), a law that taught proper oath-making by both precept and example. Additionally, in the early days of the church, even the apostle Paul gave a type of oath in saying to the Romans, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 9:1). He called on Christ and the Holy Spirit as witnesses with his own conscience to the truthfulness of what he was about to say. That is swearing by God.
So, in accordance with the Old Testament standard, we are to swear by no other name but God’s-not by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Appealing to heaven, earth, Jerusalem, and other such things was considered by most Jews to make their oaths less binding. Those were grand and great things, things that gave an aura of power, importance, and veracity to what was said or promised in their name. But because those things were far less than God, they made oaths given in their names far less binding than an oath made in His name. Still less binding would be an oath made merely by your head.
The common attitude toward oaths is also seen in Jesus’ great series of woes in Matthew 23 against the hypocritical Jewish leaders. “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated.’ … And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated’ ” (vv. 16, 18). First, Jesus exposed the utter illogic of their practice. “You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? … You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it” (vv. 17, 19–20). By what twisted logic, He asks, should that which is less valuable make an oath more binding?
But the greatest error in the system was not in its illogic but in its basic deceptiveness and dishonesty. As a matter of accepted policy, some oaths were used to undermine the very purpose they purportedly were meant to serve: the truth. In spite of the fact that an oath is given to reinforce and emphasize the truthfulness of a statement or the reliability of a promise, over the years an intricate system of duplicity had been devised that virtually promoted the use of oaths for deception.
Jesus therefore went on to condemn the system still further: “He who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it” (vv. 21–22). However and whenever the truth is profaned, God’s name is profaned.
Jesus’ point was that God is the Creator and Lord of everything and is the God of truth in everything. To carelessly and dishonestly call any part of His creation as witness to a false oath was to dishonor God Himself, whether or not His name was invoked. To dishonor and compromise any truth is to dishonor and compromise His truth. Heaven is God’s, the earth is God’s, Jerusalem is God’s, and every person’s head is God’s. It is therefore wicked and sinful to use anything of God’s, whether His name or a part of His creation, as witness to anything that is dishonest, deceitful, insincere, or in the least way knowingly false. God has no separate categories of sacred and secular. Everything that pertains to Him is sacred, and all truth is His truth, just as all creation is His creation. Every lie is against God, and therefore every false oath dishonors His name.
Comments William Barclay, “Here is a great eternal truth. Life cannot be divided into compartments in some of which God is involved and in others of which he is not involved; there cannot be one kind of language in the Church and another kind of language in the shipyard or the factory or the office; there cannot be one kind of conduct in the Church and another kind of conduct in the business world. The fact is that God does not need to be invited into certain departments of life, and kept out of others. He is everywhere, all through life and in every activity of life. He hears not only the words which are spoken in his name; he hears all words; and there cannot be any such thing as a form of words which evades bringing God into any transaction. We will regard all promises as sacred if we remember that all promises are made in the presence of God” (The Gospel of Matthew, 2 vols. [rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 1:160).
Truth has no degrees or shades. A half truth is a whole lie, and a white lie is really black. God has never had any standard lower than absolute truthfulness. Of every person He desires “truth in the innermost being” (Ps. 51:6). Among the things He especially hates is “a lying tongue” (Prov. 6:16–17), and “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (12:22). And just as God hates lying, so do those who are faithful to Him (Ps. 119:163). Those “who speak lies go astray from birth. They have venom like the venom of a serpent” (Ps. 58:3–4). Jeremiah wept over Israel because “lies and not truth prevail in the land” (Jer. 9:3). The destiny of liars is the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8).
God’s absolute, unchanging standard is truth and sincerity in everything. Not only should oaths be totally truthful and dependable, but even the most routine conversations should be truthful in every detail. Let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; anything beyond these is of evil. Statement is from logos, the basic meaning of which is simply “word.” Every normal word in the course of daily speech should be a truthful word, unadorned and unqualified in regard to its truthfulness. A person’s words, message, or speech (as logos is used in Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 2:1; 4:19; and Titus 2:8) should be as good as his bond and as good as his oath or vow. “But above all, my brethren,” James counsels, “do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but let your yes be yes, and your no, no; so that you may not fall under judgment” (James 5:12).
God is a holy God, His kingdom is a holy kingdom, and the people of His kingdom are to be a holy people. His righteousness is to be their righteousness, and anything less than His righteousness, including anything less than absolute truth, is unacceptable to Him, because it is of evil. So our Lord shatters the fragile glass of their hypocritical oaths, which they used to cover lies.
Jesus Condemns Oaths (5:33–37)
5:33–36 The Mosaic Law contained several prohibitions against swearing falsely by the name of God (Lev. 19:12; Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21). To swear by God’s Name meant that He was your witness that you were telling the truth. The Jews sought to avoid the impropriety of swearing falsely by God’s Name by substituting heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or their head as that by which they swore.
Jesus condemns such circumvention of the law as sheer hypocrisy and forbids any form of swearing or oaths in ordinary conversation. Not only was it hypocritical, it was useless to try to avoid swearing by God’s Name by merely substituting another noun for His Name. To swear by heaven is to swear by God’s throne. To swear by the earth is to swear by His footstool. To swear by Jerusalem is to swear by the royal capital. Even to swear by one’s own head involves God because He is the Creator of all.
5:37 For the Christian, an oath is unnecessary. His Yes should mean Yes, and his No should mean No. To use stronger language is to admit that Satan—the evil one—rules our lives. There are no circumstances under which it is proper for a Christian to lie.
This passage also forbids any shading of the truth or deception. It does not, however, forbid taking an oath in a court of law. Jesus Himself testified under oath before the High Priest (Matt. 26:63ff). Paul also used an oath to call God as his witness that what he was writing was true (2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20).
33 “Again” probably confirms 5:31–32 as an excursus to the preceding antithesis rather than a new one. Matthew now reports an antithesis on a new theme. What the people have heard is not given as direct OT quotation but as a summary statement accurately condensing the burden of Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; and Deuteronomy 5:11; 6:13; 23:21–23. The Mosaic law forbade irreverent oaths, light use of the Lord’s name, broken vows. Once Yahweh’s name was invoked, the vow to which it was attached became a debt that had to be paid to the Lord.
A sophisticated casuistry judged how binding an oath really was by examining how closely it was related to Yahweh’s name. Incredible distinctions proliferate under such an approach. Swearing by heaven and earth was not binding, nor was swearing by Jerusalem, though swearing toward Jerusalem was. That an entire Mishnaic tract (m. Šebu.) is given over to the subject (cf. also m. Sanh. 3.2; t. Ned. 1; Str-B, 1:321–36) shows that such distinctions became important and were widely discussed. Matthew returns to the topic with marvelous examples in the polemical setting of 23:16–22. The context is not overtly polemical here but simply explains how Jesus relates the kingdom and its righteousness to the OT.
34–36 If oaths designed to encourage truthfulness become occasions for clever lies and casuistical deceit, Jesus will abolish oaths, for the direction in which the OT points is the fundamental importance of thorough and consistent truthfulness. If one does not swear at all, one does not swear falsely. Not dissimilar reasoning was found among the Essenes, who avoided taking oaths, “regarding it as worse than perjury for they say that one who is not believed without an appeal to God stands condemned already” (Josephus, J.W. 2.135 [8.6])—though they did require “tremendous oaths” of neophytes joining the community (ibid., 2.139 [8.7]; cf. 1QS 5:7–11; CD 15:5).
Jesus insists that whatever a man swears by is related to God in some way, and therefore every oath is implicitly in God’s name; heaven, earth, Jerusalem, even the hairs of the head are all under God’s sway and ownership (v. 36). (There may be allusions here to Ps 48:2; Isa 66:1.) Significantly, Matthew breaks the flow to say (in Gr.) “toward Jerusalem” rather than “by Jerusalem” (on the distinction, see comments at v. 33). The “Great King” (v. 35) may well be God, but see comments at 25:34.
 MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 122). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 319–326). Chicago: Moody Press.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1222). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 187). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.